East and West

Hi everyone, this is my first post as a contributor to Islamicate so I’d like to thank Hussein for so kindly inviting me to be a contributor.

I think that Islamicate is part of a wider and essential movement which is small but growing and which focuses on the common ground that we all share as opposed to the differences. We all have points of divergence, even within our own communities, even in our personal relationships, it’s the way it is and I have never seen much point in dwelling on these. It is far more useful and harmonious (and essential in today’s climate) to look for points of convergence – especially in matters of culture and religion. Especially today. I suspect it will become more pressing in the coming years.

So in the light of this, i thought it might be interesting to post a list of points of convergence between the West and East. This is not an exhaustive list (I have cross-posted it to my blog) but it might be a good starting point for a discussion or for anyone else who may have any other examples they can contribute.

1. This first one is perhaps not such a good thing but alcohol, generally regarded as ‘Western’, was first distilled by the Sufi and alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. 815). Jabir also was the first person to systematize chemistry and is regarded as the founder of Western alchemy. He gave his name to the english word ‘jibberish’ (ie Jabir-ish) as he was allegedly so difficult to understand.

2. As in the case of Jabir, many Arabic and Persian words have passed into English, some directly: Coffee is from Qahwa (the beverage was first utilised by Arab Sufis as an aid to concentration), traffic, cheque, tariff, magazine, tabby, filly, algebra, troubadour and admiral are also Arabic. The word ‘Orange’ is directly from the Persian na rang meaning ‘no sorrow’.

3. In literature too there are direct links. Shakepeare used many Sufi stories (see this Guardian article) as did Dante, drawing largely on Arabian folk-tales. Chaucer’s ‘Pear Tree’ story is to be found in Rumi’s Mathnawi and the fable ‘Dick Whittington’ is Persian in origin. Later writers such as Goethe draw heavily on the Persian Hafiz.

4. The British King Offa (757 – 796) may have been a Muslim. There is a coin minted during his reign in the British Museum which has the shahada – There is no God but Allah – inscribed on it alongside his name.

5. The discipline of Comparative Religious Studies was founded by Ibn Hazm of Cordoba (d. 1064) who also wrote the first history of world religions. In other academic fields, the first critical historical survey was written by Ibn Khaldun (his muqaddima still an acknowledged Classic text), al-Razi (d. 925) is credited with inventing the classification ‘animal, vegetable, mineral), logarithms were developed by the Arab mathematician al-Khwarizm from Hindu sources (the name algorithm is a corruption of his own), Rumi mentions a form of evolutionary theory hundreds of years before Darwin and ibn Nafis discovered the circulation of the blood centuries before Harvey who is generally credited with this discovery.

6. The concept of the University is Islamic on origin. The world’s oldest University is al-Azhar in Cairo which dates from 970. Even the ‘mortar boards’ of graduates are Islamic and derive from the flat hats of the scholars there who would rest the Qur’an on the ‘mortar’ to symbolize the primacy of Scripture over the intellect. The tassel at the back of the ‘mortar board’ was for bookmarking the pages of the Qur’an.

In the 13th Century at Oxford, the great Franciscan scholar Roger Bacon taught Arab Illuminist philosophy and wore Arab clothes whilst lecturing (incidentally there are many connections between Sufism and Franciscan thought – particularly marked are the parallels between St Francis and the Sufi teacher Najmuddin Kubra).

Hospitals too derive from a similar source – perhaps specifically the Bimaristans (sick-houses) of the Seljuq period in Damascus. they were imported to Europe by the Crusaders. Vaccination also was first introduced into the West at this time form Turkish lands.

7. In Music, the Waltz is modeled on the movements of the ‘Whirling Dervishes’ (Mevlevis) and Ravel’s ‘Bolero’ is a Sufi piece of music. Similarly the typically English ‘Morris Dancing’ is in fact Moorish dancing and derives from Islamic Spain.

8. Saint George, patron Saint of England is in fact synonymous with Khidr the patron Saint of the Sufis and is not English at all but Syrian. Similarly, the Christian Saint Charlambos is in reality the Sufi teacher Haji Bektash as Saint Therapion is really the Sufi poet Turabi.

There are many more such foundations – particularly in the realm of science: the concept of zero, translations of Greek thought, astronomy and mathematics are perhaps the best known. All in all there is so much more that unites the Islamic world and the West than divides that it is incredible that these common areas are not more widely known. In may ways the West actually IS the East (particularly in Europe) in all but a geographical sense.

Whenever I hear or read of the ‘Clash of Civilizations’ and the ‘backwardness’ of Islam (attitudes it is unfortunately currently possible to sometimes encounter) I always think of facts like these and it is perhaps a good thing to make them better known. Anybody have any thoughts?

5 thoughts on “East and West

  1. Unfortunately, there are those who need division and clashes in their lives, sometimes to feel better about themselves, other times so they can profit.
    I wonder what Middle America would do if they read your post. Probably deny it. It’s a shame, isn’t it? How do we fix it?

  2. I live in Middle America. Most of this is already know, in one form or another, and, believe it or not, is taught in school.
    It is “middle America’s” perception of “modern” Islam that has led to a perception of Islam’s backwardness. Cultural biases work both ways.
    I do have some questions for you though;
    1. Wasn’t it the orthodox Sunni Ottoman Sultans that crushed Sufism?
    2. How do modern Muslims balance science and religion? Christianity seems to have bent, perhaps been broken, trying to “cope” with scientific advances; my perception is that Islam is not as flexible, am I wrong?

  3. You write:

    The concept of the University is Islamic on origin.

    I think you are mistaken. The university goes back at least to the Greeks of the classical period. In fact, Plato founded the Academy in 385 BCE.
    I think what you meant to say is that the oldest continuous university is al-Ahzar. That, in itself, is a great achievement. But, higher learning in an academic setting long pre-dated the Muslims.

  4. No, I think he is very much on the right path. “Higher learning” is indeed very old, but the (modern) European university and its basic functions and structure find their origins in the Islamic colleges of law and theology (this is not to say modern universities have not move on a great deal, but there is still much which is a reflection of classical Islamic methods of learning, e.g. the doctorate). The late Middle East medievalist George Makdisi has done some remarkable work in this field.

  5. Good solid comments. After a few trips to the heart of the Islamic region (BTW – why was Bahrain conquered for failing to follow the prevailing beliefs in the 7th century?), I was dismayed to see a general decline in progress after the 9-10th centuries.
    I would welcome some more progressive views from Islamic leaders, or at least some honest recognition of their inabilities to affect the radicals.

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