Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it
Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was one of those historical figures that many modern Europeans like to pretend never existed. He was a Muslim scholar in the Baghdad House of Wisdom (which we shall discover later in this series). He is famous for his contributions to mathematics, astronomy, geography and geometry.
His most well-known book, translated twice into Latin by medieval scholars concerned algorithmic logic and is the reason that some modern thinkers have credited him with the first, faltering steps toward the modern computer. Without al-Khwārizmī’s algorithms modern computer programmes and even computer codes would be impossible. The book was entitled Hisab al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabala in Arabic, the middle section being preserved in English as ‘Algebra’ – another of al-Khwārizmī’s inventions.
The great man’s approach to algebra has resulted in much more than merely the psychological torture of schoolchildren. It is the foundation of countless mathematical operations involving a range of disciplines from statistical analysis (a fundamental tool of modern science) to engineering, navigation technology and even artistic design. In his own time he employed his algebraic algorithms to practical problems of the time such as dividing inheritances according to complex familial relationships and hierarchies or working out astronomical positions. He even designed and computed logarithmic tables (without the aid of a calculator) His influential book contained hundreds of worked examples of both algorithmic and geometric equations.
In addition to his mathematical achievements al-Khwārizmī also developed significant advances in geography and cartography. It was he who oversaw the creation of a map of the world (as he knew it). This massive project involved literally dozens of cartographers working under al-Khwārizmī’s supervision and guidance. He also calculated the true positions of the sun and moon, predicted their future positions in his own astronomical almanac and represented a significant improvement on the previous, much less accurate, Ptolemaic perspective. The resulting work allowed him to develop calendars, accurate calculation points for sundials and even several tools based upon optics and shadows for thee use in contemporary architecture and surveying. It was due to al-Khwārizmī’s developments that the practice of using sundials to denote and standardise the time for Muslim prayers began.