The Arab Roots of Western Civilization: Arabic Coffee and other pleasures

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The Arab Roots of Western Civilization: Arabic Coffee and other pleasures

Aref Assaf, PhD

In a time where the advocates of the “clash of civilization” have insanely sought to relegate the intimately linked interdependence, and interactions between the West and the Arab and Muslim worlds, it is refreshing to learn of efforts here in New Jersey to reassert the long and historically significant relationship between today’s scientific and artistic accomplishments and their Arab and Islamic roots.

In 2006, the New Jersey Liberty Science Center hosted an inspiring exhibition housing hundreds of inventions, tools and artifacts which masterfully tell the story of Islam through the prism of scientific advances, much of which is the basis of contemporary inventions, thought processes, and scientific ideas. Next month on October 16, 2010, the New Jersey Arab Heritage Commission formalizes the Arabs’ contributions by holding an all-day conference at Rutgers University. World renown experts will lead the presentations. After all, the commission’s stated objective is to “celebrate, promote and document the rich cultural heritage of Arab Americans”. The Arab citizens of the 7th-13th centuries brought together Muslims, Christians, and Jews. It unified Arabians, Africans, Berbers, Egyptians, and descendants of the Phoenicians, Canaanites, and many other peoples. Admittedly, this great “melting pot” was not without tensions. But it was precisely the tension of this mixing and meeting of peoples that produced a vibrant new culture, the remarkable advances of which are to be showcased.

It is widely stated in the story of Marco d’Aviano, a 17th-century monk from the Capuchin order, whose brown robes gave us the name for the cappuccinos now quaffed on every street corner. The coffee itself, though, is all down to an Arab herdsman called Khalid, who lived far earlier (in the ninth century). He noticed that his goats seemed to have a new lease on life after they had grazed on a particular wild coffee berry, which grew in his native Ethiopia. Khalid – possibly feeling a little tired after tending to his wandering goats – decided to try the berries for himself by boiling them. The resulting liquid was known as al-qahwa. As the drink traversed through the centuries on the coattails of trade and travel, the first European coffee house opened in Venice in 1645. (Read Aramco’s excellent coverage of Arab inventions here.)

The account of Khalid’s discovery is just one of a glittering treasury of untold tales from a golden age of discovery and innovation, which took place in the Islamic world between the 7th and 17th centuries. From fountain pens, the camera, surgical instruments and even the Rubik’s Cube, you will learn how the Muslims influenced their creation.

It is this hidden history that the planned conference aims to unveil. Aiming at restoring historical continuity between the West and the Arab and Muslims worlds is a timely endeavor. The conference aims to highlight the particular significance of the Arab and Muslim civilizations and their historical role in contributing to the birth of modern civilization.

Additionally, the conference will focus first on various instances of distorted history in scholarship, school curricula and media culture. It simply is no longer acceptable to suppress centuries of history from history books. It is rather the manifestation of ignorance and misconceptions the jump from Hellenistic times to Renaissance. Examples will be provided to show that this suppressed period, belonging to the classical period of the history of Islam, and which lasted for about a millennium, knew a creative contribution to civilization by men and women of different faiths and nationalities.

Those knowledge, science and art creators built on ancient knowledge and were the drive of one of the richest periods of history in terms of science, culture, technology and art. One area where the genius of the Muslim civilization has been recognized worldwide is that of art. The artists of the Islamic world adapted their creativity to evoke their inner beliefs in a series of abstract forms, producing some amazing works of art. Rejecting the depiction of living forms, these artists progressively established a new style substantially deviating from the Roman and Byzantine art of their time. In the mind of these artists, works of art are very much connected to ways of transmitting the message of Islam rather than the material form used in other cultures. A conference segment will briefly examine the meaning and character of art in Islamic culture and explores its main decorative forms-floral, geometrical, and calligraphic. The segment will, moreover, look at the influence of the art developed in the world of Islam on the art of other cultures, particularly that of Europe.

