By M Erhayiem

The IBM World Book Encyclopaedia raises the question as how the Arabic Numerals originated (!?) as appeared in an article contributed by Nadine L. Verderber, Ph.D., Prof. of Mathematics, Southern Illinois Univ., Edwardsville. The article states, as such, "Scholars do not know how Arabic numerals originated." "The Hindus developed the zero sometime after 600 AC."


Apparently the Arabic Numerals were originated based on the concept of trigonometry. This explanation is easily justifiable in a time where mathematics had flourished in various directions under the guardianship of the "House of Wisdom" in Baghdad functioning as the centre of study and research in the Islamic world of the 9th century. Creating appropriate mathematical symbols was, in fact, part of the process to develop advanced mathematical techniques required by the ever expanding needs for mathematical solutions to all forms of life. The Islamic civilization expanded over three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe. Many nations were part of this great empire. The need for finding mathematical solutions were vital in every field: building engineering, astronomy, navigation, statistics of population, wages and taxes, and so on. Under such circumstances the knowledge of numbers and all related symbols had to be universally understood and adopted by all people. By 3,000 BC, the people of the very same land, Mesopotamia, invented the world's first writing system.


Their descendants, the Arabs, who had great experience in inventing codes and scriptures, invented a singular symbol that is remarkably simple and universal. Each Numeric Symbol represents “Angle”. Thus Symbol "1" represents "one angle," symbol "2" represents "two angles" and so on. A full illustration for symbols 1-9 is as shown here.

The forgotten brilliance The World Book Multimedia Encyclopaedia has largely ignored the work of the Scientists during the Islamic and the Arabic medieval era. The contributions of the Muslims and Arabs in the field of Mathematics were very significant. The great Harvard historian of science, Professor George Sarton wrote in his monumental Introduction to the History of Science[4]: "From the second half of the 8th to the end of the 11th century, Arabic was the scientific, the progressive language of mankind... When the West was sufficiently mature to feel the need of deeper knowledge, it turned its attention, first of all, not to the Greek sources, but to the Arabic ones." O'Connor and Robertson[2] published various articles about the contribution of those forgotten brilliance.


Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi, who flourished under the Abbasid state at Baghdad through 813-833 AC, was a mathematician, astronomer and geographer. He was perhaps one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived. His work on algebra was outstanding, as he not only initiated the subject in a systematic form but he also developed it to the extent of giving analytical solutions of linear and quadratic equations, which established him as the founder of Algebra. The very name "Algebra" has been derived from his famous book "AI-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah." Thus, he explained the use of zero, a numeral of fundamental importance developed by the Arabs. Several of his books were translated into Latin in the early 12th century. According to Parshall[3], “AI-Khwarizmi systematically presented the algebraic solutions, known since Babylonian times, of particular cases of these equations and then provided geometric justification for his algebraic rules." The English word "algorithm" derives from the Latin form of al-Khwarizmi's name[1].


Ya'qub ibn Ishaq al-Kindi (801-873 AC), a Philosopher and Mathematician, who wrote many works on arithmetic, including: the numbers, relative quantities, measuring proportion and time, and numerical procedures, He also wrote on space and time.


Ahmed ibn Yusuf al-Misri (835-912 AC), his works on ratio and proportion, and geometry' of circles were translated into Latin.


AI-Fadl ibn Hatim al-Nayrizi (865-922 AC) employed principles of trigonometry to calculate geographical directions.


Banu Musa brothers (Ja'far Muhammad, Ahmad and al-Hasan (sons of) Musa ibn Shakir) (9th century AC): Ja'far Muhammad worked on geometry and astronomy while al-Hasan worked mainly on geometry and wrote "The elongated circular figure" which is a work on the "ellipse." Ahmad worked mainly on mechanics and wrote on pneumatic devices. The most studied work written by the Banu Musa is "The Book of the Measurement of Plane and Spherical Figures." This work became well known through the translation into Latin.


Ibrahim ibn Sinan ibn Thabit ibn Qurra (908-946 AC) who introduced a method of integration in studying the quadrature of the parabola. His work was a continuation of his grandfather's (Thabit ibn Qurra) research work. He also studied the motions of the Sun.


Abu Mansur ibn Tahir al-Baghdadi (980-1037 AC) gave an Interesting discussion of "abundant numbers," "deficient numbers," "perfect numbers" and "equivalent numbers."




[1] Gillispie, Charles C. ed. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, 16 vols. 2 supps. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1970-1990. S.v. "AI-Khwarizmi, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa" by Gerald Toomer; S.v. "Banu Musa" by J. al-Dabbagh. back to article


[2] Articles by: O'Connor, J. J. and Robertson, E. F.; (HTML encoded version): back to article


[3] Parshall, Karen Hunger; "The Art of Algebra from AL-Khwarizmi to Viete: A Study in the Natural Selection of Ideas"; (HTML encoded version): This document previously appeared as an article in the June 1988 issue of History of Science, Vol. 26, No.72, pp.129-164. back to article


[4] Sarton, George. Introduction to the History of Science, 3 vols. Baltimore: Carngie Institution of Washington, 1927-1948. 1:545-46. back to article

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