Tag Archives: culture

Explainer: what Western civilisation owes to Islamic cultures



Sculpture of ninth-century Persian scholar Al-Khwarizmi in Khiva, Uzbekistan. Latin discovery of Al-Khwarizmi’s work introduced the numerals 0-9, one of many ways in which Islamic cultures have contributed to Western civilisation.
LBM1948/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Constant Mews, Monash University

Algebra, alchemy, artichoke, alcohol, and apricot all derive from Arabic words which came to the West during the age of Crusades.

Even more fundamental are the Indo-Arabic numerals (0-9), which replaced Roman numerals during the same period and revolutionised our capacity to engage in science and trade. This came about through Latin discovery of the ninth-century Persian scholar, Al-Khwarizmi (whose name gives us the word algorithm).

This debt to Islamic civilisation contradicts the claim put forward by political scientist Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations some 25 years ago, that Islam and the West have always been diametrically opposed. In 2004, historian Richard Bulliet proposed an alternative perspective. He argued civilisation is a continuing conversation and exchange, rather than a uniquely Western phenomenon.

Even so, Australia and the West still struggle to acknowledge the contributions of Islamic cultures (whether Arabic speaking, Persian, Ottoman or others) to civilisation.

In an initial curriculum proposed by the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, only one Islamic text was listed, a collection of often-humorous stories about the Crusades from a 12th-century Syrian aristocrat. But Islamic majority cultures have produced many other texts with a greater claim to shaping civilisation.




Read more:
Friday essay: how Western attitudes towards Islam have changed


Philosophical and literary influences

Many of the scientific ideas and luxury goods from this world came into the West following the peaceful capture of the Spanish city of Toledo from its Moorish rulers in 1085.

Over the course of the next century, scholars, often in collaboration with Arabic-speaking Jews, became aware of the intellectual legacy of Islamic culture preserved in the libraries of Toledo.

Their focus was not on Islam, but the philosophy and science in which many great Islamic thinkers had become engaged. One was Ibn Sina (also known as Avicenna), a Persian physician and polymath (a very knowledgable generalist) who combined practical medical learning with a philosophical synthesis of key ideas from both Plato and Aristotle.

Portrait of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) on a silver vase from Museum at BuAli Sina (Avicenna) Mausoleum, Hamadan, Western Ira.
Adam Jones/Wikmedia, CC BY-SA

Another was Ibn Rushd (or Averroes), an Andalusian physician and polymath, whose criticisms of the way Ibn Sina interpreted Aristotle would have a major impact on Italian theologist and philosopher Thomas Aquinas in shaping both his philosophical and theological ideas in the 13th century. Thomas was also indebted to a compatriot of Ibn Rushd, the Jewish thinker Moses Maimonides, whose Guide to the Perplexed was translated from Arabic into Latin in the 1230s.

While there is debate about the extent to which the Italian writer Dante was exposed to Islamic influences, it is very likely he knew The Book of Mohammed’s Ladder (translated into Castilian, French and Latin), which describes the Prophet’s ascent to heaven. The Divine Comedy, with its account of Dante’s imagined journey from Inferno to Paradise, was following in this tradition.

Dante very likely heard lectures from Riccoldo da Monte di Monte Croce, a learned Dominican who spent many years studying Arabic in Baghdad before returning to Florence around 1300 and writing about his travels in the lands of Islam. Dante may have criticised Muslim teaching, but he was aware of its vast influence.

Domenico di Michelino, Dante and the Divine comedy, fresco, 1465. Dante is thought to have been influenced by Islamic cultures.
Wikimedia Commons



Read more:
Guide to the Classics: Dante’s Divine Comedy


Islam also gave us the quintessential image of the Enlightenment, the self-taught philosopher. This character had his origins in an Arabic novel, Hayy ibn Yaqzan, penned by a 12th-century Arab intellectual, Ibn Tufayl. It tells the story of how a feral child abandoned on a desert island comes through reason alone to a vision of reality.

