Islam and the Humanities

Conference 2019

Jamel Velji

Claremont McKenna College

Forming (divine) remembrance: coffee cups and the making of Muslim memory

The standard narrative about coffee is grounded, as it were, in history: it grows wild in Ethiopia, it comes to Yemen sometime in the 15th century, becomes the subject of great debate in places like Cairo and Mecca in the 16th century, and then moves to Europe in the beginning of the seventeenth century, arriving in America toward the end of that century. Those who tell this history of coffee in European languages tend to replicate a rather truncated vision of its Islamic past: that Islam was only a temporary holding place for and precursor to European coffee domestication and dominance—a narrative all too common in European histories about Islam and its contributions. This paper seeks to complicate this narrative by examining the form of the coffee cup in selected Islamic and European sources, illustrating how various depictions of the cup index arguments about coffee’s sacrality and identity.

Jamel Velji is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Claremont McKenna College. His work lies at the intersection between Islamic Studies and Religious Studies and is particularly concerned with the ways in which narratives, rituals, and symbols can effect social transformations. He has written on various aspects of apocalypticism, and his book An Apocalyptic History of the Early Fatimid Empire is the inaugural volume of Edinburgh University Press’s series on Islamic Eschatology and Apocalypticism. His current research examines the Islamic history of coffee, and how that history becomes retold in various European and American contexts.