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A is for Arabs

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  • A is for Arabs

    From algebra and coffee to guitars, optics and universities -- an alphabetical reminder of what the West owes to the People of the Crescent Moon.

    By George Rafael
    Jan. 8, 2002 | Even before Sept. 11 forced the West to face the cultural friction between it and the Arab/Islamic world, there was an unwarranted sense of superiority. The renowned Italian journalist and interviewer Oriana Fallaci wrote Arab culture off as a few interesting architectural flourishes and the Quran. Apparently, it's easy to forget that history is cyclical and the roles were once reversed. A millennium ago, while the West was shrouded in darkness, Islam enjoyed a golden age. Lighting in the streets of Cordoba when London was a barbarous pit; religious tolerance in Toledo while pogroms raged from York to Vienna. As custodians of our classical legacy, Arabs were midwives to our Renaissance. Their influence, however alien it might seem, has always been with us, whether it's a cup of steaming hot Joe or the algorithms in computer programs. A little magnanimity is called for.

    A is for algebra
    From "al-jabr," Arabic for "restoration," itself a transliteration of a Latin term, and just one of many contributions Arab mathematicians have made to the "Queen of Sciences." Al-Khwarizmi (c.780-c.850), the chief librarian of the observatory, research center and library called the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, was the man responsible for making my life miserable at school. The motivation behind his treatise, "Hisab al-jabr w'al-muqabala" ("Calculation by Restoration and Reduction": widely used up to the 17th century), which covers linear and quadratic equations, was to solve trade imbalances, inheritance questions and problems arising from land surveyance and allocation. In passing, he also introduced into common usage our present numerical system, which replaced the old, cumbersome Roman one. Al-Karaji of Baghdad (953-c.1029), founder of a highly influential school of algebraic thought, defined higher powers and their reciprocals in his "al-Fakhri" and showed how to find their products. He also looked at polynomials and gave the rule for expanding a binomial, anticipating Pascal's triangle by more than six centuries. Arab syntheses of Babylonian, Indian and Greek concepts also led to important developments in arithmetic, trigonometry (the algorithm, for instance, thanks to al-Khwarizmi) and spherical geometry.

    B is for backgammon
    Sheshbesh is what it's called in Beirut and Cairo, whence the savviest players hail. Although this beautiful waste of time dates back to the pharaohs, the form we enjoy today came to us via Moorish Spain in the 10th century. Ghioul and moultezim are two other variants of "the game of kings," popular wherever the happy hookah is indulged.

    C is for cough medicine Necessity being the mother of invention, the Arabs were the first to distill water, for long journeys across areas (such as the Sahara) where supplies were uncertain. Their experiments with various chemical compounds also gave us sulfuric acid, ammonia (have you ever noticed the uncanny resemblance between Mr. Clean and the genie in "Thief of Baghdad"?) and mercury. In applied chemistry they discovered better and more efficient ways for tanning leather and forging metals. Messing around with mortars and pestles produced camphor, pomades and syrups.

    E is for equestrian
    Although the ancestors of Mr. Ed and Secretariat probably originated in Central Asia (with the "Heavenly Horses" of the King of Ferghana), our equine friends were first bred for speed in the desert sands of the Empty Quarter. Arab historian al-Kelbi (c. 786) traced the Arabian to the pedigreed horses of Bax, great-great-great grandson of Noah. The conquest of the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and Spain was due in no small part to the aptly named beast (and the indefatigable camel), mount of choice for the tribesmen who swept all in their path. The descendents of these terrible swift steeds were brought to the New World by the Conquistadors, to devastating effect, particularly in ancient Peru where the Incas mistook the horsemen for gods. (By the time they learned the truth it was too late.) Appropriately enough, the largest and most successful stable today belongs to Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai.

