Islam and Chocolate

While some may refer to Islamic discoveries as lost, it is more accurate to say that they have been ignored. For centuries, Muslim contributions have been downplayed in favor of more Eurocentric narratives. This historical neglect is due to the uneasy relationship between Europe and Islam. While many Europeans during the Middle Ages referred to Muslims as infidels, they also acknowledged the fact that Muslims were at the forefront of scientific discovery. The Translation Movement, started by Sultan al-Mamun in the 9th Century, had promoted the translation of Greek and Latin texts into Arabic, resulting an incredibly rich repository of knowledge which was further built upon by Muslim scientists (Bragg et. al).

However, this wealth of Islamic knowledge could not be referenced without backlash. During the Reconquista, anti-Muslim sentiment was growing in Europe, while the memory of the Crusades was still fresh. For this reason, it was unfashionable to attribute any discoveries to Muslims, and so many early European scientists stopped referencing Muslim scholars in their works. One of the most salient examples is Copernicus’ diagram of the Tusi couple. While this concept was discovered by Persian astronomer al-Tusi 350 years before, Copernicus was the first to bring it to Europe. In the original diagram, Tusi labels the figures with the Abjadi letters, which Copernicus then substitutes with Latinized equivalents (Saliba).

Tusi and Copernicus
From  George Saliba’s work Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance.

 In this way, Muslim discoveries were erased so as to render scientists’ work politically correct. However, Muslim contributions were not limited to the academic sphere. In the same way that Muslims had radically influenced the spread of knowledge, they also influenced the spread of chocolate. Muslim religious philosophy, culinary innovation, and vast trade routes made the originally Mesoamerican delicacy a world-famous confection.

The Origins of Chocolate

The traditional story of how chocolate evolved begins in the Amazon basin, with the Theobroma cacao tree. The tree has large, multicolored pods that are about the same size as an American football. These pods are filled with a mucus-like membrane known as cacao pulp, which surrounds the cocoa beans.

cocoa pod
A cocoa pod. Photo Courtesy of Dain Tree Estates.

The cocoa beans are finicky and enigmatic, but, when processed properly, they are absolutely delicious. The Olmec people were probably the first to process chocolate, turning into a drink. Then, the Aztecs and Maya inherited this tradition. While many aspects of cocoa preparation stayed the same, there were clear differences. The Aztecs preferred their cocoa cold, and would even process it into circular discs for their warriors—a kind of energy bar to sustain them on their long marches. On the other hand, the Maya took their cocoa warm, and especially prized the foam on top of their drink. However, both cultures added spices to their cocoa drinks, including “ear flower,” chili, and annatto (Laudan 197). This early cocoa was unsweetened, and dissolved in water rather than in milk. It was this drink that welcomed the Spaniards to the New World.

While some conquistadores initially thought chocolate was “more a drink for pigs, than a drink for humanity” (Gavin et. al). Spaniards quickly adapted the drink to suit their tastes—or adapted their tastes to suit the drink (Norton 677) Familiar European spices took the place of more exotic Mayan ones, and the drink was sweetened with sugar. Soon, chocolate became a drink of the European elite, one rich with social connotations.

still life with a chocolate service
The rituals of drinking and serving chocolate became common subjects for European (especially Spanish) art. Luis Egidio Melendez, Still Life with a Chocolate Service, 1770.

As chocolate evolved from a drink to a confection, it took on many intermediate forms, such as sorbet and puddings. It was only the later inventions that brought chocolate to its modern form. In 1828, Cooenraad van Houten invented the Dutch process, which neutralized the acid in cocoa, creating a smoother, more appealing flavor. Then, in 1847, Fry’s created the first solid chocolate bar. Although it was a veritable breakthrough, chocolate particle sizes were still very large. Far from the “melt in your mouth” texture that we prize today, this chocolate had a gritty mouthfeel that felt more like sand than anything else. Then, in 1867, the Swiss Henri Nestlé invented the dehydration process, which made it possible to add dried milk to chocolate, improving its flavor significantly. Finally, the conching process, invented by Rudolphe Lindt in 1879, solved the problem of large particle sizes. The result was a delicious chocolate product that appealed to people all over the world.

But even in this widely accepted history, Muslim contributions are conspicuously absent. Chocolate’s journey from specialty Mesoamerican drink to ubiquitous sweet would not have been possible without the Muslims. Their influence on the culinary and cultural aspects of chocolate began with their unique religious philosophy.

