Friday 24 May 2019

Arabic Numerals Misunderstood

The US-American market research company Civic Science conducted a survey asking 3.624 people whether schools in America should teach Arabic numerals as part of their curriculum without explaining the term "Arabic numerals" since that would have spoilt the fun of teasing out "prejudice among those who didn't understand the question". According to the chief executive of Civic Science, the results were "the saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we've ever seen in our data". Apparently, a great many people did not know what these numerals mean, some 2.020 (56%) answered "no", only 29% said "yes" and 15% had no opinion. Even when controlling for education (i.e., not having a significant difference in education), 72% of Republican-supporting respondents said "no" versus 40% of Democrats. In other words, the answers are not only about knowledge of the numerical nomenclature (via).

So, where do Arabic numerals come from? Muhammad Khwarizmi (780-850), "the father of algebra" (the word "algebra" is derived from the title of one of his books), was "a Persian scholar who produced works in mathematics, astronomy, and geography" (via), a poet and philosopher, Cabinet member in Dawala's government of Iran (Broumand, 2006), and the very Persian who introduced the Arabs to the Hindu decimal numerals (via), now known as Arabic numerals.
In the 12th century, Latin translations of his textbook on arithmetic (Algorithmo de Numero Indorum) which codified the various Indian numerals, introduced the decimal positional number system to the Western world. (via)
Khwarizimi is often referred to as an Arab or Islamic scientist despite having been Persian. Similarly, Avicenna (Ibn Sina, 980-1037), "the father of early modern medicine" was Persian and is regularly mentioned as a great contributer to science from the Arabian or Islamic world. Avicenna's famous encyclopedia "became a standard medical text at many medieval universities and remained in use as late as 1650" (via).

As Broumand (2006) observes there is a failure in calling them Arab scientists:
This false statement only widens the gap between the Middle-East and the western world. There could be no doubt on the fact that Razi (Rhazes), Ibn-Sina (Avicenna), and Khawrazmi (Khwarizmi) were Iranian (Persian) and not Arab scientists. Dr. Maziak’s sincere attempt to lump these scientists under the label of Arab-Islamic scholars is unfortunately flawed for a couple of reasons; a very important point is that, the Arabic language was the lingua franca of these scientists’ era and allowed for the free exchange of scientific knowledge from Greece and Rome to Iran, India, and even to places as far as China. There is no doubt that for this reason, scientists were writing in Arabic, while not being Arab, like in the present time, all scientists write in English. One could argue that it is as offensive to Iranians, as it would be to the English, if everyone claimed Sir Isaac Newton was a Frenchman. Not that there is anything wrong with being French, Arab, or from any other nations, but the incorrect label abolishes a significant part of Iranian contribution to the advancement of science.
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- Broumand, B. (2006). The Contribution of Iranian Scientists to World Civilization. Archives of Iranian Medicine, 9(3), 288-290.
- photograph via