Algebra – an Islamic Contribution to the West


The contribution made by Muslim mathematicians towards Western civilization cannot be underestimated. Unlike other religions where dogmas are not linked to science, Islam and science are correlated (Ahmed 63). Muslims have contributed greatly to the development of modern science especially in the area of algebra. Muslim mathematicians are the inventors of the Arabic numeral notation and the decimal system, which is applicable in contemporary mathematical problems (Armour 65).

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The Arabic numerals developed by Muslim scholars are still relevant today and they form the basis for the modern education system. The decimal system and the zero symbols are interconnected and they are used interchangeably in texts. In other words, the invention of zero by Muslim scholars has made the modern decimal system relevant (Spielvogel 107). Conceivably, the most thoughtful and important input from Muslims towards the Western civilization is the invention of algebra (Meri 164). The majority of the terms used in algebra today are derivatives of the Arabic language. The terms ‘zero’ and ‘algebra’, which are commonly used in the modern mathematics, are both Arabic words, thus indicating the influence of Islam on the Western civilization. The word ‘algorithm’ is particularly derived from the name of the algebra’s founding father, viz. Al-Khawaarizmi. This paper will explore the current literature and draw the relationship between Islamic inventions and the development of algebra, which has influenced the Western civilization.


The Islamic civilization can be traced back to the establishment of the Islamic Empire in the 8th century. Islamic civilization is the oldest and in its initial stages, it was characterized by the use of mathematical techniques to decorate houses (Armour 70). Contrary to the West, which had no centralized government, Muslims were well organized and they were ruled from a central point. The Empire leadership invested heavily in research and encouraged scholars to harmonize Greece and Indian mathematical principles to come up with meaningful set of principles (Ahmed 95). Religion also played a great role in shaping the Islamic civilization (Meri 198). The Quran expressively allowed its subjects to accumulate knowledge on different aspects. At first, the West did not welcome the developments in the Islamic Empire due to the influence of Christianity that dominated the West. The West looked at the Muslims as primitive, and thus it did not want to transact business with them. The establishment of the House of Wisdom was a major boost to the Islamic civilization since it facilitated the translation of texts that were originally written in Greek and Indian into Arabic.

Major developments

Muslim scholars in the middle Ages invented and improved the tentative techniques of science and used mathematical techniques to verify their inventions (Meri 126). The scholars developed many concepts in areas of medicine, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and other academic fields (Spielvogel 57). Of great importance were the invention of the zero and the Arabic numerals that completely influenced civilization in the West. The invention of the zero paved way for the transformation in mathematics since it facilitated important innovations in the field (Armour 68). The introduction of numeral zero in mathematics was a suggestion from a Muslim scholar, Muhammad Bin Ahmad, in about 967 CE (Ahmed 73).

Even though digit zero was an important numeral in mathematics, it did not reach the West until the 13th century due to language barriers (Ahmed 47). When it lastly arrived in the West following translation of Islamic works in the 13th century, it marked the beginning of scientific revolution. It facilitated the use of the decimal system that in turn made calculations easier. The arrival of both the zero and the Arabic numerals in Europe eased the tasks of solving mathematical problems and provided incentives for scholars in the West to add into the concepts making them efficient (Spielvogel 46). The additions made to the algebraic concepts have made modern mathematics solvable, and thus problems that initially required several days to work out can be solved in a few hours.

The Muslims through a mathematician, Al-Khwarizmi, developed algebra as early as the 11th century (Armour 74). The Arabic- based mathematical framework was among the best worldwide. In mid-11th century, Muslim mathematicians had improved the invented algebra to the extent that they could solve third and fourth degree equations (Meri 153). Indisputably, Al-Khwarizmi was a key figure in the Islamic civilization as he developed numerous concepts linked to arithmetic and algebra. Most of the works by him were written in Arabic, but they were later on translated into Latin and other languages of the West (Spielvogel 69). The translation of his works into Western languages marked the beginning of the Western civilization as scholars from the region embraced the algebraic concepts developed by the latter and attempted to improve them further in order to realize the modern technology (Ahmed 56).

