Coffee: that “Muslim drink”


Coffee, a hot beverage brewed from the ground beans of the coffea plant, is a beverage I relish. I take two mugfuls of black coffee every morning, savouring the flavour as I sip it from my mug. The consumption of coffee is a pleasure so many people enjoy every day across the world. Coffee drinking originated in the Arab world in the 15th century and remains an integral part of Arab culture in the present. Coffee was introduced to Europe in the 16th century by Venetian merchants who had trade relations with North Africa, Egypt and the Middle East. Coffee was approved as a Christian beverage by Pope Clement VIII (1536-1605) in 1600, having been frowned upon by some Christians as a “Muslim drink.” Kudos to his Holiness Pope Clement in doing so as this delectable beverage and its consumption would play a role in the transformation of European society from the remnants of the social order of the Middle Ages to modernity.

By the time coffee was introduced to Europe there were notable developments in European society leading to the rise of modernity: the invention of the printing press, the Renaissance and the Reformation. Books were mass produced and easily affordable, which made literacy far more common than in the past. Texts on philosophy, science and religion from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations preserved in monastic libraries during the Middle Ages were re-discovered and made available to a wider audience. The Reformation gave rise to the notion of the rights of the individual, devoted to his vocation, standing alone before God. The fact remained, however, that the social order of the Middle Ages remained largely in place. 16th century Europe was ruled by emperors, kings, princes, aristocrats and clerics to whom the common man owed deference. This deference, which allowed the gentry to treat commoners as they pleased, was strictly enforced. There was no mixing of people from different classes: people of lower standing kept their place and and dared not criticize their betters. This was to change and it was in large part a result of the soaring popularity of coffee among Europeans. Coffee was vended in coffee houses and it was for the opening of one in Leipzig between 1732-1735 that the composer J.S. Bach (1685-1750) composed his Coffee Cantata, BWV 211. The cantata features verses such as “If I can’t drink my bowl of coffee three times daily, then in my torment, I will shrivel up like a piece of roast goat,” which attests to the popularity of coffee drinking in 18th century Europe.

The first coffee houses appeared on the scene during the mid-17th century and quickly sprang up in cities across Europe. They came to be “centres of scientific education, literary and philosophical speculation, commercial innovation and, sometimes, political fermentation.” (Economist: 2003) This did not go unnoticed by the rulers of the day. King Charles II of England condemned coffee houses in 1675 as “very evil and dangerous effects…for that in such Houses…divers False, Malitious and Scandalous Reports are devised and spread abroad, to the Defamation of His Majestie’s Government, and to the Disturbance of the Peace and Quiet of the Realm.” In spite of this royal disapproval, coffee houses prevailed and fostered the culture of intellectualism that gave rise to the Enlightenment. It was in coffee houses that men of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Paine, Diderot, John Locke, and Adam Smith, for example, formed their thoughts. It is, of course, the values of the Enlightenment that underpin Western civilization, namely:

1.) Reason; which is to say that truth could be discerned through reason and logic.

2.) Nature; which is to say what is natural is also good and reasonable.

3.) Happiness; which is to say happiness here and now is a moral duty.

4.) Progress; which is to say humanity can and will progress.

5.) Liberty; which is to say all people were free to live their lives as they see fit from the moment they took their first breath. (Cited on

Interesting, is it not, that it was in savouring the pleasures of coffee drinking that the men of the Enlightenment effected a radical change in thinking, which in turn led to the sweeping away of the remnants of the social order of the Middle Ages. The composer, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), was very much influenced by Enlightenment thought: he refused to defer to the nobility in Vienna. He is quoted as writing to Prince Lichnowsky (1761-1814) “Prince, what you are you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am through my own efforts. There have been thousands of princes and will be thousands more; there is only one Beethoven!” That in the present in the Western World we enjoy personal liberty, freedom of conscience, parliamentary democracy, equality before the law and separation of church and state is due, in part, to coffee, that “Muslim drink.”  Thinking of this makes me enjoy taking my morning Cup of Joe all the more.

Posted by Geoffrey


2 thoughts on “Coffee: that “Muslim drink”

  1. C H Ingoldby

    Fascinating post, just one small quibble! Coffee originally came from Ethiopia, the oldest Christian nation on the planet. So, Coffee was a drink that Christians gave to Muslims who then passed it on to other Christians……


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