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IRAQ: The glory days of Baghdad

In these sad days for Iraq, John Gehl reminds us of one of the luminaries of its golden age: the 9th century Arabian mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (?780-847), who wrote treatises that in later centuries became important source materials influencing the work of European scholars. Al-Khwarizmi was born sometime before 800 A.D. in an area not far from Baghdad and lived until at least 847. He worked as a scholar in Baghdad's "House of Wisdom," so named because it functioned as a center of study and research in the Islamic world. Foremost among al-Khwarizmi's works was his treatise Al-jabr wa'l muqabala (The Science of Transposition and Cancellation), which deals with the solution of equations. The Arabic word for transposition, al-jabar, became "algebra" in the Latin transliteration of the book's title. In addition to this treatise, al-Khwarizmi wrote works on astronomy, on the Jewish calendar, and on the Hindu numeration system. Further recognition of the historical importance of his scholarship lies in the fact that the English word "algorithm" derives from the Latin form of al-Khwarizmi's name. Al-Khwarizmi lived in Baghdad under the caliphates of al-Ma'mun and al-Mu'tasim in the first golden age of Islamic science. The caliph al-Ma'mun (813-833) supported al-Khwarizmi's preparation of a world geography based largely on Ptolemy. He also compiled a set of astronomical tables, based largely on the Sindhind, an Arabic version of the Sanskrit work Brahma-siddhanta (7th century AD), but also showing Greek influence. Drawing on Hindu as well as Greek sources, al-Khwarizmi adopted the Hindu numerals, including the zero. These numerals (miscalled "Arabic numerals") were introduced to Europe by Fibonacci, greatly facilitating mathematical manipulations. While some critics quibble about the originality of al-Khwarizmi's work, it is generally acknowledged that he stands in the foremost rank of mathematicians of all time.

See for Allard A.'s biography of Muhammad Ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi.

RH: For our history textbook project, it would be interesting to see what Iraqi textbooks say about this period. Did Saddam Hussein have the crazy idea of reviving it, just as the Shah of Iran wanted to relive the glory of Persepolis?

Ronald Hilton - 7/1/03