Muslims’ Influence in English Literature

By Jo Haq

A 73-year old man once gave me an interesting conversation. This was a man of wisdom, full of life experience and an abundance of accumulated knowledge, particularly in history and religion. Our conversation revolved around the Muslims’ contribution to the world. All sorts of refreshing stories were told ranging from scientific discoveries by the polymath Ibn Sina (Avacene) and Al-Khawarismi (Chemistry) to the Moorish architecture of domes and minarets.

However, one segment of that range truly fascinated me – the Muslims’ contribution to English literature. Who would have thought that that would happen? Of course there are bits and pieces of Arabic words in the English dictionary such as Sultan and Reserves (Rizab), but what I am referring to are English sayings that were created solely from the Western world’s experience under the rule of Muslims during the Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman empires.

They include:

Building a castle in Spain

What does this really mean? When one says this, it often means you are expressing that certain tasks are impossible to be done, which is true, in the case of building a castle in Spain. Can you build a castle in Spain? Why not? Especially when you have the money to buy land and construct one. However, such saying was back in the era when Spain was under the Muslim empire as conquered by the Muslim warrior, Tariq, at the hill where the Southern most part of Spain is (Gibraltar = Jabbal Tariq = Hill of Tariq).

The Christians were forced to move North at where Catalunya is and could never recover South Spain for hundreds of years. Hence, for a Spanish to build a castle in Spain (South Spain), it would be almost impossible given that they had lost South Spain to the Muslims for hundreds of years. The English had adopted this as an expression to denote ‘impossibility’. By the way, North Spain is not Spanish, they are Catalans.

The cat is out of the bag

Those days European cities under the rule of Muslims, particularly in Spain, Roman land, Greek and Cyprus, had great walls surrounding the city with a gigantic gate in the front. Travellers in and out of the city were required to pass through the front gate where Muslim warriors stood guard. These travellers were both Muslims and non-Muslims who lived alongside each other in a harmonious manner.

Notwithstanding that, the non-Muslims had always quietly disagreed with the regulation on forbidden food imposed by the Muslim rulers onto them. The ‘Haram’ food they call it, which was predominantly pig products like ham, pork or even live pigs. The non-Muslims of those cities often smuggled pigs and piglets in sacks (bag) through those gates. When asked by the guards, their standard answer would be, “It’s just a cat”. Of course, like any custom officer at the airport, they would reveal that what was referred to as ‘cat’ was actually a ‘pig’. Hence the phrase “the cat is out of the bag” expressing that the secret has now been made known to the public.

Safari in the desert

In English, this simply means travelling in the desert. But what makes travelling in the desert unique is that the Muslims travelled at a particular time of the day. They start moving their caravans at dusk when the sun sets to take advantage of the cool night as well as the directional guide by the stars up above. At dusk, the horizon turns amber, which is ‘safar’ in Arabic, also the origin of the word ‘safron’ given that the spice is yellowish-orangey in colour, like the colour of the sky at dusk. So, safar became safari.

There is a lot of Muslim influence in western culture. I am sure if proper research is done, we can uncover a lot more that can fascinate the world. Simple European behaviour such as eating cheese and croissants are also from the Muslims. Before Europe even knew how to make cheese, the Arabs had already done it with their goats in the deserts – a creative way of preserving source of protein, fat, calcium and other nutrition. That method was introduced to the Europeans by the Muslims during their rule of western land.

Croissants, whilst French in sound, is in the shape of and means ‘crescent’, a semi circled shape of the moon. This is the symbol of Islam. It is not recorded anywhere that the Arabs may have invented the crescent shaped bread but it is known that the Arabs invented bread. Remember, when the westerners were in their dark ages, the Muslims were the scientists and philosophers of the world – no doubt that they may have also learnt a trick or two from the Greeks, Romans and Macedonians prior to the arrival of Islam. Fascinating huh?!


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