Coffee Sparked a Controversial Caffeine Crackdown in Mecca
Coffee drinking is part and parcel of everyday life, though it hasn’t always been that way. Curiously enough, coffee drinking was deemed so controversial in the early 16th century that it was banned in Mecca, the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad and a significant center for Islamic worship within the Arabian Peninsula.
The man behind this infamous ban was Khair Beg, explained History Extra in an article discussing the prohibition and suspicion of coffee at different points in history. The conservative governor of Mecca, legend has it that, along with Muslim jurists and scholars of the era, Khair Beg decreed that coffee was haraam, a term meaning “forbidden” by Allah or “sinful.” However, it remains perplexing as to why coffee, a seemingly innocuous beverage, was classified on par with grave offenses like murder and adultery, or the consumption of intoxicating substances such as alcohol.
The answer lies within the history and culture surrounding this historic brew. Coffee is believed to have been spread throughout the Middle East by the Yemeni Sufi mystics, who had begun to use coffee during their religious rituals to enhance focus and spiritual alertness. The stimulating properties of coffee were believed to aid in maintaining wakefulness and deepening their spiritual experiences, helping them to attain a particular state of euphoria.
Coffee soon spread throughout the Islamic world, bringing with it controversy. In an essay about the so-called Wine of Islam, Kathleen Seidel explained that Muslim scholars debated its consumption; “many were suspicious of the effects of caffeine and the gatherings in which it was consumed — they seemed debauched to some and subversive to others.”
A coffeehouse in Constantinople, by Amedeo Preziosi. (Public domain)
In the early 1700s, amidst the vibrant tapestry of Mecca, coffeehouses emerged throughout the Middle East and East Africa as social hubs, buzzing with intellectual discourse and cultural exchange. It was here that men would come together for music and entertainment, as well as to drink coffee as they spread information and discussed politics.
Herein lies the root of Khair Beg’s suspicions. Coffeehouses were bringing people together under the pretext of drinking the beloved brew, which made the establishment fearful that they were becoming hotbeds of protest against his rule and providing competition for mosques. Despite being a mild stimulant, according to HalalZilla, “many Islamic imams and scholars used to believe that the caffeine in drinks like coffee and tea had mind-altering effects comparable to narcotic substances.”
The result was a 1511 ban which in some accounts lasted for 13 years. It was only in 1524 that the Islamic fatwa was lifted under orders of Suleiman the Magnificent. This popular story claims that Khair Beg was executed for his coffee crackdown.
Top image: Steaming cup of coffee. Source: alexandarilich / Adobe Stock