Herbalism and traditional medicine spotlight series: Black seed (Nigella sativa)

Some herbs and spices have managed to transcend culinary and traditional medicine traditions quite successfully and are have a attained a high level of global recognition such as pepper, cinnamon and cardamon. Other herbs and spices, for whatever reason, have failed to make that leap to the international stage. This spotlight series will take the opportunity to highlight some herbs and spices less popular in the west and other places but can be a useful additional to herbalism/traditional medicine treatments and a healthy lifestyle.

Black seed (Nigella sativa) is common in Arabic and South Asian foods and traditional medicine. The seeds are harvested from pods attached to flowering plans. They are matte black in color with an irregular shape and rough edges. The seeds are porous and seem light for their size. They have a slightly chewy consistency with a mildly bitter taste. It’s also known as black cumin and kalonji.

This is probably one of the two most important natural medicines in the Islamic Prophetic medicine tradition. That’s because the Prophet Mohammed (SAS) said “You should use this black seed because it contains a cure for all things except death.” Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya says “It’s beneficial (for treatment of) all cold diseases and it can also be used for hot-dry diseases transversely” where it can be ground and mixed with honey and drunken with hot water, boiled or cooked with vinegar, pressed for oil, ground and mixed with oil, and ground and made into a paste with macerated Colocynth to treat different ailments including fever, constipation, flatulence, diarrhea, worms, kidney stones, runny nose, difficulty breathing and cold headaches.

Likewise, in the Ayurvedic tradition it’s classified as a hot-pungent medicine for directly treating ailments with the stomach, lungs, uterus and skin and indirectly affecting the liver, kidneys and hair. In addition to what Ibn Qayyim mentioned, it’s also used to treat bad breath, anorexia, indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome and low breast milk supply as well as being used externally for hair loss. Black seed is generally used as an oil in Ayurvedic medicine where it’s called kalonji oil.

Modern research has shown that “The medicinal benefits of black seed are mainly due to its main active compound called thymoquinone, which has shown antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other therapeutic properties that protect the body from cell damage and chronic diseases” (Nourish by WebMD) and may aid inflammation, asthma, high cholesterol, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disorders and diabetes. A peer reviewed study published in the Journal of Pharmacopuncture has also “confirmed that N.sativa has antiviral, antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, immunomodulatory, bronchodilatory, antihistaminic, antitussive activities related to causative oraganism and signs and symptoms of COVID-19. N. sativa could be used as an adjuvant therapy along with repurposed conventional drugs to manage the patients with COVID-19.”

There are some potential health risks with use of the oil/extract or prolonged high consumption especially during pregnancy “When used orally in amounts exceeding those found in food, black seed may decrease or inhibit uterine contractions and may have contraceptive action.” As such, any medicinally use, particularly that of the oil or extract, should be done in consultation with the health professional or qualified herbalist.

There are several ways black seed can be incorporated into your diet or simple medicinal treatments including:

  • Adding crushed-powdered black seed to curry mix (if you’re buying store bought it may already be there!)
  • Putting black seed on top of savory and sweet baked goods. It’s sometimes put on naan bread or Arabic flat bread and is well paired with sesame seeds. Arabs also put them on cookies, biscuits and layered pastry with honey.
  • Adding some to soup especially thick, creamy soup.
  • Mix with honey and hot water and drink to improve circulation and flow of body fluids (including kidney stones, urine and menstrual blood), indigestion, reduce cold-headaches and ease difficulty breathing.
  • Grind 5-7 black seeds into a fine powder and mix with olive oil as mentioned by the Prophet Mohammed (SAS) and then put 3-4 drops in the nose to treat runny nose.

Perhaps once you try using black seed, you’ll be inspired to make new culinary creations! Please share in the comments if you have any new recipes. Once again, while taking normal amounts of black seed in food and home treatments is safe, the use of extract and oils, especially for pregnant women and children, should be consulted with your health care provider and/or herbalists.


Herbalism and traditional medicine

I resolved this year to live simpler and healthier. In particular, I was interested to expand my knowledge in the health benefits of herbs while also developing my home garden to complement adopting a healthier lifestyle. I’ve begun by studying contemporary Western herbalism.

This modern manifestation of herbalism is very much based on some of the earlier herbalist traditions. For example, a key concept is energetics, based on the physical sensations of hot/cold and dry/damp for diagnosis. These energetics are built upon the theory that that there are four humors which include temperaments, elements, body component and related energies:

HumorTemperamentNatural ElementBody ElementEnergyRequired Herb Type for Treatment
CholericAngry/irritableFireYellow bileHot and DryBitter
SanguineOptimistic/ cheerfulAirBloodHot and MoistCool and drying/warm and moistening
MelancholicSad/pensiveEarthBlack bile (dried blood and dark urine)Cold and DryNervine, carminative, and antispasmodic herbs
PhlegmaticSlow/sleepyWaterMucus and clear fluidsCold and MoistPungent

This theory of the humors has its origins in Ancient Greek medicine and has somewhat corresponding systems in Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Chinese medicine has a five phases system related to the humors composed of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. These five phases correspond to the five tastes which are also on contemporary western herbalism which are pungent, sweet, bitter, sour and salty. The majority of common herbs and spices such as cinnamon, garlic, ginger, basil, peppermint, rosemary, sage, thyme and turmeric are included in that category. Ayurvedic medicine also has corresponding humors pitta (fire), vata (space/air) and kapha (earth/water). There is not a perfect alignment of these systems but they all approach treatment of disease and sickness as bringing balance to the body.

