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How Muslims Did Not Invent Algebra

Enza Ferreri follows up on her earlier post about the inflated claims of Islamic contributions to science, this time tackling the topic of Islam and mathematics, specifically algebra.

How Muslims Did Not Invent Algebra
by Enza Ferreri

Continuing on the theme of what Muslims did — or more likely did not do — for the world, there is a widespread misconception that they “invented algebra”. Maybe this fallacy is due to the fact that “algebra” is a word of Arabic origin, but historical questions are not solved by etymological answers.

Yes, the English word “algebra” derives from the Arabic. So does “sugar” (from the Arabic “sukkar”) but that doesn’t mean that Muslims invented sugar.

The word “algebra” stems from the Arabic word “al-jabr”, from the name of the treatise Book on Addition and Subtraction after the Method of the Indians written by the 9th-century Persian mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who translated, formalized and commented on ancient Indian and Greek works.

It is even doubtful whether al-Khwarizmi was really a Muslim. The Wikipedia entry on him says:

Regarding al-Khwārizmī’s religion, Toomer writes:

Another epithet given to him by al-Ṭabarī, “al-Majūsī,” would seem to indicate that he was an adherent of the old Zoroastrian religion. This would still have been possible at that time for a man of Iranian origin, but the pious preface to al-Khwārizmī’s Algebra shows that he was an orthodox Muslim, so al-Ṭabarī’s epithet could mean no more than that his forebears, and perhaps he in his youth, had been Zoroastrians.

In all likelihood he was a Zoroastrian who was forced to convert (or die) by Muslim rulers because Persia had been conquered by the Islamic armies, and that was what Muslims did (and still do wherever they can). That could easily explain the “pious preface to al-Khwarizmi’s Algebra”.

Wikipedia also says:

In Renaissance Europe, he [al-Khwarizmi] was considered the original inventor of algebra, although it is now known that his work is based on older Indian or Greek sources.

There is archaeological evidence that the roots of algebra date back to the ancient Babylonians, and were then developed in Egypt and Greece. The Chinese and especially the Indians also advanced algebra and wrote important works on the subject.

The Alexandrian Greek mathematician Diophantus (3rd century AD), sometimes called “the father of algebra”, wrote a series of books, called Arithmetica, dealing with solving algebraic equations. Another Hellenistic mathematician who contributed to the progress of algebra was Hero of Alexandria, as did the Indian Brahmagupta in his book Brahmasphutasiddhanta.

With the Italian Leonardo Pisano (known as Leonardo Fibonacci, as he was the son of Bonacci) in the 13th century, another Italian mathematician, Girolamo Cardano, author in 1545 of the 40-chapter masterpiece Ars magna (“The great art”), and the late-16th-century French mathematician François Viète, we move from the prehistory of algebra to the beginning of the classical discipline of algebra.


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