Muslim Philosophies of Religion and Luxury

To Muslims, spreading their religion was a holy duty. By 732, the 100th anniversary of Mohammad’s (PBUH) death, Muslims presided over an empire that reached from Persia to Spain (Mintz). While some of these territories were conquered by force, others were “conquered” through trade. The vast trade routes and financial success of Muslim merchants drew many people to Islam. For others, it was the straightforward dealings of the Muslim merchants that impressed upon them the beauty of the Muslim religion; the Quran prohibits financial interest (2:275), encourages honesty, and mandates the use of fair weights (17:35). Indeed, Muslim traders would refuse to do business on cloudy days, because they wanted their customers to be able to see their wares clearly. Because of their honest dealings, Muslim traders were able to spread their religion to a vast swath of land stretching from Spain to China.

Photo Courtesy of TeacherSites.
Map Courtesy of TeacherSites.

Of course, these lands were a mosaic of cultures, but instead of trying to squash local traditions, Muslims embraced them. The teachings of the Prophet (PBUH) emphasized that culture did not matter in the eyes of God; it was only through piety that human goodness was decided. On top of this Quran even encouraged people of different cultures to mix, saying “we have made you people and tribes that you may know one another” (Quran 49:13, Sahih International Translation). With each new land they conquered, Muslims adopted new cultural practices—and new luxuries.

Islam encouraged its adherents to enjoy the blessings that God bestowed upon them. Amr bin Shu’aib reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Eat, drink, and give in charity. Wear nice clothing but without extravagance or pride. Verily, Allah loves to see His blessings upon His servants.” (Musnad Ahmad 6656). Islam’s permissiveness meant that Muslims had permission to dabble to in the high culture of the lands they conquered. The most tangible product of this cultural exploration was a plethora of new crops that would accelerate the adoption of chocolate all over the world.


In 1,001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World, Al Hassani states that, “as Muslims lands grew, merchants and travellers came across exotic plants, trees, seeds, and spices previously unknown to them” (180). While many think that the Muslims were a “nation…of nomads” (106) Muslims were very much farmers. They perfected the growing of “bananas, rice, citrus fruit, peaches, prunes, silk, apricots, cotton, artichokes, [eggplants], cotton, saffron” (103) as well as dates, oranges, and figs (104). The invention of distillation meant that Muslims were able to extract the delicate flavors of these crops and use them for flavoring sorbets, drinks, and even pastries such as baklava and marzipan. These flavorings were also used in savory dishes, complemented with delicious spices such as cinnamon, cloves, cumin, black pepper, saffron, and anise (Laudan 138).


Not coincidentally, many of these Muslim spices were later used in chocolate. One renowned recipe calls for Jasmine flowers (Presilla 148) a genus whose center of diversity was very much within the bounds of the Muslim world (Portland Nursery). In this way, Muslim culinary and agricultural innovation made it possible to alter chocolate to suit many different palettes. However, the most integral additive to chocolate was sugar.

Muslims planted sugar prolifically. “Sugar follows the Koran” says Mintz in his book Sweetness and Power (25). From its origins in South Asia, Muslims took the plant to its agricultural limits, growing it “as far south as Marrakech…in Morocco…and as far North as Valencia in Spain and Palermo in Sicily” (26).

Rows of sugarcane in a plantation. Photo courtesy of Lakshmi Sugar.

Sugar’s effects on the spread of chocolate were twofold: first, it created a precedent for different ways of serving chocolate. “Bons bons” and Hershey’s kisses were preceded by marzipan sweets and small, sugar-covered almonds known as pigeon’s eggs. Secondly, sugar tempered the chocolate’s fruity bitterness, rendering it more approachable for Old World palates—the wealthy ones, that is.

Elitism and the Early Days of Chocolate

Like all other uncommon fare, chocolate was first a drink of the elite, because they were the ones who could afford to import this beverage. While searching for new ways to serve this status symbol, the European elite drew inspiration from the highly cultured Muslim courts. Glazed ceramics, elaborate pottery, and silver drinking vessels were common in the houses of wealthy Muslims, and these luxury objects then influenced much of the tableware used to serve chocolate in Europe; trembleuse glasses, as well as the silver chocolate pots, or chocolatiers, all had their origin in the tables of the Muslim elite.

Turkish coffee pot
Turkish Coffee Pot. Photo Courtesy of Pinterest.
french chocolatier that looks like a turkish coffee pot
Note the similarity between the Turkish coffee pot and this French chocolatier (chocolate pot) from c. 1765. Photo Courtesy of DesignSponge

Muslims also developed an elaborate system of mealtime etiquette to showcase their refinement. It was Ziryab, a former North African slave, who pioneered the idea of the three-course meal, table linens, and elaborate silverware (Al Hassani 30). These ceremonies strengthened the bond between social class and food, and served as the precedent for the lavish chocolate drinking parties that the European elite would hold. Indeed, chocolate as a dessert would not have been possible without the Muslims—since it was Ziryab who invented the principle of a final, sweetened dish to finish off the meal (Al Hassani 30).

