The Arabic Influence in Modern Europe
If you were in Spain between 711 and 1492, you may have been surprised to find the Spaniards speaking Arabic, or to see minarets on the skyline. The Arabic impact in today’s modern Europe is larger and more widespread than one would think. The Arabs possessed the majority of Spain for 700 years, and left a definitive mark. While the rest of Europe was in the throes of the Dark Ages, it was quite the opposite in Al-Andalus, the Arabic-ruled part of the Iberian Peninsula, and throughout the Islamic empire, which, in its heyday, stretched from the Atlantic to India. The Arabs were some of the best scholars, and made amazing discoveries and achievements in a range of topics. The Arabic influence on today’s Europe is visible in the sciences, the arts, architecture, medicine, mathematics and many more areas.
One influence that is relevant on a daily basis is the food brought by the Arabs. Saffron was brought by the Moors from the south, and is used all over the world for flavoring and its noticeable orange color. Saffron is used in particular with rice dishes, rice being another staple brought by the Arabs. Rice was soon made into paella, a rice dish made for more than one person, mixed with vegetables, and usually seafood or meat. It is commonly associated with the region of Valencia, in southeast Spain, although paella is actually an Andalusian dish originating in the south of Spain (Spanish Food-Marbella). In addition fruit was a very important contribution to the Spanish diet. The Arabs brought olives, lemons, oranges, figs and dates. Along with fruit, they also contributed almonds, which were used to make pastries, sweet cakes, and marzipan, which has now grown into the specialty of Toledo, a city one hour south of Madrid (Spanish Food-Marbella). Cinnamon, nutmeg, sesame, coriander and mint were all brought by the Moors. Mint was especially valued, as mint tea from Morocco, and other parts of North Africa, is a well-known delicacy (Spanish Food-Marbella).
Another effect of the Arabic presence that appears daily is in language. Words relating to science, math, architecture, and household items are the most common categories to have originated from Arabic, although there are plenty of others (Aula Hispanica). In fact, in the Spanish language, a large number of the words beginning with A or Z have Arabic roots. This is because in Arabic, the word for the, is al. In Spanish, the masculine word for the is el, which some think came from Arabic. For example, aceite is translated to oil, almohada for pillow, zanahoria for carrot, and algodón for cotton, which the Moors brought. Even the Spanish word for hello, Hola comes from Arabic (Spanish Language-Marbella).
Alcàzar, a word which appears on town maps and guidebooks frequently for castle or fortress, comes from Arabic recollecting Moorish fortresses which stretched across the Iberian peninsula (Spanish Language-Marbella). Also appearing on maps, are the words “La Frontera”. This comes from the time when the Christian reconquistas, the Christians reconquering Spain from the Moors, were pushing the Moors out of Spain, and these towns were ideally the line the Christians wouldn’t cross (Aula Hispanica). For instance, Arco de la Frontera is 75 miles from the coast of Tarifa. Olé!, an exclamation used in two completely Spanish traditions, associated with bull fighting and Flamenco dance, is believed to have originated from invoking Allah (Don Lorenzo). Though the Muslim faith prohibits the drinking of alcohol, our word comes from their al-kuhl (Aula Hispanica). After a closer look, we find that Arabic appears everywhere in all topics such as law, science, math, home life, and many more in our current day languages.
The arts were a big focus of the Moors, and their passion is evident in their work. The Muslim religious book, the Qur’an, forbids artists to portray people or animals, for fear that pictures of people or animals would lead to idolatry, which was not permitted in the strictly monotheistic Islam. (Muslim Canada). Because of this, artists channeled their creative energy into making beautiful calligraphy, tiles and tapestries (ADC).
Calligraphy was one of the areas of art in which the Arabs excelled. Because the Qur’an is written in Arabic, calligraphy used to make the Qur’an particularly beautiful a top priority. Calligraphy decorates mosques, religious buildings, and buildings left over from the Arabic time in Iberian Peninsula (ADC). One amazing enduring example of Muslim art is the Alhambra. It is named the Alhambra, “The Red” in Arabic, because of its red tinted soil. The Alhambra is a fortress in Granada, which was the last refuge of the moors as the Christians pushed them out. It is also the home to the room where Christopher Columbus asked Isabel and Ferdinand for funds for his history-changing trip to “India”. The inside is beautiful, with wooden carved ceilings, meticulously laid tiles and calligraphy engraved into stucco. If one could read Arabic, walking around the Alhambra would be like being inside a poetry book.
