“Islam and Europe”, don’t quite fit, right? One doesn’t belong in the other, apparently.
“Islam and Muslims should leave Europe!” say the ignorant on both sides.
Whatever your views, one thing isn’t up for debate. Europe has a massive ‘Islamic heritage’. In fact Islam arrived on these shores within a couple of decades of Muhammad’s death, meaning there is more than 1300 years of Muslim history waiting to be uncovered in Europe.
I’ve been doing just that in a bid to popularise the Muslim heritage of Europe, but it’s not all serious stuff, some of the legacies are quite hilarious. Here are five I’ve picked out, one or two might just leave you stunned.
5. ISLAMOPHOBIC PASTRY: In Vienna, the capital of Austria, whilst reflecting on the failed Ottoman siege’s of the city in the 16th and 17th century, I chanced upon a curious tale about the humble croissant. Across the globe today, this pastry is served up as part of a ‘Continental (European) Breakfast’, yet according to legend, this unassuming pastry may have first been baked in Vienna to celebrate the Christian city’s victory over the Muslim Turks.
The word croissant in French means ‘crescent’. This refers to the shape of the pastry and may have been made this way to represent the crescent on the banners of the Ottomans. The design of the pastry however includes a thick ring around the centre and legend has it that this ring represents the ‘crescent’ being ‘captured’.
Although this tale is usually dismissed as fanciful and untrue, I have to confess, sitting in that Viennese cafe, sipping the coffee allegedly also an Ottoman legacy, I did find myself eyeing my potentially ‘islamophobic’ pastry with a degree of suspicion!
4. SHAMPOO AND CURRY: Look in any European bathroom and sat next to the shower gel will be a bottle of shampoo, standing there with all the air of someone who has always belonged on that shelf in that imaginary European bathroom. But actually, that confident pose is a sham (see what I did there), for the humble shampoo, or at least its ancestor, was actually brought to these shores by a Bengali-Indian ‘doctor’, known as Sake Dean Mahomed in the 18th century, before that there was no such thing in the western world. A Muslim Bengali from Bihar, Mahomed arrived in Brighton through his connections with the East India Dock Company. Upon reaching the imperial motherland, Mahomed opened a kind of Victorian beauty salon, where the great and good of British Victorian society came for a treatment of Champi (the hindu word from where we got ‘shampoo’). Such was the success of this venture, and product that Mahomed eventually became the official ‘Shampooing Surgeon’ to both King George IV and King William IV. Nor did this pioneering Bengali, stop there. Mahomed is also responsible for opening the UK’s first ever ‘curry house’ in London called the Hindustani Coffee House – A plaque commemorating this can be seen on George Street in Westminster.
3. NORMAN ARABS: The medieval Spanish Muslim influence on Europe is now becoming well documented, but few people area aware of what went on just a few thousands miles south-west of al-Andalus. From the 11th century onwards on the tiny Island of Sicily – the ‘ball’ that Italy’s foot kicks – a cultural renaissance not too dissimilar to that in Muslim Spain reached equally impressive heights. Only there was one major difference. It wasn’t Muslims at the helm of this empire, though they spoke their language. The rulers of culturally advanced Sicily were, wait for it … Arabised Norman Christian Kings! That’s right Vikings that walked and talked like Arabs.
2. SHEIKH DRACULA: Bram Stoker did for Romania’s tourism what Walt Disney has done for Florida. At times it can seem like Stoker’s fictional vampire, inspired by Vlad III of the Transylvanian medieval ‘Dracul’ family, is the sole reason many travel to this far eastern European country.
Yet I doubt any of these vampire tourists will know that Vlad III was actually versed in Arabic. That’s right, Dracula was an Arabist. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that he might have even been a Haafiz-ul-Qur’an – someone who has memorised the Qur’an.
According to the history books Vlad’s father sent him along with his brother Radu to the Ottoman courts of Istanbul, as part of a ‘hostage’ agreement – a common medieval ‘insurance policy’ between two powerful states. There the boys were educated, as if Ottoman princes themselves, this involved learning Arabic, Persian and mastering the Qur’an.
Once they returned home, things got even more interesting. Whilst Vlad developed his legendary hatred for the Turkish state, Radu Dracul, upon the death of his father Vlad II, announces his conversion to Islam and joins the Ottoman ranks, giving us a Muslim Dracula.
1. LATIN ARABIC: My top Islamic Secret of Europe (for now) sits on the scorched little island of Malta, the most southern country in Europe. Here the Islamic legacy is not in ruins or legends, but on the tongues of the natives. Ask a Maltese person to count to ten and you will hear what you need to. Maltese numbers are essentially Arabic. Something my astonished daughter discovered when asking for ‘tnej’n’ (two) apples at a Maltese market before being handed two apples by a smiling old man.
Despite it’s proximity to north Africa, where Arabic is widely spoken, it is Italy’s little football, Sicily again that Malta has to thank for this. Maltese in its modern form is the only remaining example of Siculo-Arabic, the Sicilian form of Arabic that developed during the Fatimid and later Norman Arab period (Maltese also contains Italian and French as well as English to a lesser extent).
Siculo-Arabic died out in Sicily, to be replaced by Italian Sicilian, making Malta and Maltese people the only ‘living’ legacy of that ‘golden Viking Arab’ period. In fact such is the dominance of Siculo-Arabic on the Maltese lingua franca (32% and 40%), it has the proud claim of being the only Semitic language written in Latin Script.