Christians & Muslims: Did You Know?

Daffodils and turbans

Though most closely associated now with the Netherlands, tulips hail from modern-day Turkey. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Holy Roman Empire’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1500s, noticed the striking flowers while on a trip to Istanbul. The Turks called them lalé, but Busbecq’s interpreter mistakenly gave him the termdulban or tülbend (turban), which was further corrupted to tulip. The ambassador sent some bulbs back to a gardener friend in Vienna, where they generated a stir that eventually blossomed into “tulipomania.”

Sport of sheikhs

Long before blue grass and white fences came on the scene, horses ran for the roses in the Arabian desert. Horse breeding probably started in Central Asia, perhaps as early as 4500 b.c., but those sturdy beasts were built mainly for war and heavy labor, not speed. Arabian horses, by contrast, were useful in raids largely because of their blazing quickness. This also made them a lot more fun to play with. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when European princes wanted to rev up the local ponies, they purchased stallions in Islamic Turkey and Arabia. All Thoroughbreds today can trace pedigrees back to three stallions imported to Britain between 1690 and 1730: Godolphin Arabian, Byerly Turk, and Darley Arabian 2. No wonder the world’s richest race is run in Dubai.

Middle Eastern menu

One needn’t be a falafel fan to partake of quintessentially Middle Eastern food. The names for all of these delicacies come from Arabic: apricot, artichoke, banana, citrus, coffee, ginger, lemon, orange, sherbet, sorbet, and sugar. Other English words with Arabic roots include alcove, algebra, almanac, caravan, cipher, magazine, monsoon, nadir, sheriff, sofa, talisman, tariff, zenith, and zero.

Library circulation

Documents copied or stolen from Muslim libraries fueled the European Renaissance. Works of Aristotle and many other ancient greats had been lost in the West for centuries before traders and crusaders reintroduced them. However, Muslims cannot take full credit for the learning they cultivated. Muslims got many documents from Roman and Byzantine libraries that came under their control during Islam’s early expansion (see page 19), and Muslim leaders often employed Christian scholars as tutors (see page 39). In this way Islam both drove a wedge between Eastern and Western Christians, by occupying the territory between them, and bridged them, by facilitating an extremely belated intellectual exchange.

Pawn to Sultan four

Knights, bishops, and rooks may smack of medieval Europe, but chess may have originated in about the same time and place as Islam: seventh-century Arabia. And like early Islam, chess had Persian, Arabian, and even Indian influences. In that era, land-based trade routes through Asia formed the backbone of world commerce, putting people and artifacts from scattered regions in close contact. Muhammad learned much about the world from such exchanges, though not all of his information was reliable (see page 10).

Unpopular music

It’s probably been a long time since any Methodist church put “For the Mahometans,” a selection from John and Charles Wesley’s 1780 hymn collection, up on the song board. For one thing, the text refers to Muhammad as a Unitarian. Actually, many eighteenth-century Christians would have agreed, as one of few things they knew about Muhammad was his insistance that “There is no God but Allah” (see page 14). Of course, the hymn has a few other incendiary phrases as well, though many Christians then—and not a few now—would stand by them:

The smoke of the infernal cave, 
Which half the Christian world o'erspread, 
Disperse, Thou heavenly Light, and save 
The souls by that Impostor led, 
That Arab—chief, as Satan bold, 
Who quite destroyed Thy Asian fold. 

O might the blood of sprinkling cry 
For those who spurn the sprinkled blood! 
Assert Thy glorious Deity, 
Stretch out Thine arm, Thou Triune God 
The Unitarian fiend expel, 
And chase his doctrine back to hell.

Count on it

Westerners call our numbers “Arabic,” because the notation system came to Europe via Islamic Arab mathematicians sometime in the Middle Ages. The first written record of Arabic numbers in the West is a Spanish codex from 976. Adoption crept along among the educated elite until the fourteenth century, when Italian merchants finally ditched their Roman I’s and V’s. Other traders wisely followed suit. Interestingly, Arabs didn’t develop the “Arabic” number system. They picked it up around 750 from Hindus, who had invented it some 150 years earlier.

By Elesha Coffman

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #74 in 2002]

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