Europe was the first to realize the benefits of the translation of the works into understandable languages (Armour 69). It took a short time for the European scholars to study and implement the algebraic concepts developed by the Muslims. In addition, the Europeans added to the concepts to come up with practical and easy to implement formulae that resulted in the disciplines that exist today. Perhaps, Europe would not have achieved civilization if the Muslims had not set the foundation. It has also been noted that computer devices that have characterized the modern world are founded on the principles of algebra (Ahmed 39). This aspect is a clear indicator that the new technology borrows heavily from Islamic civilization and that the West civilization would probably not have been succeeded without contributions from the Muslims.

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The establishment of a study center in Baghdad in the year 832 marked the beginning of Islamic civilization, which later spread to the West. The House of Wisdom was established in 832 by the Muslim authorities in a bid to promote research and translation of works originally written in Greek into Arabic (Ahmed 82). Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi was among the first scholars to benefit from the training at the center. Al-Khwarizmi used the knowledge acquired from research and reading the translated works to write his first book on algebra in the Arabic language (Meri 156). The book centered on the concept of algebra and offered a systematic procedure of solving mathematical problems. The book was among the most influential books in the Western countries as records reveal that it was in use until the 16th century (Armour 71).

The Islamic concepts were based on research from numerous experiments (Spielvogel 56). Muslim scholars had their own systematic way of acquiring data that was then used to test the viability of the concept in question. Muslim scholars had well equipped laboratories that afforded research on different topics. Modern algebra and other mathematical concepts are founded on the findings and experimentation of the traditional Muslim mathematicians (Ahmed 29). The classification of numbers into the three classes was a major step towards attaining Western civilization as it is used up to today (Meri 123). The concept of algebra was documented in a book authored by Al-Khawarizmi, who was a Muslim scholar around 820 AD in which he described the algebraic concepts in details. Records indicate that most Western scholars relied on the book, which was originally written in Arabic and later translated to Latin, until about 16th century.

Muslims also contributed greatly to the development of the modern education systems in the West (Armour 72). Records show that Muslims embraced the concept of universal education to all irrespective of gender or age long before the West (Spielvogel 57). Records also indicate that Muslims were the first group of people in the world to establish institutions of higher learning. They also introduced the concept of specialization in colleges, a system that characterizes most universities in the West today (Ahmed 77). The majority of Western scholars of the day studied in the Muslim-established institutions, which offered a constricted range of subjects. Western scholars who successfully completed their studies in the Islamic institutions later on became authors, scientists, and physicians before spreading their knowledge to the West (Meri 103). Therefore, it suffices to conclude that the West civilization borrowed heavily from Islamic civilization.

Other contributors

Apart from Al-Khwarizmi who invented the algebraic concept and the numerals, other Muslim scholars also contributed greatly to the Islamic civilization. Other Muslim scholars worth noting were Abul Hassan Al-Uqlidisi and Ibrahim ibn Sinan (Armour 73). Al-Uqlidisi explained the decimal system and particularly emphasized the use of decimals in place of fractions. On the other hand, Ibrahim ibn Sinan furthered the Archimedes’ principles regarding calculation of volumes and determining the tangent of a circle (Ahmed 47).


The input made by the Muslim scholars to the Western civilization is of great importance and it cannot be overlooked. Muslims are the founders of scientific concepts on which the Western civilization is anchored. The areas that the Islam community excelled in include medicine, mathematics, and algebra among others. Major inventions made by Muslim scholars in the field of science have been a key to the success of the modern technology. The majority of modern devices operate through concepts developed by the ancient Muslim scholars. For example, algebra and logarithms are the key concepts behind the operation of computers. The two scientific concepts also enable the encryption of data in computers in a bid to enforce computer security and data stored therein. Given that Muslims invented the two, it can be concluded that the Islamic religion has contributed greatly to Western civilization. Al-Khwarizmi is the key figure in Islamic civilization and he is credited for having contributed greatly to the Western civilization. The Muslim civilization, which characterized the periods between the years 800 and1600, was a key step towards the Western civilization as it came up with scientific concepts that have remained relevant even to date. The Western civilization borrows heavily from the Islamic civilization and it is thus evident that Western civilization would be meaningless without Islamic civilization.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Akbar S. Postmodernism and Islam: Predicament and promise. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Armour, Rollin S. “Islam, Christianity and the West: A troubled history.” Conversations in Religion & Theology 3, no.1 (2005): 64-84.

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Meri, Josef W. Medieval Islamic civilization: an encyclopedia. New York: Psychology Press, 2005.

Spielvogel, Jackson J. Western civilization. Stamford: Cengage Learning, 2014.

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