    F is for Fitzgerald
    Edward, translator of that beloved chestnut of yore, "The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám" (a jug of wine, a loaf of bread -- and thou). My concern here, of course, is not with Fitzgerald, nice duffer though he was, but with Khayyám himself (1048-1131) -- gifted physician, Persian bard and geometer extraordinaire. In his seminal "Algebra" he attempted a fusion of algebraic and geometric methods, discussing the solution of cubic equations by geometric means, anticipating analytical geometry. (Descartes took up this thread 500 years later, though it's unlikely he knew Khayyám's work.) Khayyám also dabbled in astronomy, his lunar calculations leading him to reform the calendar in 1079 (there are references to this throughout the Rubáiyát). Furthermore, Islamic astronomers invented the pendulum, improved upon the sundial, prognosticated the existence of sunspots and studied eclipses and comets. And al-Biruni calculated the length of the solar year to within 24 seconds and discussed the earth's rotation on its axis -- 500 years before Galileo. Arabian and Islamic astronomers also constructed the first observatories, in Toledo, Cordoba, Baghdad and Cairo

    H is for "Havi"
    Expanding on the legacy of the Greek physician and philosopher Galen was Rhazes (c. 865-c. 930), the greatest doctor of the Middle Ages. His extensive medical treatise in nine volumes, "Havi" ("The Virtuous Life"), was used as a textbook in the Sorbonne as late as 1395. In addition to case studies and clinical reports that still have anecdotal interest, Rhazes also wrote a celebrated monograph on smallpox. (Knock wood.)
    "The Book of Healing," by the Persian physician and philosopher Avicenna (980-1037), is a masterwork on hygiene and therapeutics that was used as a reference well into the 16th century. With Averroes (1126-1198), the Andalusian physician and philosopher, Arabian medicine attained its peak. Muslim surgeons in the 11th century knew how to treat cataracts and internal hemorrhaging, and they pioneered the usage of anesthetics, which they derived from herbs. Arabian hospitals anticipated our modern ones in combining teaching facilities and libraries, and in offering specializations such as internal medicine, opthamology, orthopedics and pharmacology (on the last, Ibn al-Bayter, who died in 1248, described 1,400 different medicines of vegetable and mineral origin alone). They also set standards for cleanliness and hygiene that in the West shamefully weren't met till the 19th century.

    I is for Ibn Khaldun of Tunis (1332-1406)
    He invented the scientific study of history (and, indirectly it could be argued, sociology) centuries before the French Enlightenment, Hegel, Weber and Braudel. His "Muqaddimah" ("The Prolegomena"), the introduction to a general survey of Islamic history with a specific focus on North Africa, was begun in 1377 and updated several times to account for sociopolitical changes. In it, he attempts to order the raw material and outward phenomena of history under basic principles.
    "Wise and ignorant are at one in appreciating history, since in its external aspect it is no more than narratives telling us how circumstances revolutionize the affairs of men, but in its internal aspect it involves an accurate perception of the causes and origins of phenomena. For this reason it is based on and deeply rooted in philosophy, worthy to be reckoned among its branches.
    "Human society in its various manifestations shows certain inherent features by which all narratives must be controlled ... The historian who relies solely upon tradition and who has no thorough understanding of the principles governing the normal course of events, the fundamental rules of the art of government, the nature of civilization and the characteristics of human society is seldom secure against straying from the highway of truth ... All traditional narratives must invariably be referred back to general principles and controlled by reference to fundamental rules."
    Of Olympian detachment, Ibn Khaldun was less prone than most historians, then and now, to fiddle the books and force facts to fit preconceived theories. He saw that the course of history is governed by the balance of two forces, which for him were the nomadic and the settled life. He identified history with civilization and, having established this theory, expounded in minute detail upon civilization in all its religious, administrative, economic, artistic and scientific layers.
    Ibn Khaldun briefly made headlines in the early 1980s, when President Reagan quoted him in a speech. His name mystified the White House press corps, driving them to their encyclopedias to bone up on this Ibn guy; within hours they were speaking knowledgeably of him. As an undergraduate at the time, I was taking a yearlong seminar entitled "Oriental Humanities." One of our assigned texts in the Arabian section was "Muqqadimah." Professor Meskill, an old China hand, informed us of the Great Communicator's "erudition." We all had a good laugh.

