Math, particularly algebra, was my worst subject in school. My blood pressure and tension rose every time I entered the classroom. Even in college the numbers and letters terrified me. I passed the classes, but barely. I remember sitting in class wondering who invented this stuff so I could go home, make a voodoo doll of them, and set it on fire.
Today I know, I have the early Muslims of the Islamic Middle East to blame.
The beginnings of algebra echo from ancient Egypt and Babylon, where early mathematicians worked out linear, quadratic, and indeterminate equations. Each of these equations assumes an unknown variable and utilizes operational rules to solve each unknown.
Some say that aliens taught them how to do this and that’s why their ancient structures are so awesome. Maybe God was tired of Man building mud huts and decided to give them a higher standard. Who knows but now, we have the pyramids in Egypt and the Ishtar Gates in Babylon (now Iraq), so whatever happened, it’s all good.
Anyway, so the ancient folks of the Classical Period are really throwing down intellectually. Steam picked up after Alexander the Great pretty much conquered the known world and blended Greek and Persian wits in Alexandria, Egypt. The great library there (later destroyed by fire) provided the inspiration for folks like Hero and Diophantus to take algebra to the next level. Then, centuries later, the Roman Empire collapsed. Much of the Roman world had fallen into decay, but once the Western half of the empire fell, much of the knowledge acquired by the ancients slipped into darkness.
Enter the early Muslims.
After Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 C.E., the Ummah, or Islamic community, spread rapidly throughout the surrounding lands. Within a little over 100 years, Islamic rule extended from the borders of India in the East, to the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in the West. Such an expansion introduced the early Islamic artists, rulers, and scientists to the dormant genius of the past. Free to explore these discoveries under the rule of the Caliphate (“successor” who rules over the Islamic state), the early Muslim thinkers such as al-Khwarizmi and Abu Kamil blended these new radical ideals with their equally new and radical religion. With their development and tuning, the ancient mathematics of discovering variables via systems was introduced to the world as “algebra”, which comes from the Arabic root, al-jabru, meaning “restoration or balance.”
Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Restoration or balance?
“It is He (God) who sends down manifest ayaat (proofs, signs, verses, lessons, etc.) to His slave (Muhammad) that He may bring you out from darkness into light.” Qur’an 57: 9
“God wants to make clear for you and guide you to the ways of those before you, and pardon you, and God is Knowledgeable, Wise.” Qur’an 4: 26
That sounds like Islam came about as a restoration, and therefore a familiar concept to the early Muslim thinkers.
“…This day I (God) have perfected your religion (also interpreted as “system”) for you, completed My favor upon you, and have chosen Islam as your religion (again, could be “system” as well).” –Qur’an 5: 3
I want you to look at the word Islam, for a moment. Despite popular belief, Islam is not a proper noun, it’s a simple word which means “peace via submission to Allah.” The Qur’an constantly speaks of systems and proofs throughout nature that speak of God’s work.
“In the creation of heavens and earth, and the difference between night and day, are signs for those with intelligence.” Qur’an 3: 190
In the Qur’an, Allah goes on about various natural systems at work in the universe, such as the movement of celestial bodies, the cycles of weather, and the development of humans in the womb. These are all verifiable systems subject to proof by observation and experiment. Allah, in effect in the Qur’an, is saying “God ahead. Take a look at what I’ve done. When you’ve finished being blown away by the awesome, come on back.”
Once we acknowledge the beauty of His creation, we are called to submit to the system/religion He perfected for us. Islam, meaning peaceful surrender/submission to His will.
“Those who had previously received the book did not divide except after the proof came to them. All that was asked of them was to worship GOD, devoting the religion absolutely to Him alone, observe the contact prayers (Salat), and give the obligatory charity (Zakat). Such is the perfect religion.” Qur’an 98: 4-5
Systems…reliable and repeatable. Allah tells us in the Qur’an that Islam–submission–is nothing new. He showed us before through various books and messengers all over the world. It is the same system–universal–that is simple and transcends culture and nuance.
Sound a little like math? No matter where you go, math (like science) operates the same. 2+2 here is 2+2 there. The laws of physics here work equally as well clear across the universe. What’s awesome in Islam, is that Allah uses science and math as a proof of His existence. There is no fear of science and the natural world. Allah in effect is saying “Why should I fear and hide what I’ve created?”
It’s no wonder then that the early Islamic intellectuals really grooved on math and science. Through their God-given curiosity, these ancient discoveries like algebra and the philosophical works of folks like Aristotle were transmitted to Europe and helped spark a cultural and intellectual awakening that lead to our current age.
So the next time you’re struggling with math or philosophy, slap–er, I mean thank the Muslims.