Despite the Ancient Greek system referring to these humors, it was known to be based more on the scientific method. Hippocrates aimed at treating the causes of diseases as opposed to their symptoms and believed they were dictated by natural law which he documented in his treatises Aphorisms and Prognostics. This Greek tradition would be revived by the Arabs in the Middle Ages. The Andalusian-Arab botanist Abu al-Abbas al-Nabati, the teacher of Ibn al-Baitar, introduced empirical techniques in the testing, description and identification in pharmacology. He would go on to influence Persian polymath Avicenna who wrote about 40 books on medicine including The Canon of Medicine and The Book of Healing, which were considered the primary medical texts in the Middle Ages.

A main difference between the modern western herbalism and many of the preceding traditions is the element of spiritualism mainstreamed in the system. Ayurvedic medicine was associated with Dhanvantari, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu. Balance is a key concept including managing natural urges and yoga and meditation are also integrated. It has philosophical parallels with the Buddhist and Jain traditions. The Chinese tradition also emphasized a spiritual balance exemplified by the ying-yang dualism. Confucius wrote about the xue-xi, or blood-life balance, where such moderation was also integral to moral uprightness. Confucius said in his Analects: “The (morally) noble man guards himself against three things. When he is young, his xue–qi has not yet stabilized, so he guards himself against sexual passion. When he reaches his prime, his xue–qi is not easily subdued, so he guards himself against combativeness. When he reaches old age, his xue–qi is already depleted, so he guards himself against acquisitiveness.”

The Islamic tradition is very interesting as it has these various influences in its traditional medicine literature which is generally under the heading of Prophetic medicine. However, as stated, this is sometimes a misnomer as it sometimes goes beyond the Prophetic tradition. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya mentioned in his book Prophetic Medicine “Sickness is of two kinds, sickness of the heart and sickness of the body…sickness of the heart is of two kinds, desires and doubt and desires and misguidance…three things are the foundations of treatment of the body, preserving of health, protection from harmful things and removal of corrupt elements.” The Islamic tradition also includes more emphasis on consumed foods and condoned practices like blood cupping in additional to medicinal plants.

A book like al-Jawziyya’s is an example of a moderate approach, limiting discussion on foods and herbs mentioned in the Quran and Prophetic literature, though he does mention some of the energetics descriptions such as about garlic, “it is hot-dry.” Other authors like Abu Na’eem al-Isfahaani are more traditionalist, restricting discussion to what was conveyed in Prophetic narrations. Other authors like Jalal a-Deen a-Suyyutti seemed to be much more influenced by the other traditions, probably Greek, and discuss medicinal plants and herbs extensively and with the energetics terminology but also with reference to the Prophetic literature. He says in his Maqaamaat a-Suyuutti about pumpkin for example “A-Nasaa’i narrated on the authority of Anas bin Malik may Allah the Exalted be pleased with him, said ‘the Prophet, may Allah’s prayers and peace be upon him, loved pumpkin’…it’s cold-wet.”

Contemporary Western herbalism is very much built upon an old tradition of herbalism though it seems to have been secularized and exists in the realm of alternative medicine to which many people are skeptical and generally not accepted as a legitimate treatment by mainstream modern medicine. The Islamic tradition seems lost today aside from what is mentioned about food and health in the Quran and Prophetic literature which is void of the energetics approach. Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine are still very much alive and recognized as alternative but mainstream treatments.

I’m not really convinced on the philosophy of the energetics and humors. Emotions and physical sensations certainly exist but I’m doubtful about to what extent herbs and foods can influence them. That said, plenty of recent studies have confirmed the benefits of compounds in different foods and herbs, but they are very much supplementary to other healthy practices and modern treatments. I personally view herbalism as supplementing a healthy lifestyle and diet and don’t expect any significant impacts from adopting more herbs in my diet. What do you guys think? Do you have any experience with herbalism? Please let me know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

Muslim migration to Sicily under King Roger’s Norman rule

Several previous blog posts have discussed the role of Muslims in Sicily and Southern Italy which was most active during the ninth to eleventh centuries. Recently several Greek and Arabic documents discovered from the time of the rule of King Roger de Hauteville dealing with land disputes around the St. George’s of Troccoli monastery have been translated. They provide a window into the unique society that existed at the time. While it’s known that the Normans had quite a tolerant rule from the time of their takeover of Sicily under Prince Robert Guiscard, that tolerance seems to have gone beyond maintaining the status quo of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual kingdom to actualy seeing the immigration of Muslims to Christian Norman Sicily.

