When I think of a coffee shop, a couple of things come to mind: the smell of coffee in the air, baristas behind the counter, (sometimes live) music in the background and, above all, community. What I had never considered was the rich tradition of the coffee shop in Islam, and how the community that comes with it has deep roots in Islamic culture.
On March 7, the Michael C. Carlos Museum hosted a lecture that focused on the storied history between coffee and Islam to promote the “Wondrous Worlds: Art & Islam Through Time & Place” exhibition. Journalist and lecturer at Yale University’s School of Divinity Abdul-Rehman Malik discussed the history of the coffee plant and its presence in Islamic culture, and Abbas Barzegar (10G), affiliate faculty at the Lilly School of Philanthropy at Indiana University, spoke about the ethics of sourcing coffee for his own Ebrik Coffee Room & Roastery.
The lecture began with a brief overview of the history of coffee and its globalization: from Ethiopia to Yemen and beyond to Europe, then along the slave trade routes through the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Malik spoke passionately about the Islamic stories, people and places that are associated with coffee lore, giving us anecdotes from his own encounters and from Islamic history. In telling us about Baba Budan, an Indian student who illegally brought a coffee plant from Yemen back to his home country, Malik’s voice rose and fell with the cadence of a true storyteller.
In describing the relationship between coffee and Islam, Malik mentioned that Muslim individuals recite one of two prayers (short or long) for coffee along with the first book of the Qur’an when brewing the beverage. Malik noted that if a religion has its own additions to its sacred text that are devoted to coffee, the relationship must be deep and meaningful. He explained that the Arabic word marqaha is associated with the euphoria one experiences while drinking coffee, and the word is itself an invocation of Allah, connecting the experience of drinking coffee to one’s spiritual life.
Malik spoke about the coffeehouse’s origins in the Ottoman Empire, noting that in “birth and development, the coffeehouse is a Muslim institution.” The Ottoman Empire’s obsession with coffee became so prevalent that the khaveci basha, the master of the coffeehouse, became a member of the sultan’s royal court. It became clear to me that some of my favorite coffee shops follow the coffeehouse traditions of the Ottoman Empire — most recognizably, the barista (or khaveci basha), who I find always makes or breaks my experience at a coffee shop. Malik and Barzegar both emphasized that stepping into a coffee shop should feel welcoming, leaning into the Islamic idea of the coffeehouse as a place of community.
After his presentation, Malik turned the conversation to Barzegar for a Q&A session and brewing demonstration with Marqaha Moments, the special Mocha-Java blend of coffee that Ebrik Coffee Room created for “Wondrous Worlds.” With a smiling countenance, Barzegar simultaneously explained the importance of a slow, outward spiral of water to brew your pour-over and the importance of sourcing fair trade coffee.
“When you think about paying $30 for a four ounce bag of coffee, it might seem outrageous… but you’re paying to be able to experience the best coffee in the world, and it was traded and sourced humanely,” Barzegar said of Mokhtar Alkhanshali’s Yemeni roasting company, Port of Mokha. Barzegar went on to explain that coffee farming is an economic stabilizer for countries with political unrest such as Colombia, where farmers who used to grow narcotics are now growing coffee. He also included that transparency in sourcing has become an integral aspect of the roasting operation. For instance, companies like Onyx Coffee Lab break down the pricing of their coffee by how much they paid the farmers on their website.
This lecture solidified my love for coffee and made me proud that the coffee industry is trying to make the world a better place. The coffeehouse experience is all about welcoming connection, unity, art and culture, which all derive from the Islamic love for the drink. After all, we have the best conversations over a cup of coffee.