01/19/2016 09:21 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Adventures in Islam: Algebras of Intimacy

We continue our adventures in Islam...

"Islam and the West"

If you google the phrase "Islam and the West" you get over 115 million results in 0.56 seconds.

A vast majority of the articles come with titles such as
"Why the West Fears Islam", "Islam and the West: Clash of Civilizations?" and "Islam Vs the West: Why is there conflict?"

Some headlines go a step further than simply asking questions. They provide answers. Such as the NY Times headline of February 2015 which assuredly proclaims: "Islam and the West at War."

Apparently the epic battle between this monolithic "West" and equally monolithic "Islam" is so utterly indisputable that prominent politicians are warning us about its historic legacy. For instance, last Fall, in a public interview, Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor Orban defended his refusal to admit refugees, many of whom were Muslim, by saying that Islam "has never been part of Europe".

Similarly, early this month, in the aftermath of the horrific sexual assaults at the new year's celebration in Cologne, a former minister of the German Christian Democratic Union Party, Kristina Schröder, urged us on Twitter to "grapple with masculinity norms that legitimize violence in Muslim culture."

To this we can add the growing list of juridical and institutional measures taken by various European states to "de-Islamicize" (or dare we say "civilize"?) their Muslim population. The French State has led this project with banning the niqab or burqa, overwhelmingly approved by the French legislature in 2010. Belgium and The Netherlands followed suit with similar measures in 2011 and 2012.

While there is some difference in approach and degree between politicians, policy makers and media experts, one thing seems so clear that it is achieving the status of commonsense: that "Islam" and the "West" have been enemies for centuries. It is, apparently, a longstanding, historic "clash of civilizations".

The most erudite rendition of this narrative is of course by the veteran Near Eastern Studies scholar, Bernard Lewis. Lewis' career, as a scholar and policy adviser to the Bush administration, has been dedicated to studying this historic battle between the "rival systems" of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim "blocks." In his own words:

The struggle between these rival systems has now lasted for some fourteen centuries. It began with the advent of Islam, in the seventh century, and has continued virtually to the present day. It has consisted of a long series of attacks and counterattacks, jihads and crusades, conquests and reconquests.

Lewis' worldview was further popularized in 1993 by conservative political scientist, Samuel P Huntington. In an article published in Foreign Affairs, Huntington prophesied:

It is my hypothesis that the fundamental source of conflict in this new world [post cold war] will not be primarily ideological or primarily economic. The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural...The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future.

And which "culture" did Huntington single out as the main antagonist to the "West"? Islam. Because, apparently conflict "along the fault line between Western and Islamic civilizations has been going on for 1,300 years."

These are the ruins of history on which are erected the simple fairy tales of eternal war.

A lonely, melancholy phrase in Amitav Ghosh's beautiful book, In an Antique Land, calls this kind of erasure of real history "the partitioning of the past." The remains, writes Ghosh, of "those small, indistinguishable, intertwined histories, Indian and Egyptian, Muslim and Jewish, Hindu and Muslim" have been "partitioned long ago."

In this column then, again, we will try to remind ourselves of an older world--a world where Indian scholars brought mathematical works to Baghdad only to have Muslim scholars synthesize such knowledge with Greek and Iranian sources; where Arab traders introduced the West Asian string instrument, the rebab, to South East Asia to have its gentle sonority integrated into the Javanese gamelan or ensemble music; where diasporic communities of Indian Ocean merchants-- Arabs, Jews, Christians, Syrians, Gujaratis, Persians-- traveled back and forth between each other's homes, homelands, and histories.


How did Islam 'spread'?

How did a relatively parochial Arab religion, Islam, spread from the Middle East westwards into Africa and Eastwards all the way to China to become, what historian Richard Eaton has called, "history's first truly global civilization"?

The easiest answer--one provided by European Orientalist historians of the nineteenth century and their present day disciples-- is that Islam travelled primarily by the sword.

According to this view military conquests and forced conversions of subject populations established Islam's sway, as 'fanatic' 'hordes' of jihadists 'poured across' Eurasia.

Given the impressive number of Islamic imperial dynasties all over Eurasia, from the seventh to at least the seventeenth century--the Umayyads, the Abbasids, the Mughals, the Ottomans, the Safavids: to name the chief ones--it would be impossible for the sword to have not played a role in introducing Islam in new conquered territories. No scholar has ever denied this particular role played by military conquest.

That, however, is not the whole story. And today, when stereotypes of Islamic 'hordes' are being re-manufactured, it is all the more important that we revisit the more complicated map of Islamic 'spread.'

Islam as a Bridge

The chief contribution of Arab conquests from the seventh century onwards was to connect the multiple civilizational complexes of the Ancient world and bring them into contact with each other. For the first time in human history, " all the major civilizations of the Old World--Greco-Roman, Irano-Semitic, Sanskritic, Malay-Javanese, and Chinese--were...brought into contact with one another by and within a single overarching civilization." (Eaton, 1993:12.)

