Give Now  »

Jamel Velji explores the Islamic origins of coffee

Read Transcript
Hide Transcript



KAYTE YOUNG: From WFIU in Bloomington Indiana, This is Earth Eats and I’m your host, Kayte Young.

Last week we spoke with Rebecca Spang about the origins of the restaurant. This week we revisit a conversation about the possible origins of a favorite beverage--Coffee.

“...and these goats go and they see a coffee shrub and they start eating the beans from the coffee shrub and then they get super excited. And Kaldi is like, 'what is going on here?'"

Stay with us for a conversation with religious studies scholar Jamel Velji, discussing the Islamic origins of coffee, and representations of the Islamic world in coffee marketing, past and present. 

KAYTE YOUNG: We’ll start with Renee Reed, who has some food and farming updates for us.
Hello Renee.

RENEE REED: Farmers across the Midwest appear on track for record-high harvests despite a year of extreme weather. Harvest Public Media’s Dana Cronin reports.

DANA CRONIN: In August, one of Randy Aberle’s fields of corn and soybeans near Gibson City, Illinois, got nine inches of rain.

RANDY ABERLE: We had some areas in those fields that the water was four feet deep.

DANA CRONIN:But he says the rain drained out quickly. And while his corn crop may have taken a bit of a hit this year, soybeans…

RANDY ABERLE: Beans are turning out really well. From what we’re seeing, it’s probably some of the best yields we’ve ever seen on beans.

DANA CRONIN:Intense rainstorms are becoming more common due to climate change.

RENEE REED: Federal SNAP benefits, once known as food stamps, do twice as much good for rural communities as urban areas. A new report from the US Department of Agriculture looked at the economic impact and jobs created by the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Dawn Fogarty is the Director of the Missouri Community Action Network, and advocates for programs to end poverty. She says the report shows that rural residents benefit the most from the program:

DAWN FOGARTY: The typical SNAP recipient is someone in a rural community who’s often pretty isolated and lacks transportation to be able to buy food from affordable grocers.)

RENEE REED: Fogarty says she hopes the report will push lawmakers to devote more tax money to food assistance. 

The U-S Department of Agriculture wants more information about the growing hemp industry. As Brian Grimmett of Harvest Public Media reports, it shows that hemp is becoming a legitimate crop to government regulators.

BRIAN GRIMMETT: For the first time ever, the National Agricultural Statistics Service has sent hemp farmers across the country an acreage and production survey. About 20,000 hemp farmers in the U-S will receive the survey. It will ask farmers about a variety of topics, including acres planted, whether it was grown for flower or fiber, yield and value. Farmers of other crops and livestock have been providing this kind of information for decades. USDA officials say the results of the survey will help producers, growers and regulators better understand how the market for hemp is developing. A state by state breakdown of the results will be released in February.

For Harvest Public Media, I’m Brian Grimmett..


RENEE REED:Thanks to Harvest Public Media’s -Dana Cronin, Jonathan Ahl and Brian Grimmet for those reports

KAYTE YOUNG: Americans eat more than 7 and a half million pounds of chestnuts every year. Most are imported from Italy, China and Korea, Yet they could easily be grown in the Midwest. Harvest Public Media’s Jonathan Ahl reports chestnuts are a growth industry in the region, and offer an option for small-scale, low-effort and, importantly, profitable ways to farm.

JONATHAN AHL: Bill Stouffer is driving around his farm near Tipton in central Missouri. He spent decades growing corn and soybeans here. But about 10 years ago, he wanted to find a way to make his farm smaller and still profitable. So he could leave his kids some of the land that had been in his family for more than 200 years:

BILL STOUFFER: And for it not to be a burden for them. So we were looking for a crop that would give high yield per acre, and let them make a choice if they wanted to manage it or hire management, but have the farm be able to support itself and continue in the family for years to come.

JONATHAN AHL:So Stouffer planted 20 acres of chestnut trees in 2009. About three years later, the nuts started to come. Chestnuts grow in spikey burrs and open up in mid September, dropping the nuts on the ground. Stouffer says when that starts happening it’s a quick turnaround to get them to customers:

BILL STOUFFER: Generally speaking they start dropping nuts on the 20th. So we opened up our website on the 22nd, and in 4-5 hours, we had more than 100 orders. There is a tremendous demand for chestnuts.

