The Arabic Influence on Agricultural Products and Language


Agrotechnomarket.com - The Arabic/Muslim influence in science and medicine is well known, from Ibn Rushd (Averroes) to Ibn Sina (Avicenna) to Ibn Al-Haytham (Alhazen) and beyond. But less well known is the Arabic/Muslim influence on agriculture, and the resulting influence on language. A significant number of agricultural products were introduced to Europe by Arabs, and as a result, many of the words that refer to agricultural products today in European languages, including English, are derived from Arabic.

One of the most popular agricultural products introduced by Arabs to Europe is coffee. In The World of Caffeine: The Science and Culture of the World’s Most Popular Drug, Bennett Alan Weinberg and Bonnie K. Bealer write, “Although European and Arab historians repeat legendary African accounts or cite lost written references from as early as the sixth century, surviving documents can incontrovertibly establish coffee drinking or knowledge of the coffee tree no earlier than the middle of the fifteenth century in the Sufi monasteries of the Yemen in southern Arabia.”

The coffee bean, however, did not originate in Yemen. It was imported from Ethiopia. And there are several legends as to how it was discovered. The most popular story has it that an Ethiopian goatherd named Kaldi noticed that his goats became energized whenever they munched on the fruit of the coffee plant and decided to try it himself. Excited by his discovery, he took it to an Islamic holy man. Disapprovingly, the man threw the fruit into the fire. But the strong aroma of the fruit that emerged was so enticing that the holy man took it out, poured it in a cup of hot water, and that’s how the first cup of coffee was made.

This story was first written by Antoine Faustus Nairon, a Maronite professor of oriental languages, but is not supported by any local evidence. Weinberg and Bealer argue that it “must therefore be supposed to have originated in Nairon’s caffeine-charged literary imagination and spread because of its appeal to the earliest European coffee bibbers.”

A better-supported story is that a civet, a type of cat native to the region that’s known for climbing coffee trees, carried the coffee beans from central Africa to Ethiopia, where the plant grew, and where an Arab merchant found it and took it with him back home.

This account might explain the strangest and most expensive way of making coffee today, where coffee beans are fed to a civet cat and the undigested seeds brewed after they pass through its digestive system and out with its droppings.

But back in Yemen, where the coffee bean arrived from Ethiopia, Sufi mystics drank coffee in their monasteries to stay awake and alert during their nighttime devotional rituals. And “when morning came,” write Weinberg and Bealer, “they returned to their homes and their work, bringing the memory of caffeine’s energizing effects with them and sharing the knowledge of coffee drinking with their fellows.” Thus started the popular consumption of coffee, leaving the monasteries and entering the rest of society.

Soon after, Arabs started mass-producing and trading coffee, with the port of Mocha in Yemen (where the name of the drink comes from) acting as a major marketplace. Eventually, coffeehouses spread throughout the Islamic world, to major cities like Cairo and Mecca, and to Turkey, where it was introduced by a couple of Syrian businessmen, who opened a coffeehouse in Constantinople. And in Turkey, a new way of making the drink was discovered: the beans were first roasted, then ground finely, then boiled in a pot of water. This kind of coffee came to be known as Turkish coffee.

By the beginning of the seventeenth century, coffee had reached Italy, brought back from Turkey by merchants. A few decades later, brought in by a university student, it reached England. And in 1650, the first English coffeehouse opened, becoming an integral part of English culture a few years later, being frequented by philosophers and all kinds of writers.
Today, Coffea arabica, the coffee bean that was discovered in Ethiopia and spread around the world by Arabs, is the most popular coffee bean, accounting for up to 80 percent of total coffee production worldwide, according to the Coffee Research Institute.

The word coffee has a similar history to the drink itself. The English word is derived from the Arabic word for the drink, qahwa, which travelled northward to Turkey, where it became kahveh in Ottoman Turkish; towards continental Europe, where it became caffe in Italian; and finally it reached England, where the drink came to be called coffee. It’s also worth noting that the Arabic word for coffee beans is bun, derived from the Amharic (the language spoken in Ethiopia) word for coffee, buno.
If you like sugar with your coffee, you would be consuming another agricultural product that spread around the world due to the Arabs’ innovation.

There are historical records documenting the use of sugar in Europe since the Ancient Greeks and Romans, but it was initially used only as a medicine, rather than as a consumer product. In the first century AD, for instance, Dioscorides, a Greek medical doctor in the Roman army, wrote in his book De Materia Medica, “There is a kind of coalesced honey called sakcharon found in reeds in India and Arabia Felix [modern-day Yemen] similar in consistency to salt and brittle enough to be broken between the teeth like salt. It is good dissolved in water for the intestines and stomach, and taken as a drink to help a painful bladder and kidneys.”

The production of sugar as a consumer product originates in India, and as Lynda N. Shaffer writes in her essay “Southernization,” published in the second volume of the book entitled Agricultural and Pastoral Societies in Ancient and Classical History, it “did not become an important item of trade until the Indians discovered how to turn sugarcane juice into granulated crystals that could be easily stored and transported.”

One of the peculiarities of sugar, however, is that it can only grow in tropical climates. As such, its cultivation did not reach far beyond India. But by the seventh century, Arabs reached Persia, where they found the sweet product, presumably imported from its native region. Recognizing the sugarcane plant’s specific needs for both heat and plenty of water, yet adamant on cultivating it themselves, the Arabs had “to develop more efficient irrigation technology,” writes Shaffer, that allowed the plant to grow outside of its native region. This technology came to be called tawahin es-sukkar (literally, sugar mills) and revolutionized sugar production, enabling its growth all around the world.
Shaffer states that the Arabs “were responsible for the spread of many important crops, developed or improved in India, to the Middle East, North Africa, and Islamic Spain. Among the most important were sugar, cotton, and citrus fruits.”

Like coffee, the word sugar is derived from the Arabic word for the product, sukkar, which entered Medieval Latin as succarum, became sucre in French, and finally reached English as sugar. The Arabic word itself is derived from the Persian shakar, which is derived from the Sanskrit sharkara, which literally translates to gravel, referring to the grainy appearance of sugar.

You might be wondering if the travel of language with agriculture is a coincidence, but social scientists have long believed that the two disperse simultaneously. Colin Renfrew, a British archeologist and paleolinguist, first put forth this theory in 1987 in his book Archeology and Language: The Puzzle of the Indo-European Origins. The theory, which came to be known as the farming/language dispersal hypothesis, posits that languages initially spread throughout the world and became so diverse as a result of early farmers, after the Neolithic agricultural revolution, migrating and taking their agricultural products and relevant languages along with them. It seems that, once humans settled down, languages continued to spread with agriculture, this time spurred on by trade rather than migration.

As far as the Arabic influence goes, there are several other agricultural products, besides coffee and sugar, that the Arabs introduced to Europe, along with the relevant language. As was previously mentioned, Arabs were also responsible for the spread of cotton and citrus fruits. And linguistically, cotton is derived from the Arabic qutn; lemon is derived from the Arabic limun; and orange is derived from the Arabic naranj, which is actually the word for a specific type of orange, the bitter orange.

Written by Abdullah Alhomoud, Arabic Tutor