This is a picture of a tessellation from the Alhambra
The Courtyard of the Lions is a particularly amazing artwork within the Alhambra. The lion fountain is a fountain supported by 12 marble lions. This is an exception to the prohibition of portraying people or animals. The fountain used to function as a hydraulic clock. At every hour, water came out of the mouth of one lion. At the next hour, water would come out of two lion’s mouths, then three, four, and so on (Rick Steve’s Spain). When the Christians conquered Granada, they took apart the fountain, but couldn’t figure out how to put it back together.
Along with the arts, the Arabs were quite advanced in mathematics. The Alhambra is full of aesthetic designs based on math. For instance, the kiosk, an architectural form that appears often in the Alhambra (see picture below), its columns and windows are based on one ratio of the height and the diagonal. If one takes a rectangle, the diagonal of that rectangle can be used to make the height of another larger rectangle, while keeping the same base. Continually enlarging the original rectangle in this way, results in a progression of rectangles. The fourth rectangle in the series is double the height of the first rectangle. This sequence forms an appealing pattern. The beauty is subconsciously noticed, it looks pretty without one knowing why. The feeling is similar to the harmonic effects in music made by combining different notes (When the Moors ruled Europe 2/11).
|This is an example of the progression in use in the Alhambra.|
An interesting room in the Alhambra is the Secrets Room. One can stand in one corner of this room, and whisper into the corner. The sound travels over the curved ceiling and comes down to the wall directly across the room, so one’s friend can hear, but someone standing in the middle wouldn’t be able to hear (Rick Steve’s Spain). To have been able to engineer this in the Middle Ages is amazing.
One very famous mathematician was called Al-Khwarizmi. He is given credit for founding Algebra. This too had a religious importance, as they needed a precise and accurate method of land division to obey the Qur’an in the laws of inheritance (Al-Bab.com). Al-Jabr as it was called, when it was invented, became Latinized to the term Algebra. The idea behind algebra is that quantities may be moved to the other side of the equation, and in doing so, they are altered from positive to negative values. This is the concept of canceling out a quantity (Muslim Heritage.com). The numbering system we use today is Arabic. Some say zero was introduced by Mohammed bin Ahmad, although zero surfaces at different points in mathematic history, with the Mayans, with Fibonacci, and it surfaces in the West in 1200. Zero is not a number that has origins that can be easily traced, and is still in dispute.
The Arabs were also very skilled in architecture, and several Arabic designs are pre-eminent in European architectural language. For example, the idea of a courtyard is very Arabic. It first started with nomads. The nomads would set up their tents around an area, with a blocked off section in the middle. They would put their cattle in that area, which was safe and protected (Muslim Heritage.com). A courtyard house usually has three levels: the basement, ground floor living area, and first floor private areas. The basement keeps an even temperature all year, which makes it an attractive space when temperatures are at extremes. The windows facing outside and the ones facing inside are very different. The ones looking out into the street are small and plain so pedestrians can’t see in from outside. Conversely, the ones looking in are fancier, and let in more light, as they open onto the private courtyard (Muslim Heritage.com).
The cloister, a type of courtyard that was frequently used throughout Europe starting in the Romanesque period of the 12th century, is a form of the Arabic courtyard. Citrus trees are frequently present in different courtyards, some private, and some larger, for instance in a mosque or a palace for their fruit, nice flowers, and calming aroma. Courtyards also provide a safe place for children to play in a busy dangerous city (Hispanic Muslims.com).