JONATHAN AHL:Stouffer’s family, and a few hired high school students, can harvest the chestnuts using little wire cages on the end of a stick. The nuts don’t require a lot of processing - the Stouffers can clean, sort, and package the chestnuts in a couple rooms of their barn. The family set up an online store where the nuts go for about $6 a pound, and sell out every year.

That demand is drawing more people to chestnut farming. The USDA says the number of chestnut farms in the US increased from 591 in 2012 to 841 in 2017. Mike Gold is with the University of Missouri’s center for agroforestry. Even with the 3-5 year period waiting for new trees to produce nuts, he says chestnut demand is high enough accommodate more farmers.:

MIKE GOLD: we also do market surveys of the membership and we find that the prices are very high, demand is exceeding supply. Everybody sells out within a couple of weeks. So, all the needles are pointing in the right direction.

JONATHAN AHL: The Chestnut Growers of America says the U.S. has 2,500 acres of chestnut farms.It would take more than 10,000 acres just to make up for what’s imported every year. Gold says chestnuts also benefit small farmers, because of the boutique nature of the crop.

MIKE GOLD: the preference for buy local is powerful. So somebody would much prefer to buy a Missouri chestnut if they are from MIssouri than say a California chestnut and very much more than European or Asian one. Also our quality is better because they don’t lose any quality in shipping.

And there may be room for even more demand.

Chestnuts are literally roasting on an open fire at the Missouri Chestnut Roast Festival at the University of Missouri research farm in New Franklin. Hundreds of people came out to taste chestnuts and to get recipes. Daniel Blake and Elizabeth De Meyer tasted different breeds of chestnuts for market research. For both of them it was their first bite:

TASTERS: It’s hard to compare them like anything else, really. I’ve never tasted anything like that. They are sweet. The texture threw me off because I didn't know what to expect. But they’re good. I like them.

JONATHAN AHL: Promoters hope people will like the flavor so much they will eat them roasted or in recipes like chestnut dressing, hummus and even chili..

Chestnut doesn’t require expensive equipment like combines, and can be profitable on a lot less than the 1,000s of acres needed to make money on row crops like corn and soybeans. Greg Heindselman is a chestnut farmer in Lewistown. He says they offer a living on as little as 5 acres, compared to a row crop farm that would require hundreds, if not thousands of acres to support a family:

GREG HEINDSELMAN: If you only have 1,000 pounds per acre, that figures right around $6,000 an acre. Now, granted, not all of that is profit. You have establishment costs and some maintenance as it goes along, but that’s still a whole lot better than I can do in grain.

JONATHAN AHL:And Heindselman says his chestnuts are doing so well he is planning to take more acres out of corn production next year, and plant more chestnut trees. Jonathan Ahl, Harvest Public Media.

KAYTE YOUNG: Harvest Public Media is a reporter collective covering food and farming in the heartland. Learn more at Harvest Public media dot org. 

In an upcoming episode of Earth Eats, We’ll be visiting with researchers here at Indiana University talking about the history of chestnuts and future possibilities for nut crops in the midwest. Be sure to subscribe to our podcast so you never miss an episode. 

After a short break, we’ll hear stories about the surprising Islamic origins of coffee.


JAMEL VELJI: I'm Jamel Velji, associate professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California.

KAYTE YOUNG: Jamel Velji visited the IU campus in November of 2018. He gave a talk called Drinking the Orient; Meditations on Religion and Coffee from the Yemen to San Francisco. Dr. Velji's work is situated at the intersection between Islamic studies and religious studies. He's the author of an Apocalyptic History of the Early Fatima Empire, and he describes himself as someone who is obsessed with the apocalypse. I wanted to know how he got into the study of the Islamic origins of coffee. 

