They’ve Got XCIX Problems, But Arabic Numerals Ain’t One

Amusing results, and a history lesson, in a new poll

Call this a depressing sign of the times:

Should Americans, as part of their school curriculum, learn Arabic numerals?

CivicScience, a Pittsburgh-based research firm, put that question to some 3,200 Americans recently in a poll seemingly about mathematics, but the outcome was a measure of students’ attitudes toward the Arabworld. Some 56 percent of the respondents said, “No.” Fifteen percent had no opinion.

Those results, which quickly inspired more than 24,000 tweets, might have been sharply different had the pollsters explained what “Arabic numerals” are.

There are 10 of them: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.

Western conservatives retreat to tribalism themselves when they deny the wisdom in, and the contributions of, sources that are not Judeo-Christian.

That fact prompted John Dick, the chief executive of the polling company, to label the finding “the saddest and funniest testament to American bigotry we’ve ever seen in our data.”

Presumably, the Americans who opposed the teaching of Arabic numerals (Republicans in greater proportion than Democrats) lacked the basic knowledge of what they are and also had some aversion to anything described as “Arabic.”

As Cato’s Mustafa Akyal goes on to explain, the history of the numeral system we use is something that anyone who has taken grade-school level history and mathematics should know:

The answer traces to seventh-century India, where the numerical system, which included the revolutionary formulation of zero, was developed.

Some two centuries later, it moved to the Muslim world, whose magnificent capital, Baghdad, was then the world’s best city in which to pursue an intellectual career. There, a Persian Muslim scholar named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi developed a mathematical discipline called al-jabir, which literally means “reunion of broken parts.”

In the early 13th century, an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci, who studied calculation with an Arab master in Muslim North Africa, found the numerals and their decimal system much more practical than the Roman system, and soon popularized them in Europe, where the figures became known as “Arabic numerals.”

Meanwhile, the discipline of al-jabir became “algebra,” and al-Khwarizmi’s name evolved into “algorithm.”

Today, many words in English have Arabic roots; a short list would include admiral, alchemy, alcove, alembic, alkali, almanac, lute, mask, muslin, nadir, sugar, syrup, tariff and zenith. Some scholars think that even the word “check,” which you get from a bank, comes from the Arabic word sakk, which means “written document.” (Its plural, sukuk, is still used in Islamic banking to refer to bonds.)

There is a reason these Western terms have Arabic roots: Between the eighth and 12th centuries, the Muslim world, whose lingua franca was Arabic, was much more creative than Christian Europe, which was then in the late Middle Ages. Muslims were the pioneers in mathematics, geometry, physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, architecture, trade and, most important, philosophy. To be sure, Muslims had inherited these sciences from other cultures, such as the ancient Greeks, Eastern Christians, Jews and Hindus. Still, they advanced those disciplines with their own innovations and transmitted them to Europe.

Akyal goes on to note that there are lessons for both non-Muslims and Muslims:

[T]here are lessons for both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Among the latter are Western conservatives, who are passionate about protecting the legacy of Western civilization, which they often define as exclusively “Judeo-Christian.” Of course, Western civilization does have a great accomplishment worth preserving: the Enlightenment, which gave us freedom of thought, freedom of religion, the abolition of slavery, equality before the law, and democracy.

Those values should not be sacrificed to the postmodern tribalism called “identity politics.” But Western conservatives retreat to tribalism themselves when they deny the wisdom in, and the contributions of, sources that are not Judeo-Christian. The third great Abrahamic religion, Islam, also had a hand in the making of the modern world, and honoring that legacy would help establish a more constructive dialogue with Muslims.

Of course, we Muslims ourselves have a big question to answer: Why was our civilization once so creative, and why have we lost that golden age?
Some Muslims find a simple answer in piety and the lack thereof, thinking that decline came when Muslims turned “sinful.” Others assume that the early majesty can be traced to mighty leaders, whose reincarnations they hope to see again. Some find solace in conspiracy theories that blame enemies outside and “traitors” within.