Hayy ibn Yaqzan was published in Oxford, with an Arabic-Latin edition in 1671, and became a catalyst for the contributions of seminal European philosophers including John Locke and Robert Boyle. Translated into English in 1708 as The Improvement of Human Reason, it also influenced novelists, beginning with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe in 1719. The sources of the Enlightenment are not simply in Greece and Rome.

Civilisation is always being reinvented. The civilisation some call “Western” has been, and still is, continually shaped by a wide range of political, literary and intellectual influences, all worthy of our attention.The Conversation

Constant Mews, Director, Centre for Religious Studies, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Disease evolution: the origins of anorexia and how it’s shaped by culture and time


Dominic Murphy, University of Sydney

There are fashions in diseases, as in anything else. It’s understandable that a new, infectious and life-threatening malady could preoccupy us, such as cholera in the 19th century or Ebola in recent times.

It is harder to see why a panic erupts around a diagnosis that’s a century old, but a telegenic celebrity death can help. When the singer Karen Carpenter died aged 32 in 1983, her heart gave out because of complications due to anorexia. Her death is widely credited with pushing eating disorders into the public consciousness.

Karen and Richard Carpenter with President Richard Nixon in 1972.
Robert Leroy Knudsen, CC BY

Karen Carpenter was not the first famous young woman to starve to death. Sarah Jacob, “the Welsh Fasting Girl”, was once a national craze across Britain. She died at her parents’ farm in December 1869 in front of a team of nurses who had been sent from London to Carmathenshire to monitor her.

Sarah was believed by her family and her local clergyman to eat nothing at all. Her parents agreed to have her watched to make sure she was not secretly eating, but their faith in her was strong enough that they refused to have her force-fed.

The Welsh Fasting Girl was a national craze in the 19th century.
Wellcome Trust

As with other fasting girls, her alleged ability to live without food was taken by her supporters as a sign of special spiritual status, and seen by materialist physicians as evidence of hysteria and deceit.

Did Sarah Jacob, like Karen Carpenter, die of anorexia?

The diagnostic label “anorexia nervosa” was not coined until shortly after Sarah Jacob died, but of course a disease can exist prior to being named. She did not have all the symptoms associated with the modern diagnosis, but most mental disorders vary from patient to patient.

Anorexia is often seen as an expression of will – an assertion of autonomy and control by a young woman who is engaged in a battle with her family and therapists. If that’s the crucial point about anorexia then maybe Sarah Jacob was anorexic. Her fast turned her whole domestic world upside down and she maintained it right to the end.

In her 1988 history of anorexia, Fasting Girls, Joan Jacobs Brumberg, noting the presence of the medical team watching in her room, asserted that Sarah was “killed by experimental design”. But maybe she died of pride.

If the assertion of will, over both one’s own appetite and the authority of others, is the heart of anorexia, then perhaps we can push its history back further. In Holy Anorexia (1985), Rudolph Bell argued that anorexia shaped the lives of many medieval saints and other holy women, who ate next to nothing.

Was Saint Catherine of Siena anorexic?
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted for days, far beyond what was expected of even the most pious young women in 14th-century Italy. She did so even when the male priests she was supposed to defer to expressly told her to eat something, on the grounds that her spiritual husband, Jesus himself, outranked them.

For Bell, it is Catherine’s assertion of her will – she sent angry letters to the Pope – that marks her out and puts her in a long line of anorexics extending to the present day.

Brumberg attacks Bell for assuming that female psychology has not changed over the centuries and that the past and present are the same.

But that’s unfair. It is certainly possible to acknowledge that both psychology and culture have changed dramatically over the years while also thinking that two people share enough relevant symptoms and personality features to justify applying the same diagnostic label to them both even if they lived centuries apart.

But obviously not just any remote similarity is enough, so how can we decide?

