Friday, December 21, 2012

History of Qat

In the Cambridge World History of Food, I just found a short article on qat (under "Khat") by Clarke Brooke.  The history of this stimulant widespread in Yemen closely resembles that of coffee, and in fact qat was often prepared as a beverage, though today it is chewed.  The majority of scholars believe it originated in Ethiopia, though some say Yemen.  The earliest mention is in a work by the 11th-century scholar al-Biruni, who says it came from Central Asia, which is probably just wrong.  In Ethiopia, the drug was associated strictly with Muslims.

For myself, I wondered if this link with Islam in Ethiopia owed something to its use by Sufis in Yemen.  By the 14th and 15th centuries, Yemeni Sufis were using it to increase concentration and wakefulness in their pursuit of divine experiences, much as they did coffee.  There is actually a play by the Yemeni Jew Sholem bin Joseph al-Shibezi featuring a dialogue between qat and coffee.  Like coffee, however, its use was also controversial, and most religious authorities came to frown upon it.

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