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Sometimes called the “father of algebra,” al-Khwarizmi dedicated his life to the research of mathematics. His in-depth study of numbers would eventually result in the present-day use of Arabic numbers in all mathematical applications, from algebra and geometry to the production of maps.
Al-Khwarizmi was a Muslim astronomer, geographer, and, most importantly, a mathematician. He was born in the Persian town of Khiva, in what is now Uzbekistan. His full name was Abu Abdullah Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. His family name was the term algorithm, and one of his books, Hisab al-Jabr wal-muqabalah, was the origin of the word algebra.
In his youth, al-Khwarizmi’s parents moved from Persia to Iraq and settled in the bustling city of Baghdad. In Baghdad, young al-Khwarizmi was attracted to the Bait al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), an institution where literary scholars, philosophers, natural scientists, mathematicians, and medical doctors from around the region worked on ancient Greek texts. Later, Muslim scholars passed this wonderful body of knowledge to Europe, where it sparked the Renaissance. Al-Mamun (786–833), the caliph of Baghdad, who had founded the House of Wisdom in 830, patronized its scientific research. Al-Khwarizmi dedicated some of his works to the caliph in gratitude for the caliph’s having made available to scholars the first and best library since that of Alexandria.
Al-Khwarizmi investigated numbers far more deeply than did anyone in the European medieval world. His study of structures, surfaces, pyramids, cones, circles, and triangles took mathematics and algebra to new heights. It was al-Khwarizmi who revolutionized the use of math in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Interestingly, his original and innovative use of advanced math was used to help solve the problems occasioned by the complex Islamic laws of inheritance and divisions of estates and assets among brothers and sisters at the death of their parents.
This “father” of algebra and algorithms conducted lifelong research on the Hindu numerical system and the Hebrew calendar, and he studied ancient Egyptian sundials and Syrian texts. He derived new concepts and consolidated others relating to Arabic numerals and zero as well as to the decimal system. The world’s first correct astronomical tables and explanation of the movements of the sun, the moon, and the five planets closest to Earth were the works of al-Khwarizmi. He also had a superior sense of world geography and wrote a book on the topic, Surat al-Arz (Shape of the Earth). At the suggestion of al-Mamun, he oversaw a team of sixty-nine and produced the first correct world map in world history. This too was done to solve a practical problem: Muslims around the world needed to know what direction to face (namely, toward the Ka’ba in the city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia) to offer their daily obligatory five prayers. Thanks to the efforts of al-Khwarizmi and others, this problem was solved by finding the shortest arc of the great circle anywhere on the globe between a person’s location and Mecca.
The world stands in gratitude to al-Khwarizmi for the use of Arabic numbers, decimals, and the value of zero in math, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, and for the production of correct world maps.
- Esposito, J. L. (1999). The Oxford history of Islam. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Rashid, R. (1994). The development of Arabic mathematics: Between arithmetic and algebra. Boston: Kluwer Academic.
- van der Waerden, B. L. (1985). A history of algebra: From al-Khwarizmi to Emmy Noether. New York: Springer- Verlag.
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