Americans, as part of their school curriculum, learn Arabic numerals?
a Pittsburgh-based research firm, put that question to some 3,200 Americans
recently in a poll seemingly about mathematics, but the outcome was a measure
of students’ attitudes toward the Arab world. Some 56 percent of the
respondents said, “No.” Fifteen percent had no opinion.
results, which quickly inspired more than 24,000 tweets, might have been
sharply different had the pollsters explained what “Arabic numerals” are.
10 of them: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.
prompted John Dick, the chief executive of the polling company, to label the
finding “the saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we’ve ever seen
in our data.”
the Americans who opposed the teaching of Arabic numerals (Republicans in
greater proportion than Democrats) lacked the basic knowledge of what they are
and also had some aversion to anything described as “Arabic.”
indeed sad and funny — and also a reason to pause and ask a simple question:
Why is the world’s most efficient numerical system, also standard in Western
civilization, called “Arabic numerals”?
traces to seventh-century India, where the numerical system, which included the
revolutionary formulation of zero, was developed. Some two centuries later, it
moved to the Muslim world, whose magnificent capital, Baghdad, was then the
world’s best city in which to pursue an intellectual career. There, a Persian
Muslim scholar named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi developed a mathematical
discipline called al-jabir, which literally means “reunion of broken parts.”
early 13th century, an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci, who studied
calculation with an Arab master in Muslim North Africa, found the numerals and
their decimal system much more practical than the Roman system, and soon
popularized them in Europe, where the figures became known as “Arabic
the discipline of al-jabir became “algebra,” and al-Khwarizmi’s name evolved
words in English have Arabic roots; a short list would include admiral,
alchemy, alcove, alembic, alkali, almanac, lute, mask, muslin, nadir, sugar,
syrup, tariff and zenith. Some scholars think that even the word “check,” which
you get from a bank, comes from the Arabic word sakk, which means “written
document.” (Its plural, sukuk, is still used in Islamic banking to refer to
There is a
reason these Western terms have Arabic roots: Between the eighth and 12th
centuries, the Muslim world, whose lingua franca was Arabic, was much more
creative than Christian Europe, which was then in the late Middle Ages. Muslims
were the pioneers in mathematics, geometry, physics, astronomy, biology,
medicine, architecture, trade and, most important, philosophy. To be sure,
Muslims had inherited these sciences from other cultures, such as the ancient
Greeks, Eastern Christians, Jews and Hindus. Still, they advanced those
disciplines with their own innovations and transmitted them to Europe.
so deep into this much-forgotten history? Because there are lessons for both
Muslims and non-Muslims.
latter are Western conservatives, who are passionate about protecting the
legacy of Western civilization, which they often define as exclusively
“Judeo-Christian.” Of course, Western civilization does have a great
accomplishment worth preserving: the Enlightenment, which gave us freedom of
thought, freedom of religion, the abolition of slavery, equality before the
law, and democracy.
values should not be sacrificed to the postmodern tribalism called “identity
politics.” But Western conservatives retreat to tribalism themselves when they
deny the wisdom in, and the contributions of, sources that are not
Judeo-Christian. The third great Abrahamic religion, Islam, also had a hand in
the making of the modern world, and honouring that legacy would help establish
a more constructive dialogue with Muslims.
we Muslims ourselves have a big question to answer: Why was our civilization
once so creative, and why have we lost that golden age?
Muslims find a simple answer in piety and the lack thereof, thinking that
decline came when Muslims turned “sinful.” Others assume that the early majesty
can be traced to mighty leaders, whose reincarnations they hope to see again.
Some find solace in conspiracy theories that blame enemies outside and
Here is a
more realistic explanation: The early Islamic civilization was creative because
it was open-minded. At least some Muslims had the urge to learn from other
civilizations. There was some room for free speech, which was extraordinary for
its time. That allowed the work of towering Greek philosophers such as
Aristotle to be translated and discussed, theologians of different stripes to
speak their minds, and scholars to find independent patronage. From the 12th
century onward, however, a more uniform and less rational form of Islam was
imposed by despotic caliphs and sultans. So Muslim thought turned insular,
repetitive and incurious.
By the 17th
century, in Muslim India, Ahmad al-Sirhindi, a prominent scholar also known as
Imam Rabbani, was marking the dogmatic turn when he condemned all
“philosophers” and their “stupid” disciplines. “Among their codified and
systemic sciences is geometry that is totally useless,” he wrote. “The sum of
three angles in a triangle is two right angles — what benefit does it have?”
this tragic closing of the Muslim mind happened, and how it can be overturned,
is the biggest question facing Muslims today. We should not lose more time
through denials and blame games.
At the same
time, however, others should not make the mistake of judging Islamic
civilization by looking at its worst products, many of which are now rampant.
It is a great civilization that has made significant contributions to humanity,
especially the West.
That is why
you dial your phone using “Arabic numerals.” And that is just the tip of a big
iceberg of ideas and values shared between Islam and the West.
Akyol is a senior fellow on Islam and modernity at the Cato Institute, and the
author of “Islam Without Extremes: A Muslim Case for Liberty.”
Source: The New York Times