Texts – Islamic culture

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“About 800 AD, not very long after the symbol for “nothing” was invented, the Hindu numerals spread into the north and west lands of India. These lands were inhabited by people who spoke Arabic. Arabic-speaking people also lived all across northern Africa and in Spain as well. The Hindu numerals spread through Africa and into Spain.

The Arabs called the Hindu sunya, the symbol for “nothing”, sifr. About 820 AD, an Arabic mathematician named Muhammed Al-Khwarizmi wrote the first book about how to use the Hindu numerals in arithmetic.

Over a hundred years later, a Frenchman named Gerbert was very interested in gathering knowledge, so he travelled to al-Andalus in 967 AD, which was far more advanced than other European countries. He came across Al-Khwarizmi’s book and was struck with the convenience of the new system of numerals. He brought the numerical system back to France with him. The people in Europe called them Arabic numerals because they obtained them from Arabic-speaking people.

Two centuries later, there was a man called Leonardo Fibonacci, who lived in an Italian city called Pisa. He picked up the notion of the Hindu system of numerals while he was visiting northern Africa. In 1202, he published a book in which he used Arabic numerals plus the symbol for “nothing”. He showed how it could be used in arithmetic. By that time, Europe had emerged from the “Dark Age”. People were more prosperous and more learned. In Italy, especially, there were many businessmen who had to do a lot of calculating to keep track of their dealings. As Italian businessmen found how convenient the Arabic numerals were they abandoned the Roman numerals and used the new system instead”.

Isaac Asimov, How we found out about numbers.


“We could multiply the examples because the Franj [Franks] have learnt from the Arabs in all the fields, in Syria, Spain or in Sicily. And what they learnt was indispensable for their further expansions. If the Greek legacy was transmitted to Western Europe, it was through the Arabs, who translated and continued. In Medicine, Astrology, Chemistry, Geography, Mathematics and Architecture, the franj acquired their knowledge from the Arabic books they assimilated, imitated and then overtook. The amount to words that testify so! Zenith, nadir, azimuth, algebra, algorithm or, simply, ‘numeral’ (cifra).

In what relative to industry, the Europeans took –before improving them– the methods the Arabs used to make paper, work with leather and textiles, distillate alcohol and sugar, etc. We cannot forget the extent to which the European agriculture was enriched due to the contact with the East: apricots, aubergines, oranges, lemons, watermelons… the list of ‘Arab’ words is infinite”

Amin Maalouf, Las cruzadas vistas por los árabes (Madrid: Alianza Editorial, 2003) [Own translation]

  1. Search for the underlined words in the dictionary (and the ones you do not understand).
  2. In two lines, write the main idea of the first text.
  3. What is the main idea of the second text?
  4. What do both texts have in common?
  5. When we speak about ‘European culture’, and after reading these texts, what are we speaking about? Can we speak about a single and unified culture?
  6. After reading these texts, what do you think about the influence of Islamic culture in Western culture?


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