AL-KHWARIZMI (800-847)

820 – Baghdad, Iraq

Portrait of AL-KHWARIZMI


The man often credited with the introduction of ‘Arabic’ numerals was al-Khwarizmi, an Arabian mathematician, geographer and astronomer. Strictly speaking it was neither invented by al-Khwarizmi, nor was it Middle Eastern in origin.

786 – Harun al-Rashid came to power. Around this time al-Khwarizmi born in Khwarizm, now Khiva, in Uzbekistan.

813 – Caliph al-Ma’mun, the patron of al-Khwarizmi, begins his reign in Baghdad.

Arabic notation has its roots in India around 500 AD, thus the current naming as the ‘Hindu-Arabic’ system. al-Khwarizmi, a scholar in the Dar al-ulum (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad in the ninth century, is responsible for introducing the numerals to Europe. The method of using only the digits 0-9, with the value assigned to them determined by their position, as well as introducing a symbol for zero, revolutionised mathematics.

al-Khwarizmi explained how this system worked in his text ‘Calculation with Hindu numerals‘. He was clearly building upon the work of others before him, such as DIOPHANTUS and BRAHMAGUPTA, and on Babylonian sources that he accessed through Hebrew translations. By standardizing units, Arabic numerals made multiplication, division and every other form of mathematical calculation much simpler. His text ‘al-Kitab al-mukhtasar- fi hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala’ (The Compendious Book on Calculating by Completion and Balancing) gives us the word algebra. In this treatise, al-Khwarizmi provides a practical guide to arithmetic.

In his introduction to the book he says the aim of the work is to introduce ‘what is easiest and most useful in mathematics, such as men constantly require in cases of inheritance, legacies, partition, lawsuits and trade, and in all their dealings with one another, or when measuring lands, digging canals and making geometrical calculations.’ He introduced quadratic equations, although he described them fully in words and did not use symbolic algebra.
It was in his way of handling equations that he created algebra.

The two key concepts were the ideas of completion and balancing of equations. Completion (al-jabr) is the method of expelling negatives from an equation by moving them to the opposite side

4x2 = 54x – 2x2  becomes  6x2 = 54x

Balancing (al-muqabala) meanwhile, is the reduction of common positive terms on both sides of the equation to their simplest forms

x2 + 3x + 22 = 7x + 12  becomes  x2 + 10 = 4x

Thus he was able to reduce every equation to simple, standard forms and then show a method of solving each, showing geometrical proofs for each of his methods – hence preparing the stage for the introduction of analytical geometry and calculus in the seventeenth century.

The name al-Khwarizmi also gives us the word algorithm meaning ‘a rule of calculation’, from the Latin title of the book, Algoritmi de numero Indorum.

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OMAR KHAYYAM (c.1048–1131)

In the service of the Kurdish-Turkish Sultan Salah al-Din ibn Ayyub (Saladin صلاح الدين يوسف بن أيوب‎ ), the nemesis of Richard the Lionheart during the second crusade, there was published a definitive treatise by Khayyām on algebra in which he classified algebraic equations up to the third degree and showed how geometric solutions to the equations could be obtained.

Image depicting OMAR KHAYYAM

Ironically, the source of Khayyām’s most enduring legacy is neither his mathematics nor his science but rather his poetry. The Rubaiyat, a translation, or recomposition, published initially in 1859 by the British poet Edward Fitzgerald, presents his work in a series of melancholic ruminations concerning the irreversibility of fate and the fleeting nature of life.

One explanation of the decline of science in Islāmic civilization, which began in the late fifteenth century, is the general fatalism that pervaded Islāmic culture, as revealed in the melancholia and pathos of Khayyām’s quatrains describing life continuing among the ruins of ancient grandeur.
Another explanation is the emergence in twelfth century Baghdad of an intellectual movement spearheaded by the fundamentalist al-Ghazali, which favoured faith and dogma over reason and direct evidence.

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