Weekly 2: History of Math, The House of Wisdom


For my weekly work I did some research into the House of Wisdom and its influence on mathematics. To begin, the House of Wisdom was a library, translation institute and school established in Baghdad, Iraq. Works on agriculture, mathematics, philosophy and medicine were translated into Arabic here.  The House of Wisdom helped transform Baghdad into a hub for the study of humanities and for sciences, including astronomy, chemistry, zoology and geography, as well as alchemy and astrology. It is said that the House of Wisdom was the key institution in the Translation Movement and was considered to have been a major intellectual center of the Islamic Golden Age (Institute Mohamed Ali). This is simply a brief background on the House of Wisdom–next I’ll get into the role it played in mathematics.

The Abbasid Caliph, al-Ma’mun, established the House of Wisdom and invited Al-Khawarizmi (who will later come to be known as the Father of Algebra) to come and help him with something. He wanted to prove Allah’s existence through the “complexity and beauty of” mathematics.  Al-Khawarizmi began by translating ancient Greek and Indian texts. From the great Indian book on math, The Opening of the Universe, al-Khawarizmi adopts the idea of the zero as a number. This opened up a whole new world of mathematical possibilities and complexities unknown to the world at this time. The old Roman numeral system made more complex math almost impossible, but with a number system that includes 0, al-Khawarizmi introduces new ideas. Areas of mathematics such as algebra and geometry of the Greeks are developed, which eventually lead to math such as trigonometry and calculus. 

However, he still has a problem. Zero cannot be proven to exist using math, because even though the Indian texts he’s translated insist that zero divided by zero equals zero, al-Khawarizmi knows that dividing anything by zero is impossible. So, he decides that zero must simply be accepted without being proven–much like the existence in Allah. al-Khawarizmi is later cited by European mathematicians by a name that much more closely resembles ‘algorithm’ than it does his actual name. The mathematical word ‘algorithm’ is derived from his name, and, as many know, means complex, mathematical formula. Not only is he remembered by this, but also for his book titled Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala, in which he lays out the principles of Algebra.

The House of Wisdom hosted scholars and researchers of all fields and studies, not just mathematics. However, the discoveries that were made by al-Khawarizmi truly provided the foundation of mathematics as we know it today. His discovery of the number zero and the concept of algebra laid the basis for almost every other type of mathematics that is taught in schools across the world. Therefore, the role of the House of Wisdom in the history of mathematics is more fundamental and crucial than I (and I’m guessing most others) ever realized. 





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