The Father, The Son, and The Holy Bean
Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.
-Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, French Diplomat
Have you ever taken a sip of your favorite brew, tilted your head upwards to the heavens, closed your eyes and exclaimed, “God, that’s good coffee!”?
If you have, you are among the millions and millions of people from all faiths and belief systems who only believe in God because of coffee. Take away the miracle of the coffee bean and these people would either become agnostics or atheists. And all of them would be sleepy.
After all, coffee for many people is religion. We worship it in many different forms, and we exult it through rituals and customs; the Grinding of the Bean, the Sacrament of the Pour Over, the Vow of Silence (until you’ve had at least three sips).
We proselytize and spread the Good News about the coming of Intelligentsia to our neighborhoods. We share stories about the miracle of the “Ethiopia Kayon Mountain Natural” and the wonders of “Sumatra Boru Batak.”
Yet, while we know a lot about coffee, we have virtually no knowledge of how major religions view it. What do our priests and pastors and rabbis and mullahs and gurus think of the beautiful elixir? And do they drink it?
History, like Sean Spicer, provides most of the answers.
Hundreds of years before travel bans and ISIS were invented, coffee became very much in demand in the Arab world. It all started with those surfing Sufis in southern Arabia who started brewing the stuff in the 13th century. Sheik Abu’l Hasan ‘Ali ibn Umar, or “Skippy” to his friends, traveled to Ethiopia and discovered the coffee culture there, so he decided to bring it back home to Yemen. Because it provided “wakefulness” during late evening prayer, coffee became very popular. “Allah Akhbar! We love our coffee!”
Soon after, even without social media, the word spread throughout the Islamic world and qahwa was being consumed everywhere, even at the holiest mosques in Mecca. It was affectionately known as “Islamic wine.”
The southern Arabian climate was perfect for coffee cultivation, and the ports of Yemen became the world’s primary exporters of coffee. Many fortunes were made from coffee exports, wealth that rivaled the money made by Howard Schultz. (It’s rumored, by me, that the star in Starbucks is a tribute to the Islamic star.)
Mystic theologian and coffee-phile Shaikh ibn Isma’il Ba Alawi of Al-Shihr, or “Shorty” as his friends called him, asserted that the use of coffee before prayer could lead to the experience of qahwa ma’nawiyya or “one kick-ass trippy spiritual experience.”
Traders, pilgrims, and students traveled throughout the region extolling the virtues of drinking coffee and, sure enough, coffee houses sprung up in the entire major cities, especially Cairo. Unfortunately, few of them offered free WiFi.
But not everyone embraced the bean juice and throughout the later centuries in the Arab world, there were attempts to make coffee verboten. Those efforts were usually thwarted, however, because even religious leaders were hooked.
Coffee prevailed. Praise Allah!