Here is a more realistic explanation: The early Islamic civilization was creative because it was open-minded. At least some Muslims had the urge to learn from other civilizations. There was some room for free speech, which was extraordinary for its time. That allowed the work of towering Greek philosophers such as Aristotle to be translated and discussed, theologians of different stripes to speak their minds, and scholars to find independent patronage. From the 12th century onward, however, a more uniform and less rational form of Islam was imposed by despotic caliphs and sultans. So Muslim thought turned insular, repetitive and incurious.

(…)

Exactly why this tragic closing of the Muslim mind happened, and how it can be overturned, is the biggest question facing Muslims today. We should not lose more time through denials and blame games.

At the same time, however, others should not make the mistake of judging Islamic civilization by looking at its worst products, many of which are now rampant. It is a great civilization that has made significant contributions to humanity, especially the West.

In other words, Arabic numerals should remind non-Muslims that Islam generally and Arab culture particularly are not fairly represented by the image of the terrorist that many on the political right continue to paint them with. Were it not for Islam and Arabic scholars, much of what we know about and have learned from the culture of Ancient Greece and Rome would have been lost to history, for example. Additionally, as Akyal points out, the fact that our own western culture has borrowed so much from what was once a vibrant and highly intellectual Arab and Islamic culture is a reminder of the value of being open to outsiders and the ideas that they have to offer.

For Muslims, this story should cause many of them to wonder what exactly happened to the glories of Muslim and Islamic culture, which was once the most vibrant in world history. While some of it can be attributed to clashes with the west after Europe emerged from the Dark Age that followed the collapse of Rome, that doesn’t explain all of it. There’s no reason why Islam, once the source of great scholars, should find itself represented today by the monsters of al Qaeda and ISIS and the leaders of nations like Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

Both sides can do better than they have.

FILED UNDER: History, Islam, Public Opinion Polls, Quick Takes, Religion
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. KM says:

    “Children please! This is important! How else are you going to know when certain motion pictures were made?”

    Ah, Simpsons – explaining the “logic” behind social stupidity decades before we even realize it’s gonna a thing.

    “Rocky V plus Rocky II equals… Rocky VII: Adrian’s Revenge!”

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  2. CSK says:

    I’d love to pose this question to Trump.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Ahh America, land of the ignorant, home of the stupid.

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  4. Kathy says:

    In school we were taught these are “Indo-Arabic” numerals.

    Also, “Judeo-Christian” is an awfully odd way to spell “Greco-Roman.”

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  5. MarkedMan says:

    No one who reads history with an honest eye can come away believing that their own country is either blessed by god or damned by devils. Empires have risen in all parts of the globe, with all types of governments, religions and justice systems. As human civilizations rose and fell people with all types of skin color or physical features traded places as the enlightened and undisputed rulers of all within their reach and as the witless savages who could not be civilized.

    When I consider the Romans, the Greeks, the Chinese, the Mongols, the Arabs, the Egyptians, the Aztecs, the whoever-built-Machu-Pichu, the Akan, etc, I come away with only three certainties:
    – Everyone who is on top believes it is because they are there by god and ancestry and so can never fall to the bottom
    – Every civilization that spends more than a century or two on top has developed a system to peacefully transfer power and has instituted a series of norms and laws that provide a stable framework to engage in daily commerce. Democracy and Justice, however, are rare.
    – If you want to be remembered throughout history, it’s best to have developed a system of paper or parchment writing and have some very arid regions where they can get tucked away in a forgotten building or sealed inside some pottery. We know more about an obscure Hebrew sect which had no significant impact on world history because of the various writings they hid in jars in a cave in the desert (aka The Dead Sea Scrolls) than we do about the people who constructed Machu Picchu, and the latter civilization must have been incredible for them to have spent so much time, effort and resources building a structure that was in such a high arid cold location. Almost everything else they built has been lost to the jungles and the heat and the rain. It makes you wonder how many more civilizations rose and fell in the jungles around the world.