Some of the most common exhibitions of Muslim architecture are mosques. The most distinguishable section of the mosque is the minaret. A minaret is the tower from which the call to prayer is broadcast five times a day. Yaqub Al-Mansur was an Almohad king that came up from Morocco and took control of Al-Andalus in 1184. Among the mosques that he commissioned, three stand out, one in Sevilla, one in Marrakesh, the capital of the Almohad Empire at the time, and one in Rabat, the current-day capital of Morocco (Archnet.org-Digital Library). Yaqub’s Koutoubia mosque in Marrakesh, built first, was the model for the other two and all three look very similar. There is a local legend about the four golden globes atop the Koutoubia mosque. Some say that in the design there were only three globes, but Al-Mansur’s wife ate three grapes during the month of fasting called Ramadan, and felt guilty. She melted away her gold jewelry and donated the fourth sphere (Morocco.com).
In Sevilla, almost the entire mosque has been demolished and replaced by a Cathedral. Only the minaret is still standing, although it has a belfry and a giant weather vane, and now bears the name, La Giralda”. It now serves as the steeple for the biggest gothic Cathedral in Europe (Hispanic Muslims.com). The last of the three sister mosques is the Hassan Mosque in Rabat. The Hassan Mosque was built to commemorate a major victory over the Christians. It would have been the second largest mosque in the entire Islamic world had it been finished, but it was not, as Yaqub Al-Mansur died four years into the construction. Also, an earthquake hit in 1755, reducing most of the unfinished work leaving only the columns standing (Archnet.org-Digital Library). Currently, the site is home to the mausoleum of Mohammed Vth, a beautiful spectacle. The Moroccan flag is all over the room. The tessellations are very intricate, and the body is buried in a marble coffin. Guards dressed in intricate outfits, with muskets topped with bayonets, are posted at the doorways.
Along with mosques, Arabic architects also built hospitals and irrigation canals, improving public health through engineering. The Arabs made getting clean water a practice for their citizens. Water storage facilities popped up all over Granada, so residents could obtain access to clean water brought down from the Sierra Mountains in acequias, irrigation ditches. When the Arabs came to Al-Andalus, they found primitive Roman irrigation remains, studied them, and then greatly enhanced them. After finding underground water, they cut channels into rock, and built dams to alter the flow of the water. The Moors also brought the waterwheel and the windmill to grind corn and other grains.
In Valencia, the administrative system governing water use survives to this day, set up one thousand years ago. It still meets every Thursday at noon to settle water disputes (Syriatoday.ca).
Cordoba was a flourishing metropolis in the Arabic empire which was at its heyday in the 10th and 11th centuries, rivaling Constantinople and Baghdad. Abd Rahman III, who was the king for a forty year period, installed 300 public baths, miles of paved streets, which were lit by oil lamps at night (Hispanic Muslims.com).
The Arabs were quite advanced in the science of medicine. In Islam, the human body is appreciated as a gift from Allah, God. This makes medicine a religiously significant subject. Therefore, much time was given to learning how to keep the body clean and safe from diseases. Every major city in the Islamic world had very good hospitals, some for particular ailments, even mental ones (Science Islam). While the Great Plague was striking all over Europe, two physicians, Ibn Khatib and Ibn Khatima, saw how it was spread. They showed a simple conception of the capillary system, something not even close to being discovered by the Europeans (ADC). A very famous doctor was named Ibn Sina, or in the west, Avicenna. He wrote several important published works that became textbooks in Europe until as late as the 16th century (Science Islam).
Another famous physician was named Al-Razi. He was knowledgeable about the science of contagion in his time of 932 AD. He diagnosed smallpox and measles first, and associated them with contamination and the spread of disease (ADC). In addition, Al-Razi wrote an exposition on the importance of hygiene in hospitals (Science Islam).
Along with science, the Arabs excelled in astronomy. The Arabic mark on the stars is clear by merely looking at the names of stars. Since the Arabs discovered many new stars, they gave them names such as Deneb, Rigel, Algol and Aldebaran (Science Islam). Another significant addition is the astrolabe. It had existed before, but the Arabs improved it. It has many different purposes, including finding the local time with the latitude and locating the sun, moon, stars, and other planets. They used it also to chart the times for prayer, the start and end of Ramadan and for orienting the Quibla, the section of the mosque that points in the direction of Mecca (ADC). Observatories were everywhere in the empire, and with the astrolabe, they measured the earth with amazingly accurate results (Muslim Canada.org). By using the astrolabe, the Arabs became very good navigators (ADC). They helped Columbus reach the Americas, and were also used on Magellan’s trip around the Cape of Good Hope (Science Islam).
