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What the West borrowed from the Middle East
Political Issues
G.M. Wickens

In the broadest sense, the West’s borrowings from the Middle East form practically the whole basic fabric of civilization; and they date from the earliest times, long before history began to be recorded some 5000 years ago. Without such fundamental borrowings from the Middle East, the West should lack the following sorts of things among others: agriculture; the domestication of animals, for food, clothing and transportation, spinning and weaving; building; drainage and irrigation; road-making and the wheel; metal-working, and standard tools and weapons of all kinds; sailing-ships; astronomical observation and the calendar; writing and the keeping of records; laws and civic life; coinage; abstract thought and mathematics; most religious ideas and symbols. Whether all these things were actually invented from scratch in the Middle East (and it seems probable that most were, while the rest were intensively developed there), it was from the Middle East that they came to the West over the ages, particularly between 1000 BC and AD 500. There is virtually no evidence for any of these basic things and processes and ideas being actually invented in the West. Of course, without the initial help of the Middle East, the West might conceivably have gone through some (even many) stages of independent development, like Ancient China or the civilizations of Northern India. Or it might perhaps have remained totally independent and developed its own, somewhat lopsided, civilization, like those of the Central and South American Indians. Equally probably, it could easily have remained near where the South African Bushmen or the Australian aborigines were until recent years: very well adjusted to survival in their surroundings, courteous and dignified, interesting to anthropologists and psychologists – but hardly “civilized” in any meaningful, high-culture sense of the term.

The borrowings to be discussed in this article, however, are not these early basics, but the later, less familiar, less essential things taken at random from Middle Eastern culture between about AD 800 and 1800. The sort of thing in question might be suggested by a provocative sub-title originally envisaged for the article: Sherbet and Tulips, Tens and Tabby-Cats. For things or names like these (usually both), the West is indebted to the Middle East in all sorts of fascinating and mysterious ways, of which we shall be able to indicate only a few. But first some words of caution. Any attempt to trace borrowings of this kind is always difficult, requiring as it does a knowledge of many languages, and also a sound acquaintance with economic and cultural history over wide areas. One special reason for our difficulties is that these borrowings lie essentially in the domain of trade (imported foods, cloths, implements, weapons, ornaments, and luxuries of all kinds); and trade – especially in pre-modern times – has always been a secretive, economical and practical business. Merchants usually have seen no reason to waste time and money, or to help governments or competitors (or inquisitive historians), by writing long accounts of the source and special value of their imported wares. Occasionally, we are lucky enough to get a Marco Polo-type travel-journal; sometimes a merchant’s private files survive by accident; but most of the time we are obliged to make deductions from passing references in the records and literature of the times, or from the names that have come into the language along with the new things themselves. This last is by far our most common source of information, and a very perilous one it is to employ.

Here are some of the curious pitfalls of this method on which we are obliged to place so much reliance. First, there are an incredible number of purely chance resemblances. For example, the Celtic skean is practically identical with an Arabic word for knife; but whatever borrowings took place in the dawn of history, Celts and Arabs did not exchange sharp blades at any time, and neither needed the other to supply them with a name for so basic an instrument of human survival. Secondly, these words have to be traced from English, through French and Italian or Spanish, to Turkish or perhaps Urdu, and on to Arabic or Persian, according as the object in question traveled through one or more of these various areas of Middle Eastern and, later, Western culture. In this process of travel, all sorts of things may happen to the name and even to the object. “Magazine”, for example, particularly in the sense of a storehouse for goods or munitions, comes from the Arabic, but by no means directly. The Arabic plural makhāzin was adopted as a singular by the Italian traders of the late Middle Ages (e.g. Genoa or Venice), either direct from an Arabic-speaking country like Egypt or, more likely, from Turkey or Persia, where Arabic plurals were often used as singulars. Then, as an Italian word magazzino, it passed into Old French as magazin (modern magasin = shop) and thence to English. Nowadays, of course, it is most familiar to us in the sense of a “storehouse” of interesting articles and pictures, a miscellaneous weekly or monthly periodical. Finally, in this abbreviated catalogue of problems that arise in tracing borrowings of things by their names, we must be sure which way the borrowing is going. If you met the modern Persian word for a smart big-city store, maghazah, you might assume either that it was taken direct from the Arabic above, or that it itself had given rise to the modern French word magasin in the same sense. Neither would be true: maghazah was borrowed back from the French in modern times, when smart stores on Western lines began to appear in Iran. This is where cultural and economic history can sometimes be usefully employed as a check on linguistic data. Incidentally, even this proven back-borrowing may have been not direct but through Russian, for nineteenth century Russia sometimes served as a cultural staging-post between France and Iran.

