In the tense atmosphere of the conference room an elderly man of some authority stepped to the front. "Your Excellency," he said, in carefully measured tones with a slight bow to a figure sitting apart. After a brief pause, he turned to the gathered assembly. "Esteemed colleagues. It appears to me that there is at least one point upon which the majority of this room is in agreement. The substance under discussion can not legally be forbidden simply on the basis of its physical nature. Like trees and grass, it is classified in law to be perfectly neutral. Precedent is clear on this, as my illustrious colleagues have shown. I need cite only ..."
"Excellency!" A small man in the middle and to the back of the room leaped to his feet, outrage written on his face. "Your Excellency!" he shouted. "I warn my colleagues. If we fail to declare the use of this abomination of the devil as a matter for criminal prosecution simply out of some foolish notion of following the precise letter of the law, we are opening the community to disgusting immorality and—I warn you again!—and sedition!"
The year was 1511. The place was Mecca. The substance under discussion was coffee. The custom of drinking coffee, brewed from the roasted bean, spread north—probably from Ethiopia via Yemen—in the mid-15th century up to the Mediterranean, whence it later made its way to Europe. Directly and first in the path of the growing fashion lay Mecca and Medina, the Holy Cities of Islam where, by 1500, coffee houses complete with music and backgammon had sprung up City watchmen and police shook their heads over increasing late-night disturbances of the peace, the noisy laughter and banging tambourines of parties in the houses, complaints by solid citizens of immoral behavior there.
The situation came to a head in 1511, when the Mameluk governor of Mecca, finally unable to ignore the problem, appointed a Commission an Coffee to resolve it once and for all. It was composed of leading judicial and academic figures from Mecca, Cairo and Damascus, and met that year in Mecca for seven days of exhaustive deliberations. During the meetings testimony was taken from government officials, doctors and private citizens.
The formation of such commissions in one fashion or another has been normal procedure in Islamic governments, when particularly difficult questions of law arose affecting the community. Executive authorities felt it only proper (and safe) in these matters to be guided by the opinion of the majority of the learned members of their community. In some matters, taking the principle in its broadest sense there was no formal gathering. Consensus emerged gradually over a number of years, an accumulation of precedent cases unmistakably favoring one position over another. Only then would the government act. More often, in the smaller sense, a ruler might call together the leading judges of his capital city to argue the merits of some minor matter made important by local politics, affecting only his region. But to reach out beyond one's own bailiwick, polling authorities from outside in a formal commission, could be justified only if the question affected other regions as well. It seldom happened. By 1500, after nearly 900 years of work in court by judges and professors, there were few of these questions left to try. But coffee, newly introduced to the Islamic world, was one of them.
On Friday night, the 28th of May, 1511, the military governor of Mecca, Khayr Bey, was walking home from evening prayers. One of his responsibilities was the supervision of the Holy Buildings of the city, among them the Ka'bah, the square edifice in the center of the city which held the sacred Black Stone. Surrounding the Ka'bah stretched a vast expanse of courtyard around which, in the month of the pilgrimage, thousands of devoted pilgrims made their way. He enjoyed walking there nights, the courtyard nearly deserted, the warm yellow lights of lamps flickering here and there in the streets and above, the clear black sky dusted with stars. It was a kind of pinnacle of one's career, the responsibility for the Ka'bah.
This night he lingered a moment on the edge of the clearing, gazing at the darkened building with pride. Then, as he turned to make some inconsequential comment to the captain of the guard, loud laughs came from off to the side. As he looked in that direction he could make out a group of ten or fifteen figures huddled around a glowing brazier. He strode over grimly, followed by the guard, to see what persons dared disturb the peace of his sacred area.
As he approached, he saw them passing around among themselves a cup, which was replenished from a pot on the brazier. Then the man pouring from the pot looked up. It was Sergeant Qurqmaz of the city garrison; around him were all men from his squad.
"What is this you're drinking, Sergeant?" asked Khayr Bey, quiet menace in his voice.
"Sir. Your Honor. This is coffee, Sir. Perfectly harmless, Sir," said the sergeant, standing awkwardly at attention, the pot in his hand.
"Harmless?" exploded Khayr Bey. "Nothing is harmless which makes you forget the elementary rules of conduct becoming a noncommissioned officer. Here you stand, waiting on common soldiers, while they cavort about in full view of the Ka'bah. Captain!" This he threw over his shoulder at the captain of the guard. "March these men back to barracks. Fifty lashes each. Qurqmaz, after the bastinado, will be confined to quarters until further notice. Leave one of your men here. I shall need a messenger." As the group marched off into the darkness, Khayr Bey picked up the cup which was left beside the brazier. Gingerly he stirred the muddy dregs with one finger. "So this is the famous coffee," he muttered, then said loudly to the remaining guardsman, "Soldier, come here. I want you to carry out the following immediately..."
That night the four chief justices of Mecca, each representing one of the four major schools of Islamic legal interpretation, were ordered to attend the governor's palace early the next morning. They were to see to it that all justices and senior law professors from Syria and Egypt visiting Mecca at the time also would appear. Together they were to form a commission to study the drink called coffee and recommend the proper course of action to be taken by the government.
By early afternoon the next day some 15 distinguished men, most of them over 50, were sitting in the conference hall of the palace waiting for proceedings to begin. There were several respected members of the Egyptian and Syrian judiciary; at any given time one could find a number from these provinces spending a few months in Mecca to study in its famous libraries or teach. Three or four sitting together received pointed glances from the others; they were already known for their outspoken support of coffee. The room fell silent and all rose as the governor walked in and settled himself a little apart from them. With a rustle they all sat down, and Khayr Bey nodded to the side door.
