Al-Khwarzimi: The Father of Algebra

By David W. Tschanz

Algebra. Even the word is enough to strike terror into the hearts of junior and high school students the world over - not to mention send shivers of apprehension down the backs of their parents as they start the process of solving for “x” or “y”, and sometimes both. However, junior high school students have not always studied algebra. During the ninth century, it was reserved for the intellectual elite. The word “algebra,” like the subject, is a consequence of the intellectual ferment that occurred in Baghdad during the ninth century reign of Caliph al-Ma’mun (813-33).

The “Father of Algebra” is generally acknowledged to be Abu Ja’far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, born in approximately 786 C.E. Some historians speculate that his name may indicate that he came from the Khwarizmi region, south of the Aral Sea in central Asia. Al-Khwarzimi was born at a time of great cultural and scientific development in the Islamic world. Harun al-Rashid became the fifth Caliph of the Abbasid dynasty on the 14th of September in the year 786; about the same time that al-Khwarizmi was born. Al-Khwarizmi and his colleagues, the Banu Musa, were scholars at The House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Al-Khwarizmi worked under the patronage of Al-Mamun and he dedicated two of his texts to the Caliph. Sometime around 830 C.E., Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi composed the earliest known Arabic treatment of algebra and started an algebraic line in the Arabic world that persisted for several centuries. The treatise, Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala or The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing, was also the most famous of all of al-Khwarizmi’s works, and the title gave us the word “algebra.” He died in Baghdad in approximately 850.


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