St. George’s of Troccoli monastery, was located near Sant Anna, Sicily which is about 15 kilometers inland from Sciacca. The monastery was dedicated by the Normans to St. George in 1098 because of the legend of the Saint leading crusaders to victory in the battle of Antioch during the First Crusade, so likewise they wanted to remember the many Norman knights who died fighting the Muslims to conquer Sicily.

Like the rest of feudal Europe, the monastery owned significant lands which were worked by villeins, or free serfs. A census-like exercise from 1141 identified the names of 115 men which are assumed to be heads of households which 15 of them were described as recently arrivals. 13 of 15 newly settled villeins have their place of origin indicated as al-Ifriiqii or “the (North) African” along with many surnames of al-Hilaal suggesting origin from the Banu Hilal Arab tribe which settled in North Africa.

Sicily had many Arab and Berber Muslims, in addition to native converts, whose families settled Sicily during the Islamic rule. While it appears many of these men were likely descendants of those villeins settled by Count Roger in 1097-1098, the 15 new arrivals appear to have been free migrants as they were unknown by Roger’s royal Diwan administration meaning they weren’t slaves as they would have been documented as such.

Records show a great famine occurring in North Africa from 1141-1142 followed by a plague in the winter of 1147-1148. Urban elites and rural poor migrated. It’s speculated that these new arrivals were poorer people who migrated before the famine as they were settled by 1141.

It seems strange that Muslims would migrate from North Africa, during the time of the crusades, to Sicily which was recently “re-conquered” from the Muslims to work as serfs for a Christian monastery unless the situation was rather dire there. It’s maybe even stranger that the Normans, who were a leading cadre of the Crusader forces, allowed the migration of Muslims to their Kingdom. This speaks a lot to the tolerant culture and government that existed in Sicily from the Islamic rule that continued with the Normans. Despite even the Crusades occurring these populations lived together in a truly unique multi-religious, multi-ethnic and multi-lingual kingdom where Catholic Norman Latins, Orthodox Greeks, and Sunni and Shia Muslims who were natives, Berber and Arab lived together, even holding prominent roles in the government.

These documents show that migration in the past was very much driven by the same forces it is today, seeking opportunities or just trying to survive. While a lot of attention is focused on culture wars today, we can also see that even in the backdrop of actual war (remember that the Catholic Crusaders also very much disliked non-Catholic Christians as well as Muslims) these different communities lived in coexistence without attempts of forced assimilation.

For those interested in the entire contents of the documents and their translations, they can refer to the paper The Twelfth-century documents of St. George’s of Troccoli (Sicily) by von Falkenhausen, Jamil and Johns available on Academia.edu.

Photo of Sicilian coast by Flicker User Riccardo Maria Mantero

The tree of life and numerology

Previous blogs have discussed the hisaab al-jummal, also known as abjad calculation which is the assigning of numeric values to individual letters. The same concept exists in Judaism with the Hebrew letters but is referred to as gematria. Both Islam and Judaism have spiritual traditions of contemplating numbers both in the text narrative as well as applying gematria/abjad systems. Following our last blog on the metaphorical meaning behind trees with examples from the Tree of Life, we can find many interesting links between the Tree of Life in the Arabic and Hebrew holy texts of the Quran and the Torah.

The Quran actually calls the tree of life the Tree of (Eternal) Life and Dominion “شَجَرَةِ ٱلْخُلْدِ وَمُلْكٍ” (20:120) whereas the Torah calls it the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil “עֵ֗ץ הַדַּ֨עַת֙ ט֣וֹב וָרָ֔ע” (Genesis 2:17) and alternatively the tree of life “עֵ֥ץ הַֽחַיִּֽים”(Genesis 3:24). If we examine some of the numerology related to these words and related words, some interesting patterns will arise.

67 and 40

The Arabic name is composed of three words with a hisaab al-jummal value of 1695 with the corresponding value of each word as 903, 665 and 127. The words “tree” and “life” each have the value of 903 and 665 respectively with a total value of 1568 which doesn’t include the value for the word “dominion.” Despite being a closely related Semitic language, the corresponding Hebrew word for tree is derived from another root (no pun intended), with the entire word “tree of life” having a numerical value of 1606, with the words “tree” and “life” each having the value of 970 and 636 respectively. Now, if we subtract the Arabic value of “tree of life” from the Hebrew (1606-1568) we get 38 (which interestingly is the value of 19, the divine number times two, with the two alluding to the two names or revelations). Then if we subtract the Hebrew numerical value of “life” from the Arabic one (665-636) we get 29 (which also happens to be the value of adding the individual numbers for the values of the Arabic words “tree of life” [9, 0, 3, 6, 6 and 5]). Adding that 29 to our 38 we get 67. Now things get interesting. What do you think we get if we subtract the numerical value of the Arabic “tree” from the Hebrew one? That’s right, it’s 67.

