When Coffee Defied the Law: Tales of Curious Prohibitions

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Coffee is one of the most popular and widely consumed beverages in the world, but it has not always been so well-received.

Throughout history, coffee has faced various bans and prohibitions in different parts of the world, often for political, religious, or economic reasons.

In this article, we will explore some of the most intriguing and amusing stories of coffee’s defiance against the law, and how coffee culture survived and thrived despite the obstacles.

Coffee: The Forbidden Brew

Coffee is believed to have originated in Ethiopia, where it was first used by local tribes as a stimulant and a medicine. According to legend, a goat herder named Kaldi noticed that his goats became more energetic after eating the red berries of a certain plant.

He tried some himself and felt the same effect. He then shared his discovery with a local monk, who used the berries to make a drink that helped him stay awake during long prayers. The drink soon spread to other monasteries and eventually reached Yemen, where it was cultivated and roasted into what we now know as coffee.

However, not everyone welcomed this new beverage with open arms. Some religious authorities considered coffee to be intoxicating and sinful, and tried to ban it on several occasions. In 1511, the governor of Mecca, Khair Beg, ordered the closure of all coffeehouses in the city, fearing that they would become centers of political dissent and rebellion. He also claimed that coffee violated the Islamic prohibition of wine, as it was called “qahwa”, which means “wine of the bean”.

Anyone caught drinking or selling coffee was beaten or fined. However, his ban was soon overturned by the Sultan of Cairo, who enjoyed coffee himself and saw no harm in it.

Coffee and Religious Resistance: The Yemeni Coffee Story

Yemen was the first country to cultivate and export coffee beans to other regions, such as Persia, Egypt, Turkey, and Europe. Yemeni coffee was highly prized for its quality and flavor, and was often reserved for the elite and the wealthy. However, Yemen also faced resistance from some religious groups who opposed coffee consumption for various reasons.

One of these groups was the Zaydi Shia Muslims, who ruled northern Yemen from the 9th to the 20th century. The Zaydis were known for their strict interpretation of Islamic law and their frequent rebellions against foreign invaders. They viewed coffee as a foreign influence that corrupted their faith and morals, and banned it several times throughout their history.

In 1630, Imam al-Mutawakkil Isma’il banned coffee and ordered all coffee trees to be cut down. He also forbade anyone from traveling to Mecca for pilgrimage if they had consumed coffee within the past year. Anyone who violated his decree faced severe punishments, such as whipping, imprisonment, or exile.

Another group that opposed coffee was the Wahhabis, a puritanical sect of Sunni Islam that emerged in the 18th century in Arabia. The Wahhabis rejected many aspects of traditional Islamic culture and practice, such as music, art, shrines, and saints.

They also considered coffee to be a form of intoxication that distracted people from worshiping God. In 1744, they formed an alliance with Muhammad ibn Saud, the founder of the Saudi dynasty, and waged a series of wars against their enemies, including the Ottoman Empire and Yemen. During their raids, they destroyed many coffeehouses and coffee plantations, and executed anyone who drank or traded coffee

Despite these attempts to suppress coffee culture in Yemen, many Yemenis continued to enjoy their beloved brew in secret or in defiance. Coffee also played a role in Yemen’s resistance against colonialism and imperialism in the 19th and 20th centuries.

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Coffeehouses became places where revolutionaries gathered to discuss politics, organize movements, and plan attacks against their oppressors. Coffee also became a symbol of national identity and pride for Yemenis, who cherished their heritage and traditions.

The Ottoman Empire’s Coffee Crackdown

The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and most powerful empires in history, spanning from Southeast Europe to North Africa and Western Asia from the 13th to the 20th century. The Ottomans were also among the first to embrace coffee culture after it arrived from Yemen in the early 16th century.

Coffeehouses soon sprang up all over the empire’s capital, Istanbul, as well as other major cities such as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Aleppo. Coffeehouses were not only places where people drank coffee, but also where they socialized, played games, read books, listened to music, and discussed politics, religion, literature, and science.

Coffeehouses became hubs of intellectual and cultural activity, attracting people from all walks of life, such as scholars, poets, merchants, soldiers, artisans, and even sultans.

However, coffee also faced opposition and controversy in the Ottoman Empire, especially from the religious and political authorities who saw it as a threat to their power and influence. Some religious scholars argued that coffee was a form of intoxication that violated the Islamic prohibition of alcohol.

