Tracing the algorithm: Al-Khwarizmi, the 9th-century Muslim mastermind behind the algebraic function

Al Khwarizmi
4 min read
15 November, 2022

There is no doubt that the time of algorithms has arrived. In today’s world, algorithms have become an integral part of the lives of human beings due to their wide usage.

An algorithm is a step-by-step procedure or rules to follow to complete a particular task or solve a specific problem. 

Algebra is a sophisticated branch of mathematics and one of the oldest bodies of its knowledge which focuses on equations and the ability to solve equations for unknown variables. Algebra’s use, therefore, can be seen in computer programming to develop algorithms and software for working with mathematical functions. 

Our computers, phones, and social media platforms, like Facebook and Instagram, all became possible through the use of algorithms. 

"Gaining his fame as the ‘father of algebra’, it is believed that Al-Khwarizmi developed hundreds of formulas that enabled him to leave such a legacy for the upcoming generations which have irrevocably shaped today’s world of algorithms" 

So, have you ever wondered who paved the way for the age of algorithms?

Would you get surprised if you learned that it was a 9th-century Muslim genius, mathematician, geographer, and astronomer, Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Musa Al-Khwarizmi?

Even the term algorithm is Al-Khwarizmi translated into Latin.

In the words of Philip Khuri, a Lebanese-American professor at Princeton and Harvard University, he is “one of the greatest scientific minds of Islam and the man who influenced mathematical thought to a greater extent than any other medieval writer”.

Statue of al-Khwarizmi in Khiva, Uzbekistan [Getty Images]
Statue of Al-Khwarizmi in Khiva, Uzbekistan [Getty Images]

Al-Khwarizmi was born in 780 in Khrwarizm, which is currently known as Khiva, located in the south of the Aral Sea. 

His journey coincided with the establishment of the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikmah) in the 8th century in Baghdad, which remained as the intellectuality’s heart for several centuries under the Abbasid Caliph, Al Ma’mun’s patronage.

After being summoned by Al Ma’mun to join the House of Wisdom’s scientific delegation in Baghdad in the 9th century, from 813 to his death in 850 the era experienced ground-breaking inventions by Al-Khwarizmi.

For instance, he is widely credited for compiling the oldest astronomical tables, developing trigonometric tables, perfecting the geometric representation of conic sections, and more.

Following Al Ma’mun’s order, Al-Khwarizmi participated in the works of a team seeking to measure the volume and circumference of the earth. He is also known as a person who corrected Ptolemy’s view by correcting his data for the Middle East and Africa. 

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As a result of these efforts, Al-Khwarizmi’s team produced the first map of the world in 830 CE. Besides that, he, in his works, handled the development process of astrolabes and sundials. 

He wrote trailblazing three books. The first one was Al-Kitab al mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa ‘l-muqabala (Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing), translated into Latin in the 12th century and where the original name of algebra comes from.

In this book, he worked on how to find solutions for linear and quadratic equations based on intuitive geometric arguments. 

His second marvellous work focused on introducing Hindu-Arabic numerals and arithmetic to the West. The preserved name of this book in Latin is Algoritmi de numero Indorum

Subsequent works included Kitab surat al ard (The Image of the Earth).

Ptolemy’s view was corrected and improved right in this book in which he presented coordinates of localities in today’s world. He successfully revealed the accurate length of the Mediterranean Sea along with the locations of Asian and African cities. 

Maslama Al-Majriti revised Al-Khwarizmi’s astronomical and trigonometric tables, and his works were translated into Latin by Adelard of Bath around 1126.

Becoming the principal textbooks of science, his works were used by European Universities for centuries, particularly between the 14th and 17th centuries. 

Gaining his fame as the ‘father of algebra’, it is believed that Al-Khwarizmi developed hundreds of formulas that enabled him to leave such a legacy for the upcoming generations which have irrevocably shaped today’s world of algorithms. 

While explaining his primary purpose, he said the purpose of his works was to teach arithmetic and algebra most efficiently. 

However, Edmund Frederick Robertson, a Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of St Andrews, claimed that his works were among the most significant advances made in history.

Passing away around 850, Al-Khwarizmi’s legacy first influenced the most prominent medieval mathematicians like Fibonacci, Roger Bacon, and Adelard, which later shaped today’s science, mathematics, algorithms, and more.

Ufuk Necat Tasci is a political analyst, journalist, and PhD Candidate in International Relations at Istanbul Medeniyet University. His research focuses on Libya, proxy wars, surrogate warfare, and new forms of conflict.

Follow him on Twitter: @UfukNecat