Thursday, 18 April 2013

Historical Correctness (Arab or Persian)

Written to John McHugo and raised below questions about his article on BBC website titled as:

"Coffee and qahwa: How a drink for Arab mystics went global"

Link to Contact form :

As per below:

Hello Sir,

I came across your very well written article here about coffee:

Very good work indeed! However I mentioned a few points that in my knowledge had entered your article in error. Obviously I am not a historian but I guess it worth for these to be double checked and if you can clarify:

1) The Article mentions alcohol was first distilled in the Arab world in c800AD by Jabir Ibn Hayyan from Kufa in Iraq, and the word "alcohol" derives from the Arabic "al kuhul"...

To my understanding Alchohol was first distilled by al-Razi from the city of Ray. And shall this be the case al-Razi was incidentally a Persian.
You are correct with the name of Alcohol. As Arabic was Lingua franca of Islamic world, so al-Razi used it within that capacity.

2) Also there is no prove Al-Kharazmi and Jabir Ibn Hayyan were from Arabic background. Equally there is no prove they were from Persian background neither.  The reason we don’t know is it didn’t matter at their time so no one mentioned it! And it doesn’t really matter now.

But for correctness sake they were most likely to have been Persians. Because Hayyan was born in Tus in Khorasan (moved to Kufa in Iraq later on in his life) and Al-Kharazmi as name indicates was from Kharazm. So chances are bigger for them to have been Persians.

3) I am not sure who invented the 3 course meal concept. Not really that important but perhaps it worth checking if this was also done the same way in Sassanid or Byzantium courts prior to Muslim Empire emergence before we conclude this as an Arabic tradition.

I have a feeling this tradition could be adopted custom from Persian Sassanid or less likely the Byzantine court.

4) The word Cheque is said to be from Persian origin. From Middle Persian word ‘chek’ used for the same purpose. This word is said to have become popular during Aachamenid Empire (like 1000 years before Islam) and was borrowed by several languages including Arabic and European languages equally.

It had become “Cheque” in European Languages and “saqq” in Arabic.

Thanks for your attention and clarification.


John McHugo's Reply:

Thank you for your interesting and informative email and for the nice things you say about my article on coffee.

You may be interested that in my book I refer to the sciences of the Middle East in the period from approx 750AD onwards as "Arabic", rather than "Arab". This is to acknowledge that many people wrote scientific treatises in Arabic but were not necessarily "Arabs" in an ethnic sense. As you know, it is sometimes hard to tell whether someone at that time was using Arabic as his native language. The great Razi to whom you refer wrote his treatises in Arabic, I believe. 

With regard to the word "cheque", I think you will find that the word came into European languages from the Arabic "saqq". The forms of "s" (the Arabic letter known as sad and "q" (the Arabic letter qaf) are sounds that do not occur in Indo-European languages, which suggests to me that it is probably a native Arabic word. It also fits naturally into the three radical letter pattern of Arabic philology.

Kind regards

John McHugo 

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Encounter

By: Sandbad

On last grade of high school back in Iran, when I was still considering myself a “Progressive Muslim” I was discussing with some of my devout Shia Muslim friends (some of them active members of Basij) about a controversial Shia Islam ceremony where Shia Muslims celebrate Omar’s (second caliph) death. 

I argued with them maybe caliph Omar ( wasn’t as bad as we Shia people like to think because according to the book which I recently read about Mohammad's life (محمد پیامبری که از نو باید شناخت) once Omar who was a dominate and known figure in Mecca at the time converted to Islam this was such a significant event in social terms and such a breakthrough for the new religion of Islam that the pagan non-Muslims which were conspiring to get rid of Muhammad by killing him at the time had to phase out that option because they were afraid of Omar’s reaction.

So I was telling a bunch of Shia Muslims who were indoctrinated to hate Omar (due to his disputed role in killing Prophet’s daughter from Shia perspective) that Omar by converting to Islam saved Islam from annihilation on its early stages because otherwise the Muhammad enemies would have killed him before he had a chance to propagate his religion.

