Recently, I had to present a speech for one my classes on the achievements and contributions of Islamic civilization. I was so pleased with the response from my peers that I decided to share a portion of my presentation on my blog. I’ve decided this will be a continued discussion on my blog and I will focus on different aspects each time I write about it! Islamic history is one of my favorite subjects, and while it is amazing to note all the achievements that Muslims have contributed over the centuries, it is also disappointing that this is a history often untold, forgotten, and even rewritten. Unfortunately during a time when the U.S. is at war with Muslim nations, people tend to generalize, stereotype, and forget about how the “enemy’s” civilization has also played a significant role in shaping our world. Without acknowledging this lost history, many misconceptions about Islam are bound to persist. Islam and democracy, for example, is considered to be incompatible by harsh critics of Islam. However they neglect the Muslim Empire when it expanded across the Middle-East after the passing of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Tolerance and coexistence was widely practiced and many of the Muslim Caliphs and leaders knew that in order to have a successful and civilized society, free-thinking and freedom of expression was very essential.
The Latin words in the title of this entry are found in 12th century manuscripts and translations of Mohammad Al-Khwarizmi’s work. Al-Khwarizmi was an extraordinary 9th century mathematician who was among many of the great Muslim contributors during the Golden Age of Islamic civilization. His very name “Al-Khwarizmi” is where we get the word “algorithm” from. He also invented algebra (derived from the Arabic word “al-jabir” which means “to restore”) and discovered the Indian numeric system, which he later adopted and systemized into society. These are the same numerals (Indic-Arabic numerals) that we use today: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and so on. I made a poster board for my presentation and displayed the evolution of these numerals which were used in different parts of the Muslim world – Spain, Baghdad, Cairo, etc. – and eventually in Europe. The Europeans used this numerical system since it was an easier way to compute numbers rather than using Roman Numerals! Could you imagine Roman Numerals on your cell phones or using them to make calculations at the store? This was an enormous achievement which is still evident today, but there are some extremely biased and anti-Islamic historians who say that the Muslims “stole” the brilliance of the numeric system from the Indians. It would be a faulty accusation to state that the Muslims arrogantly claimed that the numerals were an Islamic invention. Anyone who studies the actual history will learn that Al-Khwarizmi was thirsting for knowledge and learning. He was in a library in the great city of Baghdad where he came upon the texts of Indian mathematicians. Al-Khwarizmi ordered the Sanskrit texts to be translated into Arabic and once they were, he acknowledged the genius of the Indian mathematician. One of his works attributed the invention to Indians even in the title: Kitab al-Jam wal tafriq bi-hisab al-Hind – “The Book of Addition and Subtraction to the Hindu Calculation.” Another profound discovery Al-Khwarizmi made from the Hindu mathematicians was the number “zero”, which did not exist in Roman Numerals. The term “zero” started as “sunya” in Sanskrit which means “void” and “empty”. In Arabic it is “sifr”, and in Italian “zefiro”, and finally “zero” in French. Not only was this a huge breakthrough in mathematics, but also in the fields of engineering, technology, astronomy, philosophy, and even in theology. In respect to theology, the “zero” – nothingness – taught Al-Khwarizmi that reason and revelation ultimately leads us to the same source (i.e. God). Reason and revelation, or Intellect and Love, must coexist. This was also a fascinating topic all throughout the Islamic world (and eventually beyond) because it re-confirmed the Qur’anic declaration that God is in the numeral (see Qur’an 72:28 and footnotes below) as well as how God created us out of “nothing”:
God reveals Himself in numbers, the physical world, as much as He reveals Himself through the Unseen. This is the way of Islamic living, to use both the practical mind and the feeling heart. Where does Reason and Love spring from? Where is their Source? Certainly God is the Source and He blesses us with these capabilities. If one is simply Loving, then how will he know his boundaries, how will he know his limits? If one is simply Reasoning, then how will he know that to overcome his doubts, he would have to listen to his heart? How will he find Happiness? Certainly, the notion of living forever is not logical or rational; it comes from revelation, from Faith. This intercommunication of Reasoning and Love is the balance that Muslims strive to establish.
It is also worth mentioning the significance of algorithms. They are a set of numerical calculations and instructions that produce various kinds of results when carried out. Algorithms are critical to computers, programming, engineering, and software design. Without algorithms, typing this blog entry (or using a computer at that) would not be possible! As mentioned earlier, Algebra is probably the greatest of all of Al-Khwarizmi’s achievements because it is considered the first step into moving mathematics from the physical to the abstract. In other words, mathematics wasn’t just about counting how many items you purchased or calculating the cost anymore, it would extend far beyond physicality. As stated by Michael H. Morgan, author of “Lost History: The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists”, Al-Khwarizmi’s new ways of calculating will “enable the building of a 100 story towers and mile-long buildings, calculating the point at which a space probe will intersect with the orbits of one of Jupiter’s moons, the reactions of nuclear physics… intelligence of software, and the confidentiality of a mobile phone conversation.”
His other achievements included writings on astronomy and a treatise on the Jewish/Hebrew calender. A lot of Al-Khwarizmi’s contributions to the world as we know it has been forgotten. Many historians agree that the European Renaissance would not have shaped in the way it did if it were not for the accomplishments of great Muslim thinkers like Al-Khwarizmi. Nowadays, when we watch anything about the war, we tend to see a clash of civilizations, but we do not see the forgotten history; we do not see how both East and West have learned and developed from one another. Insha’Allah, if others have found this entry intriguing and enjoyable, I will continue to post more about the great Islamic contributions to the world.
It’s sad at how the Muslim world is crumbling these days because of war and disunity. The fact that Al-Khwarizmi was Persian and a Shia Muslim represents the level of tolerance and coexistence that was enjoyed during the reign of the Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad. This is the kind of unity that needs to be established in the current Muslim world. I believe the young Muslims, especially in the West, have serious potential to resurrect the spirit of our ancestors! Insha’Allah, may we all strive for that.