Archaeologists can find on ancient skeletons the traces of familiar diseases, but there is no physical marker to point to that would decide whether a mental illness was present in the middle ages.

Clearly, young women (and men) have been dramatically restricting their calorie intake for centuries, but not all the symptoms of modern anorexia have always been present, and some saintly behaviours are no longer associated with eating disorders.

Similarly, melancholy has a very long history, and many scholars see modern depression as essentially the same thing.

But modern clinical depression has dropped the distinction between melancholy, which has no obvious cause, and ordinary sadness, which is a reasonable response to the tragedies of life. “Depression” pathologises parts of our mental life that “melancholy” treated as normal – is it the same disease, or not?

Over the centuries our brains have been sculpted by our cultural selection.
KieferPix/Shutterstock

Well, if you think mental illness is above all a problem with a neurological system, then there might seem to be an easy answer. The disease label refers to what is going wrong within your brain, and the cultural context just supplies the input and output.

Take an anorexic brain and plug it into 14th-century Italy and you get one set of symptoms. Plug it into modern Western societies and you get another. The different symptoms are reflections of different cultures acting on the brain.

Joel and Ian Gold, in Suspicious Minds, have discussed the emergence of what they consider to be a new form of psychopathology – the “Truman Show delusion” – in which, like the hero of the movie of that name, subjects imagine themselves as the star of a reality TV show. The existence of the show is known but kept secret by their friends.

The Golds argue that the delusion was caused by the rise of new forms of media and an attendant loss of privacy. It’s what you get when a paranoid brain deals with the contemporary social world, whereas perhaps a few hundred years ago these subjects would have been afraid of witches, not TV producers.

It’s a simple picture, and the brain-based concept of mental illness has great power. But culture shapes the brain in ways that makes the simple opposition too stark – London taxi drivers have extra-large hippocampuses, which have grown from use (it keeps a mental map of your surroundings) like the muscles of an athlete.

London taxi drivers have extra-large hippocampuses.
martinvarsavsky/Flickr, CC BY

Over the centuries our brains have been sculpted by our cultural selection just as by natural selection, and mental illness has been shaped accordingly.

At different times, different aspects of a syndrome will predominate, to be succeeded by others as the culture shifts. Historians need to argue about how to apply the labels, but the history of human society is reflected in the ways our minds go wrong.


This is the second instalment in our disease evolution package. Click here to read the first: Disease evolution: our long history of fighting viruses.

The Conversation

Dominic Murphy, Director, Unit for History and Philosophy of Science, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Accused of Infanticide: Evolution of a Criminal Offence in Popular Culture, 1680-1849 (by Tammy Cairns)


PublisHistory Blog

Accused of Infanticide: Evolution of a Criminal Offence in Popular Culture, 1680-1849 (by Tammy Cairns)

Infanticide has always been a highly emotive crime which draws upon pre-conceived ideas of femininity and maternal instinct. From the early modern period up until today, women accused of this crime have been vilified as unnatural beastly characters, capable of killing their own offspring and trying to conceal the evidence. Despite how these women have been portrayed, between 1600 and 1803 the law and parliament substantially altered how those accused were prosecuted and tried for their crimes. Throughout this essay I will be looking at the Old Bailey Proceedings between 1680 and 1849 in order to determine how infanticide changed from a crime where the defendant needed to prove their innocence, to one in which the courts needed to determine the defendant’s guilt. The trials recorded on the Old Bailey Online only highlight the number of cases that went to trial, this in no way portrays the true number of…

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Article: Mayan Origins


The link below is to an article that investigates the origin of the Mayan culture.

For more visit:
http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130425-maya-origins-olmec-pyramid-ceibal-inomata-archaeology-science/


Article: History of Nerds


The link below is to an article that looks at the history of nerds in pop culture.

For more visit:
http://videogum.com/661721/a-history-of-nerds-in-pop-culture-5/movies


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