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  6. Stormy Dragon says:
  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: Which is an odd way of spelling “white.”

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  8. Modulo Myself says:

    Of course, we Muslims ourselves have a big question to answer: Why was our civilization once so creative, and why have we lost that golden age?

    Um, partly because the Mongols invaded and destroyed an empire. And partly because gradual emptiness is what happens with empires, and 21st century America is in the same situation. No one is going to look back at the years since the Cold War’s end and observe the invasion of Iraq or the economy’s collapse or the total lack of ability to deal with climate change and think of these as the results of an open, creative society.

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  9. Kathy says:

    @MarkedMan:

    If you want to be remembered throughout history, it’s best to have developed a system of paper or parchment writing and have some very arid regions where they can get tucked away in a forgotten building or sealed inside some pottery.

    For a moment, it seemed you were talking about Egypt. So much of it has been preserved due to climate and circumstance, that a great deal remains to be dug up.

    But we also know a lot about Rome and Greece, though their climates were not as conducive to preservation.

    Democracy, BTW, is quite old. it just went out of fashion for millennia. Even so, the Roman Empire pretended to have a functioning democracy for centuries after it had been overtaken by the emperors.

    Justice, as in a formal system backed by government with built-in protections for the rights of the accused, is a very recent development.

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  10. DrDaveT says:

    In the early 13th century, an Italian mathematician named Fibonacci, who studied calculation with an Arab master in Muslim North Africa, found the numerals and their decimal system much more practical than the Roman system, and soon popularized them in Europe

    Obligatory nitpicks:
    1. He was not ‘named’ Fibonacci; his name was Leonardo, sometimes called Leonardo of Pisa or Leonardo the Traveler (‘Bigollo’). The epithet “Fibonacci” (son of Bonacci) was invented in the 19th century.
    2. “Soon popularized them” is an extreme exaggeration. Wikipedia cites Ore’s history of number theory as follows:

    The spread of the Hindu-Arabic system, however, as Ore writes, was “long-drawn-out”, taking many more centuries to spread widely, and did not become complete until the later part of the 16th century, accelerating dramatically only in the 1500s with the advent of printing.

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  11. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    Arabs(Not Muslims) controlled the profitable trade routes with Asia during the Middle Ages, that why they had a glorious civilization at the time. Arabs lost a lot of economic power when they lost control of these routes and whey they were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, that had far more fertile lands than the Middle East or Northern Africa.

    Just a small portion of Muslims worldwide live in Saudi Arabia, and very few of them have sympathies for the Islamic State. In fact, most Arabs have some resentment toward Islamists because they know that Islamists have a abysmal bad economic record.

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  12. Kathy says:

    BTW, if we’re going to mock the intellectual, historical, mathematical, cultural, and scientific ignorance of the masses, we won’t ever be done.

    Scientific ignorance, though, affects technological changes. But mockery is perhaps not the best means of correcting this. For example, we can easily mock the people who object to food containing DNA (ie all food), or those who think “dihydrogen monoxide” is poisonous, but instead let’s ask: which form of power generation releases more radioactivity into the atmosphere?

    The answer is coal-burning plants, as attested here.

    This is not to say that nuclear waste isn’t an issue, or that nuclear power plants require a great deal of safeguards, or that solid-fuel nuclear plants are wasteful and flawed. But those issues can be addressed. One good option seems to be molten salt reactors, which 1) don’t work under pressure and 2) might be able to use some nuclear waste as fuel without much or any reprocessing.

    Nuclear power alone won’t solve the excess greenhouse gasses problem, nor replace all fossil fuels. But neither will any other form of power generation like wind, hydro, or solar. You need a combination of methods, each with advantages and downsides, in order to beat the problem.