    J is for jihad
    This word, which has been misinterpreted as "religious war" but really means "an effort" or "striving," is one of many Arabic words that have entered the English language. Besides mullah and ayatollah, which have also acquired pejorative connotations, a partial list of Arabic words or derivatives thereof includes: alcohol, orange, coffee, sofa, caravan, tariff (from Tarifa -- the village through which the Moors invaded Spain, near Gibraltar), citrus, lemon, alembic, algebra, chess, sugar, cataract, magazine, seraphim, arsenal (also the name of a London soccer club, Osama bin Laden's favorite, appropriately enough), apricot, sandal, Satan (from "Shaitan," the Evil One), rice (from "al-ruzz"), sheriff (from "shereef" or "sharif," a noble or Muslim dignitary), sherbet and sorbet, talisman, artichoke, rack (from "arrack," perspiration, also the name of the fiery spirit, raqi; wrack your brains on that one), almanac, alcove, albatross (from "al-kadas," which the Portuguese corrupted into "alcatraz"; now what would the author of "Kubla Khan" make of that?), castle (from "alcazar"), albacore, Abyssinia, ginger, ghoul, zircon (from which we derive "jargon," one being a mixture of stones, the other of tongues), banana (from "banan," finger or toes), nadir, zenith, cipher, zero and monsoon (from "mausim," or season).

    K is for kebab
    Next time you're munching on a Nathans, or, in my case, disputing the nutritional value of chorizo with the missus, you have the Moor to thank. Cured meats and sausages and the humble kebab, usually lamb or beef (never pork), were among the culinary delights that came to Europe via Islamic Spain. Likewise the hotter spices and spicier condiments. The Moors were also the first to crystallize sugar (which they also brought to Europe).

    L is for latte
    As you sip one of those wimpy, think about this: Arabica. Yes, the humble coffee bean. First cultivated and brewed as rocket fuel by Yemeni tribesman way back when -- though it's disputed whether the beans were transplanted from Abyssinia (Ethiopia) to the Arabian Peninsula or whether it was the other way around. As an afterthought, we might not now have this plague of Starbucks and chi-chi cafes were it not for the Ottoman Turks, the Viennese getting the clever idea of the coffeehouse from them in the late 17th century.

    M is for mosque
    Funny, thinking about what Oriana Fallaci said earlier, the architectural flourish commonly attributed to the Moors, the curved arch, was actually copied from the Visigoths in Spain. Byzantine art and architecture, above all the Hagia Sophia in what was then Constantinople, had a profound influence on Islamic builders and artisans. However, it's the humble church steeple (via the mighty cathedral tower) that has an Islamic antecedent, the minaret.

    N is for navigation
    Without Arabian improvements upon the compass, the astrolabe, nautical maps and seaworthy lanterns, Magellan, Cabot, Vasco da Gama, Columbus, et al., might have had trouble pulling anchor and leaving port. The Arabs also pioneered the usage of hydraulic presses and water clocks, which tracked the passage of time and phases of the moon.

    O is for optics
    The concept of camera obscura, which is indispensable to the later development of photography, was first suggested in "The Treatise on Optics," by Hassan Ali Aitan (963-1009).

    P is for paradise
    Consider the varieties of roses -- the damask and the gallica, to name the two most common -- brought to Europe through Spain and Southern Italy by the Moor. Perhaps a rose is a rose is a rose, but what signifies here is where they're planted, and to Islamic sages and poets, gardens were symbolic of the paradise to come, a "blue green" paradise, blue for water, naturally, and green for greenery. The word "paradise" is of Persian origin ("paradaeza"); it literally means garden. Paradise as a garden or pleasure ground with swaying houris (heavenly handmaidens), the one that's promised to good male Muslims, figures heavily in the Quran, in contrast to Genesis where the Garden of Eden is a paradise lost.

