For God, Country and Coffee

The contributions of Muslims to European civilisation cannot be wished away

Islamophobia is one of the most common forms of hatred in the world today. While the bigotry of odd and eccentric individuals can be dismissed as the ravings of provocateurs and cranks, it is worrying (especially, to those who consider it wrong to surmise the entire worth of a human individual purely based on birth circumstances) that academics, including tenured professors at American and Canadian universities, have written polemical ‘truthy’ works to dispute well-documented history and claim Muslims have no historic contribution, contemporary place, or future amongst Europeans.

This indicates the pernicious influence of a media and film caricature of a West permanently at war with a turbaned, robe wearing character, some sand and camels in the background, who is prone to irrational political violence. Hoarding massive quantities of fabric (for purposes as nefarious as carpets, curtains, and body covering secured by belts of dynamite, an old alarm clock, and wriggly wire), this character upon agitation or excitement climbs into white Toyota pickup trucks to wave and fire assault rifles in a haphazard, sporadic manner. Thus, the knowledgeable thesis goes, Muslims are a people singularly undeserving of legal rights.

But scratch under the surface, and almost anything associated with Western high culture — whether one speaks of wine, coffeehouses, painting, calligraphy, food, or even shampooing — one sees the influence, inventiveness and industry of Muslims and Islamic civilisation. In fact, the world of culture and civilisation that we inhabit was inherited from the great Muslim empires, who deserve as much credit for building the modern world as do the Greeks, Buddhist, Iberian Catholic, and British empires.

One great example of a Muslim cultural entrepreneur was a man named Sake Dean Mohamed. Mahomed is a legend in England because he not just opened the first curry house, chicken tikka masala going on to become one of the favourite foods on the British isles (which in turn inspired Japanese katsu curry; another piece of heaven), he also popularised an Indian form of head massage called ‘the champi’, which in English becomes shampooing. This isn’t just a random coincidence informed by the refined tastes of an epicurean gentleman. Cleanliness and ritual bathing, up to three times a day, is an important religious obligation of the devout Muslim. Formats of luxury hygiene, such as the Turkish bath, are rooted in this requirement of cleanliness that is inherent to Prophet’s teachings.

“Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love.”

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Creative Commons by Julius Schorzman

Trust a Frenchman like Charles Maurice de Talleyrand to put into words the heavenly attributes of a cup of coffee. Can we imagine America without Starbucks? The very name of the bean bears the imprimatur of its TV arch-enemy, supplier of oil, and buyer of arms: Arabica.

Coffee was first imbibed and celebrated culturally in Ethiopia and Yemen. As Nescafe, one of the world’s most popular instant coffee brands explains its origins:

Coffee houses started in Cairo, Mecca and Damascus, where men would gather to socialise and play games. Eventually, they were popping up in Europe and became popular with intellectuals who would discuss Enlightenment ideals and brew revolutions. Today, coffee shops have become a part of everyday life all over the world.

Coffee Houses have been critical to European intellectualism and trade for centuries. Without them there is no Western civilisation, or for that matter, maritime insurance (Lloyd’s of London started as a coffeehouse) without which trade, exploration, and settlements in foreign continents would be impossible. Where would silver Macbook Pro owners sit without coffee shops? How would the world of start-ups and film work? This whole wondrous culture is the invention of the Arabs, Turks, Persians and North Africans.

What is lesser known is that while tea drinking is thought to have been imported to Europe to copy Japanese nobility, the oldest texts describing tea and its properties known to Europeans is from texts translated from Arabic manuscripts. Tea is an intrinsic part of Turkish culture and hospitality. Muslims have long enjoyed both tea and coffee before any English or Frenchman.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper

One of the sillier assumptions in the strain of ‘research’ that has been made about Islamic Europe — alternate ‘what-could-have-happened’ history is always guesswork— is the idea that because painting isn’t allowed in Islam, there would no Renaissance.

I call this highly assumptive prediction silly because it shows staggering unawareness of basic facts that, when used to make such sweeping generalisations, can only make its author look like a fool. First, Muslims do have a rich history of figure painting, especially miniatures. More crucially, renaissance painting, as any good student of perspective drawing knows, is based on Arabic mathematics.

One way to understand the quantum leap forward in painting that Arabic mathematics inspired in Italy is to look a bit more closely at the work of painters like Ugolinio da Siena: an extremely accomplished and innovative painter of the 14th century. He studied under Duccio di Buoninsegna, one of the greatest of Sienese painters, and was thought to be one of Buoinsegna’s best students. Ugolino’s Last Supper is considered a master work of that century’s style. However, as the angles of various aspects of this painting — the ceiling, the long bench, the table, and the objects on the table — make it evident, that the tricks of perspective geometry were not known in Europe.