What this contact did was something remarkable: it gathered from these varied civilizational sources bits of cultural practices, institutions, languages and knowledges and used them to paint an integrated collage that vibrated with the temporal flows of several worlds.

The Umayyads with their center in Damascus for example, borrowed administrative ideas and practices from their Roman and Persian predecessors such as the notion of absolute Kingship, a standing army, even a postal service.

Similarly, the Abbasids, just like the Sasanian rulers before them, started to mint coins with a portrait of the ruler on one side--a practice perhaps not entirely in keeping with a strictly aniconic (against icons and images) tradition such as Islam.

Ira Lapidas' careful scholarly work reveals the wondrous results achieved in "poetry and architecture, as well as in philosophy, science and mysticism" when Jewish and Muslim cultures blended with each other:

Arabicized Jews continued the tradition of Hebrew poetry based on Arabic models, including the muwashshah poetry that combined Hebrew verses with a Romance refrain. The congregational Synagogue in Toledo (today the Church of Santa Maria la Blanca), the Synagogue of Samuel Halevi in Toledo... the Synagogue of Isaac Mehab in Cordoba, and a Mudejar-style synagogue in Segovia [Mudejars were Spanish Muslims]... show the close integration of Almohad [Muslim Caliphate], Spanish Mudejar and Jewish impulses in design. (Lapidas 2014: 310)

During the period of the Caliphate in Spain, just as in the Umayyad and Abbasid empires, non-Muslims were considered dhimmi or "protected people" and allowed to practice their religion and maintain their juridical systems of both Visigothic Christian rites and Jewish law.

What language did these mixed people speak? How did they love, parent, or declare enmity with each other?

In Spain, for instance, again according to Lapidas:

Many Muslims came to speak Romance. Some Christians retained both their Romance language and Visigothic Christian culture. Other Christians converted to Islam but spoke only Romance and knew no Arabic. Still others took on Arabic language and cultural traits without becoming Muslims. Mozarab was the name applied to Christians acculturated to Arabic but not converted to Islam. These Christians may have included Visigothic nobles who were allied with the Muslim conquerors or others who served in the Umayyad....period as government officials and soldiers. People in all three categories married each other, creating new layers of hybrid family, religion and culture. (Lapidas, 300).

Similar stories of intermingling scripts, religious traditions and words can be told for other parts of the Islamic world.


These expansive oceans of multiple rivulets of stories, tales and afsans no longer exist.

But as they receded, they also left behind fugitive words that managed to escape the partitioning of the past. Such words carry within them the secret treasure map to these older realms of multiethnic exchange and can still act as our Ariadne's thread to lead us away from the monsters.

One such word is "algebra."

Algebras of Intimacy

Few of us remember today that the word "algebra" comes from the title of a book by the famous Muslim mathematician and astronomer, ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī. The full title of the book was Hisab al-Jabr wa'l-Muqabala.

"Al-Jabr" journeyed far and wide before it was transformed into "algebra" by the Europeans.


From the eighth century onwards, Indian scholars met with their Arab counterparts in the courts of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. The Indians brought with them their number system, including the zero, which then the Muslim scientists assimilated and integrated with Greek and Persian systems of knowledge. In the research center called the Bayt al- Hikmah or "House of Wisdom", Arab scholars translated into Arabic scientific and philosophical works from Greek, Syriac, Pahlavi (the scholarly language of pre-Islamic Persia) and Sanskrit.

The sword of conquest was often a catalyst for the dissemination of knowledge. For instance, when Toledo in Spain was reconquered by the Christian King, Alfonso of Castile, he inherited vast libraries containing the knowledge of his Muslim predecessors. Instead of ransacking them, like some modern military enterprises have done to several such treasures, a massive project of scholarly translation begun during his reign under the stewardship of Toledo's French archbishop, Francis Raymond.

Multilingual scholars -- Jewish, Muslim, Christian and Benedictine monks--translated Arabic scientific treatises into Latin and Castilian.

And this is where, in the libraries of Toledo and Granada, eleventh-century Europe first discovered Greek, Indian and Iranian knowledge that had been integrated and refined through Islamic contact. This is where the works of Muslim scholars such as Avicenna (Europeanized form for ibn Sina) and Averroes (Europeanized form for ibn Rushd) first 'explained' Aristotelian philosophy, the laws of motion, and medicine to Europe.

Imagine if like ISIS burning ancient manuscripts at the Mosul library, or the looting and pillaging of Iraqi museums and archaeological sites that took place following the US invasion of Iraq, these medieval centers of mixed learning and scholarship had been destroyed.

Would Europe have learnt algebra?