In walked a servant with a tray, and on it a pitcher and a cup. It was placed on a low table in the center of the room. After the servant disappeared, Khayr Bey addressed the assembly without preamble. "This," he said, gesturing to the tray, "is coffee." He described its growing use in Mecca, the repercussions stemming from it. "I ask your guidance on a simple question: is the use of coffee to be considered legally permissible or forbidden?"
The Commission settled down to business. By unspoken agreement Ibn Zuhayra, the Meccan chief justice representing the Shafi'i school of legal interpretation, presided; the Shafi'iis had the strongest connections with the Mameluk government in those days. Under his guidance, the major side issue was discussed and by evening settled. Passing coffee around—in fact, passing anything around—in gatherings where immoral behavior was displayed, the dancing and singing of scantily clothed women, for example, should be condemned and forbidden as conceivably contributing to that behavior.
By the close of that day's session the basic split in the Commission also appeared, between the strict constructionists and the liberals. Each group supported the condemnation, but for different reasons. The strict constructionists insisted that an exact parallel existed in the Koranic injunction against passing cups of wine around a group. As far as they were concerned, the matter was finished. Coffee, like wine, should be forbidden absolutely. They were in the minority, however. The majority, while conceding the Koranic parallel, at the same time insisted that the intent behind the injunction was the most important factor. Perhaps coffee, like wine when used in such a fashion, did lead to disruptive and immoral social behavior. Then it should be condemned, since clearly that was one of the reasons for condemning wine. But what if, say, a person drank it in the privacy of his house?
"Coffee is one of the catastrophes of our day and age. People drink it assiduously, in sin and publicly. And anyone speaking of its permissibility in private houses hasn't in his heart a grain, an atom of salvation!" So declared heatedly one of the strict constructionists. It was on this point that the Commission returned the next day ... and the next day, and the next and the next.
What was in question now was the effect of coffee on the individual drinker. No one doubted that the second intent behind the prohibition of wine was its muddling effect on the mind, its certain harm to the body. Who was to say that coffee was not the same? The jurists tried, but it rapidly became clear that nothing would come of the discussion. Only two or three hardy souls on the Commission were prepared to admit to drinking coffee, and the mere fact that they admitted it branded them straight away as libertines in the eyes of the conservatives, their testimony corrupt.
At this point Khayr Bey intervened. After the first session, where he had watched at length with growing impatience the wrangling of the distinguished jury over fine legal words, he had cut his attendance to a token daily appearance. On the third day, seeing the Commission deadlocked, he ordered the leading doctors of Mecca to testify on the medical properties of coffee. Doctors being doctors, by the time the worthy medical witnesses had finished the fourth day was done and the confusion greater than ever. The majority condemned coffee, but a minority insisted that it was harmless. The next day several citizens came forward to testify, adding nothing decisive to the hearings. All stated that they felt ill and confused from drinking it, but their excited descriptions left some doubt as to whether it was coffee or imagination at work. There was no point in continuing. The chairman declared the task of the Commission finished.
As in the case of the Presidential "Blue Ribbon" commissions of today, the Meccan Coffee Commission's work resulted in an official report to the governor, a dissenting report from the minority and a spate of popular articles on the subject by enterprising writers and members of the Commission who felt the need to publicly justify their stand. The Misstep and Error of Those Using Coffee; Suppression of Craving for the Drinking of Coffee; The Removal of Error in Forbidding Coffee; Rebutting the Claim of the Harm in Coffee; these are only a few of the titles which appeared in the years following.
The official report unanimously (or nearly so) urged the governor to prohibit the use of coffee in public places and in groups. The tenor of the report was against coffee, but it was predictably vague in recommending policy for its use in private dwellings. The governor received the report preceding the Friday sermon one week after the Commission was convened. Before the day was out every coffee house in the city was closed, its owner taken into custody. Every store selling coffee had its supply confiscated. A ban on merchandising coffee was cried about the streets. Prohibition was on.
The report of the Commission was used as a precedent for government action in Egypt and Syria. But after the Mameluk state was taken over by the Ottomans in 1517, the coffee decrees were ignored. Within a few years a famous professor of law in Damascus publicly declared for coffee. The alacrity with which judges in Cairo and other cities followed his lead, the rapidity with which coffee houses appeared there in the streets, shows just how successful the ban had been. Despite it (or because of it), the taste for coffee had spread wondrously, just as far as bootleggers could push it. The anger and pride of a Mameluk governor could not stand against the consensus of society.
In the years that followed, occasional but always short-lived attempts were made to close coffee houses. In 1565, in response to an indignant letter from a judge in Jerusalem, Suleiman the Magnificent banned coffee houses in that sacred region. But in 1584 another sultan allowed a small shopkeeper from Gaza to open one. In the 1630's there was a brief attempt made to close all of them in the Middle East by the reformist sultan, Murad IV—just a few decades before England's Charles II attempted the same thing in his realm thousands of miles away. Both acted for the same reason—coffee houses were seen as centers of political agitation. Neither effort was particularly successful.
Ibn Tulun, an Arab historian of Damascus writing around 1540, apologized to his readers for discussing the question of coffee in his history in great detail. "But everyone has been talking nonsense about it. It's a very complicated affair.
"Alas," he concluded—perhaps prematurely—"there's not even the pleasure of a useful lesson in it."
Jon Mandaville, who also grew up in Saudi Arabia, studied at Dartmouth and at Edinburgh University, earned a Ph.D in Oriental Studies at Princeton and is presently an associate professor of history and Middle East studies at Portland State University in Oregon.