What’s also interesting is if we take the Arabic value for “life” and subtract it from the value of the Hebrew words “knowledge of good and evil” (772-665) we get 107. If we now subtract the difference in the values for the word “tree” in Arabic and Hebrew (the magic 67) that we previously calculated from 107 we get 40. Despite 40 also being a symbolic number in both faiths, it’s more importantly the difference in the numerical values of the Arabic and Hebrew Divine names (66-26) Allah “ٱللَّـهُ” and YHWH “יְהֹוָ֥ה” respectively.


21 is a significant number as it is the value of multiplying three by seven which are among the most significant and repeated numbers in both Islam and Judaism. It also adds up to the number three when its individual numbers are added together.

If we multiply the value of the Divine names together, we get 1716. If we then subtract the value of the Arabic “tree of life and dominion” (1695) we get 21. Likewise, if we add the individual numbers of the Arabic word ““tree of life and dominion” (1, 6, 9 and 5) it’s also adding up to, you guessed it, 21. Finally, if we go back to the 67 and the 107, the difference in the numerical values of the words for “tree” and “life” in both languages/sacred texts, we find that their individual numbers also add up to 21.

These numerological links between the Torah and Quran are very interesting and deserve more investigation. Do you know of any other links? If so, please share in the comments! Wishing you all some very inspired reflection.

Photo by SUNIL PATEL from Pexels

The truth of the tree; Do metaphor archetypes (proto-metaphors) exist?

Some words are very old in that they can be traced back over 3000 years or more. Sometimes the meaning is also preserved especially for words describing material things as opposed to concepts. Archetypes of these things exist such that an apple is recognized as an apple regardless of variation in shape, color or taste. What’s interesting is that metaphorical archetypes also seem to exist, and we can observe this in words with metaphorical connections developing from either in words where they share a common root or not. If we examine the concept of truth and the word tree in different languages, we can discover some interesting patterns.

The word truth in English is derived from the word tree. There is a phonetic overlap but it’s not overly apparent. The derivation may sound like a stretch but the word “true,” conveying the meaning of correct, upright, steadfast and representing reality, is derived from the Old English “treo” or “treow” which conveyed this meaning. It was understood to be good faith, trust (also a related word to “true”), a pledge or promise, but it also could mean tree. The meaning of truth is metaphorically related to the uprightness of tall and straight tree, the steadiness of strong tree, or the fidelity of an orchard providing its fruits year after year. The Old English word itself is derived from the Proto-Indo-European word “deru” with the root meaning also meaning to be firm, solid or steadfast, but also conveying the meaning of tree or wood.

The word “Druid,” referring to a high class of the Celtic (better pronounced with a “k” sound) peoples especially to their spiritual leaders, is derived from the same root. They were probably called druwids/druwides and their name literally meant “oak-knower” or “oak-seer.” While the Celts were known to worship trees, a common pagan practice, this word coveys that these people had a more transcendental relationship with the tree i.e. special knowledge. While the word “druw” refers to the trees and specifically oaks, it can also covey the meaning of strong and firm, although it’s uncertain which meaning was the initial one in Proto-Celtic.

These examples have been for words that are part of a larger language family and that also share the same root. However, we can find an example of words in another language family that don’t share the same root for the word but do carry the metaphoric meaning. We can look at the famous story of the forbidden tree in Paradise as mentioned in the Quran and the Torah. It’s known as the Tree of Life or Tree of Knowledge and in the Jewish tradition is debated if they are two or one in the same (that’s another story). While they do have different names in the texts, both trees feature as having a transcendental quality holding some Divine secrets and forbidden knowledge.

“Tree” in Hebrew, as mentioned in the Torah in a general sense as well as specifically the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16 and 2:17 respectively), is called “ ‘as” (עֵץ). In Arabic in the Quran it is mentioned in a general sense as well as specifically the tree of life (20:120) as called “shajara” (شَجَرَة). The Hebrew (ע and ץ) correspond to the Arabic (ع and ص) and interestingly these roots (no pun intended) are connected. The staff of the Prophet Moses (Musa in Arabic; see the Quran 20:18) which we also assume is wooden is called “ ‘asaa” (عصا) derived from the same root as the Hebrew and carries the meaning of supporting one upright. What’s interesting is that this staff, in addition to fulfilling that role, also manifests Divine proofs as mentioned in the Quran including turning into a snake (26:32; 7:107; 27:10; 28:31), exposing the deceptive illusion of the Pharaoh’s magician (26:45; 7:118), gathering rocks to gush forth water in the desert (2:60; 7:160) and splitting the sea (26:63).