JAMEL VELJI: When we teach Islam, intro classes to the study Islam, which is kind of my bread-and-butter, we have to spend about 25% of our time undoing these negative perceptions about Muslims - perceptions about Muslims being terrorists, preceptors about Muslims being overtly sexual, about Muslim women being veiled and needing to be liberated. So we spend so much time undoing these perceptions, and I was thinking well how is it that we can actually get to what Islam is and look at this kind of dynamism about Islamic history, how Muslims live their lives, the vast diversity of 1.6 billion Muslims who inhabit the planet. How do we even begin to study this?

There are many of us in Islamic studies and religious studies who are kind of rethinking Islamic studies from the ground up. And when I was doing my first book of the apocalypse and drinking way too much coffee, I was also reading about the history of coffee, and thinking "Wow there's so much work to be done in thinking about not just the legacy of coffee, this Islamic legacy of coffee. But looking at the ways in which coffee and Muslims have been tethered throughout history really."

And thinking about these new ideas about how do we do Islam, one of my colleagues at Brown, Shahzad Bashir has written about how is it that Islamic studies, even the fundamental books that we learn about, actually tether Islamic history to a Western historical timeline that kind of reinscribes this idea of Islamic decline, and then European ascendancy. And then having things geographically outside of the Middle East becoming totally derivative or kind of weird with relation to what is "central"

So yeah and I thought that as I was staring at my cup of coffee, and that this could provide a really interesting way of kind of infusing the study of Islam with a new kind of dynamism, that doesn't separate Muslims and non-Muslims in this kind of artificial that we seem to experience today. And also that we should, I think, be more connected to the people who actually grow and harvest our coffee. Americans spend something like $5.1 billion dollars on coffee every year, and we should be connected to those people. 

KAYTE YOUNG: For those of us who aren't familiar with the origins of coffee in Islamic world, can you talk about that?

JAMEL VELJI: Sure one of the great things I discovered about studying coffee is how many origin myths, how many legends there are about coffee. There are two major origin myths that are ascribed to coffee.

One is this idea about Sufi Sheikhs. So we have that the first complete text on coffee is by this guy named Al-Jaziri, and Al-Jaziri writes in the 16th century. And he draws a lot of his history from this guy named Abdul Jafar. And there is a great translation about this origin myth from this person has written this person who has written this fabulous book on coffee called Ralph Hattox, and this is what this text says.

At the beginning of this, the 16th century the news reached us in Egypt that a drink called quhwa has spread in the Yemen in was being used by Sufi Sheiks and others to help them stay awake during their devotional exercises, which they perform according to their well-known way. Then it reached us sometime later the appearance and spread there had been due to the efforts of the learned Sheikh Ismail Mufti and Sufi Jamal Alden Abu Abdullah Mohammed An Sayeed, known as Eldeboni.

We heard that he had been in charge of the critical reviews of fatwas in Aden which at that time was a job who's holder decided whether fatwas were sound or in need of revision which he would indicate at the bottom of the document with his own hand. The reason for his introduction of coffee according to what we had heard was it some affair had forced him to leave Aden and go to Ethiopia, where he stayed for some time. There he found the people using qahwa, though he knew nothing of its characteristics. After he had found that among its properties was that it drove away fatigue and lethargy and brought to the body a certain spriteliness and vigor. In consequence when he became a Sufi he and other Sufis in Aden began to use the beverage made from it as we have said, and then whole people, the learned and the common followed his example in drinking it, seeking help and study in other vocations and crafts so it continued to spread.

There is one account written by Al-Jaziri a of this guy the DeBoni who brings coffee from Ethiopia where it still grows wild actually, to the Yemen and discovers its properties, its liveliness of the body. And this notion of helping Sufis in religious devotions we find over, and over, and over again in these early texts. And it becomes an argument actually for why coffee should be listed in the Islamic tradition. There were all of these debates in the 16th century about whether or not coffee should be listed in the tradition because it was seen to have a function that was not necessarily supportive of the social order, let's say. People would accuse those who went into the coffee shops of perhaps fomenting sedition, or having some kind of social disorder, and were they reputable or disreputable? And what about the coffee the property itself? Was it an intoxicant? The Islamic tradition doesn't approve of substances that take away from the idea of divine remembrance.

