Samuel Kutty and Sandhya Rao Mehta -
The coastal contacts between Oman and India are not only based on a rich maritime trade tradition but its associated cultural, social and linguistic links. Spanning over four millennia, the constant and regular contact of communities on both sides of the Arabian Sea have provided a rich cross fertilisation of knowledge in science, astronomy and religion, as well as innumerable and unmeasurable non-material cultural artefacts in the form of oral narratives, songs, folk tales and children’s stories.
Material influences include monetary modes of exchange like coins as well as objects such as doors, treasure boxes (mandoos) and jewellery. These links are also manifested in everyday lives through cultural markers like clothing, culinary choices, architecture, loan words, as well as contemporary popular culture in the form of films, television series and music bands.
The Arabs of antiquity were in close contact with, and influenced by, Indian civilization. They travelled and had access to the ancient Indian scholarly traditions. Scholars who studied in Indian institutions included mathematicians, philosophers, and physicians like Al Hareth bin Kalda Al Thaqafi, who had studied along with Indian scholars at Gundeshapur in the Sassanid Empire in modern Iran. Books were frequently exchanged between Arabs and Indians, with the Abbassid Caliph Al Mansour being one of the most important Arab recipients of works of mathematics and medicine written in India.
One of the most important works, which travelled in this way, was Aryabhatta’s decimal system, which was eventually received by the Europeans through the Arabs.
Zikrur Rahman, Director of the India Arab Cultural Centre at the Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi, observes that there was a rich literary tradition between India and the Arab world, particularly through many Indian translations of Arab writers like Al Razi, Ibn Sina and Jubran Khalil Jubran. He added that “Arab-Indian communication was not confined to literary and creative exchange, but surpassed it to spreading religious thought and enlightenment in India, which resulted primarily from the translated works of Arab scholars and thinkers such as Jamal Edeen al Afghani and Muhammad Abduh.”
The Umayyad Caliph Hisham bin Abdel Malik initiated the translation of a number of works from Sanskrit to Arabic, which included a major work on astronomy and mathematics, Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta which was translated under the title Sindhind by Mohammed Fazari. In the Abbasid period the translation of Sanskrit books on science, astronomy and law, as well as art and literature was very common. In fact, the famous Indian Islamic scholar and author Qazi Athar Mubarakpuri quotes several Hadiths which say Indian goods like ginger, pepper, musk and camphor have been extensively used among the Arabs.
Abu Rehan al Biruni was the first Islamic scientist who made a detailed study of Hindu sciences. He was also the first scholar to study India and the Hindu scientific literature. He wrote his famous ‘Description of India’, Kitāb fī Tahqīq mā li’l-Hind. He has been described as the founder of Indology. He studied Sanskrit diligently and was so proficient in it that he could translate into, as well as from, Sanskrit. He translated important works of astronomy, mathematics and Patanjali’s Yogasutra, as Tarjamat ketāb Bātanjalī fi’l-ḵalaṣ men al-ertebak.
While Sanskrit texts on mathematics and astronomy were extensively used by Muslim scientists to develop new fields, it was numerology that left a more lasting impression on the Arab sciences. This is most significant in the use of the Indian numeral system which was adapted by Arab mathematicians like Al Khwārizmī and disseminated by traders and merchants across the Mediterranean in the medieval period. In fact, the Arabic word for numbers is Hindsah, which means ‘from India.’
In the period of Abbasid Caliph Al Mamoon (813-33 CE), Al-Khwārizmī adapted Sanskrit numerals into Arabic mathematics. As Europeans received this numeral system from the Arabs, this universal system is now referred to as Arabic numerals.
Linguistic and literary affinitiesThe regular interactions between Arabs and Indians throughout history culminated in influencing each other’s language as well. The Persian and later, Arab origins of India, Hind and Hindustan, can be traced back to the conquests
of North-west India, along the Sindhū (Indus) river. By the time of the Arab conquests, al-Hind and al-Hindī were commonly used while the Persian rulers, including the Mughals used Hindu or Hindustani (plural Hunūd).
Some Indian goods that entered into the Arab world were named after the place of origin, Al-Hind. There are some place names which refer to ‘Hind’, India. In Al Batinah coast of Oman, there is a Khour Al Hind (Bay of India) and another district is called Hilat Al Hind (District of India).
There is also evidence to show the trade connections between Oman and Kerala, leading to linguistic influences. According to Ahmad, “The ancient Arab poet ‘Imr-ul-Khais’ in one of his famous poems compares the excretions of deer with the pepper that was available only in Kerala. The Arabic words like ‘narajeel’ (coconut) and ‘arus’ (rice) are derived from Malayalam which is found in very ancient Arabic literature. It is the Arabs and Persians who named Kerala as ‘Malabar’, which was formed as a combination of the Malayalam word ‘Mala’ (hills) and Arabic word ‘Baar’ (the region).”
Historically, Indian swords were very famous in the Arab world and they are called Hindi, Hindawani and Muhannad. They gained the reputation of being very supple and sharp. Pre-Islamic Arabic poetry has many references to this and many other Indian goods being popular among Bedouins too. Many Indian words like sandal (chandan), tanbul (pan), karanfal (clove), narjeel (coconut)
were popularly used by the Arabs. Although the Quranic scholars may differ about the non-Arabic words used in the Holy Quran, the Indian Islamic scholar Maulana Syed Suleiman Nadwi, refers to Hafiz Ibn Hajar and Hafiz Seuti’s works, asserting that a few Indian words like misk (musk), zanjabeel (ginger) and kafur (karpur) have been used in the Holy Quran