The Arabic root of (شَجَرَ) has a complicated meaning but includes the meaning of branching, rooting and propagating trees, so it’s more specific to trees, but nonetheless also carries the meaning in the Quran of truth both as the tree of “everlasting life and dominion” (20:120) and the “Sidr” tree at the edge of Heaven (53:14), what can be seen as the boundary of Divine knowledge, where the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, is said to have “seen the greatest signs of his Lord” (53:18). It is mentioned in a Prophetic narration that he said “Then I entered the Seventh Region, and behold, I saw Abraham…. After that I was taken up to Sidrat al-Muntaha [Lote Tree of the Uttermost Boundary]… And Gabriel said, ‘This is Sidrat al-Muntaha.’ And I saw four rivers there; two concealed [batiniya] and two revealed [zahiriya]. I said to Gabriel, ‘What are these?’ He said, ‘These two concealed rivers are in Paradise, and the two revealed are the Nile and the Euphrates’ ” (Musnad of Imam Ahmed).  Imam al-Ghazali expanded on this idea of the concealed and revealed truth and said “The outward symbol is a real thing, and its application to the inward meaning is a real truth. Every real thing has its corresponding real truth.” In addition the Quran mentions the parable of the good word as “a good tree whose roots are firmly planted and its branches stretch forth to the sky” whereas the evil word as “an evil tree uprooted from the surface of the earth having no stability” (14:24 and 14:26).

We have seen how metaphoric meanings or archetypes have branched out along with words to new languages and language families and perhaps even interchanging the apparent and metaphorical meanings, in our case with the words tree and truth. However, we have seen in other language families that words with the same and different roots maintain the same metaphorical meanings. Are there proto-metaphors? Is this just normal or to be expected? Have I gone of the deep end here? Let me know what you think in the comments and please share other examples.

Photo by Johannes Plenio from Pexels

The Sogdian Diaspora in Medieval China

Sogdians were an ancient Iranian people whose homeland Sogdia was in Transoxiana. They established the two great cities of Bukhara and Samarkand. They were a part of the larger Persian world where their unique culture which was influenced not only by Zoroastrianism but also Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian and Syriac Christianity and even Mesopotamian and Indian faiths. Sogdian culture survived into the eighth century CE declining first after the Arab Islamic conquests around the same time and then finally by the mass expansion of Turkic peoples into the region in the eleventh century.

As interesting as these Sogdians were, even more interesting were their immigrant communities in the Tarim Basin and China proper. They established themselves as one of the dominant immigrant populations and were famous for their work in commerce particularly along the Silk Road. Archaeological discoveries over the last century have established the extent of their presence in what was a little-known part of the regional history.

Archaeologist Aurel Stein’s discovery of the Sogdian letters mentioned their presence in Luoyang, Chang’an (Xian), Lanzhou, Wuwei, Jiuquan and Dunhuang where they were involved in trading linen, woolen cloth, musk, cosmetics, pepper, camphor and silk demonstrating the extent of their trade networks into Central Asia, China and India and perhaps even Southeast Asia.

Probably the largest concentration of Sogdians was in Chang’an the capital of the Tang dynasty which held numerous immigrant communities including Turks, Persians and most likely Mesopotamian peoples. A single church from the Church of the East and several Zoroastrian temples existed among Buddhist temples. Even the descendants of the last Sasanian Emperor Yazdegerd III made Chang’an home after the fall of Ctesiphon to the Muslim forces.

Sogdian’s were strongly associated with being involved in commercial trade which became a theme adopted in some of the Chinese “wonder tales” which peaked in popularity during the mid-ninth century. Sogdians were stereotyped as being very generous with a penchant to assess the value of jewels but forced to menial jobs due their immigrant status not unlike immigrants today. While there were some wealthy traders most Sogdians worked as farmers, metalsmiths, soldiers and emissaries.

Unfortunately, fate was about to turn on the Sogdians and other immigrants in China. It started with the An Lushan Rebellion. An Lushan’s paternity has been a debate among historians as An is a Sogdian name. Whether or not he had Sogdian ancestry or adopted a Sogdian name the anti-immigrant sentiment took hold particularly targeted against the Sogdians. The ethnically Korean Tang general who cleared Beijing of the rebels offered reward for those who killed Hu, which were Iranians or Sogdians, and the Jiehu sub-group were decimated. Small children were thrown into the air and speared on lances while even non-Sogdians who had large Indo-European noses were killed.

Economic troubles followed the An Loushan Rebellion caused by Tibetan and Uighur expansion. Foreign envoys were no longer supported or welcome. Finally, in 843, pandering to nationalist sentiments, the Emperor banned Manichaeism and two years later he banned Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity, though the ban on Buddhism would be lifted four years later explaining the survival of it and death of the other faiths in China. Although the climate of hate and discrimination did not remain, the disruption of land routes now controlled by fragmented states and the rise of the sea route to India did not make an enabling environment for those Sogdian communities to be revived.

