Coffee has had a significant impact on the Islamic world for several centuries. Many scholars believe that the beverage originated in Ethiopia during medieval times, when it was discovered that a delicious and energizing beverage could be made when beans of the coffee plant were boiled or roasted. By the 1400s, coffee had become a popular drink in Yemen on the Arabian Peninsula. A century later, people in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, and Persia were enjoying the rich, flavorful beverage. By the end of the 1500s, coffee had reached all parts of the Islamic world.
Coffee's popularity helped boost the economy of the Islamic world. Muslim merchants lost much of their income when, beginning in the early 1500s, European ships began to sail around the tip of Africa to do business at Asian ports. The coffee trade helped them replace their losses.
Muslims made great profits selling mass quantities of coffee to Europe in the 1600s and 1700s. In the 1700s, however, Western nations started growing coffee in their own colonies in the Americas and Asia, cutting into the Muslim share of the world coffee trade.
In addition to its economic importance, coffee also had a major social impact. People enjoyed the drink at home as well as in public. In the 1600s, coffeehouses appeared across the Middle East. Although usually not elaborate structures, they became important social gathering places. Muslim men of all ages and social classes came to talk and tell stories. Sons joined in the discussions with their fathers. The coffeehouse became home to a variety of activities, including chess, backgammon, book readings, Qur'an recitations, and puppet theater performances. Some coffeehouses catered to special groups and professions, such as the military.
Coffeehouses also served as important information centers. When illiteracy rates were high, men gathered to hear the newspaper read. In the 1900s, Muslims met to listen to the radio or to watch television. Coffeehouses were often the first place in a town to have such devices. Men sometimes pooled their money to buy a television for their favorite coffeehouse, because they could not afford one of their own. Coffeehouses were such important information centers that they became known as “schools of the wise.”
Not long after its introduction, coffee attracted the attention of Muslim religious officials. In the 1500s, many imams sought to ban coffee, complaining that people went to coffeehouses more often than to mosques. Religious leaders did not like that coffeehouses were beyond their authority. In some areas, they succeeded in having the government ban coffee. Few Muslims obeyed the ban, however, and Islamic officials soon lifted the prohibition. Religious opposition to coffee ended in the 1600s, especially after many coffeehouse owners began to donate money to help support the local mosque. Today coffee remains a significant part of Muslim society. Coffeehouses still attract men from all walks of life. Even those with televisions at home gather at coffeehouses for the social interaction. These men enjoy the stability of being a part of a group. For many centuries Muslims have lived according to the old Turkish proverb: “One cup of coffee is worth 40 years of friendship.”
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