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.

Even Bertrand Russell, who in no way is a critic of the Islamic world, writes in the Second Volume of The History of Western Philosophy [pdf]:

Arabic philosophy is not important as original thought. Men like Avicenna and Averroes are essentially commentators. Speaking generally, the views of the more scientific philosophers come from Aristotle and the Neoplatonists in logic and metaphysics, from Galen in medicine, from Greek and Indian sources in mathematics and astronomy, and among mystics religious philosophy has also an admixture of old Persian beliefs. Writers in Arabic showed some originality in mathematics and in chemistry — in the latter case, as an incidental result of alchemical researches.

Mohammedan civilization in its great days was admirable in the arts and in many technical ways, but it showed no capacity for independent speculation in theoretical matters. Its importance, which must not be underrated, is as a transmitter. Between ancient and modern European civilization, the dark ages intervened. The Mohammedans and the Byzantines, while lacking the intellectual energy required for innovation, preserved the apparatus of civilization — education, books, and learned leisure. Both stimulated the West when it emerged from barbarism — the Mohammedans chiefly in the thirteenth century, the Byzantines chiefly in the fifteenth. In each case the stimulus produced new thought better than any produced by the transmitters — in the one case scholasticism, in the other the Renaissance (which however had other causes also).

You can see that to say that Muslims invented or pioneered algebra is a gross misrepresentation.

In conclusion, there have been various attempts at historical revisionism concerning Islamic contributions to the world. These attempts are more political propaganda than academic scholarship. After all, taqiyya, lying to the infidels to advance Allah’s cause, is permitted, and even prescribed, to Muslims. Jihad does not consist only of violent aggression or terror attacks: it can be gradual, by stealth, through indoctrination and false reassurance.

Enza Ferreri is an Italian-born London writer and the Press Officer for Liberty GB. She blogs at www.enzaferreri.blogspot.co.uk.

For her previous articles and translations, see the Enza Ferreri Archives.

44 thoughts on “How Muslims Did Not Invent Algebra

  1. I think the push by both sides of the debate to credit or discredit a muslim with the invention of something or other largely misses the point.
    In the Johnson vs. Hasan debate, the supposed invention of good things (I’ve seen algebra, coffee and showers credited to muslims), is clearly a straw man debating tactic designed to deflect the main point of the debate which was whether or not islam is a religion of peace.
    It is highly unlikely that, even were algebra invented by a muslim, it was invented by them *because* they were a muslim. Any more than calculus was developed by Newton *because* he was a Christian, or geometry invented by the Greeks and Egyptians *because* they were polytheists.
    This strand of argument is largely sterile, because, at the end of the day, does it actually matter *who* invented algebra? Surely it’s what is done with it that matters? All this does is to deflect criticism of islam now by parading supposed former achievements. How does algebra influence the thinking of a person who thinks blowing up themselves and as many unbelievers as possible buys them a ticket to paradise?

    • One of the most important things that Christianity represents is the fusion and difference of
      Logic and Metaphysics. The precise arguments put forward by early Churchmen were not distractions from the advancement of reason but rather a culmination of the mystical side of the classical world and the reasonable side of that world.

      Btw Byzantium was not a moribund dead end. It was simply KILLED off by a hostile invader. Constantinople had a university until the Arabs smashed in and removed the fiscal base of the Imperial Revenue.

    • You don’t seem to understand that religions are conceptually distinct from one another. Faith is not just what they are about.
      Islam is submission, not just in doctrine, but in practice, culture, society and polity; it forces an intellectual torpor that is evident in the history of the Ummah.
      To have the perfection of Mohammed is to refuse to see it in others.
      If the revelation of Mohammed is the only authoritative knowledge in life, then there is no need to learn or refine anything.

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  3. Who invented it surely does matter, for a similar reason to why plagiarism is frowned upon in academia. Another is the solid foundation of history. Some of us do care whether statements made about the past, even the far past are true or false, especially if a claim is going to be used to give any sort of legitimacy to a violent, null-intellect mind virus.