    R is for religious tolerance and racial equality.
    Yes, hard as that might be for some to believe, Islam was the first major religion, certainly the first monotheistic one, to practice religious tolerance.As rulers they were lenient, even generous (unlike the Germanic tribes that ravaged the late Roman Empire). Besides, Jews and Christians were "People of the Book" -- Islam borrowed much from its elders; Abraham, Moses and Christ are recognized prophets in the Koran -- and as long as they paid their tithe to the Caliph and kept out of trouble, they were free to do as they wished (the Zoroastrians in Persia were treated in similar fashion). "Holy Toledo," the meeting point of the three great religions, became a model of religious tolerance and harmony -- an idyll that ended when the Christian kings of the north recaptured it in 1085. (Until the rise of Holland in the 17th century, if you were Jewish it was generally better for your overall health and well-being to live in Muslim lands such as North Africa, the Levant or Turkey than almost anywhere in Christendom, particularly those places where Catholicism prevailed. French missionaries are to blame for introducing the virus of anti-Semitism to the Middle East in the 19th century.) Of the three great thinkers who flourished under Islamic rule, two were non-Muslim, the Christian Averroes and his fellow Cordoban, Maimonides (1135-1204), author of "The Guide for the Perplexed," who was Jewish. Like Avicenna, they attempted to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy with religious belief.
    Regarding race, Islam is colorblind, which came as a surprise to Malcolm X on his pilgrimage to Mecca, where he found himself worshipping alongside blond-haired, blue-eyed white devils. Unlike Christianity, which justified racial slavery (blacks were inferior, less than human and so forth) by citing Ham in the Old Testament, Islam emphasized the equality of man before the eyes of God, whether black or white, rich or poor.

    T is for turban
    Let's face it, the turban, the burnoose. Imagine Edith Sitwell, Audrey Hepburn or David Hume without theirs; you can't, can you? With a little bit of water moistened about the inside you have a portable air conditioner. The turban was an early instance of form following function, though I have a feeling Sitwell, Hepburn and Hume were unaware of all this. Speaking of turbans, you need the right setting for one, too, something out of an odalisque by Ingres or Matisse: muslin, damask, chintz to cover sofas and pillows -- Moorish appurtenances on which to seat your little keester and to rest your weary head -- while being fanned by eunuchs, of course.

    U is for university
    The concept of the university originated with the madrassas, which were centers devoted to religious instruction, as they are in considerably less cosmopolitan forms in Muslim nations today. The first madrassas in Spain, in Malaga, Zaragoza and Cordoba, which later evolved into universities, started in the 11th century. The foundation of Damascus University dates back to the 8th century.

    V is for venetian glass
    Venetian glass blowers, famed for their miraculously intricate and delicate creations, learned their secrets from the Arabs (and went on to monopolize the glass trade for centuries). Islamic artisans and craftsmen, renowned for their ceramics, armory and masonry, made a deep impression on their Spanish, French and Italian counterparts. One could easily compose an alphabet of objects, decorative and otherwise, from Aubusson tapestries to the engravings on Zildjian cymbals, that bear traces of Arabic and Islamic design and calligraphy.

    W is for watermelon [COLOR=green]
    This is just one of the many crops the Arabs introduced to the West. Others include artichokes, rice, cotton, asparagus, oranges (from "naranj"), lemons, limes, figs, dates, spinach and eggplants. Arab methods of irrigation, which made the desert bloom, are still utilized today in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula, as are the wells and aqueducts they built.