So we have supporters like Al-Jaziri who writes this text and says this is all about Divine Remembrance, look at the fact that these this it was brought from Ethiopia by the Sufi, and look at this guy who's actually in charge of fatahs. If this guy was in disrepute really, we would have to second-guess this notion of whether or not coffee was listed in the tradition. 

So Kafka actually in one of his arguments he says, and I have to read this because this is so good, it's so interesting, he says, "Well actually one the reasons that coffee should be listed is the following, among some of the virtuous people in Yemen, some of them have said that there is a correspondence between the name of the name of coffee called qahwa, and one of the most beautiful names of called, called Al-Qawi. The mention of Al-Qawi's numerical value has prevented harm to he who has mentioned it, or he who has faced it. The total numerical value of the letters of el qahwa is 116, as is the value of the letters Al-Qawi. Look at that. 

The correspondence comes from the correlation of the calculation of the numerical values of the letters - 116, with what is in the Baraka of his name Al-Qawi in terms of warding way harm and the beneficial effects of its influence. "

So here Jazeer says that the Barakah or blessing is actually accorded to coffee through recognizing its relationship with a numerical correspondence between it and the name of God.  And indeed recognizing this numerical correspondence will help to ward away evil. 

So in the Islamic tradition coffee's sanctity then becomes tied to Sufi orders. We even have textual evidence of people in Sufi zikrs or notions of divine remembrance passing around cups of coffee so that they'll just have a little swig during their remembrances.

KAYTE YOUNG: And what are remembrances?

JAMEL VELJI: Oh yes, so the Arabic term is called zikr and there are Sufi ceremonies that involve people getting together and chanting the name of God or using music to remember the Divine, and there are 99 names of God in the Islamic tradition, and it's considered particularly meritorious to engage in these kind of supererogatory practices so that one can become closer to the Divine. 

So the argument here is that if you are remembering the Divine, it's considered meritorious. If you use coffee in helping to remember the Divine then there you go, it's not an intoxicant and it will help in religious devotions. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So for the remembrances is it about memorization and being able to recite these things from memory? Or is it simply about by saying these names you're remembering?

JAMEL VELJI: Yes, by the latter. By saying these names you're remembering, or certain phrases. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay. So was coffee ever banned from the religious?

JAMEL VELJI: Yes. In its genesis of coming to the Yemen, and to Egypt, and to Mecca it did become banded periodically and then unbanned. So in 1511 there are attempts to prohibit coffee in Mecca. In 1525 a jurist orders Meccan coffee houses is closed. In 1526 that same jurist dies and then houses reopened.

And then a similar thing actually happens when coffee comes into Europe, and that happens in the 17th century. So in thinking about these origins of coffee another really powerful origin myth that we see all the time is this idea of the goat herder Kaldi. And the origin myth is something like this, that there was either Ethiopian or Yemeni goat herder named Kaldi and he takes his goats out one day. And these goats go, and they see a coffee shrub and they start eating the beans from the coffee shrub. And then they get super excited, and Kaldi is like, "Well, what is going on here?" and he says, "I'm going to try some of these." And so he then popped some of these beans and then he gets really excited. And that's how he discovers coffee. 

One of the things that's really fascinating about the Kaldi story is that the Kaldi story, the first written account of it was by this guy Thoustist Nygren whose writing in the 17th century. And he doesn't say that it is Kaldi, but he says that coffee is actually discovered by a Christian Monk. And so this notion of the Sufis become put by the wayside. And so then this Christian monk then gives these beans to everybody in his monastery in order to stay awake for prayer, which mirrors the Sufi heritage of coffee. 

And then he says that during their ceremonies they give praise to the Turks for giving them this coffee, which is very interesting. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay so was it given by the Turks or was it discovered by a Christian monk?

JAMEL VELJI: Well the history of this was that it was domesticated and popularized by Muslims, though it is an Ethiopian beverage, it still goes what grows wild in Ethiopia. But it seems that so many people who discover coffee, whether it's now or whether it's then, have a tendency to try to make it their own which becomes a really really interesting. So I'm interested in a lot of these stories that take coffee and then kind of appropriate its origins. 

