Beyt’ül Hikmet (House of Wisdom) sounds like a dream. No trace is left of this ancient library, which was destroyed in the 13th century. So we are not entirely sure where it is and what it looks like.
But this prestigious academy was a great intellectual power in the Islamic Golden Age. Zero and contemporary Arab It was the birthplace of transformative concepts like numbers.
Established at the end of the 8th century as a private collection for the Caliph Harun El Reşid, the House of Wisdom turned into a public academy 30 years later and Baghdadstarted to attract.
What attracted them was the city’s vibrant scientific curiosity and freedom of expression. Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars were allowed to work here.
The House of Wisdom, which has an archive comparable to today’s largest libraries, eventually turned into an unrivaled research center in more controversial areas such as mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, geography, philosophy, literature and art, and alchemy and astrology.
It takes some imagination to bring this magnificent place to your mind.
But one thing is clear; The academy started a cultural renaissance that completely changed mathematics.
The House of Wisdom was destroyed in 1258 by the Mongols in the siege of Baghdad. According to the legend, so many manuscripts were thrown on the Euphrates that the waters of the river turned from ink to black.
However, the discoveries made here revealed a powerful, abstract language of mathematics that was later adopted by the Islamic Empire, Europe, and ultimately the whole world.
Return to the future
“For us, it shouldn’t matter where and when the House of Wisdom was founded. Much more interesting is the history of scientific ideas and how they developed thanks to the House of Wisdom,” says Jim El Halili, a professor of physics at the University of Surrey.
In order to trace the math legacy of the House of Wisdom, it is necessary to travel back in time and return to the future.
For hundreds of years until the Italian Renaissance, one name in Europe was synonymous with mathematics: Leonardo da Pisa, who was named Fibonacci after his death. Born in Pisa in 1170, the Italian mathematician received his primary education in Bugia, an Italian commercial colony on the North African coast.
Fibonacci traveled to the Middle East in his early 20s and was influenced by ideas reaching the West through Iran. When Fibonacci returned to Italy, he published Liber Abbaci. This was one of the first Western works to describe the Indo-Arab number system.
When Liber Abacci first appeared in 1202, only a few intellectuals knew the Indo-Arabic numerals. European traders and scientists are still trying to make multiplication and division very burdensome. Roma was using numbers. (Try multiplying MXCI by LVII).
The use of numbers in arithmetic operations was demonstrated in Fibonacci’s book. These techniques could also be applied to practical problems such as profit margin, money exchange, weight conversion, barter and interest.
In the first part of Fibonacci’s encyclopedic work, he said, “Those who want to know the calculation, its subtleties and skills should know how to calculate with hand numbers.” Here he meant the numbers that the children are now learning in schools.
“With those nine digits and the 0 sign called zero, any number can be written,” he said. Math was suddenly available to everyone.
Fibonacci’s great genius was not creativity as a mathematician, but his deep understanding of the advantages Muslim scientists had used for centuries: computational formulas, decimal systems, and algebras.
In fact, Liber Abbaci relied heavily on the algorithms of the 9th century mathematician al-Khwarizmi. His revolutionary work was the first to propose a system for solving equations with two unknowns.
He is known as the “father of Algebra” with his discoveries in the field of Harizmi. Algebra comes from the Arabic root “al-cebr”, which means “to repair broken parts” in Arabic. Harizmi was appointed as an astronomer and chief librarian at the House of Wisdom in 821.
“Harizmi’s theses initiated the decimal number system in the Muslim world. Others, like Leonardo and Pisa, enabled it to be transmitted to Europe,” says Al Halili.
So indeed, we owe much of Fibonacci’s transformative influence in modern mathematics to Harizmi. The two men, about 400 years old, are linked by an ancient library. The best-known mathematician of the Middle Ages rises on the shoulders of another pioneering thinker who made his discoveries in one of the major institutions of the Islamic Golden Age.
Perhaps because little is known about the House of Wisdom, historians often exaggerate its size and purpose, and attribute importance that contradicts the scarce historical record.
“Some say that the House of Wisdom is not something that has grown in the eyes of many. But its relationship with scientists like Harizmi and his work in mathematics, astronomy, and geography makes the House of Wisdom not just a place where translated books are collected, but a real academy,” said Al Halili. “There is strong enough evidence about it,” he says.
Scholars and translators at the library also made great efforts to make the work available to the public.
Professor of mathematics history June Barrow-Green says, “The House of Wisdom is also an important place with the translations made here. Thanks to Arab scholars who translated Greek ideas into their native language, we formed the basis of our understanding of mathematics.”
The palace library was a place where scientific discoveries were made, as well as a window to digital ideas of the past.
Long before our current decimal system, before the binary number system programming our computers, the Roman numerals, the systems used by the ancient Mesopotamians, humans used the first scoreboard systems to record their accounts.
Although we now find each of these obscure and outdated, different number systems can actually teach us very valuable things about the structure, relationships, historical and cultural contexts of the cultures from which they came.
They reinforce the place value and the idea of abstraction and help us better understand how numbers work.
“They show that the Western method is not the only method. Understanding different number systems is really useful,” says Barrow-Green.
If an ancient merchant wanted to write “two sheep,” for example, he could draw a picture of two sheep on one clay. But when you wanted to write “20 sheep” it would not be practical at all.
This year marks the 850th anniversary of Fibonacci’s birth. This could also be the moment when Roman numerals were completely left of the past.
In Britain, Roman numerals in traditional clocks have been replaced by easier-to-understand digital clocks for fear that children no longer understand analog clocks properly. While some parts of the world were removed from road signs and official documents, Hollywood stopped using Roman numerals in the titles of sequels.
However, the departure from Roman numerals at the global level also marks the horse of an accountability that permeates other areas of life. Perhaps more importantly, the disappearance of Roman numerals reveals the politics that governed a more general debate on mathematics.
“Whose stories are told, what kinds of knowledge are immortalized as part of formal learning, whose culture will be privileged are inevitably influenced by our Western colonial heritage,” says Lucy Rycroft-Smith, Cambridge Mathematics Editor.
Former math teacher Rycroft-Smith is currently a leading name in mathematics education and studies different curricula on a global level. Roman numerals are not taught in Wales, Scotland and Ireland. In the USA, there is no standard attitude in this regard. In England, it is stated that children should be able to read up to 100 Roman numerals.
Most of us don’t see anything special in the MMXX figure (if you don’t know, this figure is 2020). We may not be familiar with the Fibonacci sequence, which is named after Fibonacci. The Fibonacci sequence is a sequence of numbers that begins with 1 and is the result of adding each number with its preceding one.
The Fibonacci sequence is seen in seashells, sunflowers, pine cones, animal horns, and the digital world.
His series are featured in popular culture, literature, films and visual arts.
But Leonardo da Pisa’s most enduring contribution to mathematics is something rarely taught in schools. This story began about 1,000 years ago in a palace library when Western Christianity was in intellectual darkness.
It is a story that must overthrow our European-oriented views on mathematics and highlight the continuing importance of ancient digital treasures by shedding light on the scientific achievements of the Islamic World.