M. Shahid Alam
At the outset of the classes I teach, I always address the question of bias in the social sciences. In one course – on the history of the global economy – this is the central theme. It critiques Eurocentric biases in several leading Western accounts of the rise of the global economy.
This fall, I began my first lecture on Eurocentrism by asking my students, How Eurocentric is your day? I explained what I wanted to hear from them. Can they get through a typical day without running into ideas, institutions, values, technologies and products that originated outside the West – in China, India, the Islamicate or Africa?
The question befuddled my students. I proceeded to pepper them with questions about the things they do during a typical day, from the time they wake up.
Unbeknownst, my students discover that they wake up in ‘pajamas,’ trousers of Indian origin with an Urdu-Persian name. Out of bed, they shower with soap and shampoo, whose origins go back to the Middle East and India. Their tooth brush with bristles was invented in China in the fifteenth century. At some point after waking up, my students use toilet paper and tissue, also Chinese inventions of great antiquity.
Do the lives of my students rise to Eurocentric purity once they step out of the toilet and enter into the more serious business of going about their lives? Not quite.
I walk my student through her breakfast. Most likely, this consists of cereals, coffee and orange juice, with sugar added to the bargain. None originated in Europe. Cereals were first cultivated in the Fertile Crescent some ten thousand years BCE. Coffee, orange and sugar still carry – in their etymology – telltale signs of their origins, going back to the Arabs, Ethiopians and Indians. Try to imagine your life without these stimulants and sources of calories.
How far could my students go without the alphabet, numbers and paper? Yet, the alphabet came to Europe courtesy of the ancient Phoenicians. As their name suggests, the Arabic numerals were brought to Europe by the Arabs, who, in turn, had obtained it from the Indians. Paper came from China, also brought to Europe by the Muslims.
Obstinately, my students’ day refuses to get off to a dignified Eurocentric start.
In her prayer, my Christian student turns to a God who – in his human form – walked the earth in Palestine and spoke Aramaic, a close cousin of Arabic. When her thoughts turn to afterlife, my student thinks of the Day of Judgment, paradise and hell, concepts borrowed from the ancient Egyptians and Persians. ‘Paradise’ entered into English, via Greek, from the ancient Avestan pairidaeza.
Of medieval origin, the college was inspired and, most likely, modeled after the madrasa or Islamic college, first set up by a Seljuk vizier in eleventh century Baghdad. In a nod to this connection, professors at universities still hold a ‘chair,’ a practice that goes back to the madrasa, where the teacher alone sat in a chair while his students sat around him on rugs.
When she finishes college and prepares to receive her baccalaureate at the graduation ceremony, our student might do well to acknowledge another forgotten connection to the madrasa. This diploma harks back to the ijaza – Arabic for license – given to students who graduated from madrasas in the Islamicate.
Our student runs into fields of study – algebra, trigonometry, astronomy, chemistry, medicine and philosophy – that were introduced, via Latin, to Western Europe from the Islamicate. She also encounters a variety of scientific terms – algorithm, alkali, borax, amalgam, alembic, amber, calibrate, azimuth and nadir – which have Arabic roots.
If my students play chess over the weekend and threaten the King with ‘check mate,’ that phrase is adapted from Farsi – Shah maat – for ‘the King is helpless, defeated.’
When she uses coins, paper currency or writes a check, she is using forms of money first used outside Europe. Gold bars were first used as coins in Egypt in the fourth millennium BCE. With astonishment, Marco Polo records the use of paper currency in China, and describes how the paper used as currency was made from the bark of mulberry trees.
At college, my student will learn about modernity, ostensibly the source and foundation of the power and the riches of Western nations. Her professors in sociology will claim that laws based on reasoning, the abolition of priesthood, the scientific method, and secularism – hallmarks of modernity – are entirely of Western origin. Are they?
During the eighteenth century, many of the leading Enlightenment thinkers were keenly aware that the Chinese had preceded them in their emphasis on reasoning by some two millennia. By the end of this century, however, a more muscular, more confident Europe chose to erase their debt to China from its collective memory.
Similarly, Islam, in the seventh century, made a more radical break from priesthood than the Reformation in Europe. In the eleventh century, an Arab scientist, Alhazen – his Latinized name – devised numerous experiments to test his theories in optics, but, more importantly, theorized cogently about the scientific method in his writings. Roger Bacon, the putative ‘founder’ of the scientific method, had read Alhazen in a Latin translation.
When our student reads the sonnets of Shakespeare and Spenser, she is little aware that the tradition of courtly love they celebrate comes via Provencal and the troubadours (derived from taraba, Arabic for ‘to sing’) from Arab traditions of love, music and poetry. When our male student gets down on one knee while proposing to his fair lady, he might do well to remember this.
On a clear night, with a telescope on her dormitory rooftop, our student can watch stars, many of which still carry Arabic names. This might be a fitting closure to a day in the life of our student, who, more likely than not, remains Eurocentric in her understanding of world history, little aware of the multifarious bonds that connect her life to different parts of the ‘Orient.’
M. Shahid Alam, Professor of Economics, Northeastern University, Boston. He is the author of Israeli Exceptionalism: The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan: 2009).