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Mist of history

A tribute to Al-Khawarizmi, whose gigantic contributions to many a discipline of knowledge continue to amaze scholars and laypersons alike

Mist of history

Father of Algebra, Muhammad bin Musa Al-Khawarizmi is a tribute to the great mathematician, astronomer, geographer, Muhammad bin Musa Al -Khawarizmi, who is popularly known as Al-Khawarizmi throughout the world. Dubbed as the father of Algebra, Al-Khawarizmi flourished under the tutelage of Al-Ma’mun as he worked at Darul Hikma (House of Wisdom), Baghdad, that was established by the caliph for the advancement of knowledge and learning. He wrote a number of epic books in that era that were groundbreaking in more than one way. Dr Noor Muhammad Awan, a civil servant by profession and a mathematician by heart, has penned the book on the great scholar whose gigantic contribution in many a discipline of knowledge continues to amaze scholars and laymen alike.altaf_assad1-bicubic

Divided into four chapters, the book acquaints the readers with the life and times of the great maestro whose early life is shrouded in the mist of history. Nothing concrete is known about the place of his birth or the year he was born in. The author quotes many scholars who give different dates as regards the exact date of birth of Al-Khawarizmi. He quotes G.J Toomer who writes in Dictionary of Scientific Biography that Al-Khawarizmi was born before 800 AD and died after 847 AD. Similarly, George Sarton, Suter and others come up with their own versions. Dr Awan sums up the debate about the date of birth: ‘We couldn’t find the exact date of birth and death of Al-Khawarizmi, even we don’t know his age at the time of his death. He flourished in the caliphate of Al-Ma’mun’.

Dr Awan doesn’t buy historian Al-Tabari’s version who adds the epithet of Al-Majusi (Zoroastrian) to Al-Khawarizmi. He argues that Al-Khawarizmi’s forefathers might be adherents of Zoroastrians but he himself was a Muslim. Some others writers and commentators also validate the author’s point of view. Having settled this subject, the author moves ahead and shares the list of the books and treatises written by Al-Khawarizmi during his lifetime. According to Dr Awan, Al-Khawarizmi wrote 29 books on topics such as geography, history, astronomy, astrology, algebra, geometry, algorithm and the list goes on. Of all his books, Kitab al-Jabr wal-Muqabala, is considered a classic, as it was the first book on algebra, thus making him qualified for the epithet ‘Father of algebra’. It was written in 825 AD, when the word ‘algebra’ appeared for the first time in any book. Khawarizmi dedicated the book to Al-Ma’mun who was patronising scholarly pursuits through Darul Hikma. The dedication reads thus: ‘Al-Ma’mun has encouraged me to compose a short work on calculating by the rules of completion and reduction, confining it to what is easiest and most useful in arithmetic’. The author, himself well-versed in the intricate discipline of algebra, is all praise for the book which is still read and analysed by scholars the world over.

Kitab Surat-ul-Ard (The Image of the Earth) as the title suggests is about the earth, its cities, deserts, rivers and seas. It is another feather in Al-Kharazimi’s crown who calculated the longitude and latitude of the cities, mountains, and seas etc. According to Dr Awan, this book is encyclopaedic as it covers all aspects of mother earth with a precision and accurateness that is simply amazing. There are some scholars who claimed that the book was entirely based on Claudius Ptolemy’s Geography. Dr Awan is of the view that both these works are different altogether. He quotes J. Vernet who states that ‘Al-Khawarizmi corrected some of the errors of the Ptolemy’s geography as he corrected the excessive length of the Mediterranean sea’.

Al-Khawarizmi did not only write on mathematics and algebra but also history and music. We can safely deduce that Al-Khawarizmi was a genius of the highest order and this book celebrates his achievements, and that too quite amply. However, one can’t help but think that Dr Awan should have been more analytical instead of getting pompous about the contribution of Al-Khawarizmi. Also, it would’ve been better had he not termed the different opinions on Al-Khawarizmi as ‘western conspiracies’, because a scholar should first and foremost respect the point of view of other writers also. Apart from a few issues, Father of Algebra, Muhammad bin Musa al-Khawarizmi is a fine read on Al-Khawarizmi and his legacy.

Father of Algebra Muhammad bin Musa Al-Khawarizmi
Author: Noor Muhammad Awan
Publisher: Sang-e-Meel Publications Lahore, 2018.
Pages: 254
Price: Rs900

Altaf Hussain Asad

altaf asad
The author is a freelance journalist based in Islamabad.

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