In a study of this untidy process of intercultural loan, almost anywhere will serve for a beginning, so we may return to Sherbet and Tulips, Tens and Tabby-cats, and see some actual examples of these curious workings. In North America, of course, and in the world closely influenced by it, a sherbet is a sort of flavoured water-ice. (In Britain until recently it was a sort of cheap fizzy, sweet powder, once much loved by poorer children). The word, though neither of these precise things themselves, comes to us through Turkish and Persian from Arabic, where it simply means “drink”. (In Middle Eastern usage, it came to refer in particular to a sweet watery drink). From the same Arabic root also comes our word “syrup”, the original form being this time not sharbat but sharāb; again, there was once in English a word “shrub”, in much the same sense as “syrup”, so that it looks as though both “shrub” and “syrup” came into English from the same source, but by different linguistic routes. The Arabo-Persian word sharāb itself now commonly denotes “wine”. If you compare this with “sherbet” and “syrup” (alias “shrub”), you will see another problem in tracing borrowings: the fact that the original word and/or the borrowings often shift their meaning, their object of reference, with the passage of time. (Perhaps the most notorious example of such a shift is the word “alcohol”, which in the original borrowing from Arabic first denoted “antimony powder”). Anyway, here is a good example of our indebtedness to the Middle East in the area of food and drink. Other items of this kind are: Shishkebab, pilaf (or pilau), Turkish delight and halva. Three of these, it will be noted, are still sufficiently new and foreign to preserve an un-English look and a somewhat fluid spelling, as well as to be used still only in reference to a clearly exotic item. One day, they may become more anglicised and given wider or different application.

With “tulips” we are on very safe ground, for their introduction into Europe from Turkey, ultimately from Persia, is fantastically well attested in literature. Indeed, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Europe went through a literal tulip-mania, both for the flower itself and for its characteristic shape in clothing, art, ceramics, and so on. There were even financial scandals attending tulip-promotion schemes, particularly in Holland. Once again, the word itself passed through Italian and French: the original Persian word dulband meant essentially a “turban” or “turban-shape”, quite different words normally being used for the tulip itself.

The “invention” of Tens (the third item in our list) has been given treatment in one of my other writings: “The Middle East as World Centre for Science and Medicine”. Again, the system itself may have been initially invented in India (as Middle Easterners generally believed), but it was from the Middle East that the West derived it, as is suggested by our common term “Arabic numerals” and its predecessor “algorisms” (a corruption from the name of the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, d. about 844). The essence of the system is to use an individual sign for each digit from 1 to 9 and a special sign for a nil-number. After 9 the same signs are used again, but placed in a second or third column to the left of the original, when they gain a power that is ten-or one hundred-times as great, and so on. Exact tens or hundreds are kept properly spaced with zeros. Similar fractional reductions are made by placing to the right of the original unit column, with a special separator between the unit and the decimal fraction (in the West this takes the form of a dot or a comma). This essentially simple system was nearly as great a revolution as the art of writing. It enabled the performance of rapid and complex calculations of all kinds that were quite impossible with the old letter-for-number system; and unlike the latter it could be extended indefinitely into multiples of enormous size. Modern computers have found its limitations, but its simplicity assures it of a long life to come as the basis for our day-to-day calculations. Yet despite its enormous convenience and its potential for far-reaching research, the system advanced only very slowly in the medieval West; and the clumsy old Roman numerals have survived in many areas until to-day (clock-faces, monumental date-inscriptions, book-prefaces, sub-paragraph numberings, and so on). Naturally, this is one case where the importation did not bring new names, for people do not borrow familiar words like everyday names for numbers. However, the unfamiliarly large or small is another matter; just as the modern Middle East has borrowed “million” and so on from the West, so the medieval West borrowed “cipher” and “zero” (both from the Arabic sifr) to designate the new nil-number.