My friends reaction was one of doubt and uncertainty and so they referred me to our religious studies teacher for him as a Shia Muslim clergyman to answer my doubts and questions.  And so we went to visit him outside school hours in a ceremony organized by some of my classmates in a friend’s house in commemoration of some Shia Imam’s Martyrdom (هیات)

We attended from beginning and finally after all chest beating and mourning and crying was over in front of everyone (mostly other kids from our school) I got the chance to ask our clergyman teacher what I thought about Omar and why I thought the way I did. So I argued that if Omar hadn't converted to Islam at that very early stage of Islam the prophet’s enemies probably would have killed him and no Islam would ever come to exist that we now argue about the Sunni or Shia of it.

In response by totally ignoring the historical context I was giving him he carried on with emphasizing on why Ali ( was a more important figure in history of Islam by mentioning some of the great things he had achieved in service of Islam.

I already knew what he was saying about Ali and obviously the importance of Ali wasn't a reason to convince me why Omar wasn't important “enough” to be appreciated or at least not hated by Shiites. So I acknowledged what he said about the significance of Ali but I also asked that maybe Omar doesn't deserve the hatred we are meant to give him as Shia Muslims because of his role in saving Prophet Mohammed’s life in early days of Islam.

I could read from the clergyman’s face that he already had enough. He tried to stay calm and he attempted again to convince me by emphasizing on Ali’s importance (totally ignoring my question was concerning Omar’s role)

This time he made a totally irrelevant example about when Mohammed paid to compensate Abu Bakr ( when he helped him to flee Mecca ( ) while he didn't pay Ali at all even though during the same escape Ali also helped him (by sleeping in his bed made the besiegers think Mohammad was still at home and bought time for him to escape) he argued this was because Ali was meant to be a part of Islam so therefore Prophet didn't have to pay him while Abu Bakr wasn't meant to be a part of Islam so the Prophet had to pay him off for his help!!!

To this I first acknowledged that Ali was meant to be successor of Prophet and part of Islam as he was saying but in addition argued that Ali was Mohammad’s cousin and still very young and Mohammad was also like a father to him but Abu Bakr was a mature man who had family and a few wives to feed. Maybe that was why Abu Bakr was paid and Ali wasn’t?

This was the last straw. He looked back at me completely frustrated and angry and shouted that:

“Omar has taken the ‘Light’ from us. Don’t you understand?” 

From the ‘Light’ I knew he means prophet’s daughter Fatima which Shia believe was unjustly killed by caliph Omar.  He then continued by urging the attendants to say ‘Salavat’ multiple times ( while I was so daunted by the possible consequences of the mess I stupidly put myself in that I blended in with the ‘Salavat’ frenzy and shouted ‘Salavats’ as loud as everyone else.  And I made sure my angry clergyman teacher saw me while I was responding to his call for ‘Salavat’

When ‘Salavat’ session was over, deep down I was still not convinced with insignificance of Caliph Omar in Islamic history and that I needed to hate him as a historical figure from a Shia perspective.  But fearing the clergyman’s worst reaction if I continued questioning I pretended that I was convinced with his “has taken the light” argument and walked out as soon as I could without offending anyone.

This encounter didn't make me to leave Islam. It didn't even make me to stop calling myself a Shia Muslim. At the time I didn't even know enough about fallacies to understand the teacher was avoiding my question about Caliph Omar by emphasizing Ali’s role all the time. But I could feel there was something wrong.

That night when I was walking back home I explained it to myself that the clergyman was a backwardly Muslim and I was a progressive one so that was why he couldn't understand all the progressive things I had to say! And in my thoughts I blamed him and people like him for putting others off from "Progressive Islam"

The progression which in my opinion now will inevitably ends in Atheism ...