**By: B Shantanu **
December 10, 2005
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Whenever
I read about the great “Arabic” contribution to Mathematics and Science
(often in an apologetic tone of “how could these great people come to such
a pass?”) the thing that really upsets me is the complete omission of any
reference to the Hindu contribution to mathematics and numbers.
Slightly
more than a year ago (Aug ’04), in an article in the Sunday Times
http://www.michaelportillo.co.uk/articles/art_nipress/islam.htm,
Michael Portillo, eminent Conservative party leader in the UK and a
one-time aspirant to the leadership of the Tory Party, wrote that, “*Islam
brought back to the West knowledge of architecture, mathematics and
astronomy that had been lost during the Dark Ages.*”
In
response, I wrote,
“…The
phrase “brought back” is at best, condescending and at worse, historically
inaccurate.
For this
knowledge, which Arab traders brought to Europe (typified in the Arabic
numeral system - itself a misnomer, since the Arabs did not invent it but
merely acted as the purveyors of this knowledge) was not Islamic or
Arabic. In fact much of this knowledge was originally derived from ancient
Vedic literature from India and passed through Arab traders and conquests
to
Middle
East
and eventually reaching Europe.
To quote
from Carl B. Boyer in his "History of Mathematics", “*...Mohammed
ibn-Musa al-Khwarizmi, ..., who died sometime before 850, wrote more than
a half dozen astronomical and mathematical works, of which the earliest
were probably based on the Sindhind derived from India. Besides ... [he]
wrote two books on arithmetic and algebra which played very important
roles in the history of mathematics. ... ***In this work, based presumably
on an Arabic translation of Brahmagupta, al-Khwarizmi gave so full an
account of the Hindu numerals that he probably is responsible for the
widespread but false impression that our system of numeration is Arabic in
origin. .**.. [pages 227-228]...”.
In a
translation of Alberuni ‘s “Indica”, a seminal work of this period (c.1030
AD), Edward Sachau, writes this in his introduction, “*Many Arab authors
took up the subjects communicated to them by the Hindus and worked them
out in original compositions , commentaries and extracts. A favourite
subject of theirs was Indian mathematics...*" etc.
Needless
to say, the letter never got published.
Then,
more recently, while reading the “The World is Flat”, by Thomas L.
Friedman
http://www.thomaslfriedman.com/worldisflat.htm, I came across this
text in Chapter 11, "The Unflat World" (Pg 405), "*As Nayan Chanda, the
editor of YaleGlobal Online pointed out to me, it was the Arab-Muslim
world that gave birth to algebra and algorithms, terms both derived form
Arabic words. In other words, noted Chanda, "**The
entire modern information revolution, which is built to a large degree on
algorithms, can trace its roots all the way back to Arab-Muslim
civilization and the great learning centres of Baghdad and Alexandria**,"
which first introduced these concepts, then transferred them to Europe
through Muslim Spain.*
Dismayed,
I wrote the following email to Nayan:
“May I
respectfully point out that is not historically accurate and continuing
research is providing evidence that the roots of the so-called Arab
contribution to Mathematics and Science were further east in the lands of
India and in the works of Indian mathematicians and scholars from several
centuries ago.”
“I hope
that you will re-consider your views in the light of these excerpts and a
significant body of research that is now publicly available on this
subject. I would be more than happy to provide more details if you wish.”
No
acknowledgement was expected and none was received. I wanted to copy
Thomas Friedman on it but could not find his contact details on his
website – the only email address was that of his literary agent and PR
agency.
This
apparently widespread misunderstanding and ignorance - about the Hindu
contribution to the number system and sciences - prompted me to dig
deeper. Here is what I found:
From an
online research piece on Al-Khwarizmi and his work (by
Shawn
Overbay, Jimmy Schorer, and Heather Conger)
http://www.ms.uky.edu/~carl/ma330/project2/al-khwa21.html
“*
Al-Khwarizmi wrote numerous books that played important roles in
arithematic and algebra. In his work, De numero indorum
(Concerning the Hindu Art of Reckoning), ***it
was based presumably on an Arabic translation of Brahmagupta where he gave
a full account of the Hindu numerals which was the first to expound the
system with its digits 0,1,2,3,....,9 and decimal place value which was a
fairly recent arrival from India. Because of this book with the Latin
translations made a false inquiry that our system of numeration is arabic
in origin. **The new notation came to be known as that of al-Khwarizmi,
or more carelessly, algorismi; ultimately the scheme of numeration making
use of the Hindu numerals came to be called simply algorism or algorithm,
a word that, originally derived from the name al-Khwarizmi, now means,
more generally, any peculiar rule of procedure or operation.
Interestingly, as the article notes,* “The Hindu numerals like much new
mathematics were not welcomed by all. In 1299 there was a law in the
commercial center of **
Florence forbidding their use; to this day this law is respected when we
write the amount on a check in longhand (ernie.bgsu.edu).”
