1902 Encyclopedia > Algebra > History of Algebra - Arabian Writers on Algebra (9th-11th Centuries)

(Part 4)


(iii) Arabian Writers on Algebra (9th-11th Centuries)

Although the revival of the writings of Diophantus was an important event in the history of mathematics, yet it was not from them that algebra became first known in Europe. This important invention, as well as the numeral characters and decimal arithmetic, was received from the Arabians. That ingenious people fully appreciated the value of the sciences; for at a period when all Europe was enveloped in the darkness of ignorance, they preserved from extinction the lamp of knowledge. They carefully collected the writings of the Greek mathematicians; they translated them into their language, and illustrated them with commentaries. It was through the medium of the Arabic tongue that the elements of Euclid were first introduced into Europe; and a part of the writings of Apollonius are only known at the present day by a translation from the Arabic, the Greek original being lost.

Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi picture

Mahommed-ben Musa
(also known as Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi)
(This stamp was Issued by the USSR on 6 September 1983 to mark the 1200th anniversary of al-Khwarizmi's birth.)

The Arabians ascribe the invention of their algebra to one of their mathematicians,
Mahommed-ben Musa, or Moses, called also Mahommed of Buziana [and also known as Muhammed ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi], who flourished about the middle of the 9th century, in the reign of the Caliph Almamoun.

It is certain that this person composed a treatise on this subject, because an Italian translation was known at one time to have existed in Europe, although it is now lost. Fortunately, however, a copy of the Arabic original is preserved in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, bearing a date of transcription corresponding to the year 1342. The title-page identifies its author with the ancient Arabian. A marginal note concurs in this testimony, and further declares the work to be the first treatise composed on algebra among the faithful; and the preface, besides indicating the author, intimates that he was encouraged by Almamoun, commander of the faithful, to compile a compendious treatise of calculation by algebra.

The circumstance of this treatise professing to be only a compilation, and moreover, the first Arabian work of the kind, has led to an opinion that it was collected from books in some other language. As the author was intimately acquainted with the astronomy and computations of the Hindoos, he may have derived his knowledge of algebra from the same quarter. The Hindoos, as we shall presently see, had a science of Algebra, and knew how to solve indeterminate problems. Hence we may conclude, with some probability, that the Arabian algebra was originally derived from India.

The algebraic analysis, having been once introduced among the Arabians, was cultivated by their own writers. One of these, Mahommed Abulwafa, who flourished in the last forty years of the 10th century, composed commentaries on the writers who has preceded him. He also translated the writings of Diophantus.

It is remarkable, that although the mathematical sciences were received with avidity, and sedulously cultivated during a long period by the Arabians, yet in their hands they received hardly any improvement. It might have been expected that an acquaintance with the writings of Diophantus would have produced some change in their algebra. This, however, did not happen: their algebra continued nearly in the same state, from their earliest writer on the subject, to one of their latest,
Behaudin, who lived between the years 953 and 1031.

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