They also feared that coffeehouses would encourage heresy, blasphemy, and sedition among the masses. Some sultans and viziers (ministers) shared these concerns and also viewed coffeehouses as places where conspiracies and rebellions were hatched against their rule. They also resented the loss of revenue from the declining consumption of traditional beverages such as sherbet (a sweet drink made from fruit juice) and wine.

As a result, several attempts were made to ban or restrict coffee and coffeehouses in the Ottoman Empire throughout its history. One of the earliest and most severe bans was issued by Sultan Murad IV in 1633. He ordered the closure of all coffeehouses in Istanbul and imposed harsh penalties for anyone caught drinking or selling coffee.

Anyone who violated his decree faced execution by drowning in the Bosphorus (the strait that separates Europe and Asia). He also personally patrolled the streets in disguise to catch any offenders. According to some accounts, he even killed his own grand vizier for drinking coffee in his presence.

Another notable ban was issued by Sultan Ahmed III in 1717. He ordered the demolition of all coffeehouses in Istanbul and banned the importation of coffee beans into the empire. He also forbade anyone from roasting or grinding coffee at home.

Anyone who violated his decree faced imprisonment or exile. He also appointed a special inspector to enforce his ban and confiscate any coffee found in the city. However, his ban was met with widespread resistance and resentment from the public, who continued to drink coffee in secret or smuggled it from abroad. His ban was eventually lifted by his successor, Sultan Mahmud I, in 1723.

Despite these bans and restrictions, coffee culture persisted and flourished in the Ottoman Empire. Coffeehouses remained popular and influential venues for social and cultural exchange, as well as political mobilization.

Coffee also became an integral part of Ottoman cuisine and hospitality, as well as a symbol of status and sophistication. Coffee was served in elaborate ceremonies with fine porcelain cups and silver pots, accompanied by sweets and snacks. Coffee was also offered as a gesture of friendship, respect, or gratitude to guests and visitors. Coffee was so important that it even became a ground for divorce: according to Ottoman law, a woman could divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with enough coffee.

The Coffee King’s Attempted Ban: Sweden’s Gustav III

Sweden was one of the latecomers to coffee culture in Europe, as it only began to import coffee beans from France and Germany in the late 17th century. However, it soon became one of the most avid consumers of coffee in the continent, especially among the upper classes and the intellectuals.

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Coffeehouses opened in Stockholm and other cities, where people gathered to enjoy coffee and conversation, as well as to read newspapers and books. Coffee also became a staple of Swedish cuisine and hospitality, often served with pastries and cakes

However, coffee also faced opposition and controversy in Sweden, especially from the royal authorities who saw it as a threat to their power and influence. In 1746, a royal edict was issued against coffee and tea due to “the misuse and excesses of tea and coffee drinking”.

Heavy taxes were levied on consumption, and failure to pay the tax on the substance resulted in fines and confiscation of cups and dishes. Later, coffee was banned completely; despite the ban, consumption continued

One of the most notorious opponents of coffee was King Gustav III, who ascended to the throne in 1771. He hated coffee and was intent on demonstrating that the drink was bad for one’s health. So, in addition to convincing the Swedish botanist and avid coffee drinker Carl Linnaeus to write a dissertation on the negative effects of coffee, Gustav commissioned what is now jokingly called “Sweden’s first clinical study”.

The king ordered the experiment to be conducted using two identical twins. Both of the twins had been tried for the crimes they had committed and condemned to death. Their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment on the condition that one of the twins drink three pots of coffee, and the other drink the same amount of tea, every day for the rest of their lives.

The king also assigned two doctors to monitor their health and report any changes. The king hoped that the coffee-drinking twin would die sooner than the tea-drinking twin, thus proving his point.

However, his plan backfired spectacularly. The tea-drinking twin died first at the age of 83, long after the death of Gustav III, who was assassinated in 1792. The age of the coffee-drinking twin at his death is unknown, as both doctors assigned by the king to monitor this study predeceased him. The experiment failed to prove that coffee was a dangerous beverage, and instead suggested that it might have some health benefits.

In 1794, the government once again tried to impose a ban on coffee. The ban, which was renewed in 1799 and 1817, was never successful in stamping out coffee-drinking. Once the ban was lifted in 1823, coffee became a dominant beverage in Sweden, which since has been one of the countries with the highest coffee consumption per capita in the world.

The Coffee, Beer, and Wine War in Prussia

Prussia was another European country that tried to ban or restrict coffee consumption for political and economic reasons. Prussia was a powerful German state that emerged in the 18th century under the rule of King Frederick William I and his son Frederick II (also known as Frederick the Great).

