From Mathematics to Islamic Culture

By Holmberg, Tidge | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 31, 1990 | Go to article overview

From Mathematics to Islamic Culture


Holmberg, Tidge, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


I attended a core-curriculum liberal arts college and it was there that I discovered Islamic culture. Not that it was represented in the books: there was not a single Arabic or Muslim author in the entire program. It first became obvious to me that something was missing in the mathematics classes.

We read Euclid, Apollonius, Ptolemy, and then Descartes, Newton, Copernicus. The cultural continuity was clear: the Ancient Greeks and the Modern Western Europeans. The intervening centuries, however, were silent. There was a brief mention that the Arabs had "stored" Ptolemy during those centuries, but even this incredible understatement was given grudgingly.

Descartes Presents Difficulties

I began to have difficulties with this interpretation when we read Descartes. I was amazed at the revolution he had wrought in mathemathics: his combination of algebra and geometry created the world anew. But where were the roots of this revolution? There were elements in Descartes that were decidedly un-Greek. His use of number, his understanding of quantity, his preoccupation with analysis over synthesis: did they just pop into his mind? Where did Algebra come from? Where did Descartes'" algorithmic" method come from?

All, all came from the Middle East. Mohammed ibn-Musa al-Khowarizmi (from whose name comes "algorithm"), an Arabic mathematician who died around 850 AD, wrote the Al-jabr wa'l muqabalah, from which Europe learned "al-jabr" (algebra), the numerical science for discovering unknowns.

I learned all of this on my own, but it was an uphill battle. My biases were insidious and subtle, often sending me tumbling down when I thought I was on firm ground. My thoughts had developed along the lines of "Yes, Arabic philosophers and mathematicians contributed much to the great march of progress. No one can argue with that. However, they never really discovered anything new and none of their works, although used to great benefit, were essential to what followed, in the same sense that the Greek works were essential."

I did not realize that my second thought ("the Arabs never really discovered anything; they weren't essential") destroyed any meaning that could be attributed to the first ("the Arabs contributed much"). But that is the nature of contemporary prejudice. We all give lip service to open-minded ideals and to an even-handed grasp of past and present "facts." Our words help us feel that we have outgrown racism and parochial prejudice. The ugly reality breaks out in the particularities, in the twist of a phrase, in the use of the word "essential."

Every summer, I read non-curriculum books in order to glimpse all the history I was missing. I saw the light in terms of mathematics, but the light soon flooded everything else. Everywhere I turned, I found areas where Arabs had made essential contributions; physics, medicine, philosophy, theology, art, architecture, poetry, and prose. Science, rationality, beauty: these things did indeed exist outside of Europe.

A Painful Soul-Searching

But why did these realizations come as such a shock? I was an open-minded liberal, generous to all cultures and civilizations, and I "knew" of the Arabic/Islamic contribution to the history of mankind. Why were the facts so surprising? These questions required the kind of soul-searching that is particularly painful to anyone who believes he or she is not a bigot.

I began to realize that in my soul I held two totally different images of Arabs. …

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