    X is for Xenophon
    Have you heard of him? Friend of Socrates and Plato, guest at the Symposium, author of a treatise on horses (the Hippike), Xenophon, in truth, was a bit of bore. Nevertheless, we're better off for knowing him because of the company he kept. Aristotle was a special favorite of Islamic scholars, particularly for his "Ethics." Much of what remains of the Greek classics was salvaged, translated -- into classical Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, Persian and vernacular languages such as Castillian -- and interpreted under the watch of the Arabs, with non-Muslims, anonymous scribes and great thinkers alike playing their parts (Averroes and Maimonides come to mind). Contrary to popular belief, it was Christian fanatics who sacked the Great Library of Alexandria (they followed up with a pogrom), decades before Muhammad was born.

    Z is for zero
    From "zefira," or cipher. Nought, nothing, nil. What a concept. All theirs. Less than zero? Well, you're getting into negative numbers there ...
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  • #2
    I told here how old school books said "N for negroes", but AbuMubarak somehow edited my post. Sorrry, the whole story next time.
    Last edited by Insider; 16-11-02, 11:07 AM.
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    • #3

      very interesting..
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      • #4
        Originally posted by Umar_al_manyak

        very interesting..
        The editing thing or what? By the way, what does your name mean? I don't speak Arabic.
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        • #5
          Argh, don't ask! :D

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          • #6
            Originally posted by Ammarah
            Argh, don't ask! :D

            After your reply I now want to know even more! I already started learning Arabic here:

            That last word reminds me of manioc, but probably they have no connection.
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            • #7
              Originally posted by Insider
              After your reply I now want to know even more! I already started learning Arabic here:

              That last word reminds me of manioc, but probably they have no connection.
              It's been the talk of the day. Now swept away and forgotten, inshallah.
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              • #8
                Originally posted by jamila
                It's been the talk of the day. Now swept away and forgotten, inshallah.
                How annoying from the point of view of those of us who don't speak Arabic and hadn't followed all the discussion about that name!

                I understand quite a few languages, but Arabic is not yet one of them. Becoming a Muslim and having to learn some Arabic is just as hopeless as becoming a Jew and learning Hebrew. Isn't it?
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                • #9
                  Not exactly if you get Jannat at the end of it :D I read Quran in both arabic and English, but mostly English at the moment. Whilst there is much reward in reading the Arabic, it was sent as a guidance, so it is beneficial to read the Quran in a language you understand.

                  If I'm correct it is better you do not learn that word anyway. Will not improve your life in anyway :p
                  As sister Jamila said all forgotten, inshaa Allah aameen.

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                  • #10
                    Rukaya, as a translator, I'd like to hear more about the mistakes made in the English version of the Quran. You said: "it is beneficial to read the Quran in a language you understand."

                    By the way, that "Amen" you mentioned is, as you certainly know, an expression used in Christianity. Was it borrowed by Islam?
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                    • #11
                      Not AY MEN


                      ARE MEAN

                      I believe they come from the same root. After all, it is what God instructs us to say at the end of another's prayer if you want to be counted as one of those who prayed it.

                      It means, "as the imam has said (the prayer), so say I."

                      PS. imam = leader (of the group).
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                      • #12
                        The Quran was sent in Arabic to mankind. The Quran in any other language is more of an interpretation than a translation.

                        All messengers were sent by God/Allah, with the same message.

                        The difference being there is one 'version' of the Quran, which is in the same language as it was revealed by the angel Gibreel(gabriel) to Muhammad (saw) some fourteen hundred years ago.

                        Even with the different versions of the bible, non of which are in their original form or language, the origin is from the One True God so similarities can be recognised.
                        The obvious beauty and unique quality of the Arabic Quran is it is still in existance and readable even today. Although the English version is a useful tool for a non Arab to understand God's/Allah's message, nothing can compare with the original.

                        Last edited by Ruqayyah; 17-11-02, 11:24 PM.
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                        • #13
                          Masha'Allah Sis!

                          Excellent thread!;)
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                          • #14
                            was o for ophange? didnt muslims/arabs create the idea of an ophange? and for compolsory ecucation
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