In the case of Tabby-Cats, there is no evidence that the animals themselves were borrowed (at least in historical times), but the reference to striped markings certainly was. Textiles were perhaps the commonest medieval Middle Eastern art-form with practical application, and most cities specialized in one or another variety. ‘Attabiyah was a quarter of medieval Baghdad famous for its striped silk, which was accordingly known as ‘attabi (and then tabi) material. The term came into English, with the material, through Spanish and French. An enormous number of cloth-names are of Middle Eastern origin: “fustian”, from Fustat (a name for Old Cairo); “taffeta” from the Persian taftah, meaning “twisted” or “woven with a twist”; “muslin”, from Mosul, in Iraq; “damask”, from Damascus; and so on. The names are sometimes easily recognized, but often the passage through several languages has disguised them from all but the expert linguist. Sometimes the same town gives us different forms for different products: apart from damask, for example, Damascus was famous for its magnificent swords and daggers, which underwent a special decorative process known as “damascening”. These blades, and copies of them, were accordingly universally known as “damascenes”. Another Damascus borrowing is “damson”.

Sometimes a case of borrowing that looks essentially simple will prove to have many unsuspected complications. Take the Islamic words diwan (it is uncertain whether it is Arabic or Persian in origin, but it is found in one form or another in all Islamic languages). Originally, it seems to have meant: (a) a flat bench of some kind: (b) a collection of documents (which might be anything from state-records to poems). At a fairly early stage of Islamic history, a third meaning became common: either because civil servants sat on a bench or because of their preoccupation with files of papers, the word diwan came to connote also something like a government department. The third meaning passed through Spanish to French as dovane, with particular reference by now to a “customs-office”. The second meaning did not apparently travel westwards, presumably because the West already had its own system for filing reports and poems! But the first meaning became very widespread indeed as “divan”, a sort of oriental couch without arms or back. Until modern times, practically all similar words in common use were Middle Eastern in origin: “Ottoman” speaks for itself, but few people might suspect the same of “sofa” or “mattress”. (Interestingly enough, many of these terms have disappeared from general use nowadays, especially in America, in favour of such “upper-class”, English-sounding names as “chesterfield” and “davenport”, which tell us less about origins than about the supposed taste of the buyer). As “ottoman” would suggest, most of these Middle Eastern furniture-borrowings took place through Turkey, during the initial large-scale commercial contacts, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. At that relatively late period, the words themselves travelled more quickly and the various languages were better known, so that distortion and disguise are much less of a problem in identification than in the case of the medieval loans.

So far we have said something about trade, food, clothes, furnishings, implements, and general luxuries. We have also touched, with arithmetic, on the great scientific borrowings; and, with diwan, we have referred briefly to borrowings in administrative organization, particularly on the civil side. A more extensive area of borrowing than this concerns things related to the military. Three examples must suffice here. The English word “admiral” comes from the French amial (the “d” was inserted at some stage under the impression that the name had something to do with the “admiration” due to this exalted rank). The French amial derives, probably through Spanish, from the Arabic amir al-‘commander of the …’, whatever the armed force in question might be. In other words, the Arabic term itself does not necessarily refer to a naval commander but to a high-ranking officer generally. Here was an innovation of enormous strategic importance, for supreme commanders, apart from kings, were not a normal feature of Western campaigning for many centuries, reliance being placed instead on the old anarchic system of Germanic-Frankish loyalty to the band-chieftain or boat-captain. Another borrowing of fundamental importance in the same way is the English word “arsenal”. The word comes, via Italian arsenale, from the Arabic expression dar as-sina’ah, “craft-house, workshop”. The non-expert might well be sceptical  here: were there no workshops in the West, and could the word “arsenal” really come from a word looking so different? The answers are fairly straightforward. In the first place, while Western craftsmen in the early Middle Ages were certainly capable of making weapons and building vessels, they lacked (and often suffered for lacking) really large-scale centralized organization of these activities until it was introduced from the Middle East. The linguistic jump is not so great as it seems: when terms are borrowed in this way, one of the commonest casualties is the initial, imperfectly heard consonant: hence the disappearing “d” (“orange” is another good example of this; this word having begun with an “n” in the original Middle Eastern forms). As to the inserted “l” in “arsenal”, this was probably an attempt to cope with the heavy Arabic guttural while still giving the word a satisfactory Italian sound to finish with. Finally, in this short military list, we may cite the important feature of medieval fortification, a “barbican”, ie a tower guarding a gate or a bridge. It is fairly certainly from an Arabo-Persian compound meaning “gatehouse” or “house on the rampart”. (Many Middle Eastern military terms – e.g. sepoy/spahi for the very word “soldier” itself – go back to Persian, for the conquered Iranian Empire was a great model of civil and military organization). While the name “barbican” survives for a station on the London Underground, close to the old London Wall, the object itself disappeared with the widespread use of modern artillery.