The Sogdian story is so interesting because it shows the long history the Indo-European peoples had in Central Asia and into China. Even more interesting is the parallels between the Sogdian immigrants and those of today where nationalist movements only result in discrimination, abuse, persecution and ultimately violence and death. Though their case is particularly fascinating as they were Indo-European immigrants to China in East Asia. For those interested in the Sogdians I highly recommend Valerie Hansen’s excellent The Silk Road: A New History.

The photo is a scene from a Sogdian palace and is courtesy of Flickr user Robert Wilson and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.

Language relics: Cumbrian sheep counting

Cumbrian is an extinct Brittonic language that was spoken in the Hen Ogledd or the “Old North” which comprises what is now northern England and southern Scotland. It is thought to have gone extinct in the twelfth century following the expansion of the Scottish Gaelic and Anglican kingdoms. Despite being extinct for over eight centuries some interesting relics of the language remain.

There is a rhyming counting system that is most often associated with shepherds’ sheep counting which is believed to be a relic of Cumbrian or even Old Brittonic numbers. It should be mentioned that some alternate theories have suggested this counting system was derived from nursery rhymes though there is no evidence for that and on the contrary the fact that it is used to count sheep also suggests otherwise.

There are some dialectical variations but the counting from one to twenty is as follows; yan, tyan, tethera, methera, pimp, sethera, lethera, hovera, dovera, dick, yanadick, tyanadick, tetheradick, metheradick, bumfit, yanabumfit, tyanabumfit, tetherabumfit, metherabumfit, gigot.

It’s quite interesting how the numbers over 10 (dick) are produced. Like many other languages it utilizes making a compound word, however 11-14 are built upon the 10 whereas 15 introduces a new word (bumfit) as opposed to making a compound word. Then 16-19 makes compound words from 15. Many languages produce the 11-19 through a compound word based on the 10.

It’s quite delightful to listen to though the compound numbers are a bit of a tongue twister. Despite the Cumbrian language being supplanted it is easy to understand how the system of counting used daily by shepherds could survive especially in some of the more remote areas of Cumbria like the Lake District. Interestingly, it is believed that the famous nursery rhyme “Hickory Dickory Dock” is derived from hovera, dovera, dick. Unfortunately Cumbrian is a dead language but it is known to be closely related to Welsh so you can listen to it to get an idea what Cumbrian might have sounded like.

The photo is from the Lake District in Cumbria and is courtesy of Flickr user Michael Brace and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.

Numerology in Islam- the miracle of the 99 Divine Names and the Ka’ba

We recently looked at Surat An-Naml (the Chapter of the Ant) and some of the numerological signs manifested there especially around the number 19 which represents the Alpha and the Omega (Al-Awl wa Al-Ahkir in Arabic) and we can recall the Quranic verse “…And He [Allah] …has numerated all things by numbers” (72:28). Now we will look at some of the numerological miracles manifested in the 99 Divine Names of Allah and the Ka’ba.

The Quran informs us that “Allah, who there is no deity except He, has the most beautiful names” (20:8) and we are informed by hadith (Prophetic narration) that “Verily Allah has 99 names, one hundred minus one. He who enumerates them enters the heavenly paradise.” Imam Ahmed bin Ali Al-Boni (d. 622 Hijri) was among the first to organize the 99 names into a square with the name of the Prophet Mohammed added to finalize the square (10×10). If the names are put in a specific order the first miracle becomes apparent; each individual row, column and two 45 degree columns have a total abjad (gematria) value of 3394, meaning adding the abjad value for each name in the segment together (see the table above). All 22 of the 10 name segments add up to the same value. Now if we examine this number, we find that the total value of the individual numbers (3+3+9+4) equals 19, the sacred number.

Further investigation of the names at the corner of the square (Ka’ba) and the associated acts of the pilgrimages (Haj and ‘Umra) reveal more miracles. It is documented in the Sira (Prophetic biography) that once the Ka’ba was being repaired and the different tribes could not agree on who would place the Black Stone back in the Ka’ba so they agreed to wait for the next man they saw, and then the Prophet came (though this was five years before his prophethood began), and he replaced the stone to satisfy all the conflicting tribes. This corner (the Black Stone) is that of Mohammed (bottom left corner of the table). During the Tawaf, or circumnavigation of the Ka’ba, the touching or pointing toward the black stone is a symbol of the renewal of loyalty, obedience, love and surrender to Allah and His Prophet. Likewise, the relation is further portrayed in the Quranic verse “Verily those who pledge allegiance to you pledge allegiance to Allah” (38:48) and the hadith “The Black Stone is the right hand of Allah on Earth.” The Prophet also described himself as the final prophet who was the “Cornerstone of the building.” The Prophet magnified Allah at this station and it is recommended to supplicate here “In the name of Allah, Allah is the Greatest, verily I am believing in You, believing in Your Book, honoring Your Contract and following the way of Your Prophet Mohammed may the peace and blessing of Allah be upon him.”

