Islam And The West - We Are Culturally Closer Than We Accept
by Dr. Paul Wylie
The roots of many Western scientific and cultural advances can be found
in the Islamic world. It is time that the West and the Middle East understand
that our similarities and links are greater than our differences.
After reading an article from the archives of Salon.com entitled "Why
Americans can't find Islam on the Map" by Salon senior writer Eric Boehlert,
I was particularly incensed not because Americans can't find Islam. It was
the date of the article September 21/01 that incensed me. Almost five years
has gone by and yet Western civilization remains unfamiliar with the Arab
In Boehlert's article, he cites Charles Kimball, chairman of the department
of religion at Wake Forest University, and an Islamic scholar. "Most people
have a detailed ignorance of the Middle East. They have all these images and
details in their head but little coherence or understanding."
I find that is as true to today as it was five years ago. Put simply, we
have been misguided. The media paints a grim picture based on propaganda and
hardcore documentation and leaves us confused, fearful of the unknown. The truth
is that we are culturally closer than we accept.
The shaping of our mathematics can be attributed to Al-Khwarizmi (c.780-c.850),
the chief librarian of the observatory, research center and library called the
House of Wisdom in Baghdad. His treatise, "Hisab al-jabr w'al-muqabala"
(Calculation by Restoration and Reduction), which covers linear and quadratic
equations, solved 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.
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.
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayym is certainly one the most famous works of Arabic
translation in the English language. In his seminal "Algebra", Khayym attempted
a fusion of algebraic and geometric methods, discussing the solution of cubic
equations by geometric means, anticipating analytical geometry. Khayym also
dabbled in astronomy, his lunar calculations leading him to reform the calendar
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.
Our modern-day idioms have roots steeped in the Arabic language. Dragoman,
a wonderfully resonant word, meaning an interpreter or guide in Eastern countries,
derives from the Arabic verb tarjama, to translate. It is one among thousands
of lexical items in English that derive from an Arabic translation. Others
include admiral, alfalfa, algebra, banana, carafe, giraffe, mohair, sofa, sugar
An agricultural crop such as the watermelon is 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
"The written record of the Qur'an was an amazingly important event in the
history of the Middle East, because it required an enormous amount of research
on language and genealogy, and the development of critical methods for assessing
the accuracy of reports. All that went into the formulation of Islamic law
and theology. With the revelation of the Qur'an in 622 A.D., and the founding
of Islam, Arabia underwent radical changes. Previously nomadic communities
were unified into courts run by caliphs, the civil and religious heads of
the Muslim state. Systems of trade and taxation were established, a confederated
army replaced the tribal one, and a centralized empire was formed. By the
late ninth century, Islam had become the principal faith of a dominion that
extended from the western Mediterranean into Central Asia. The written record
of the Qur'an, meaning "recitation" or "recitations," led to a shift from
the oral tradition to a written one, which had a dramatic impact on the culture
from literary composition to law to philology.
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. As long as they paid their tithe to the Caliph and kept
out of trouble, Jews were free to do as they wished. "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, one was non-Muslim, Maimonides of Cordoba (1135-1204),
author of "The Guide for the Perplexed," who was Jewish. Like Avicenna
and his fellow Cordoban, Averroes, Maimonides attempted to reconcile
Aristotelian philosophy with religious belief.
With such a rich historical path, how is that we have forgotten this
once grand empire. The answer may lie in the cyclical nature of history.
If this is so, we should take heed now. We are culturally closer than we accept!