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  14. It might be worthwhile to mention that that even the English word Sugar does not have its origins in the Arabic word Sukkar. Just like in mathematics, in linguistics too Arabs have mostly played the part of transmitters. Sugar surely might have been immediately sourced from Sukkar, but its origins lie in the Sanskrit word Sharkara which would have been Shakkar (which it is even today in Hindi) in the Prakrits and Apabhramsha dialects from which the Arabs would’ve absorbed it.

  15. [Redacted. Opinions re other comments]. Islam was spread by peace. Zoroastrians, Christians, Jews, etc. exist till this day in the Muslim world, because Muslims were tolerant. Christians killed the Muslims and Jews in Spain, Portugal and Sicily. Muslim civilization introduced the modern sciences. Khwarizmi’s name has Muhammad in it, which identifies his Muslim religion.

  16. Islam was spread by the sword from the day the mad man warlord pedophile wrote it down in order to inspire his troops to greater atrocities to this very day.

    • I disagree. The who-what-when-where of intellectual and technological progress are important milestones. History will always need to be taught all over again to each new generation.

      Totalitarians have a habit of mind which arrogates to themselves the important aspects of history, including intellectual achievements and inventions. The Soviets did this all the time and they were laughed at by the wider world. Such braggadocio arises out of fear that one is inferior.

      The story about how algebra came to be widely taught, or about the problems faced as astronomers reckoned with the fears of the church if it was forced to live in a heliocentric world, the great fear that muslim Iran displayed toward the printing press well into the 19th century, etc., are important parts of our human history. The origins of China’s many discoveries are worthy of wider dissemination. As George Santayana warned…those who hold opinions like the one you claim here are forced to re-invent the wheel eventually (that actually happened in the Middle East).

      In sum, it does matter indeed. The truth always matters, Jack.

  17. For all who say that Islam is against learning think about this…

    The first revelation to the prophet Muhammad was…

    Iqra which means Proclaim/Read. Soooooo what does that tell you?
    The religion of Islam is founded on knowledge! Why? This is because if you could read the Quran in Arabic you would know what a tough script it is to understand. If you do not have a sound knowledge you can not understand an inch of what it is saying.

    Also Islam teaches tolerance to other faiths that is why Christians and Jews were living simultaneously in harmony during the ottoman times!

    And by the way the Quran had more science in it than its time could account for read this…
    http://www.islamreligion.com/articles/216/

    I cant believe some of these misguided statements that some of you have put.
    If you want to critique somthing LEARN it first, start with iqra then come and type.

    One last note for Enza, to say that he did not develop/pioneer algebra is absurd. If you want an unbiased opinion take what the professors at Oxford/Cambridge/Harvard think about Al-Khwarizmi’s work.
    Unless of course your deluded minds think you know more…

    • Islam is profane.
      Mohammed is a false prophet.
      Your culture is corrupt.
      It corrupts every other culture with which it comes in contact.
      Robert Hoyland, Seeing Islam as Others Saw It, is authoritative concerning the experience of Islam for non-Muslims.
      Your pronouncements are not.
      Algebra pre-existed Islam.
      Just like Christianity and Judaism.
      The Muslims claim to have made the world.
      The world was made far before their time. They are the barbarian conquerors who claim what other people have done.
      Intellectually dishonest, they believe they can bring us all down to their “standard.”
      And down is really the word, away from civilization, away from thought and toward passion.

  18. I am not at all surprised to see that you talk opinion without any facts… Did you read the link I posted? Of course not because the sad thing is you are narrow minded.

    Do you know that Islam is the fastest growing religion?

    You tell me how Islam could spread so fast if it was all nonsense?

    The Quran as a literary work is renowned.

    These are FACTS.

    Abu Bakr, the first caliph of Islam, gave these armies rules which would seem very constricting by today’s standards of warfare:

    “Stop, O people, that I may give you ten rules for your guidance in the battlefield. Do not commit treachery or deviate from the right path. You must not mutilate dead bodies. Neither kill a child, nor a woman, nor an aged man. Bring no harm to the trees, nor burn them with fire, especially those which are fruitful. Slay not any of the enemy’s flock, save for your food. You are likely to pass by people who have devoted their lives to monastic services; leave them alone.”

