Wednesday, 25 February 2009

More on Science and Islam, Arabic loan words in English

One of Jim al-Khalil's arguments in Science and Islam is that Muslim scholars, astronomists and mathematicians gathered the data that Copernicus, Galileo and others used in working out their theories. As Isaac Newton claimed to be standing on their shoulders of giants, so it happened that those before him had stood on Muslim shoulders and those Muslims had been standing on Greek, Roman, Persian and other shoulders.

Looking at the influence of Arabic on other languages, the use of Arabic loan words in English shows the lasting effect of those ideas and concepts which may have either been non-existent or undefined in other languages before being expressed in Arabic. Algebra, alcohol, alchemy and algorithm are all important scientific words coming directly from Arabic.

In his biography Long Walk To Freedom Nelson Mandela uses the existence of

a recurring argument among the political prisoners on Robben Island, on the question of tigers in Africa. One group insisted that tigers were native to India and Asia, and quite exotic to Africa. The others were just as adamant about Africa as the tiger's natural habitat. In fact, they would argue, there were still many of them around; some went so far as to vouch that they had seen tigers in the African jungles with their own eyes. Mandela's view was particularly illuminating:

"I maintained that while there were no tigers to be found in contemporary Africa, there was a Xhosa word for tiger, a word different from the one for leopard, and that if the word existed in our language, the creature must once have existed in Africa. Otherwise, why would there be a name for it?" (source ANC website)

Conservative Christians often claim the Bible condemns homosexuality. It's a difficult claim to defend given that the concept of homosexuality wasn't created until sometime around 1869. Before then there were acts that were prohibited and persons who engaged in prohibited acts. The concept of a homosexual, even though there were undoubtably lots of homosexuals, hadn't been invented.

It is remarkable how different cultures mix, what persists through the ages and why. The following anecdote about how 'Allah' became 'Ole' puts an interesting spin on packed crowds in football stadiums chanting 'Ole! Ole! Ole!' as their team scores a goal.

Then she went on to describe how centuries ago in the deserts of North Africa, people used to get together for moonlight dances celebrating sacred entities that would go on for hours and hours. Every once in a while, very rarely, something would happen and one of the performers would be imbued with something transcendent.

"And I know you know what I'm talking about," she said. "Because I know you've all seen at some point in your life a performance like this."

It's as if time stopped, and the dancer stepped through a portal. He wasn't doing anything different than he'd done a thousand times before, but for some reason everything was aligned and he no longer appeared to just move. Instead, he seemed to be lifted from within and below.

"And when this happened, people knew it for what it was," she said. "They called it by its name. They'd put their hands together and would start to chant Allah, Allah. 'God, God.'"

As an aside, she noted that when the Moors invaded southern Spain they brought this custom with them, but the pronunciation changed over the centuries from chanting Allah, Allah, Allah to chanting Ole, Ole, Ole, which is now heard at bullfights and flamenco dances when a performer does something incredible. (Source: Wired)

The strange thing about culture is that all cultures owe a debt to those they have come after, and even to those they are a reaction to.

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