Top 5 Things for which We should be grateful to Arabic Writing

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

When a teacher in rural Augusta county, Virginia, decided to expose her students to the Arabic script (a piece of calligraphy writing out the Muslim profession of faith), the backlash from some furious parents so hinted at violence that county schools had to be closed for a day.

I am guessing that the Script Rage was based on a lack of knowledge of the gifts European and New World culture received from those who wrote in the Arabic language or the Arabic script. Among them was the great medieval Jewish thinker Maimonides. The prominent Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas was influenced by philosophers writing in Arabic. That Americans are in America has something to do with Christopher Columbus’s dependence on the calculations of al-Farghani, who recognized that the earth is spherical.

Here are some gifts of Arabic-language science and creativity for which we might be a little more grateful.

1. Arabic numerals. Actually these originally come from Sanskrit. The Arabs adapted them and passed them on to Europe. Imagine dividing CLXII by XLIV. The Indians also invented the concept of the zero, but our circular zero comes from the Iranian scholar Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, 780 – 850, who wrote in early Abbasid Baghdad.

2. Algebra. Al-Khwarizmi laid the foundations for algebra. The word algorithm is a corruption of his name. So if any children in Augusta county, Virginia, are taught algebra, they are benefiting from breakthroughs originally expressed in Arabic script.

Arabic book in collection of 16th century Renaissance King Francois I, Blois

3. Muslim scientists were the first to separate pharmacology from medicine and to professionalize the former.

4. Nasir al-Din Tusi invented trigonometry

5. The modern hospital was invented by Muslims

13 Responses

  1. As a man who grew up with a learning disability called dysgraphia; a pox on all calligraphy. :)

    • Is the calligraphy different? I think it must be wonderful to read the original text of The Blind Owl by the way. :)

    • The vast majority of the works of al Tusi’s work were written in Arabic, only a few in Farsi. In the case of al Khwarizmi it is very likely that all of the written work was in Arabic. He lived in the Abbasid empire and was a member of the group of scholars called House of Wisdom.

      None of this diminishes the fact that both al Tusi and al Khwarizmi are both more broadly of Iranian origin-the historical version, not today’s. Just that the overwhelming majority of scientific and philosophical writing in the Islamic Golden Age was in Arabic.

  2. Dear Professor Cole

    This xenophobia is worrying. It betrays a stunted or truncated educational system that starts to resemble the excesses of the Catholic Church When I was going to school the “Index librorum prohibitorum” was still extant link to

    When you find Erasmus on the list along with the great Philosophers Kant, Locke, Hume, and Sartre you realise how dangerous this principle was and still is today.

    “In 1966 the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (AKA Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Roman and Universal Inquisition) ceased publication of the INDEX but claimed that it still served as a “moral guide in so far as it reminds the conscience of the faithful they must avoid writings which can be dangerous to faith & morals.” Today the Church may issue an “admonitum,” a warning to the faithful, that a book might be dangerous. It is only a moral guide, however, without the force of ecclesiastical law.”

    What I think I am seeing is a Grassroots Inquisition in US and UK. The Prime Minister has previously been accused of stoking “alienation and division” by doing referring to the country as “Christian”

    “The guidelines confirm that non-faith schools have to reflect the fact that British religious traditions “are, in the main, Christian”, while taking account of the teaching and practices of other prominent religions.”

    link to

    Given that Islam is the second largest religion in UK this declaration of an orthodoxy must be worrying and offensive.

    It must be even more worrying in an America where one third of the population would vote for Donald Trump and Zionist Billionaires are buying up the newsmedia.

    If the 2016 presidential election was held today, 37% of Likely U.S. Voters would vote for Clinton, while 36% would vote for Trump. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that a sizable 22% would choose some other candidate, while five percent (5%) are undecided.

    link to

    See you in the reeducation camp

  3. I’d also like to add Ibn Khaldun’s Al-Muqaddimah (Prolegomena), written in 1377.

    Viewed by many thinkers as “the first work dealing with the philosophy of history or the social sciences of sociology, demography, historiography, cultural history, social darwinism, ecology, economics.”

  4. I think the issue was not Arabic writing but what was written: the Shahada.

    What would Muslims say to having their children write
    “I believe in God the father Almighty and in Jesus Christ His only Son, Our Lord” to teach them Greek script?

  5. It was Eratosthenes of Alexandria, who lived in the third century BCE who calculated the circumference of the earth, and did so with surprising accuracy. And Aristarchus of Samoa, 3rd century BCE, who is know as the ‘Father of Trigonometry’.

    But yes, we all should be aware of our Arab heritage.

    Most of the visible stars in the night sky have Arabic names.

    Our words, ‘Alcohol’, ‘Alkali’, ‘Chemistry’, from ‘Alchemy’, are taken from the Arabic, as is, of course ‘Algebra’ which is taken from the title of what mathematicians understand as the first algebra book – the first effort to symbolize abstract quantities, or sets of numbers, with letters and to formally manipulate them.

    Probably the first fixed astronomical observatories were in Baghdad and Damascus in the ninth centuries CE.

    And the Arab development of the astrolabe, the precursor of the sextant, which no doubt guided Columbus with his discovery of American which initiated and heralded the ‘age of discovery’ for western minds.

    I must mention the “House of Wisdom’ in Baghdad in the ninth century, home of Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, mentioned above and author of the first algebra book, which was a redoubt for Islamic scholars analogous to the great library in Alexandria, 3rd century BCE, and home of Eratosthenes.

  6. I think you should have used the term ‘Arabic heritage’ in your title instead of ‘Arabic writing.’ Your fifth example has nothing to do with Arabic writing.

  7. I could agree (only some doubts about the hospitals and Maimonides in his manuscripts used Hebrew characters but OK ) but what would you think if a teacher to espose his students (among them he knows there are non Christians) to the Greek script had used John 20:30-31 or the first two phrases of the Nicene Creed?

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