KAYTE YOUNG: Okay so is that a big part of what your project is about?

JAMEL VELJI: Yeah so I'm actually looking at the ways in which coffee's origins become, the fancy I guess academic term, become "resignified". But I'm looking at the ways in which it's particularly tethered to ideas of a Islam. So that's kind of the book with what I'm looking at for the book.

KAYTE YOUNG: If you're just joining us I'm talking with Jamel Velji about Islamic origins of coffee and how the history of coffee gets appropriated by different cultures. He talks about when coffee gets introduced into European culture as a luxury item from the East and one example comes from a famous Italian traveler. 

JAMEL VELJI: There is this guy Pietro Della Valle, famous Italian traveler he goes to the Levant, Syria, and to Lebanon. This is from Peter Della Valle's treatise, parts of it become embedded within a famous 17th century treatise on coffee, coffee tea and chocolate by this guy named before Dufour, Sylvestere Dufour. And there's this idea about extolling virtues of coffee. Thinking that it provides serious leisure. And at the same time they never really tie it to Ottomans. And so he says, "if they the Italian should drink it with wine as they do with water it will be the Nepenthe that Homer mentions which Helen drunk there is being certain that qahwa is brought hither from that country. And as this Nepenthe was a charm against tears and vexations, the same qahwa to this day's used among the Turks as an entertainment and pastime, making the hours to slip away merrily in conversations, intermingling with their drinks several pleasant and recreation of discourses which underwears on their mind this forgetfulness of sorrows which this poet attributes to this Nepenthe."

So there's this notion that it really is this substance of leisure, that is an ancient substance of leisure, that doesn't really come from Muslims, it just happens to be just incidental to that area. And we should get our hands on it, so that we can also provide this to our people.

KAYTE YOUNG: So it being seen as a luxury item and is this kind of carefree thing is really different than using it in a religious context as part of a remembrance or as part of staying awake during prayers or sort of having the mind stimulated. It's sounding more like an intoxicant. 


KAYTE YOUNG: And this is when it's introduced to Europe?

JAMEL VELJI: Yes, this is 17th century. And this is not to say that in Europe there were not debates about whether or not coffee was an intoxicant. Many medical treatises in France were opposed to coffee. Some of them said, "This is going to give people paralysis and epilepsy all of these things." And then there's this great legend about whether or not coffee should be listed in the Christian tradition. 

And there's this great story about how the Pope, Pope Clement I believe, is given a sample of coffee. He says, "Let me see if the stuff is actually good, or it should be allowed." And he drinks the cup of coffee, and he really likes it, and he says, "This is something that we actually have to make part of our culture, I don't think it's going to cause sinfulness or anything." So that's one of the ways in which coffee become domesticated to the Christian tradition. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So it's sanctioned, it's approved by the Catholic church. 

JAMEL VELJI: Right. And there are stories too, about how the Jews used it in the eighteenth-century to stay awake also during special ceremonies that are similar to kind of these nighttime remembrances in Islamic tradition. So there's so many of these religious function stories that are intertwined with coffee. 

KAYTE YOUNG: My guest is Jamel Velji, associate professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College in California. We'll be back after a short break with more from our conversation. Stay with us.


I'm Kayte Young, this is Earth Eats. And I'm talking today with Dr. Jamel Velji about his research into the Islamic origins of coffee. And one of the things he's looking at the representation and the erasure of Islamic culture in the marketing of coffee in Europe and in the U.S. 

JAMEL VELJI: My favorite example of this is, that there's a contemporary Viennese roaster named Julius Meinl. And Julius Meinl is a major purveyor of coffee in Europe. Julius Meinl's icon, they call it the Meinl Moore, it's this boy who has a fez on. And the Meinl Moore was according to them, devised in 1924 in order to market coffee. And the Meinl Moore starts out as an icon that is more kind of Ottoman, Arab in nature. Kind of vague Ottoman and Arab. He's drinking a cup of coffee and his face is dark. And over the course of history and he becomes less and less associated with that part of the world and he becomes as they describe it, like the Baroque angels that are found in Viennese, in Austrian architecture. 