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  13. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Kathy:

    Nuclear power alone won’t solve the excess greenhouse gasses problem, nor replace all fossil fuels. But neither will any other form of power generation like wind, hydro, or solar. You need a combination of methods, each with advantages and downsides, in order to beat the problem.

    Well put. But it won’t fit on a bumper sticker like “Coal is Good” does.

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  14. MarkedMan says:

    @Kathy: I lived in Ghana for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer and one day found myself wandering around the fishing boats and gradually noticed there was a group of poor fishermen that looked ethnically distinct from the Fanti tribespeople who dominated the region. It got me wondering whether their ancestors were the previous inhabitants before the Akan empire overwhelmed the area (the Fanti are a sub group of the Akan). We may never know because there is no written tradition and even if there had been it would have never survived. (In a hot humid climate like that a pair of leather shoes left untouched under the bed for three months will come out covered in mold. Parchment wouldn’t have a chance.) There are legends that the Akan migration made its way all the way to the Sudan and became part of the Nubian Empire.

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  15. just nutha says:

    of course, the really scary part of that poll is that these are the people who are electing the President of the United States.

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  16. JohnMcC says:

    Just to keep from feeling the smugness that those of us who knew about the appellation ‘Arabic’ let’s recall that for most of us we’ll still measure our distance in miles and our recipes in lb’s and oz’s and our oven and AC in F. Which is pretty damn stupid.

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  17. grumpy realist says:

    For “Arabic” numbers what we use doesn’t get used in actual Arabic documents….I had to create my own cheat sheet to decipher trademark and patent expiration dates when we would get certificates from Saudi Arabia. Especially annoying because their “ten years of trademark rights” are not the same as what you would get using a Gregorian calendar….

    P.S. one of the other tasks I was routinely entrusted with is rewriting patent applications for countries which demanded International System units. Which made me realise that there’s technology in certain areas where the identifying terms (usually unitless) were determined by U.S. corporations with their in-house measuring techniques back in history with said tests having been adopted elsewhere. The viscosity of corn slurry, for instance.

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  18. Jen says:

    @JohnMcC: I am a passionate baker, and find it irritating and frustrating that more recipes don’t contain gram measurements. You get better, and more consistent, results when you bake with weight rather than volume measurements–grams preferable to ounces (but I’ll take ounces, just get rid of volume measurements!!)

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  19. DrDaveT says:

    @Kathy:

    which form of power generation releases more radioactivity into the atmosphere?

    Per watt of power generated, over the long run? It’s not clear.

    In the short run, current coal plants release more radioactivity per watt generated than current nuclear plants, when both are functioning properly. If you average in the small number of historical accidental releases from nuclear plants, I’m not sure who wins. There’s also the spatial/intensity difference; coal ash is everywhere, while the effects of Chernobyl and Fukushima are highly location-dependent.

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  20. SKI says:

    @Kathy: Especially as there is no such thing as “Judeo-Christian”.

    “Judeo-Christian” isn’t a thing. It a) positions Jews & Christians against Muslims, is Islamophobic b) elides Christian oppression & murder of Jews over more than 1000 years & c) ignores Jewish civilization worldwide & facts of key Jewish developments in Middle East & N Africa.

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  21. Jen says:

    Incidentally Doug, this was a great post title…I giggled.

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  22. Kathy says:

    @SKI:

    If there ever was, it stopped being a thing early on, certainly by the time of Constantine I and the Edict of Milan.

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  23. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @JohnMcC: I want somebody to do a study on how much our refusal to adopt the metric system costs our economy every year.

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  24. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: None of the least of which is losing a satellite on its way down to Mars.

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  25. Gustopher says:

    We really ought to have our own numbering system to demonstrate how exceptional we are. Make some fake claims about the founders as part of it, to give it historical context, and maybe get rid of that whole base 10 nonsense. Use Arabic symbols, but backwards, so 5 is less than 4.

    For men, use base 11, as they usually think with a separate appendage anyway, so they can use all ten fingers and their manhood when counting. And, we all know Alexander Hamilton’s tomcatting.