By now perhaps, despite the quick superficiality of this sketch, the classes of borrowings from Middle East to West have become fairly clear, though the actual process of borrowing was of course random and untidy and long drawn out. In general, quite apart from all the basic borrowings we mentioned at the outset, the secondary borrowings also cover, though not evenly, the whole spectrum of civilized life. So far, in this survey, there are large ranges of this spectrum that we have had to leave aside; and we shall find little room for them in the rest of this article, if we are to bring out other particularly interesting features. For example, several chapters apiece could easily be devoted to the enormous debt the West owes the Middle East in the matter of musical instruments and notation; or, again, in the particularly Middle Eastern crafts of carpet-weaving, ceramics and glass-making. People in the West still recognize and cherish a fine Persian or Turkish carpet. But the other crafts are no longer sought after and imported; and the influences that all these crafts have exerted in the West are so far back in time, and have become so much a part of our own practices by now that it has become difficult to single out striking features for comment in terms that will seem to have a modern relevance. Let us now, therefore, look at the borrowings again in general and from various other points of view.

There are some borrowings that advertise themselves loud and clear. A few examples at random: Arabian horses, gum Arabic, Turkish tobacco, Morocco leather, Iraqi dates. These are usually commodities which the borrower already enjoys in a general way, but of which he now acquires a finer or more specialized type. Incidentally, these names are often among the least reliable indicators. Turkish tobacco, for example, or Turkish towels or Turkish baths, are certainly all Middle Eastern importations to the West, but their connection with Turkey is largely incidental. (There were some comic renamings of many of these “Turkish” items during the First World War, when the Allies wished to disown all obligations to their current enemies.) If Turkey, however, has been over-credited for loans in which it was only a middleman, there is at least one example of a grave injustice going the other way. The popular food yoghurt is Turkish through and through in both name and fact (though other Middle Eastern countries make a similar preparation); but all the promotional literature in the West insists on its origin in Bulgaria or some other part of the Balkans. Perhaps the most misleading place-name in a supposed borrowing is that of “Jerusalem artichoke”: “Jerusalem” here is merely some non-Italian’s attempt to cope with the Italian word girasole, “sunflower”. The plant was in fact almost certainly unknown until it was discovered in North America, whence it has been widely exported.

Next let us consider those borrowings which are not accompanied by names at all, or where the names are incidental or fragmentary. We have seen the case of the decimal system, with “zero” or “cipher”. Another example is chess, where the one really vivid clue, in English, to its being brought from Persia (and perhaps ultimately India) lies in the expression “checkmate”, ie. Shah mat = “the king is at a loss”. A deep-rooted misconception about this phrase is found in almost all works of reference: the expression does not mean “the king is dead”, which would be equally poor Arabic or Persian and an unthinkable piece of treason in a game of royal associations. Some other Western languages, particularly German, have preserved more of the original Persian chess terms and kept them reasonably intact: shah mat = Schachmatt; rukh = Roche (cf. our “rook”); and so on. We shall return later to the problem presented by the discrepant preservation of Middle Eastern names in various Western languages. Meanwhile, let us point out that these borrowings without names, or with few names, may be highly important (as, for example, with windmills or paper-making) or fairly “trivial”, like chess. Either way, they have become so far absorbed into the cultural life of the borrower that any foreign names have been either rubbed away entirely, or translated, or stick out here and there like an odd thorn in clothing worn in rough country.

A third type of borrowing is the sort where the name neither is blatantly advertised or obvious, nor has it become lost or badly distorted or washed out in translation. We started out with some of this class: sherbet, magazine, tulip, tabby, and so on. Here the name is foreign and can be shown to be so, but it has been so effectively “Englished” that no speaker normally thinks of it as borrowed in any way. At the same time, the object it refers to has been either de-exoticized by repeated use over the centuries or converted into something nearer the generally familiar. These words cover all aspects of life. Apart from those we have just reminded ourselves of once more, we have taken particular note of the “military” words (like “admiral” and “arsenal”) and many terms relating to cloth and furnishings. A few others in this “familiarized” type of borrowing are: coffee (originally an Arabic poetic term for “wine”!); tariff (originally a “statement”); jar; lemon; rice; tare (in weighing; originally “something to be discounted;); lilac; apricot; cotton; satin; talc; sultana. In actual origin, not all such are strictly Islamic (for example, “apricot” comes through Arabic from Greek, and “satin” through Arabic from a Chinese port-name); but the transmission and development of all of these, and of hundreds more, was very definitely in the Middle Eastern Islamic period. Once again, it must be stressed that the Islamic world at its height was extremely cosmopolitan and energetic, a great importer and exporter, besides being a re-worker, of foreign wares and ideas of all kinds. Even after its great period was over, an enormous proportion of this “merchandise” still circulated within the Islamic world, ready for appropriation by the shrewd and acquisitive West.