And there's this really interesting thing, I think, that happens that is emblematic of the ways in which coffee is still kind of associated with the exotic, but it also becomes part of the domestic landscape.

However yet Julius Meinl's iconography is all over their shops in Vienna. It's today printed on everything from sugar packets to their cups. And so the orient, or this vision of the orient is very much present still coffee advertising. And this is not just Julius Meinl.

In the 1860s Hills Brothers and other major American, Arbuckle Coffee began using images of the orient to sell coffee. These kind of timeless images of landscapes with reds, and kind of desserty colors, as well as trading cards that would be inserted in different coffee packages. That in these cards would actually talk about, "Well this is Egypt, it has pyramids. And here is what it an Egyptian looks like." But these are kind of stylized visions of the orient that kind of illustrate this exotism of the commodity. 

And along with this exotism of the commodity, ironically the same time, in the same way in which one kind of portrays a Muslim figure, a figure that is from the Middle East or Ottoman, or Turkey or some kind of other. Ironically that representation can also result in a kind of effacement of individual communal identity through a stylized vision of looking at that icon and iconography. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So even if the origins are being acknowledged, there's still an erasure because it's like you said, there's a stylizing or even stereotyping, or putting some strange images with it that aren't necessarily acknowledging the history and the origins. 

JAMEL VELJI: Totally, totally. And even if we look at coffee advertising today, the number of times you may read description of the coffee that says "exotic" or is it says like this comes from a particular terroir that is growing at a certain altitude, it has these flavor notes of this this this this, there is still this exoticism that is related to the ways in which even high-end purveyors of coffee like counterculture or Temple Coffee or Starbucks even sell their coffees. There's still this exotic kind of idea that the cup that you're drinking is from a faraway land, and that you can still take part in being connected with this faraway land by buying and drinking our coffee. 

KAYTE YOUNG: It feels like you kind of have to do that today because there's such an emphasis and an interest in eating local and drinking local and having things that are coming from here. And since that's not really possible with coffee, we don't grow coffee in the United States, I would think there's not much coffee grown in any European countries. And so you have to emphasize something else. And it kind of makes sense that it would go with the reason this is attractive is because it's exotic, and because it's from a faraway land, and maybe it's now the value is placed on knowing who that farmer is, or having it be a single origin is another thing that seems to be important, is knowing this being came from one place and it's all the same bean, and it hasn't been blended. And we know who the farmer is, and we've got a picture of him.

JAMEL VELJI: Yeah, no I think that that's right. I think it would be cool if we could also talk about some of these local myths that are associated with... not just talk about the farmer, and the single origin, but maybe stories about how coffee is improving these local farmers' conditions. And to give a kind of more composite picture of the ways in which coffee is actually is operating more locally in those places. 

One of the really interesting things that I came across when doing this project was discovering that the icon for Colombian coffee is Juan Valdez. Who’s this kind of ubiquitous figure associated with Colombian coffee that was actually devised by the Colombian Federation of coffee growers to help sell coffee, in a kind of inversion of what we see with advertising like Julius Meinl, to give a face and a place and an image that is controlled domestically by these coffee growers to sell their coffee. 

KAYTE YOUNG: So do you feel like there's a time when... like when I think of where coffee comes from, I don't think of the Islamic world. I think of Central or South America and I think of some African countries. And that's just me being pretty ignorant. But then I remember okay well there's Arabica, but that's sort... of that's it. And I don't really have that image connection. When I started thinking about it I can picture those stylized images from past marketing of coffee but not contemporary. 

JAMEL VELJI: I don't think it's you being ignorant, I think that most people don't think about the Islamic origins of coffee. And I think that there are all of these other contributions made by Muslims to society that people don't think about either, the fountain pen, or the hospital, or like eye surgery, fundamental components of our existence. And so the question really is how is it that we don't see those as part of our everyday existence?

And it's not just contributions, it's contributions of all sorts from all other peoples. And there are many theorists who written about why is it that the conditions of modernity seem to separate those elements, and what is it about the past that seems kind of distant and foreign to us. But what I'm hoping with this project is that we can envision something that makes us think about those origins of coffee in our coffee cup. 

