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    A is for Arabs

    A is for Arabs, George Rafael
    8 January 2002, Salon.com [Not alphabetically arranged, excerpts only]

    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.

    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 ethanol alcohol, 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.

    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"), 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).

    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).

    [This message has been edited by Nadia_H (edited April 18, 2002).]

    #2
    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.

    Many thanks for posting the article Nadia, From the article we can deduce that Islam has always allowed social progression within society, it has always allowed people to become educated Male and female, it has always allowed sciences to be studied and people to develop new skills unheard of within the non-Islamic world. Islam gives each and everyone of us the chance to seek knowledge, to develop new skills, to choose our own destiny. Islam is a Peaceful way of life.


    [This message has been edited by Dil he Pakistani (edited April 19, 2002).]

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