So far we have only discussed the corner of the Black Stone, however as we discuss the other corners and their related acts of pilgrimage, it will become more apparent why this corner is symbolizing the Black Stone apart from what was already mentioned. The corner that is associated with the name Al-Ghafaar (the Forgiver) represents the Yemeni corner of the Ka’ba. It is at this corner during the pilgrimage that pilgrims read the Quranic supplication “Our Lord, give of the best of this world, the best of the next world, and save us from the punishment of the fire [of hell]” (2:201). This supplication is suitable for the Divine Name of this corner and it is read starting from this corner moving toward the Black Stone where one touches or points to it as previously discussed.

What’s interesting is that there are no supplications to be read at the other two corners which according to the table are Allah and Al-Qadir. Allah is the greatest name of His names and encompasses all meaning of the other names. It can also refer to Himself as in His essence as He says in the Quran “And Allah warns you regarding Himself” (3:28) so it is not possible for a direct link and hence it is not suitable to supplicate here. Similarly the last corner, that of Al-Qadir meaning the Destiny Maker, has a meaning that is not suitable for supplication as it emphasizes the trait of divine power which creation has no power over.

Finally the last amazing point regarding the table of Divine Names and the Ka’ba is its shape. Most people assume the word Ka’ba means square or cube and even in Arabic the root has been incorrectly utilized to make the word muka’b meaning cubed. However the meaning of ka’aba which is the root of the word Ka’ba actually refers to a pointy triangle shape which is apparent from the Quranic verse 78.33. Now if you remove the name of the Prophet Mohammed from the table you are only three corners remaining forming a triangle shape.

Our examination of numerology and the related miracles in the Divine Names and the Ka’ba will conclude here. Those who are interested may want to read some of the works of Sheikh Abdul-Baqi Miftah Al-Jaza’ir (in Arabic) and hopefully we will have additional postings on numerology in the Quran.

Numerology in the Quran- Surat An-Naml (Chapter of the Ant)

There is limited knowledge of numerology in the Quran due to the small number of translation of texts into English. However numerology in the holy text is a reality where it is recorded: “[Allah] is the Knower of the unseen and He does not manifest [His knowledge] of the unseen to anyone except messengers who he chooses and then He appoints [angels as] watching guards before them and after them [so that devils will not convolute the message] so that He knows that they (the angels) have conveyed the message of the Lord. And He has encompassed all that is with them and has numerated all things by numbers” (72:26-28).

Numerology in the Quran utilized the counting of individual letters, words, verses and chapters as well as hisaab al-jummal, known also as gematria or Abjad calculation which is the assigning of values to individual letters, and other methods as well. We will begin by examining Surat an-Naml, or the Chapter of the Ant, which includes a narrative, among other things, the Prophet Solomon’s dialogue with an ant (hence the name of the chapter) and the story of the Queen of Sheba.

The chapter itself is the 27th according to order of the chapters and contains 93 verses. It begins with the al-huroof al-muqata’a (independent letters), or the individual letters with unapparent meaning, letters (ط) and (س). Interestingly the letter (ط) occurs 27 times in the chapter and the letter (س) occurs 93 times reflecting the order of the chapter and the number of its verses. What’s more, if you calculate the jummal value of the word naml, or ant for which the chapter is named, it equals 120 (which is 50+40+30) and this is also the total when the chapter number and verses number are added as well as the number of times the two letters at the beginning of the chapter when added together (27+93).

Also of note is the fact that this chapter includes the basmala, or the wording “In the name of Allah the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful,” two times. All other 113 chapters only contain this phrase once except Surat At-Tawba, or the Chapter of Repentance, which is the only chapter not to include the phrase. If you begin counting from this chapter, which is the 9th, until the Chapter of the Ant, the 27th, it equals 19. The difference between the numbering of the two chapters is 18 (27-9). Now if we add the total value of the number of the chapters from the Chapter of Repentance to the Chapter of the Ant (9+10+11+12…+27) it equals 342 which is the value of 19 multiplied by 18 as well and it is only this addition of sequential numbers that will add up to 342.

Finally it is noteworthy that the word ant (an-naml in Arabic) only occurs in the Quran once and it’s in the 18th verse of the chapter which itself contains 19 letters. It should also be mentioned that the number 19 is very significant in the Quran and it deserves its own post for further examples.

This is just a brief example of the numerological miracles in just one chapter of the Quran. I will try to add further examples in the near future. Arabic speakers who are interested to read further are encouraged to visit the website of the Noon Center from which this article was adapted from one of the published articles.

The photo is of an ancient Syrian Quran parchment written in Kufic script dated to the eighth century CE and is courtesy of Flickr user Richard Morel and subject to use under the conditions of the Creative Commons.

