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A short religious history of coffee


Fray Foto | Cathopic CC0

Daniel Esparza - published on 11/01/21

Coffee’s history is as intense as a shot of espresso -- the stimulating drink even played a part in religious debate.

Coffee is “religiously” served in almost all kinds of situations. It is one of the quintessential hospitality drinks. As such, it has played a significant role throughout its (relatively recent) history, brewed and enjoyed in aristocratic and working-class circles alike.

But, according to some historians, anthropologists, and food scholars, coffee has also been used in religious environments that originally had little to do with today’s coffee-and-donuts parish gathering.  

Coffee, Sufi Muslims, and the Archangel Gabriel

Experts claim that coffea arabica, the most widely cultivated species of coffee, first appeared in Ethiopia, and was used in communal social ceremonies. It was not yet purposely and actively cultivated, but rather simply picked and enjoyed as a kind of gift from nature, as explained by Steven Topik in this paper.A whole storytelling tradition claims that the first cup of coffee was actually brewed by indigenous pre-Christian priests in charge of leading these gatherings, or by wandering Ethiopian shepherds.

But the first known coffee drinkers were Yemeni Sufi Muslims, who used it to stay awake during dhikr, night-long vigils spent rhythmically chanting the name of God. According to the chronicles of the 16th-century historian, Abd Al-Qadir Al-Jaziri, Sufis drank coffee “every Monday and Friday eve, putting it in a large vessel made of red clay. Their leader ladled it out with a small dipper and gave it to them to drink, passing it to the right, while they recited one of their usual formulas.”

Some texts dated from that period include plenty of legends on the alleged origins of coffee involving the archangel Gabriel. One of those folk tales claims that the archangel recommended coffee as a cure for a plague that was decimating a Yemeni village —which makes a lot of sense. What beer was for European Catholics, coffee was for Yemeni Muslims: it would often be healthier than water, given its brewing process.

In any case, it is clear Al-Jaziri had a rather positive view of the now omnipresent drink: “where coffee is served there is grace and splendor, friendship and happiness,” the historian once wrote. But not everyone shared his appreciation of it. Even if coffee soon became popular in Islamic regions, it also ended up listed as a banned substance.

In the 16th century, coffee was already being enjoyed everywhere from Cairo to Istanbul, but its popularity was also its curse. Scholars explain that some of the places where coffee was being served (and noisily enjoyed) were a bit too close to some main religious centers. This led some orthodox Muslim leaders to ban the drink, claiming its effects were too similar to those of alcohol, which the Quran forbids.

But despite this prohibition, coffee was still the drink of choice for more mainstream Muslims. Not allowed to drink alcohol and oftentimes short on clean, potable water, the boiled beverage was just perfect —not to mention it would also help its consumers go through the strict Ramadan fast. The coffeehouse soon became a cherished institution. 

It is no wonder, then, that coffee was exclusively associated with Islam in Christian Europe. At least, until Pope Clement VIII decided to give it a try.

From “Satan’s drink” to Cappuccino

Coffee was not exactly received with open arms on the northern shores of the Mediterranean. After being at war with Muslims for centuries, during and after the Expansion, Christian Europeans called coffee “Satan’s drink.” And, still, coffee made its way to the Vatican.

Clement VIII’s papacy began in 1592. He was certainly a man with a mind of his own, and a skilled (and daring) diplomat, ruler, and politician. He was responsible for setting up an alliance of Christian European powers that was to participate in the war against the Ottoman Empire. He is remembered as the first pope who ever drank coffee, even if his advisors asked him to ban it, just as orthodox Muslims and even Coptic Christians had already done.

But the pope, the story goes, said: “this Satan’s drink is so delicious that it would be a pity to let the infidels have exclusive use of it.” In his article Coffee: A Long Way From Ethiopia, Nils-Bertil Walins explains that Clement promoted coffee since he considered its consumption to be far less dangerous than alcohol. Even if it is not entirely clear whether this is a true story or not, the fact is that it was during his papacy when Italy began to import coffee and distribute it across the rest of Western Europe, massively. And, as is widely known, Italians soon took coffee brewing to an entirely new level. Enter cappuccino.

Cappuccino is probably the most popular way to enjoy coffee around the world. But not everyone having a cup knows that this delicate yet bold blend of espresso and steamed milk owes its name not to its foamy “hood” (“cappuccio” being Italian for “hoodie”) but to the Capuchin friars, a Franciscan movement also born in the 16th century.

Very much in the spirit of what Teresa de Ávila was doing in Spain with the Carmelite Order, Matteo Bassi started the Capuchin movement in 1525 as an offspring of the Franciscans. His reform aimed at rediscovering the original values of poverty and simplicity that inspired Saint Francis back in the 13th century. Capuchins chose an unpretentious brown hooded robe and a white cord belt as their dress. Whereas the Rule of St Francis does not prescribe any particular color, it does invite its members to “wear humble garments” and “dress in cheap clothing.”

As explained by J.P Mauro in this article, back in the 13th century “the brothers’ robes were supplied by peasants, who often were not much wealthier than the Franciscans.” And the most common colors worn by the medieval peasants were “varying shades of gray and brown, depending on the source of wool that was used.” In any case, undyed cloth was certainly the cheapest available. “The Franciscans, whose clothing is meant to be utilitarian and long-lasting, were unconcerned by color, but as their influence grew, brown simply became their color.” Brown with a white cord, like coffee and milk.

As V. M. Traverso explains, the friars allegedly got their name “as local children would call them ‘cappuccini’ (‘hoodies’) to mock their long, pointed hoods.” So when the Austrian Emperor Leopold I took on a Capuchin friar, Marco D’Aviano, as a confidant, Viennese coffee shops started to make “kapuzin” coffee. Today, there are an estimated 11,000 Capuchin friars, Padre Pio surely being the most popular Capuchin saint.

Saint Drogo, a 12th century French saint, is the patron saint of baristas.

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