A recent survey has revealed the startling figure that 81% of Brits think they know ‘little or nothing’ about the Arab world.
According to the YouGov research commissioned by the Council for Arab-British Understanding and the Arab News newspaper, only 28% of Brits believe migration from the Arab world has been beneficial.
Furthermore, 64% of those surveyed believe Arabs have failed to integrate.
But while the most common things associated with Arabic people are gender segregation, wealth, Islam and extremism, it’s the fifth most popular characteristic that a vast proportion of us know seemingly very little about: its rich history.
So what has the Arabic world actually brought to the West?
It was an Arab man named Khalid who first discovered coffee more than 1,200 years ago. The Ethiopian goat farmer noticed his livestock became increasingly energetic after consuming one particular berry. He mentioned this to the local monastery who ground the berries up and mixed them with water. But it took a while for the rest of the world to latch on to the drink. The next country to experiment with the berries was Yemen, and then the Middle East, South India and Persia. Originally known as “al-qahwa”, it quickly became a worldwide favourite.
The first degree-granting university was in Fez, Morocco. It was founded by a princess named Fatima al-Firhi, who then worked with her sister Miriam to create the al-Qarawiyyin Mosque and University. Built around the year 859, the institution still exists today, 1200 years later. Students who wish to study at the university must first have memorised the Qu’ran in full, as well as some shorter Islamic texts. Most of the lessons are focused around religious and legal sciences although there are lessons in French and English languages. Muslims with a high level of Arabic are also allowed to drop in on lectures on a casual basis, under the traditional category of visitors “in search of [religious and legal] knowledge.
Not only did the Arab world first explain how the eye sees, they also then went on to figure out the technicalities of helping people to improve their faulty vision. In the year 1000, a Muslim physicist called Ibn Al-Haitham dismissed previous visual theory by proving that humans see objects by light reflecting off them and entering the eye. The word ‘optics’ is actually derived from Greek for ‘appearance’ or ‘to look’ which was based on the Greek and Roman method that followed, of filling glass spheres with water to make lenses.
It’s thought that hospitals originate from 9th century Egypt. The first hospital, with wards and teaching centres, was built in Cairo in 872. Known as the ‘Ahmad ibn Tulun Hospital’, it worked on the basis of giving free care to anyone who needed it. The hospitals started to open around the rest of Egypt, before spreading to other countries. Before the first hospital was built, most sickness was ‘cured’ by prayers or sacrifices to the Gods. As the popularity of the medical centres grew, important findings were recorded in Arabic – the medical lingua franca of the time. The important Muslim teaching of caring for all remains today and was originally based on the ‘Waqf document’ which read “The hospital shall keep all patients, men and women, until they are completely recovered. All costs are to be borne by the hospital whether the people come from afar or near.”
We don’t tend to use them much anymore, but before the rise of contactless cards and internet banking, cheques were an easy form of payment. The modern cheque was derived from the Arabic ‘Saqq’ – a written promise to transport goods when the time was right, to stop them having to be carried across dangerous lands in advance. The first example of this was thought to be conducted in the 9th century.
Along with providing medical help to all, the Arab world also thought up one of the most important medical discoveries of the world – the inoculation. Wrongly assumed to be down to Jenner and Pasteur, the inoculation was first used in Istanbul, Turkey, in the year 1724. It was used to protect small children from Smallpox by injecting Cowpox around 50 years before the Western world repeated the process. The first method of inoculation was conducted by rubbing or inserting powdered Cowpox pustules into superficial scratches made on the skin. The process was called Tishteree el Jidderi (“buying the smallpox”) when a mother with a healthy child would barter with the mother of a sick child for the cost of some of the pustules.
The camera was first invented by the same physicist who discovered how optics work – Ibn Al-Haitham. Once he’d figured out the background of visual theory, he started working on the first pin-hole camera. By observing how light entered a hole in the shutters, he successfully built the first camera. He also found that the smaller the hole, the clearer the image. He has been dubbed ‘the father of optics’ and is widely considered to be one of the first theoretical physicists.
For centuries, people in what is now continental Europe considered bathing to be pointless and bad for your health. Washing and keeping clean was an important Muslim ritual used in order to stay pure. It was the Arabs who first created the basis of soap – vegetable oil with sodium hydroxide and aromatic oils – and the first shampoo was also thought up by them, too. Their ritual was known as ‘Wuḍūʾ ‘ and consisted of cleaning the hands, mouth, nostrils, arms, head, and feet with water. It was, and still is to this day, done before praying, but also before formal prayers and handling the Qu’ran.
Spherical Earth concept
It’s an accepted fact nowadays that’s only contested by a handful of ‘flat-earthers’, but it was Muslim scholars who first concluded that the Earth was spherical, not flat. 500 years before Galileo make the same assumption, astronomer Ibn Hazm and his colleagues predicted the circumference of the Earth. Their logic was that: “the Sun is always vertical to a particular spot on Earth.” Years later, it was found that their initial calculations were only 200km away from the true measurement. Later, another Muslim named Abu Rayhan Biruni calculated the circumference very accurately, too, by looking at the distance between a plain and a mountain top.
Originally only a concept in Iraq, the idea of a three-course meal was taken to Spain in the 9th century. Comprising of ‘soup, followed by fish or meat, then fruit and nuts’, the tradition has survived hundreds of years and is still a staple around the world. It was around the same period that crystal glasses were also introduced to accompany the dinner – another custom that has spread worldwide.
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