After using the astrolabe to excel in navigation, the Moors started to make maps and become masters in geography. The Qur’an urges people to travel and see Allah’s patterns in the world. One Arabic geographer from 12th century Sicily was called Al-Idrisi. He was asked by Norman King Roger II to make an atlas that became the best geographical guide in its time. The atlas marks mountains, borders of provinces, and even the sources of the Nile River (ADC). There was a famous conversation between Abu-Hanifah, a geographer, and a Mu’tazilite, one who interprets the Qur’an more metaphorically than orthodox Muslims, in which the Mu’tazilite asked Abu Hanifah where the center of the earth was. The scientist replied, “Right where you are sitting!” This shows knowledge of the spherical nature of the Earth in 767. Muslim mariners also made the trip from Iraq all the way to China (Muslim Canada).
The Arabs also had prominent philosophers. In particular, Ibn Rushd, was considered the greatest Islamic philosopher of Al-Andalus. Ibn Rushd, known as Averroes in the west, read voraciously, and was an excellent student. He started his career as a judge known as a Qadi, and later became a close advisor and physician to the Almohad caliph, and later to his son. Averroes wrote an interpretation of Aristotle’s work, at the request of the Caliph. Ibn Rushd’s most known work is the Incoherence of Incoherence, which talked about Fate. He said, “Man is neither in full control of his destiny, nor is it fully predetermined for him”. The Europeans liked this work, but it was criticized by Muslims, because they believe in Qadar, loosely translated to Divine Destiny, which says Allah has control over all things (Andalucia-Andalusia).
Because of Qadar, Alchemy, the science of turning a lesser metal into gold, altering what Allah has made was somewhat frowned upon. The basis of Alchemy is that gold is the noblest metal, followed by silver. The theory was that one could transform a lesser metal into a noble metal (Muslim Heritage.com). Alchemy was essentially like the lottery or another get-rich-quick scheme, one could turn their own scrap metal into gold. The answer was well sought after, especially when the rest of Europe was in the Dark Ages. Ibn Khaldun, a scientist, was opposed to Alchemy, saying that divine wisdom wanted gold and silver to be rare. If they became common, it would devalue profits, wealth, and currency. Al-Razi, the physician, made the distinction between the occult aspects of alchemy, and the respectable science of chemistry (Muslim Heritage.com). No one was in fact successful in finding a formula for alchemy.
A scientist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan, who lived in 776, developed methods of evaporation, crystallization, purification and oxidation through the Arabic scientific method of experimentation, rather than the Greek method of speculation (Muslim Canada). Today, alchemy is not practiced very frequently.
In conclusion, the effects of the Arab occupation of Spain are everywhere. Some are well known, but for the most part the contributions continue to be unnoticed. They are in the language, with a surprising regularity. Without the Moors, Spanish food would be very different missing valuable contributions including rice, almonds, cinnamon, and citrus fruits. The architecture they have given us is amazing, including the idea of a cloister, which came from an Arabic courtyard. The Arabs’ mark on math and science is undeniable, and the advances they made in medicine are amazing, which laid the foundations for today’s knowledgebase. Seeing the Arabic influence in today’s Spain, it leads one to wonder what life would be like without them.
1: Hispanic Muslims.com
2: Marbella-Guide: Arabic Influence in Spanish Food
3: Muslim Heritage.com
4: Al-Bab.com : Arab-Islamic History
5: Aula Hispanica: Arab Influence in Spanish Language
6: Marbella-Guide.com: Arab Influence in Spanish Language
7: Don Lorenzo.com: The Influence of Arabic
8: Archnet.org: Digital Library
9: Morocco.com: Koutoubia Mosque
10: When the Moors Ruled Europe (Part 2/11)
11: Science Islam
12: American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) – Arab Contributions to Civilizations
13: Muslim Canada.org
14: Syria Today.ca
16: Rick Steve’s Spain 2010