World History
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12 Positive Ways Islam and The Middle East Contributed To Western Civilization

Updated October 14, 2018 13.4k views12 items

Despite years of uneasy alliances and eruptions of brutal violence stretching back to the Crusades, the West has had an often very fruitful relationship with the Middle East, and Arab world at large. Throughout history the Middle East has contributed to Western civilizations, as great Middle Eastern advancements and Arab innovation made their way through trade routes and cultural exchange into Europe. 

From food and language to the sciences, math, and even social conduct, progressive Middle Eastern ideas paved the way for much of what the Western world takes for granted on a daily basis. Great thinkers, brilliant engineers, dedicated scholars, and brave explorers have contributed greatly to global society. The architectural innovations that made Gothic cathedrals possible, beginning with the pointed arch, were influenced by Middle Eastern ideas.If you're wondering how advancements in math and architecture, medical technology, and even cuisine from predominantly Muslim countries influences what you do every day, read on. You might be surprised by what you find. 

  • The Western Number System Is Based on Arabic Numerals

    Photo: Augustus Hoernle / Public domain

    Roman numerals were standard throughout Europe for centuries, on account of the cultural and political influence the Roman Empire had on the West. An interesting side note, the Roman numeral system in use in modern times is an adaptation of proper Roman numerals developed during the Middle Ages.

    The widespread use of Roman numerals continued after the collapse of the Roman Empire. This changed with the expansion of Islam, starting in the 7th century. Through trade and territorial expansion, Islam spread the Arabic-Hindu numeral system, which originated in India, throughout the Middle East and Africa and, around the year 1200, into Europe, thanks to Italian mathematician Fibonacci.

    The Arabic-Hindu numeral system is rooted in numerals 1 through 10, and arrived in Europe thanks to a Latin translation of the work of Persian mathematician, astronomer, and geographer Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, who lived from about 780 to 850. This work also introduced decimal points and the concept of zero to Western mathematics and science. 

  • There Several Words In Modern English That Originated In Arabic

    Photo: Unknown / Public domain.

    Many, perhaps all, languages use loan words from other languages. English, for example, uses many words and phrases from, or with roots in, French (boulevard, hors d’oeuvre, poultry, beef, lamb) German (schadenfreude, swine, angst, rucksack), Gaelic (crag, glen, galore) and Arabic, among many other languages. 

    Some common examples of Arabic words used in English are:

    Ghoul - (from ghul. meaning an "evil spirit") 

    Coffee - (from qahwah, meaning the same) 

    Alcohol - (from al-kuhul, meaning "to paint" or "to stain")

    Arsenal - (from dar as-sina’ah, meaning “house of manufacture")

    Candy - (from qandi, meaning “cane sugar”)

    These are but a few of the words and phrases borrowed from Arabic for English.

  • Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi Invented Forceps And Greatly Advanced Surgical Techniques

    Photo: Artist Unknown / Public Domain

    The term "forceps" describes a number of related instruments used in medicine and everyday tasks. These instruments include tweezers, hemostats, and other tools for grasping objects. They are an integral part of surgery and were invented by Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, a surgeon in Moorish Spain (Cordoba) during the Umayyad Caliphate, at the turn of the 11th century. 

    Al-Zahrawi practiced medicine in Spain for more than 50 years, and is credited with inventing the inhaler, the bone saw, and the scalpel, and of authoring the 30 volume Al-Tasrif Medical Encyclopedia, which is filled with highly detailed medical knowledge, including instructions on performing surgery. 

    Al-Zahrawi was an altruistic and caring individual; he did not turn patients away if they couldn't pay for medical services. 

  • Coffee Culture Migrated From Ethiopia To The Middle East, Where It Flourished

    Photo: David Esons / Public Domain

    Whether you prefer a latte from Starbucks or a bold Guatemalan blend from your neighborhood cafe, coffee is as ubiquitous as apple pie (yum!), and is probably the only thing that gets many people out of bed and out the door every morning. 

    While it hasn’t been established exactly when coffee was first discovered, the most prevalent anecdote is that of an Ethiopian shepherd Kaldi, who noticed his herd of goats had more energy after consuming the berries of the Coffea Arabica tree. 

    It's widely accepted that the cultivation of Coffea Arabica began on the Arabian Peninsula, specifically in Yemen, where the berries were roasted, brewed into coffee, and traded with the surrounding regions of the Middle East and North Africa. 

    The first coffee shops in the world, known as qahveh khaneh, appeared in the 15th century (it's possible they existed in slightly different forms earlier than that). Not long after the rise of qahveh khaneh, social gatherings and daily interactions began evolving within their walls.