Ziryab was renowned for his refined tastes. In addition to being the trendsetter of his day, Ziryab was also a renowned musician, singer, astronomer, geographer, botanist, and culinary expert. He was the epitome of the Renaissance man–before the Renaissance even began.

Now that chocolate had adapted to the palates of the elite through Muslim culinary innovations, it still had to find its place in daily rituals of the common man. While this may seem trivial, the importance of these rituals cannot be underestimated. These everyday ceremonies shaped the view of chocolate, and they also determined who would consume chocolate, when they would consume it, where, and why. Indeed, these rituals are so pervasive that we often have trouble seeing them, but they have an incredible impact on our lives—one made all the more remarkable by their subtlety. To take the example of a common American food: waffles. while waffles can be eaten any time of day, it is our cultural ritual that categorizes them as “breakfast foods.” The more heavy these connotations are, the more integrated the food is into our everyday lives. The more we are invested in this food, the more likely we are to link it to our identity—and the more effort we will take in bringing it wherever we go. For this reason, rituals are an integral part of chocolate’s spread around the world—and around middle class tables. And, while chocolate’s taste was heavily influenced by sugar, these rituals were primarily defined by coffee.

The Precedent for Chocolate

Coffee was an integral precedent to chocolate consumption because, like chocolate, it was a dark, caffeinated drink heavy with social meaning. While today, the phrase “let’s grab coffee” implies a casual outing across all levels of society, early coffee consumption carried with it a slightly more exclusive connotation. In the Muslim world, especially Turkey, coffee houses created a new “social venue” (Laudan) for the literati, who would discuss politics, smoke, or simply gossip (160). These coffeehouses were also “centers of sedition,” and catered to a primarily male clientele.

A manuscript showing Muslims in a coffeehouse. Photo Courtesy of Muslim Heritage.
A manuscript showing Muslims in a coffeehouse. Photo Courtesy of Muslim Heritage.

This was also the case when chocolate came to the European masses. White’s chocolate house in London, referred to as a “hotbed” of illegal political activity (Green), carried many of the same cultural connotations of the early Turkish coffeehouses. This example reveals how many of the social and cultural aspects of chocolate consumption were derived from the earlier custom of drinking coffee. However, Marcy Norton, author of Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics claims that coffee came after chocolate (666), which would seemingly negate coffee’s influence on chocolate.

Which beverage came first is somewhat irrelevant, because the cultural niche carved out by coffee was also occupied by several beverages simultaneously, including tea and alcohol. Thus, Muslim rituals and customs could have been passed on through these drinks, regardless of whether coffee had arrived in Europe. While alcohol was prohibited in Islam, the Mughals ignored this law, enjoying liquors from all over their empire Tea was also a favorite of the Mughals (Laudan 150), and they supplemented their habit with various sorbets, syrups, fruit punches, and herbal infusions (Laudan 150). Fruit or nut-flavored drinks such as lemonades and horchatas—made possible sugar—were also enjoyed throughout the Muslim world. These beverages acted as social lubricants, and made drinks a central part of Muslim cuisine, thereby acting as a social primer for the adoption of chocolate. Thus, even if chocolate came before coffee, the role of Muslim culinary innovation would not change; the most important factor is not the drink, but the social infrastructure created by the drink. While this cultural innovation allowed chocolate to gain prominence, Muslim contributions did not go the same way. Instead of being recognized, these advancements were swept away to fit into the neatly Eurocentric narrative that has become standard.

1400 Years of Islamic History

Muslims have had a complicated, productive, and fascinating history that has long been ignored. Muslim influence on chocolate is only the beginning—their contributions range from the invention of the toothbrush to the development of chemistry. Muslims even invented the first vaccine (Al Hassani 178). While many Muslim innovations served as the precedent for European customs, we must remember that in order to transcend the model of Eurocentricism, we cannot judge the significance of Muslim contributions based on their effects on Europe. Instead, we need to acknowledge that Muslim contributions changed not only Europe, but the world as well. When Muslim discoveries are denied, the transparency of science is made opaque by the temporal concerns of religion and politics.

This opaqueness manifests itself in the false dichotomy between the East and West, one in which the prominence of Muslim achievements is seen as an erasure of European brilliance. In reality, science has no nationality or religion; it is an achievement not of one specific culture, but of the human culture as a whole. It is for this reason that we must harshly question the idea that all science comes from one place—indeed, the Prophet (PBUH) famously said that “The seeking of knowledge is obligatory for every Muslim” (Al-Tirmidhi, Hadith 74). It is not European knowledge or Eastern knowledge or Western knowledge that the Prophet (PBUH) instructed his followers to seek; rather, it is knowledge for the advancement of mankind. It this mentality which will help us bridge the gap in our history—not for the sake of glorifying Muslim discoveries, but for the sake of glorifying science.


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