Whether you smoke hookah casually or on a regular basis, it is a social activity that has long been a part of various cultures throughout history. However, how it came to become part of Western civilization is something that has many parts and explanations. Here’s a look at how hookah smoking came around and how it worked its way into mainstream culture.


There are many different theories about when and where the hookah originated. However, most sources place the beginning of hookah history to the 16th century. During this time, the Mughal Empire ruled the area now known as the Indian subcontinent, as well as parts of what is now Afghanistan and Pakistan. At the head of this empire was Akbar I, who Indian scholars of the time claimed was the inventor of the first hookah. Over time, this method of smoking tobacco branched out to many cultures in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. In the 18th century, during the time of British colonial rule, many Britons started to smoke tobacco from a hookah, and it’s believed that they brought the idea back to the United Kingdom with them.


A modern-day hookah is a smoking device composed of a water basin, a bowl, one or more hoses, and a coal tray. Essentially, shisha, or flavored tobacco, is placed in the bowl. On top is a coal tray, which heats the shisha and turns it to smoke. The smoke is then inhaled through the water basin, into the hose, and into the lungs of the person using it. While this is the present-day version, older, cruder versions were the first incarnations of the hookah, and these were simply water pipes. However, the very first hookahs appear to have been coconut halves fused together, although the actual makeup is unknown. Today, hookahs are much more sophisticated and made of glass, tin, brass, and other light metals.


Tobacco smoking is a social activity that’s existed for centuries in many areas throughout the world. Even today, it’s a source of entertainment, and is best enjoyed by a large group of people. In many areas throughout the Middle East and Asia, hookah smoking is a throwback to ancient times, and the activity is still used as a way to unwind or discuss various local, national, or international issues. Because of many bans on alcohol in these areas, it’s also a way to enjoy people’s company without the traditional bar setting. In the United States, many hookah lounges emerged during the 1960s and 1970s thanks to an influx of culture from India. One such instance of Indian culture pertaining to American pop culture is sitarist Ravi Shankar’s inclusion in many Beatles records, as the fresh and exotic sound fueled an interest in Indian traditions.


When hookah first started to become popular in the Middle East and India, it was generally regarded as an activity of the social elite. Because of this, hookahs started to grow in size to include more smokers at the same time. Hookahs also started to become ornate works of art, with the types of metal, engravings, and decoration being an indication of social status. Today, hookahs are mass produced more often than not and have become reasonably priced commodities in the smoking culture. However, there are companies that also make custom hookahs, although they aren’t a measuring stick of status as they were in the past.


When discussing hookah smoking, it’s important to also realize gender issues regarded the activity. In the 16th and 17th centuries, it was often the chosen activity of high-ranking male politicians, as well as other wealthy men. Women weren’t forbidden from it, but often didn’t have access to the hookah. As time wore on, women started to have access to it, and by the 19th century, it was an activity enjoyed by men and women regardless of age, social standing, or country. Today, it is still something done by many women, and many countries have seen an increase in the use among females such as in the Arab world, as well as Europe and North America. In countries such as Saudi Arabia, men are the only ones allowed to smoke hookah, and in other Middle East countries such as Egypt, it’s frowned upon for women to smoke in public.


Hookah and drug use are a modern incarnation of pop culture. There’s no direct link between the two, although lack of knowledge and false beliefs fuel the thought. Throughout history, there are no real similarities, although opium dens of the 19th century in Britain sometimes link the two. Another reference appears in “Alice in Wonderland,” which features a hookah-smoking caterpillar, often thought to be smoking opium.


Because hookahs are relatively large, they aren’t conducive to smoking on the go. However, the most similar activity to hookah smoking is vaping. While they are inherently different, they still have the same social status, as well as other similarities. One such similarity is the availability of a seemingly endless amount of flavors. No matter what a smoker’s tastes, chances are there’s a perfect vaping or hookah solution. These two also have extreme differences. The most notable difference is that hookah tobacco, also known as shisha, is actually flavored tobacco. It comes in different grades, and comes with nicotine, as well as nicotine-free options. Vaping, on the other hand, uses flavored oil, which, when heated, turns into vapor. Vaping is generally regarded as the safer of two activities, and both are used as a cigarette alternative. Many companies also choose to make vapes into cigarette or cigar shapes, as it’s a familiar activity to former cigarette smokers.

The hookah has become such an accepted part of many cultures around the world, that there’s no doubt it’s here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. With a variety of ages also interested in its social function, there are also more hookah lounges popping up every day. It seems as though it’s here to stay, and as a result, it’s just another chapter in the history of hookah.