And I'm not alone in doing this, I mean I think I'm one of the few that's doing this on Islamic history of coffee. But there are coffee companies like Question Coffee and the company is literally called Question Coffee and it's based in Rwanda and Kigali. And they are a very interesting company that advocates for women coffee farmers and the idea here is to illustrate, well not only can coffee farming be done by women, but there's also a direct trade relationships that we have. And that yeah you should question your coffee, you should question where it comes, you should question how it's grown, you should question why that coffee is particularly good, why it tastes the way it tastes. 

KAYTE YOUNG: I guess I was just wondering if you thought in recent history, or in recent American history if that erasure of the Islamic origins or sources of coffee, as fear of Muslims has increased in the United States, like has there been more of that? Or is this something that was way before that?

JAMEL VELJI: I think it's way before that. I think it's been ongoing that Muslims have always been seen in this country as the other, as foreign. And it's not just Muslims, it's all sorts of other people in the history of the United States. But I think that the unique thing about coffee is that because it still has this heritage, there's still this connection that can be stylized between it and perceptions of Muslims. Which just further exacerbates this whole otherness about Muslims.

KAYTE YOUNG: In wrapping up our conversation I asked Jamel Velji what's at stake? Why does this project matter? Especially for coffee consumers. 

JAMEL VELJI: One of the things that I think is really important is to realize that it's not actually just about coffee. The project actually gets us to think more about the global place of Muslims more generally, or at least that's my goal. And we can look currently at Muslim discrimination across the world. And I'm acutely aware that there is discrimination that occurs amongst all sorts of people globally right now. But if we were to look at the ways in which Muslims are persecuted in China for instance, or we can look at the crisis among the Rohingya, or we can look at the ways in which Muslims are discriminated against in the United States, less so in Canada but it still exists, we can look in Europe at the migrant crisis. Muslims are getting a particularly bad rap. And I think so much of this has to do with negative images of Muslims.

So part of this project looks at the history of this misrepresentation and then examines, how is it that we can be more responsible in representing these stories, in representing the people who are behind this? Both the people who think about it as kind of coffee being a substance that is tethered to Sufi zikrs but also how is it that we can think about this history of misrepresentation among Muslims?

KAYTE YOUNG: Is there anything else you want to talk about, or is there anything that in this research that you've been doing and in looking at this topic, is there anything that's really surprised you, that you weren't expecting to come across?

JAMEL VELJI: Yes. I've became really fascinated and I didn't know how some of the earliest coffee houses in Britain and in France, 17th century, were places of emulation of the orient. So one scholar Brian Cohen has written a book on the on the early British coffee house. And he describes these places, he says something like, there are 37 coffee houses in London called the Turk's Head by the end of the 17th century. And these places actually have baths in them. They are decorated opulently. And he says that these were places where people could actually experience consumer orientalism. They could go into these places and feel as though there was the luxurious ethos around them that was part of the orient. 

In another, that the first Cafe in France, in Paris Cafe Le Procope, the waiters would actually dress up as if they were from the orient. They would dress up in this kind of oriental garb. And they're still in the legacy of oriental type architecture in grande coffee houses in Europe. Even when coffee comes to France there are accounts of the Sun King Louis XIV also kind of having coffee ceremonies in which he dresses up like somebody from the orient. And so to me this is really fascinating to see how these two worlds are connected but then to see how now they are so entirely conceived of as separate. 

KAYTE YOUNG: That was to Jamel Velji associate professor of religious studies at Claremont McKenna College.

JAMEL VELJI: Thank you so much!

KAYTE YOUNG: Yes, thank you so much, this was great. 

JAMEL VELJI: Oh great, this was fun. 