One of the most salient aspects of the medieval history of science is the relationship between sacred and profane knowledge. Under the influence of Augustine and other Church Fathers, the early Christian world saw no reason to explore what the Ancient Greeks had called “the nature of things.” Yet, things looked quite different to the Muslims. Arab scholars found divine support for science in the Quran, the revealed Word of God. A number of verses refer to the order inherent to God’s universe and to man’s capacity to exploit this order for his own needs, such as keeping time. Elsewhere, the Quran advocates the use of God’s creation for orientation amid the featureless deserts and navigation across the oceans. By one scholar’s count, the Arabic word for “knowledge” (‘ilm) and related terms comprise almost 1 percent of the Quran’s 78,000 words and are among its most frequently used terms, a feature that highlights just how important the concept was for the first Muslims.

While most Westerns are taught that science and technology withered during the “Dark Ages”, the conference aims, through a process of education and learning, to challenge this myth and celebrate the fact that Muslim civilization was flourishing and contributed to the advancement of our society today.

A remarkable example of such contribution was in the field of astronomy, propelled to a large extent by Muslims’ desire to ascertain the lunar calendar, the direction of Mecca for prayer and of course for their trade. From astronomical instruments to observatories, Muslim scholars brought a breathtaking amount to the science of the stars and laid the foundation for the renaissance astronomy of the west. Copernicus, for example, reportedly used the astronomical treatise of Muslim astronomer Al-Battani, whose body of work included star catalogs and planetary tables. Al-Battani also popularized trigonometry. He lived in the ninth century and, from that time onwards, Muslim stargazers undertook a wealth of work.

The tenth-century Persian astronomer Abd al-Rahman al-Sufi cast his eyes upwards to the awning of stars overhead and was the first to record a galaxy outside our own. Gazing at the Andromeda galaxy he called it a “little cloud” – an apt description of the slightly wispy appearance of our galactic neighbor.

The Muslim world, ahead of its time, also had knowledge of the Earth. Twelfth-century geographer Al-Idrisi, a European Muslim, produced an atlas comprising 70 maps. The atlas, known as the Book of Roger, showed the Earth as being round. The idea that the Earth was spherical was common among Muslim scholars.

The progress made in places like the great observatory in Samarkand, in modern-day Uzbekistan, laid the foundations for the science we take for granted today. And being challenged on how science and faith can co-exist and interact is one of the most stimulating things I’ve done – it makes you aware of misconceptions that exist across communities.

Many stars have Arabic names – from Aldebaran (one of the brightest stars in the night sky) to the stars of the Summer Triangle (Altair, Deneb, and Vega).

Stars aside, the lexicon of science is peppered with Arabic words, each with a story to tell about its Islamic heritage. The Arabic word for chemistry is al-kimia: the word became alchemy in the West but its original meaning was chemistry.

Jabir ibn Hayyan, who lived in Persia in the eighth century, is widely regarded as the founder of chemistry. Jabir worked tirelessly in his laboratory, reportedly saying: “The first essential in chemistry is that you should perform practical work and conduct experiments”. He invented many of the basic processes and equipment still used by chemists today such as distillation. For us in the 21st Century, this may seem a simple sentiment to today’s scientists but, more than 1,200 years ago, it was on the cutting edge. Jabir’s rigorous approach to experimentation led to the discovery of powerful acids, which are now key to the chemical industry.

There is so much that we take for granted that has come from the Arab and Muslim world. For example, we write with Roman letters but use Arabic numerals so the influence extends to something as basic as 1, 2, and 3- and let us not forget the invention of the Zero, known in Arabic as Sifr.

As you may enjoy reading this piece over your cup of coffee, then you may be surprised to learn you owe this civilized daily ritual to a herd of curious goats. Equally compelling is the recognition that one of the Arabs’ most valuable contributions was the preservation of Greek learning through the Middle Ages, and it is through their translations that much of what we know today about the Greeks became available.

Arab and Muslim civilization was not about rewriting history but was more about finding a long-missing piece of the life’s puzzles. It’s like uncovering some unread chapters of the world’s most interesting book. American Arabs and Muslims, much like all other ethnic groups, aspire to be recognized for their past as much for their present contributions to making America the envy of the world.

Aref Assaf, Ph.D., President of American Arab Forum.