*
From a very well-researched online article, “Numbers: Their
History and Meaning”
http://home.c2i.net/greaker/comenius/9899/indiannumerals/india.html
“*It
is now universally accepted that our decimal numbers derive from forms,
which were invented in **
India and
transmitted via Arab culture to
Europe,**
undergoing a number of changes on the way. We also know that several
different ways of writing numbers evolved in India before it became
possible for existing decimal numerals to be marred with the place-value
principle of the Babylonians to give birth to the system which eventually
became the one which we use today.*
*
Because of lack of authentic records, very little is known of the
development of ancient Hindu mathematics. The earliest history is
preserved in the 5000-year-old ruins of a city at Mohenjo Daro, located
Northeast of present-day Karachi in Pakistan. Evidence of wide streets,
brick dwellings an apartment houses with tiled bathrooms, covered city
drains, and community swimming pools indicates a civilisation as advanced
as that found anywhere else in the ancient Orient. *
* *
*These
early peoples had systems of writing, counting, weighing, and measuring,
and they dug canals for irrigation. All this required basic mathematics
and engineering. *
And later
in the article, “*The special interest of the Indian system is that it
is the earliest form of the one, which we use today. Two and three were
represented by repetitions of the horizontal stroke for one. ***There were
distinct symbols for four to nine and also for ten and multiples of ten up
to ninety, and for hundred and thousand**.”
and
further “*…Knowledge of the Hindu system spread through the Arab world,
reaching the Arabs of the West in **
Spain
before the end of the tenth century. The earliest European manuscript,
which came from the Hindu numerals were modified in north-Spain from the
year 976.” *
And
finally an important point for those who maintain that the concept of zero
was also evident in some other civilisations: “*Only the Hindus within
the context of Indo-European civilisations have consistently used zero.”*
Fortunately, online encyclopaedias came across as less biased and more
open in acknowledging the true source of the “Arabic” number system. For
example, from MSN Encarta
http://encarta.msn.com/encyclopedia_761578291_7/Mathematics.html
*
*
*“The
system of numbers that we use today, with each number having an absolute
value and a place value (units, tens, hundreds, and so forth) originated
in India. Mathematicians in India also were the first to recognize zero as
both an integer and a placeholder. ***When the Indian numeration system
was developed is not known, but digits similar to the Arabic numerals used
today have been found in a Hindu temple built about 250
bc. **
*
In the
5th century Hindu mathematician and astronomer
Aryabhata studied many of the
same problems as Diophantus but went beyond the Greek mathematician in his
use of fractions as opposed to whole numbers to solve
indeterminate
equations (equations that have no unique solutions). Aryabhata
also figured the value of “P”
(pi) accurately to eight places, thus coming closer to its value than any
other mathematician of ancient times. In astronomy, he proposed that Earth
orbited the sun and correctly explained eclipses of the Sun and Moon.
**
*
*The
earliest known use of negative numbers in mathematics was by Hindu
mathematician Brahmagupta about ad
630. He presented rules for them in terms of fortunes (positive numbers)
and debts (negative numbers). *
* *
*…The
best-known Indian mathematician of the early period was Bhaskara, who
lived in the 12th century. Bhaskara supplied the correct answer for
division by zero as well as rules for operating with irrational numbers.
Bhaskara wrote six books on mathematics, including Lilavati (The
Beautiful), which summarized mathematical knowledge in India up to his
time, and Karanakutuhala, translated as “Calculation of Astronomical
Wonders.”*
The
reality is that the so-called “Arab” contribution to mathematics was
substantially built on prior knowledge of the Hindus and the Greeks and
while the Greek influence and origins are frequently acknowledged, the
Hindu contribution is very rarely mentioned.
We need
to spread awareness about this and try and establish the facts whenever an
opportunity arises – unless we do that, this “history” will be lost and
become so little-known and distant as to become a myth.
Talking
of forgotten Indian contribution to sciences and arts, here is another
example of a glaring error in a recent news story in “TIME” Magazine and
an email I sent in response
http://www.time.com/time/europe/magazine/article/0,13005,901051121-1129488,00.html
“May I
point out two inaccuracies in your recent news story on an exhibition on
Arab Science in
Paris
titled, “Ahead of Their Time” (Time Magazine, Nov 21, ’05; Pp48-49) by Ann
Morrison?
In a
paragraph about the Arab’s interest in astronomy, Ann writes, “*…Though
the Arabs built many observatories during the Golden Age, not many
survived. But viewers can see current images of two of these amazing
outdoor structures in the Indian cities of **
Delhi and
Jaipur…*”
The
observatories that Ann refers to in this paragraph were not built by Arabs
but by the Hindu ruler Sawai Raja Jai Singh between 1724-1730 and were
amongst the five that he built in Northern India (the other three were at
Varanasi, Ujjain and Mathura) and are called Jantar Mantar (actually
“Yantra Mantra”, yantra for instrument and mantra for formula).
The
observatory in
Delhi
has also been depicted in a postage stamp and was the logo of the 1982
Asian Games, held in New Delhi, India.** **
**
To call
them examples of Arab interest in the sciences is inaccurate and
misleading.**
In a
later paragraph which details the interest of Arab scholars in astrology,
Ann writes, *“…Another manuscript illustration from 17*^{th}
century India, Astrologers working on a Nativity”, shows a procession of
music makers and gift bearers wending their way through palace walls
toward a newborn who would grow up to be the 14^{th} century
warrior Tamerlane...”
Again,
this is an example of Indian art (and Indian interest in astrology) rather
than having anything to do with Arabs or Arab art. Tamerlane himself was
not an Arab king but from
Central
Asia
(as were the Mughals).
As usual,
I received neither an acknowledgement nor a response.
For those
of you who would like to read more:
Here’s
Alberuni on Pre-Islamic India's Science, Math, and Architecture
http://www.infinityfoundation.com/mandala/h_es/h_es_kumar-v_math.htm
And an
interesting article on the origin of the decimal system
http://answering-islam.org.uk/Science/math.html
**B
Shantanu **
**
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