Prussia was known for its strong military, efficient bureaucracy, and enlightened absolutism. Prussia also had a thriving beer industry that competed with coffee for market share and public preference.

In 1777, Frederick II issued an edict that prohibited roasting coffee at home or in public places without a license from the government. He also imposed heavy taxes on imported coffee beans and restricted their sale to licensed roasters and retailers.

He justified his edict by claiming that coffee was harmful to health and morality, as well as detrimental to agriculture and trade. He argued that coffee reduced fertility, caused nervous disorders, weakened digestion, corrupted morals, wasted money, and discouraged beer drinking. He also claimed that coffee was a luxury that only nobles could afford, while commoners should stick to beer as their national drink.

He wrote: “It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects … My people must drink beer … His Majesty was brought up on beer … Many battles have been fought and won by soldiers nourished on beer; and the King does not believe that coffee-drinking soldiers can be depended upon to endure hardships or to beat his enemies … Everybody is using coffee; this must be prevented … His Majesty requires that henceforth … permission is given to sell it only to those who are able to produce a doctor’s certificate stating that they are not able-bodied enough either physically or mentally or suffer from conditions which can be cured only by drinking coffee.”

However, his edict met with widespread resistance and resentment from the public, who loved their coffee and saw it as a symbol of freedom and enlightenment. Many people continued to drink coffee in secret or smuggled it from abroad. Some even resorted to making fake coffee from roasted grains, chicory, or acorns. The king’s edict also provoke

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d ridicule and satire from the press and the intellectuals, who mocked his obsession with coffee and beer. Some even suggested that the king himself was addicted to coffee and was trying to hoard it for himself.

The king’s edict was eventually relaxed by his successor, Frederick William II, in 1787. However, coffee remained a controversial and contested beverage in Prussia for many years. In 1806, after Prussia suffered a humiliating defeat by Napoleon’s army at the Battle of Jena-Auerstedt, some blamed coffee for weakening the Prussian spirit and morale.

Others defended coffee as a source of comfort and courage in times of crisis. Coffee also played a role in the Prussian reform movement that aimed to modernize and liberalize the state after the Napoleonic Wars. Coffeehouses became places where reformers, writers, artists, and activists gathered to exchange ideas and promote change.

Coffee and Censorship in Mecca: The Coffee Printing Controversy

Mecca is the holiest city in Islam, as it is the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and the site of the Kaaba, the sacred cube-shaped building that Muslims face when they pray. Mecca is also the destination of the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage that every Muslim is expected to perform at least once in their lifetime if they are able. Mecca is a city of immense religious and cultural significance, as well as a center of trade and commerce.

Coffee was introduced to Mecca in the 15th century by Yemeni traders and pilgrims, who brought it from Ethiopia via Yemen. Coffee soon became popular among the residents and visitors of Mecca, who drank it for its stimulating and refreshing effects. Coffeehouses also opened in Mecca, where people gathered to drink coffee and engage in various activities, such as reading, writing, reciting poetry, playing chess, or discussing religious matters.

However, coffee also faced opposition and controversy in Mecca, especially from some religious authorities who considered it to be a form of intoxication that violated the Islamic prohibition of alcohol. They also feared that coffeehouses would encourage heresy, blasphemy, and sedition among the masses.

In 1511, the governor of Mecca, Khair Beg, ordered the closure of all coffeehouses in the city, fearing that they would become centers of political dissent and rebellion. He also claimed that coffee violated the Islamic prohibition of wine, as it was called “qahwa”, which means “wine of the bean”. Anyone caught drinking or selling coffee was beaten or fined. However, his ban was soon overturned by the Sultan of Cairo, who enjoyed coffee himself and saw no harm in it.

Coffee continued to be consumed and celebrated in Mecca for many centuries, until it faced another challenge in the 19th century. This time, the challenge came from a new invention: the printing press. The printing press was introduced to Mecca in 1884 by Sayyid Ahmad Zayni Dahlan, the Grand Mufti (chief Islamic jurist) of Mecca. He brought a printing press from Istanbul with the intention of printing religious books and pamphlets for the benefit of the pilgrims and the public.

However, he soon encountered resistance and opposition from some conservative scholars and merchants who saw printing as a threat to their authority and interests.

They argued that printing was an innovation that violated the Islamic tradition of oral transmission and handwritten manuscripts. They also feared that printing would lead to the spread of false or corrupted versions of religious texts or doctrines.