    So where they barbaric?

    • Islam is spreading by force, like always. 9:29: “Fight against those who (1) believe not in Allâh, (2) nor in the Last Day, (3) nor forbid that which has been forbidden by Allâh and His Messenger (4) and those who acknowledge not Islam as the religion of truth among the people of the Scripture, until they pay the Jizyah [religious tax] with willing submission, and feel themselves subdued.”

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  20. To the person who posted this: I can feel animosity through your writing. Where is this animosity rooted from? May god bless you and guide you to forgiveness.

  21. As above, using Wikipedia instead of scholarship is risible. If you are seriously interested in this topic, the leading authority on al-Khwarizmi is Prof. Ali Al-Daffa’ who is emeritus at the KFUPM in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia and you should research his works. As with any major academic he will not express opinions as certainties, particularly about a time when we have so little evidence. His view is that the most likely scenario is that there were father and son mathematicians that history has muddled. This would explain a number of anomalies including differing writing styles in published works. There is no doubt that Al-Jabr was written by a Muslim; the dedication at the front of the work makes that abundantly clear. It would be socially consistent at that time that his father was Zoroastrian and other ascribed works – not Al Jabr – reflect Zoroastrian views. Sadly, there is no historical evidence for this conjecture one way of the other. The only fact we have is Al Jabr was written by a Muslim.

    As for the rest of the argument, most people are happy with the sentence ‘The British invented soccer’. Were they the first people to play a kicking game? Of course not, but it is their codification that became today’s game, just as it was al-Khwarizmi work translated by Fibonacci that codified today’s mathematics.

  22. This site is a waste of space. So many Christians obsessed with going through history to discredit adherents of other religions in order to raise themselves up and affirm their own religion. Look, guys. Our current body of knowledge comes from people of all faiths. Even Algebra would not be possible without the help of Indian mathematics (the concept of zero) which came from the Hindus and the philosophy texts which came from the polytheistic Greeks. No one comes out on top. Stop with the culture wars.

  23. I wonder why you want to change the reality
    Do you want to claim that Muslim are not good and never had a brain
    Not only algebra , there is a lot invented by Muslim

  24. The author reaallly sounds bum-hurt by the fact that Muslims were at one time the leaders of all things scientific as well as socially and politically. It is a historical fact that Muslims led the way and taught Europe much of what it has today. Saying otherwise is simply dishonest.

  25. Islam is an evil religion, it has destroyed every nation it has gone to. Persians were not Muslims originally. Most of the Persian inventors have Arabic names, just like native Americans who have Spanish names. That is due to the fact, that when Muslims took over Persia, they forced people to change their names. In reality non of the inventors and philosophers were Arabs. They are just getting credit for it. Islam has not contributed anything to world but misery and pain. Save Iran ( Persians) from this evil religion.

  26. What is absolutely AMUSING is that the main source of knowledge here is Wikipedia. Seriously? How about [arising from] that computer chair. Putting the laptop down, and walking to the library (so you can also get some sun and some exercise) and doing some hard research about your claims?

    Im just saying, having hatred for a religion doesn’t automatically discredit their contributions. As I recall, from my research, Al Khwarizmi NEVER claimed that he invented everything and that is it. He credits having taken inspiration and guidance from other cultures and nations. So, whatcha gotta say about that?

    Muslims didn’t invent the world. A lot of the Indian world was muslim, so if youre going to give credit to Indians, keep in mind, even today, it has the largest population of muslims.

    Also, DOES ANYONE SEEM TO REMEMBER HOW THE EUROPEANS CAME TO AMERICA AND KILLED OFF ALL OF THE NATIVE AMERICANS THEN IMPORTED THE AFRICAN AMERICANS AND TORTURED THEM FOR YEARS TO SUBJECT TO SLAVERY?

    Why is Islam always in the hot seat? Clean your own [noxiousness] up first before claiming to smell another’s.

  27. Although the Muslims/Arabs did not invent Algebra, or many things that they are mis-credited for, they did gather ideas from around the world (albeit through conquest) and use them to consolidate ideas. From this they prospered, much like America consolidated ideas through immigration and then prospered.

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