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
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
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
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
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
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 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
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
Shahid Alam is Professor of Economics, Northeastern University, Boston.
He is the author of Israeli Exceptionalism:
The Destabilizing Logic of Zionism (Palgrave Macmillan: 2009), and
several other books. You may contact him at
Paul Lewis, "Charting the Lost
Innovations of Islam," Guardian, March 10, 2006