A note on “Coffee Fatwas”

Several people have asked about the opinion that Coffee was deemed impermissible at one time by scholars. This opinion, while presented with much fanfare, is a wholly inaccurate potrayal of not only normative Islamic legal positions, but of the scholars who contributed to the corpus of Islamic law, and how law is formed.

Turkish_coffee_CyprusCoffee in Arabic is popularly known as Qahwah. Qahwa was first used to describe a type of intoxicating drink (a type of “khamr” as al-Khalil ibn Ahmed [d.170] mentions in his lexicon, al-Ain). Later, due to its linguistic import (it means to ‘prevent hunger’) it was used for the drink we know today as coffee. It isn’t strange then to find that when “qahwa” spread there would be an aversion to it. If all you knew about the question was the word, and that word linguistically was synonymous with intoxicants then your answer would be quite the same. Even with a cursory glance at the development of legal opinion on this topic, we can find that jurists would follow one of several approaches when dealing with a new issue.

They may be asked, as mentioned before, simply about a name and then inform the questioner based on that name without any other detail. A rule in fatwa is that the Mufti can only answer according to the question presented. Think of it this way: If a scientist in the middle ages was asked about ‘horsepower’ the first thing that would come to mind and that he would express would be the running power on a equine. Not until locomotives or automotives become well known enough would he even think about a unit of power equal to 550 foot-pounds per second. The same can be said about “Qahwa.” The Mufti speaking about Qahwa is like the medieval scientist talking about horsepower. Definitions change with time, so at the early advent of a change in semantics older conceptualizations would be expressed.

With any issue a plethora of opinion will first be offered, some relying on semantics, some on assumptions, and others merely waiting for more data. The time taken for these opinions to become fatawa to become canonical positions of law and juridical opinion is a long one. Its interesting to note what al-Hattab (d.954h) says about coffee in Mawahib al-Jalil:

“Benefit: There has appeared in this era and that before it a drink taken from the coffee bean hull called Qahwa. People have differed about this between extremists who held that drinking it is an act of worship and fanatics that hold that it is an intoxicant. The truth is that in and of itself it is not an intoxicant, but merely a stimulant which creates weakness that affects the body when abandoned much like the one that eats meat with saffron and spices, being affected when left off.”

The mere presence of these opinions (which are often sensationalized) in no way is indicative of Muslim society as a whole. While the books of Fiqh relate these opinions, and relate that some (not enough scholars) held this opinion, I haven’t found “coffee being impermissible” to be the “standard position” in any school of islamic law.

Largely, this is an issue of sources and how to deal with those sources. I often find that in orientalist works broad social positions are extrapolated from isolated incidents. Its important that when we read law and legal history that we read it as a conversation not an univocal declaration, especially one that is used to indict centuries of scholarship and by extension all Muslims.

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