Autobiography: Muhammad Ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi

Abū ʿAbdallāh Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī (Arabic: عَبْدَالله مُحَمَّد بِن مُوسَى اَلْخْوَارِزْمِي‎), earlier transliterated as Algoritmi or Algaurizin, (c. 780, Khwārizm – c. 850) was a Persian mathematician, astronomer and geographer during the Abbasid Empire, a scholar in the House of Wisdom in Baghdad.

In the twelfth century, Latin translations of his work on the Indian numerals introduced the decimal positional number system to the Western world. His Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing presented the first systematic solution of linear and quadratic equations in Arabic. In Renaissance Europe, he was considered the original inventor of algebra, although it is now known that his work is based on older Indian or Greek sources. He revised Ptolemy’s Geography and wrote on astronomy and astrology.

Some words reflect the importance of al-Khwarizmi’s contributions to mathematics. “Algebra” is derived from al-jabr, one of the two operations he used to solve quadratic equations. Algorism and algorithm stem from Algoritmi, the Latin form of his name. His name is also the origin of (Spanish) guarismo and of (Portuguese) algarismo, both meaning digit.


He was born in a Persian family, and his birthplace is given as Chorasmia by Ibn al-Nadim.
Few details of al-Khwārizmī’s life are known with certainty. His name may indicate that he came from Khwarezm (Khiva), then in Greater Khorasan, which occupied the eastern part of the Greater Iran, now Xorazm Province in Uzbekistan.

Al-Tabari gave his name as Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwārizmī al-Majousi al-Katarbali (محمد بن موسى الخوارزميّ المجوسـيّ القطربّـليّ). The epithet al-Qutrubbulli could indicate he might instead have come from Qutrubbul (Qatrabbul), a viticulture district near Baghdad. However, Rashed suggests:
There is no need to be an expert on the period or a philologist to see that al-Tabari’s second citation should read “Muhammad ibn Mūsa al-Khwārizmī and al-Majūsi al-Qutrubbulli,” and that there are two people (al-Khwārizmī and al-Majūsi al-Qutrubbulli) between whom the letter wa [Arabic ‘و’ for the article ‘and’] has been omitted in an early copy. This would not be worth mentioning if a series of errors concerning the personality of al-Khwārizmī, occasionally even the origins of his knowledge, had not been made. Recently, G. J. Toomer … with naive confidence constructed an entire fantasy on the error which cannot be denied the merit of amusing the reader.

Regarding al-Khwārizmī’s religion, Toomer writes:
Another epithet given to him by al-Ṭabarī, “al-Majūsī,” would seem to indicate that he was an adherent of the old Zoroastrian religion. This would still have been possible at that time for a man of Iranian origin, but the pious preface to al-Khwārizmī’s Algebra shows that he was an orthodox Muslim, so al-Ṭabarī’s epithet could mean no more than that his forebears, and perhaps he in his youth, had been Zoroastrians.

Ibn al-Nadīm’s Kitāb al-Fihrist includes a short biography on al-Khwārizmī, together with a list of the books he wrote. Al-Khwārizmī accomplished most of his work in the period between 813 and 833. After the Islamic conquest of Persia, Baghdad became the centre of scientific studies and trade, and many merchants and scientists from as far as China and India traveled to this city, as did Al-Khwārizmī. He worked in Baghdad as a scholar at the House of Wisdom established by Caliph al-Maʾmūn, where he studied the sciences and mathematics, which included the translation of Greek and Sanskrit scientific manuscripts.

D. M. Dunlop suggests that it may have been possible that Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī was in fact the same person as Muḥammad ibn Mūsā ibn Shākir, the eldest of the three Banū Mūsā.


A page from al-Khwārizmī’s Algebra
Al-Khwārizmī’s contributions to mathematics, geography, astronomy, and cartography established the basis for innovation in algebra and trigonometry. His systematic approach to solving linear and quadratic equations led to algebra, a word derived from the title of his 830 book on the subject, “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing” (al-Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa’l-muqabalaالكتاب المختصر في حساب الجبر والمقابلة).

On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals written about 825, was principally responsible for spreading the Indian system of numeration throughout the Middle East and Europe. It was translated into Latin as Algoritmi de numero Indorum. Al-Khwārizmī, rendered as (Latin) Algoritmi, led to the term “algorithm”.

Some of his work was based on Persian and Babylonian astronomy, Indian numbers, and Greek mathematics.

Al-Khwārizmī systematized and corrected Ptolemy’s data for Africa and the Middle East. Another major book was Kitab surat al-ard (“The Image of the Earth”; translated as Geography), presenting the coordinates of places based on those in the Geography of Ptolemy but with improved values for the Mediterranean Sea, Asia, and Africa.

He also wrote on mechanical devices like the astrolabe and sundial.

He assisted a project to determine the circumference of the Earth and in making a world map for al-Ma’mun, the caliph, overseeing 70 geographers.
When, in the 12th century, his works spread to Europe through Latin translations, it had a profound impact on the advance of mathematics in Europe. He introduced Arabic numerals into the Latin West, based on a place-value decimal system developed from Indian sources.

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