NSU Lecture Explores Islamic, Hispanic Connection

By Lisa Bolivar
Miami Herald
October 5, 2008

An event that was part of NSU’s Hispanic festival explored the ways Islamic culture has influenced the Latin world.

Yusuf Mendez had a message about his heritage he wanted to share and he got the opportunity during a celebration of cultural unity at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

While Mendez, who is from Costa Rica and a convert to Islam, spoke to an audience of just about a dozen people — he was competing with a film series on diversity just a few doors down — his message was of unity as well: the place where Islamic and Latin cultural history come together and the impact the Islamic world has on today’s Hispanic culture.

”We share commonality in architecture and even words,” said Mendez, 25, a student at NSU working on his master’s degree in conflict resolution.

The discussion on the cultural crossroads was part of Sabor de NSU, the university’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, which runs Sept. 15 to Oct. 15. The forum was sponsored by NSU’s Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences and the Muslim American Society.

J.P. Linstroth, an assistant professor of conflict resolution and anthropology, said a visit to Andalusia, a region in southern Spain separated from Morocco by the Strait of Gibraltar, shows the impact of Islamic-style buildings and town square layouts that have carried over into the Americas and South Florida.

”The whole Arabic occupation of Spain was the Golden Age of Spain,” Linstroth said.

Muslim rule of the Iberian peninsula between A.D. 711 and 1478 brought the Alhambra palaces and gardens in Granada, as well as philosophy and Greek scholarship. The Arabs also brought oranges, lemons, rice, sugar, date palms and cotton. Especially important was the elaborate irrigation system that gave the Andalusian plains the landscape they now have.

The onslaught of the Spanish Inquisition under King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile brought a shared scholarship between peoples to an end, Linstroth said.

”Under Muslim rule, medicine, science, astronomy and mathematics flourished,” he said. “Equally at that time, you have the beginning of Hebrew writing. That’s why . . . the Hebrew and Arabic is so similar today. They kept intellectual thought alive by translating from Greek and Latin, all the classics.”

Islamic influence in Spain and then the New World can be seen in the structure of plazas, with a fountain in the middle, a theme common in South Florida, from government building complexes to shopping malls.

”It is typical Moorish style,” Linstroth said.

Mendez noted modern Spanish words and phrases whose roots are in Arabic: for instance, the Arabic ”al-dinar” became ”dinero,” or money, and ”An-naranj” became naranja, the Spanish word for orange.

”Some words still exist, like “ojala,” derivative of the Arabic ”O-Allah,” said Mendez. ‘Ojala means `I hope.’ ”

The Islamic world still influences cultures in Latin America, Linstroth said.

”You see Moorish influences in the Andes and Peru, which is very interesting, and in places in Nicaragua and Guatemala,” he said. “There are still festivals of the myth of the Moor, and you still have the Moorish figure being celebrated in Spain.”

Linstroth said knowing the impact of one culture on another is an important element in understanding where we, and others, came from.

”The Muslims had a very important impact on Spain and the history of intellectual thought. That should not be discounted by anybody,” he said.

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