The debate over the depiction of Hannibal by the History Channel

The travesty that is the History Channel deserves its own dedicated discussion where historical accuracy seems to be reduced at the expense of Hollywood computer generated images, celebrity hosts and reality television. I recent saw the History Channel’s Hannibal of Carthage episode of the Barbarians Rising series where several historical inaccuracies were portrayed.

Of course the term barbarian is a loaded term, more of a historical slander, where “In former times, barbarians were people from other countries who were thought to be uncivilized and violent.” This perception of being uncivilized could tell more about the civilization describing another as barbarian than about that civilization itself.

Now it is true that many of the “barbarians” featured in the series are comparatively less civilized that the “civilized” societies featured in the series such as the ancient Britons and Germanic tribes versus the Roman Empire. This is not the case with regards to the Carthaginians which were descendants of the Phoenicians, a people who actually developed the Phonetic alphabet, and the Carthaginians themselves had a sophisticated and wealthy trading empire which was competing with Rome for the domination of the Mediterranean. Many academic research books have been written about the Phoenician and Carthaginian civilizations and as far as I know, no historian has described them as barbarian or uncivilized but quite the contrary.

Now one of the more contentious topics of historical inaccuracy that was even more debated was the race of Hannibal. In the History Channel series he was portrayed by a black actor. On one hand some black/African culture commentators celebrated this, beholding Hannibal as a black African hero, and deriding a possible racist bias by white historians. One commentator wrote “white history buffs are crying foul over the ‘historical inaccuracy’…There have been debates over the race of Hannibal. This debate still continues to this day.”

Are there racist historians? Yes. Have historians predicated their own historical facts on their own personal beliefs? Yes. Have there been debates over the race of Hannibal that continue to this day? As far as I know, no. There seems to be consensus that Hannibal was Punic, meaning of the Phoenician peoples who settled Carthage in modern day Tunis and North Africa. The Phoenicians themselves were a Semitic people who originated in what is modern day Lebanon. Images produced by others who came into contact with them and by themselves depict them as having traditional Mediterranean features including having fairer skin.

Do we have a picture of Hannibal that might settle this debate? Well, the answer is that we’re not sure. What we do have is Punic coins, minted by the Punics, featuring Punic figures including a coin minted during the time of Hannibal which many believe to be him. These coins should function as historical attestations as they were domestically produced. They feature busts of people with traditional Mediterranean features including wavy hair, pronounced noses, and generally finer features not unlike depictions of Greeks and Romans.

The coins seem not to have conclusively closed the issue. One black history commentator has offered an unreferenced coin supposedly showing a very black African Hannibal. Of course without knowing who made it, when and where it is very hard to respond to the claim which is contrary to all the other Punic coins we have. This issue seems to have encompassed more than just historical accuracy. To further support his claim the commentator quotes the 1961 work of French Historian Gabriel Audisio who said “Hannibal to be neither a Phoenician, nor a Carthaginian, nor a Punic, but a North African… The majority of the Punic populace seems to have had African, indeed Negroid, ancestry.”

This is a relevant point. Those Phoenicians settled a place where certainly other peoples already lived and they would have likely mixed with those people. The question then comes to who lived there. It is erroneous to assume only black people inhabited Africa and we do know that the Berber people inhabited much of central and western North Africa just as non-black African Copts inhabited Egypt. Berbers themselves are considered a mixed Afro-Asiatic population however they are not black Africans and part of their origin likely hails from the Near East and possible even Iberia.

The previously mentioned commentator concludes “Whether described as Carthaginians, Phoenicians, or Punics of North Africa, according to Audisio’s research they were certainly a mix of aboriginal North Africans that included the native Berbers, Moors and other groups.” Unfortunately his conclusion is incorrect, or at least partially so, as the term Moor refers to an ethno-religious group, in this case North African Muslims, who did not exist at the time of Hannibal or the Punic people.

This is further evidence for the loaded discussion and how it is moving away from historical fact to revisionist history. One person commenting on the article even said “Hannibal was black. The painting in Egyptian pyramid’s show black people but the thieving arabs have repainted them yello or brown..[sic].” Claiming Arabs repainted Pharaonic monuments is ridiculous especially considering that many of those monuments were already buried with sand by the time the Arabs arrived in Egypt, some were only discovered (unearthed) in the past century, and it would be easily provable that it was done; I’m not going to say more. Unfortunately history is no longer driven by research but by belief.

Returning to the History Channel, it is unclear what the motivations, if any, for their historical inaccuracies were. The History Channel website seems to be devoid of any information of their historical academic and research methodology or if they even undertake such an exercise at all. If this inaccuracy was the result of negligence, I find that very serious, and the History Channel should be held accountable. If they can’t or won’t provide historically accurate information, may we dare call it fake history, then they should change their name as History Channel suggests they are providing historically accurate history.

The image is that of Hannibal in the History Channel series Barbarians Rising.