    For women… a little known fact is that Betsy Ross lost a finger due to an encounter with an extremely aggressive duck, so base 9. To honor her.

    For ducks, base 1. Unwieldy, but it’s not like the ducks do a lot of arithmetic anyway.

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  26. Kathy says:

    @Gustopher:

    We really ought to have our own numbering system to demonstrate how exceptional we are.

    That’s a good start.

    But you need a new language, too. What kind of red-blooded American wants to have English as their language? Are you in England? Didn’t you throw those bastards out in 1776?

    And a new alphabet. Who the hell were the Romans and where do they get off foisting such an old script on you?

    I envision this: A 32-base numbering system using all-new numerical symbols. The new alphabet will be made up of colors rather than letters. This has the added bonus of very much discriminating against the color-blind. Who needs them? Color-aware is where it’s at. Color-blindness is unamerican. So what if a miscalibrated printer causes a war? Get the people to use real-color, made in America printers.

    A new language won’t be so difficult. For one thing, in order to be accessible it will have fewer words. If Trump doesn’t use a word, there’s no reason for it to exist, amirite?

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  27. Kathy says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    You know, the US Imperial System, or whatever it’s called, is far more prevalent all over the world than it might seem.

    For example, Waze, and Google maps, give turn warnings at 800 and 400 meters. This puzzled me in the beginning, until I realizes it’s half a mile and a quarter mile.

    The regular soda can is 355 milliliters. That’s a really weird number, yes? but it’s equivalent to 12 oz.

    Some cooking oil bottles are 946 ml. rather than 1 liter. Again, weird. But that’s one quart(*).

    Paint is often sold in gallon cans, and I’m told screws and nuts measurements are mostly in fractions of an inch.

    (*) I thought that might be the very common trick with packaged goods of reducing weight and keeping the price as is, but then 950 ml would have made more sense.

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  28. Jen says:

    @Kathy:

    But you need a new language, too. What kind of red-blooded American wants to have English as their language?

    This is an ongoing joke in our house, as my husband is British and I spent time in international schools where the “ou” was present in “colour” “favourite” etc.

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  29. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Kathy: I would bet those are all examples of a British Empire hangover. The “cooking oil bottles are 946 ml. rather than 1 liter” cracks me up. I think I’ve run into them somewhere.

    I’m told screws and nuts measurements are mostly in fractions of an inch.

    No. It depends on where the item is assembled but even then it often doesn’t matter. I often had to work with both metric and imperial nuts and bolts. It was a real pain in the ass at times because I’d have to have not only both types wrenches/sockets/hex wrenches etc but I also had to have both types of drill bits and taps/dies. My “American Made” planer is assembled with metric nuts and bolts. I suspect that is because the parts are manufactured elsewhere and assembled here.

    It’s a fucked up way to run a country.

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  30. Kathy says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I would bet those are all examples of a British Empire hangover. The “cooking oil bottles are 946 ml. rather than 1 liter” cracks me up. I think I’ve run into them somewhere.

    As far back as I recall, cooking oil came only in 1 liter bottles. Most of them still do, only a few switched to 946 ml.

    I’ll take your word about nuts and bolts. Nails, too, for that matter. It’s been years since I’ve needed to purchase any.

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  31. An Interested Party says:

    Also, “Judeo-Christian” is an awfully odd way to spell “Greco-Roman.”

    Indeed…as ignorant as so many Americans are about the roots of the modern math system, I’m sure they’re also as ignorant of the “pagan” roots of Judaism and Christianity…

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  32. grumpy realist says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: My roommate from college for the longest time would carry around a set of metric wrenches in the back of her car (diesel Mercedes) because she couldn’t find U.S. auto mechanics with the requisite implements when something went wrong….

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  33. DrDaveT says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: The costs of not going metric. It’s hardly definitive, but it’s the best I’ve found.

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