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Islamic Mathematics: Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al- Khwarizmi (c.780-850) ! Modified version of the

Islamic Mathematics:

Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al- Khwarizmi (c.780-850)

Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al- Khwarizmi (c.780-850) ! Modified version of the statue of al-Khwarizmi


Modified version of the statue of al-Khwarizmi in front of the Faculty of Mathematics of Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran, Iran (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The term ‘Islamic’ or ‘Arabic’ mathematics often refers to mathematics originating in Baghdad from 750-1400 AD. It is a misleading phrase as it includes many scholars from Christian and Hindu backgrounds. As well as working on their own mathematics, scholars at this time were involved in translating many philosophical and scientific Greek texts. Had it not been for these translations, we would have lost much information about Greek maths and other matters, as the papyrus, used by the Greeks, did not last well.

Around the year 813, after a period of unrest, the then Caliph (ruler of the area) founded an Academy called the House of Wisdom. One of the scholars at the House of Wisdom was Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. He is thought to have been born in Baghdad around

780. We know very little about him as a person but a fair amount about his mathematics.

Al-Khwarizmi is best known for his work entitled Hisab al-jabr w'al-muqabal. Although there are various different translations of this title, scholars agree that the term ‘al-jabr’ refers in some way to an equation and it is the origin of our word ‘algebra’. It was a text that was designed to be practical for those working in professions such as law, medicine, construction and land ownership that needed to use various sorts of numerical computation.

After an initial section explaining the slightly abstract concept of numbers and how they are composed there comes a chapter on the solution of linear and quadratic equations. Although al- Khwarizmi was writing about algebra we would have difficulty recognising it as such. He used no symbols and only occasional diagrams in his text. The algebraic mathematical symbols that we are familiar with came into use much later. Here is his description of how to solve the equation x 2 + 10x = 39.

a square and 10 roots are equal to 39 units. The question therefore in this type of equation is about as follows: what is the square which combined with ten of its roots will give a sum total of 39? The manner of solving this type of equation is to take one-half of the roots just mentioned. Now the roots in the problem before us are 10. Therefore take 5, which multiplied by itself gives 25, an amount which you add to 39 giving 64. Having taken then the square root of this which is 8, subtract from it half the roots, 5 leaving 3. The number three therefore represents one root of this square, which itself, of course is 9. Nine therefore gives the square. 1

He then follows this up with a geometric proof, akin to completing the square which appears to be very much based on the Greek texts such as Euclid’s Elements. This is no surprise as it was one of the texts undoubtedly translated by one of al-Khwarizmi’s colleagues at the House of Wisdom. However, because of the similarities between al-Khwarizmi and other historical texts there has been some debate over the part al-Khwarizmi plays in mathematical developments.

Al-Khwarizmi’s text continues by looking at various arithmetic laws and methods such as explaining how to multiply two brackets together. He goes on to look at applications with worked examples. He looks at geometry – for example how to find the areas of circles and volumes of simple solids such as cones, pyramids and spheres.

He also wrote texts on astronomy and geography. Although one might argue as to the exact contribution this mathematician has made to mathematical originality, nothing can detract from the influence that his writings had in the West when translated into Latin in the twelfth century. Another interesting point is that his very name Al-Khwarizmi is the origin of the word algorithm.

This is all summed up in the words of Mohammad Kahn author of the Muslim Contribution to


In the foremost rank of mathematicians of all time stands Al-Khwarizmi. He composed the oldest works on arithmetic and algebra. They were the principal

source of mathematical knowledge for centuries to come in the East and the West. The work on arithmetic first introduced the Hindu numbers to Europe, as the very

gave the name to this

name algorithm signifies; and the work on algebra important branch of mathematics in the European world


Further Reading

R Rashed, The development of Arabic mathematics: between arithmetic and algebra, Springer,


F Rosen (trs.), Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi: Algebra, London, 1831.

This is one of a number of open mathematics resources. For information and more resources, including mp3 files, see


1 Translation from F Rosen, Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi : Algebra, London, 1831.


2 A A al'Daffa, The Muslim contribution to mathematics, Croom Helm, 1978. !