What You Can Learn from a Survey about Arabic Numerals

What those Arabic numerals can reveal.

What those Arabic numerals can reveal.

Pittsburgh research firm asked 3,200 Americans whether students should learn Arabic numerals. More than 50 percent said no. 

One interpretation of that finding is half of Americans don’t realize their numbering system of 0 through 9 is based on Arabic numerals – and has been since the 13th century when an Italian mathematician concluded the Arabic decimal system was superior to Roman numerals. Another interpretation is that 56 percent of Americans have a knee-jerk reaction to the word “Arabic,” which apparently is synonymous in their minds with “Muslim.”

It is hard to find much solace in either interpretation – ignorance or prejudice. 

Shame on us for an education system that sells short the contributions of non-Europeans to world civilization. In what we refer to as Dark Ages, a Muslim-led period of discovery and innovation flourished while advancing astronomy, architecture, trade, medicine and, yes, mathematics. Algebra was derived from the Arabic al-jabir. Algorithm is taken from the name of Muslim mathematician Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.


The Western Renaissance sparked to life upon rediscovery of classic knowledge – as advanced by a Muslim empire that spilled into Spain and Sicily, where that Italian mathematician made a course-critical decision about Arabic numerals.

The bias against Muslims is also shameful, in part because it is based on ignorance, too. We think western civilization and Judeo-Christian tradition are responsible for the world’s progress. They are, but not exclusively. The arts of plant cultivation, animal domestication, language, writing and metallurgy were achieved in places outside of Europe and long before there was Western civilization or Judeo-Christian tradition. China has been a nation for 4,000 years, racking up its own impressive record of achievements. 

One of the greatest achievements of western civilization is the Enlightenment, which liberated thought from theocratic restraints while preserving freedom of religion. The Enlightenment led to the end of slavery, aspirations of equality and creation of democracies. The founders of the United States based a lot of mold-breaking thoughts about government by the people and inalienable rights for all. 

Which loops back to the survey findings and how it reflects on the legacy of western civilization and the ideals of nation that is a child of that civilization.

Then again, who would have thought the word “tariff” had its roots in Arabic.