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Ugolino’s Last Supper (Tempera and gold on wood; 1321–30; Robert Lehman Collection, 1975; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

By the late 15th century, in under a century, however, as Leonardo Da Vinci’s Last Supper shows, painting masters had become virtuosos in computing perspective. The table is flat, all the lines disappear towards a vanishing point, including the tiles on the floor, and everything appears as it would in an actual photograph. In just about century, between the 14th century to the 15th, the art of painting which had remained static for centuries, had taken a massive leap forward.

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Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper shows a dramatic improvement in the knowledge of perspective.

While the Greeks had been aware of Euclidian geometry, the innovations had been lost to Europe. It was in Islamic civilisation, 7th century onwards, that the secrets of the Greeks had been translated, preserved, and improved upon. Even if the claim is accurate, that Islamic civilisation learned these secrets from the Roman Byzantine empire, it still remains true that Arab mathematicians innovated and expanded this knowledge in path-breaking directions.

Al-jabr, meaning “restoration”, refers to adding a number to both sides of the equation to consolidate or cancel terms — this is the root of the world “algebra”. The work of the Arab mathematician Hasan Ibn al-Haytham (especially, the treatise “Book of Optics” written 1011–1021 that had been translated to Latin) inspired many Italian architects and scientists trained in drawing. Foremost amongst these was a Florentine sculptor and engineer, Filippo Brunelleschi. Even the words for chemistry and geography are derived from the work of Arab intellectuals.

The massive investments the Church made in patronising art — everyone from Michelangelo to Leonardo da Vinci held body and soul together with commissions for the clergy — were far from idle decoration. The more hallucinogenic mythology could be made through visual illustration and sculpture, the more the fall in the dwindling number of the faithful could be stopped. It was this investment in art that resulted in the very foundations of Western Christianity to be shaken.

Brunelleschi’s mirror, Samuel Y. Edgerton suggests, along with Alberti’s window, and Galileo’s “perspective tube” were much more than “just an artistic event”. In Edgerton’s estimation, these innovations had the cumulative effect of “redirecting the purpose of perspective art away from revealing God’s divine order as reflected on earth, to a more secular physical reality viewed directly in relation to human order.”

It was the study of the properties of light that ended the belief in the geocentric Ptolemic universe with the Sun rotating around the Earth. Advances in optics, represented by the use of perspective in painting, was a key development of the Enlightenment and have resulted in the individual freedoms that supports culture of letters, of which include the separation of church and state, and the freedom of expression.

All of this was based on the work of Arabic mathematicians and astronomers.

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Calligraphy, poetry, wine and romantic love

But perhaps the weirdest slander committed against Muslims is to depict them as austere puritans who frown upon any kind of pleasure derived from art, whether one speaks of music, literature, dance or food.

The consumption of wine was only prohibited in Iran after 1979, the Iranian revolution being another great example of United States intervention resulting in more “freedom gas”. This memory that the world’s best wine once came from Iran is still on bottles: Shiraz. Geneticists have found that Shiraz (also known as ‘Syrah’) grapes actually originate in France. While this history is a subject of controversy, as historians and etymologists scratch their heads over this odd situation, the false geographic identification speaks to an older France, where it was wide public knowledge that the best wine in the world came from Shiraz in Persia.

Traditionally, particularly in Sufi Islam, a mystic is one who is adept at writing poetry in a beautiful calligraphic hand after a few glasses of wine (Iran continues to be a world capital of calligraphy). This genre of poetry, Omar Khayyam’s work is most well known of it, celebrates intoxication and pleasure in all its romantic forms, from lying in a lover’s lap in a garden to drinking like a right bastard:

XXXV
Then to the lip of this poor earthen Urn
I lean’d, the Secret of my Life to learn:
And Lip to Lip it murmur’d — ‘While you live
Drink! — for, once dead, you never shall return.’

What is ironic about this depiction of Muslims as pleasure-haters, is that the arts and letters once made a brisk living off of depicting the Orient as a land of sexual opportunity and unlimited sensualist pleasure. It is this image of sexual freedom, endless pleasure and adventure that books such as The One Thousand and One Nights sought to cash-in on. A well-established industry of caricature, particularly working out of Paris, provoked an academic named Edward Said to write a widely-regarded book, Orientalism, which protested the patronising assumptions that Europeans made about Eastern civilisations. Somehow, while the abuse hasn’t stopped, in contemporary culture it flows in an entirely different direction.

The reduction in status of people based on religion is offensive for multiple reasons. Not only is it bad academic method, the end result is to de-humanise another person, which is the worst thing that one group can do to another in politics. Motivated research affects the ability to think rationally and straight, which is the opposite of what universities and a culture of letters should be doing. It is simply impossible that nearly two billion human individuals will adhere religiously to a cultural stereotype invented by Hollywood.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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