KAYTE YOUNG: He spoke with us in the WFIU studios in November of 2018, when he was visiting the campus for a talk called Drinking the Orient; Meditations on Religion and Coffee from the Yemen to San Francisco. Find more on our website


Earth Eats is a radio show and a podcast-- and, we also make videos, featuring recipes  from my home kitchen. Payton Knobeloch produces them, with videographers Jacob Lindauer and Jacob Lindsey  The latest one features sweet potato fries prepared in an air fryer, and served with a spiced yogurt dip. We’ve got recipes savory and sweet, stove top and baked. One of my favorites is a cinnamon pecan filled bosc pear, cloaked in a flaky pastry, baked until golden and served with a honey-lemon chamomile sauce. You’ll find all of our recipe videos when you search for Earth Eats on You Tube-where you can like and subscribe!


That's it for our show this week. Thanks for listening to Earth Eats. I'm Kayte Young and we'll see you next time.

RENEE REED: The Earth Eats team includes Eoban Binder, Mark Chilla, Abraham Hill, Payton Knobeloch, Josephine McRobbie, Daniella Richardson, Harvest Public Media, and me Renee Reed.

KAYTE YOUNG: Special thanks this week to Rebecca Spang.

RENEE REED:  Our theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.  Additional music on the show comes to us from the artists at Universal Productions Music. Earth Eats is produced and edited by Kayte Young and our executive producer is John Bailey.


A collection of logos in various stages of graphic styles for Julius Meinl coffee and Hills Bros Coffee

These logos from Julius Meinl and Hills Bros coffee companies are examples that Dr. Jamel Velji discusses in the interview. He talks about the ways in which the the "exotic" is invoked in the marketing of coffee, and over time, the images become more stylized and removed from their origins. Julius Meinl Coffee Company has a statement about the development of their logo on their website. (fair use)

Last week we spoke with Rebecca Spang about the origins of the restaurant. This week we revisit a conversation about the possible origins of a favorite beverage--Coffee.

“...and these goats go and they see a coffee shrub and they start eating the beans from the coffee shrub and then they get super excited. And Kaldi is like, 'what is going on here?'"

Join us for a conversation with religious studies scholar Jamel Velji, discussing the Islamic origins of coffee, and representations of the Islamic world in coffee marketing, past and present.

And Harvest Public Media shares a story on increased interest in chestnut farming in the midwest.

Origin Stories Of Coffee With Jamel Velji

Our guest is Jamel Velji, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College. He spoke with us in the WFIU studios in November of 2018. He was visiting the campus for a talk called Drinking the Orient: Meditations on Religion and Coffee from The Yemen to San Francisco.

Dr. Velji’s work is situated at the intersection of Islamic studies and religious studies. He is the author of An Apocalyptic History of the Early Fatimid Empire and he describes himself as someone who is obsessed with the apocalypse.

His latest project is a study of the Islamic origins of coffee.  In the interview he talks about how the history of coffee gets appropriated by different cultures.

Logo for Cafe de Colombia, a graphic of a man with a wide brim hat, mustache with a burro and mountains in the background
Juan Valdez is the figure associated with coffee from Colombia. 

Jamel Velji also looks at representation and erasure of Islamic culture in the marketing of coffee in Europe and in the US, and talks about how coffee marketing in the West often plays up the "exotic" origins of coffee. He offers an interesting example of coffee marketers in Colombia who created their own figure, Juan Valdez, to represent all coffee from Colombia--almost a reversal of the "Meinl Moor" figure created by a Viennese company.

Listen to the full interview on this week's show. 

Music on this episode

The Earth Eats theme music is composed by Erin Tobey and performed by Erin and Matt Tobey.

Additional music on this episode from Universal Production Music.

Stories On This Episode

Midwest farmers are beginning to make money by swapping chestnuts for row crops

Chestnuts roasting in a pan

The U.S. imports a lot of chestnuts, and there is an opportunity for more of them to be homegrown.

Food stamps boost rural economies more than urban ones

The inside of an independent grocery store in Iowa

A new report from the USDA shows SNAP benefits have a bigger impact on rural economies.

Midwest farmers are on track for a record-high harvest, despite a year of extreme weather

Corn crop being harvested

Climate change is making farming harder, but farmers in the Midwest are still managing to produce record-high amounts of corn and soybeans.

Support For Indiana Public Media Comes From

About Earth Eats

Harvest Public Media