Some borrowings carry an ironical overtone, which would have given serious scandal at the time if all the facts had been known. Medieval Europe, for example, greatly esteemed two monopoly products of the royal workshops in the Middle East – gold coins and brocaded silks, the latter often interwoven with threads of precious metal. Now such objects not only had very “Islamic” motifs, but they were inscribed with ornate Arabic lettering containing such things as quotations from the Qur’ān. (Needles to say, such writing could not usually be read in the West or even recognized as writing at all). The coins no doubt would have been valued for their high gold-content and workmanship, no matter what was written on them; and in any case, they were usually crudely overstamped with a Western marking. But the silks were a different matter, for they were often all unwittingly used – either in the original or carefully copied – for Church vestments and hangings. Some of these can still be seen in museums and ecclesiastical storerooms.

We referred earlier to the fact that although actual borrowings must have been spread pretty evenly throughout Western and Central Europe, the linguistic evidence for them varies in amount and intactness for country to country. We have, of course, been concerned here chiefly with English evidences, but the problem would look rather different if viewed from the standpoint of French or Italian or German. Two lands to be particularly careful about in this connection are Spain and Portugal; for while the Iberian peninsula, during its occupation, received a more marked impression than other places from Islamic culture, the languages alone would suggest that the effect went even deeper than it did. Practically every Spanish word beginning with al-and its variations is of Arabic origin, and there are many others besides. But it would clearly be absurd to suggest that Spain had to borrow from the Middle East the actual concepts themselves for “passage”, “bedroom”, “cupboard”, “builder”, “damage”, “mayor”, and so on. What happened here is much the same as in Britain during the Viking settlements: whatever the Vikings may have brought was novel in the way of things or life-style, their linguistic influence went far beyond such bounds. The residents Anglo-Saxons, for example, certainly had legs and a name to refer to them by, but by an intelligible linguistic displacement the word we now use, in this and many other common instances, is Norse. What Spain did receive from the Middle East and the Arab world in particular (apart from a legendary high-culture), and what she in turn transmitted to most of Europe, was all manner of agricultural and fruit-growing processes, together with a vast number of new plants, fruits and vegetables that we all now take for granted. The Arabs of Spain were in fact among the world’s most remarkable gardeners and cultivators.

One type of borrowings not so far touched upon is the temporary or artificial. The Imperialist period of modern Middle Eastern history produced many of these. The two centuries of British rule in India, for example, introduced into Britain (and ultimately other countries) many things from the subcontinent’s varied cultures, including above all the Islamic. Such things and terms as “gymkhanas” and “jodhpur’s have become part of the Western world’s way of life, at least among the better-off, and the increased popularity of curry has been fairly general. But an enormous number of others have disappeared in the 20-odd years since the Anglo-Indian era came to an end. Particularly quick to vanish were the several Urdu words and expressions that found their way into British army slang and thence to the population at large. Words like dekko (“look”), bolo (“shout”), jildi (“quick”) and rooti (“bread”) were widely used in Britain as late as 1945, but most mean nothing at all now to a younger generation. Even the many technical terms from Anglo-Indian life that were used by Kipling and other writers and taken for granted by Western historians of India (sepoy, subadar, durbar, rainy season, up-country, the hills, and so on) must now be explained in glossaries or avoided altogether.

Even less worthy of mention as genuine borrowings are the artificial Orientalisms for which wealthy or would-be prestigious classes have had passing crazes: the Prince regent’s fascinating but grotesque little Taj Mahal in Brighton, for example; or the innumerable “Islamic” coffee-tables and metal trays that adorn many Western homes aspiring to a degree of refinement. Nor can one include as borrowings, though they are of course understood or verifiable in English, such concepts and terms as harem, odalisque, Vizier, Mulla, hookah, and so on. These are merely exotica for which the West has developed a comfortable, and often misleading, “tolerance” of its own.

A true borrowing, in the sense we have used it in this article, fills an immediate need and continues to fill it for a long time: in doing so, it affects the borrower’s way of life and usually his language in some permanent form. In this sense, the borrowing must be desired, assimilable, not overwhelming or disruptive. What went in the opposite direction, from about 1800 on, did not fulfil these requirements in most cases.



(Courtesy: Introduction to Islamic Civilization, ed. By R.M. Savary, Cambridge, University Press, 1976).



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