They resented the loss of income and influence that printing would cause, as they had a monopoly on copying and selling religious books and manuscripts. They also accused Dahlan of using coffee as a means to finance his printing activities and to bribe the Ottoman authorities to support him. They claimed that Dahlan was importing large quantities of coffee beans from Yemen and selling them at high prices in Mecca, while also distributing free coffee to his followers and allies.

They alleged that he was using the profits from his coffee trade to buy paper, ink, and machines for his printing press, and to pay off the Ottoman governor and officials to protect him from their attacks. They also alleged that he was using his printing press to print propaganda and slander against them and their religious views.

They launched a campaign against Dahlan and his printing press, using various tactics such as issuing fatwas (religious rulings), writing pamphlets, organizing protests, and inciting violence. They tried to persuade the Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II to ban printing in Mecca, but he refused to do so. He supported Dahlan’s printing project and praised him for his efforts to spread knowledge and education among the Muslims.

He also granted him a royal decree that authorized him to print any book or pamphlet that he deemed beneficial for the public interest, without any censorship or interference from anyone.

Dahlan continued to print religious books and pamphlets, as well as other works of literature, history, science, and culture. He also printed newspapers and magazines that covered local and international news and events. He distributed his publications to the pilgrims and the public, as well as to other regions such as Egypt, Syria, Iraq, India, and Southeast Asia.

He also established a library in Mecca that housed thousands of books and manuscripts that he collected or printed. He became one of the most influential and respected figures in Mecca, as well as one of the pioneers of printing in the Muslim world.

Reviving Coffee Culture: Coffee’s Resilience Against Prohibition

As we have seen, coffee has faced various bans and prohibitions in different parts of the world, often for political, religious, or economic reasons. However, coffee has also shown remarkable resilience and adaptability against these challenges. Coffee has managed to overcome these obstacles and survive these ordeals by appealing to people’s tastes, preferences, needs, and desires. Coffee has also benefited from people’s creativity, ingenuity, and innovation in finding ways to produce, consume, and enjoy it.

Coffee has also played a role in shaping and transforming societies and cultures in various ways. Coffee has stimulated intellectual and cultural activity, fostered social interaction and communication, inspired artistic expression and innovation, supported political mobilization and resistance, enhanced economic development and trade, promoted health and wellness, and enriched culinary diversity and hospitality. Coffee has become a global phenomenon that transcends boundaries of geography, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and age.

Coffee is more than just a beverage; it is a culture, a lifestyle, a passion, a ritual, a symbol, an identity. Coffee is a source of pleasure and satisfaction for millions of people around the world who drink it every day. Coffee is also a source of curiosity and fascination for those who want to learn more about its history, origins, varieties, production methods, brewing techniques, and consumption habits.

Coffee is also a source of challenge and controversy for those who want to address its social, environmental, and ethical issues and impacts.

In this article, we have explored some of the most intriguing and amusing stories of coffee’s defiance against the law, and how coffee culture survived and thrived despite the obstacles. We have seen how coffee has faced various bans and prohibitions in different parts of the world, such as Yemen, the Ottoman Empire, Sweden, Prussia, and Mecca.

We have also seen how coffee has overcome these challenges and adapted to different contexts and circumstances. We have learned how coffee has influenced and transformed societies and cultures in various ways, such as stimulating intellectual and cultural activity, fostering social interaction and communication, inspiring artistic expression and innovation, supporting political mobilization and resistance, enhancing economic development and trade, promoting health and wellness, and enriching culinary diversity and hospitality.

We hope that you have enjoyed reading this article and that you have learned something new and interesting about coffee and its history. We also hope that you have gained a new appreciation and respect for this remarkable beverage that has defied the law and defied the odds.

We invite you to share your thoughts and feedback with us in the comments section below. What did you think of this article? Did you find it informative, entertaining, or both? Did you learn something new or surprising about coffee or its history? Do you have any questions or suggestions for us? We would love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading this article. We hope that you will continue to explore the fascinating world of coffee with us. Stay tuned for more articles on coffee topics such as:

  • The Origins of Coffee: How Coffee Was Discovered and Spread Around the World
  • The Varieties of Coffee: How Coffee Is Classified and Differentiated by Species, Region, Altitude, Processing, Roasting, and Brewing
  • The Culture of Coffee: How Coffee Is Consumed and Celebrated in Different Countries and Regions
  • The Issues of Coffee: How Coffee Affects the Environment, Society, Economy, Health, and Ethics

Until then, happy coffee drinking!

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