9

I'm reading about algebra and the man most associated with its creation or popularisation, Muhammad al-Khwarizmi. We know that algebra comes from the Arabic "al-jabr", but what I don't understand is why a Persian mathematician would write a treatise in Arabic.

Obviously, I'm thinking in terms of modern times, and that Arabs aren't Persians. Arabs speak Arabic, and Persians speak, well, Persian, or Farsi, known by other names in nearby countries.

What's the reason that a Persian man living between 780 – 850 AD would write in Arabic? Is it because the Persian lands were administrated by Arab-speaking people and therefore Arabic was the official language? Or was it more that Arabic was the language of academia and the educated, much like Mediaeval Latin in Europe or Greek in other places in history?

Also as a follow-up question, the word "algorithm" also comes from this man:

algorithm
The Arabic source, al-Ḵwārizmī was a name given to the 9th-century mathematician Abū Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Mūsa, author of widely translated works on algebra and arithmetic.
Oxford Living Dictionaries

It's said that the word comes from an Arabic source. So again, why did a Persian man have an Arabic name? Or was that just the Arabic name given to him?

  • 9
    I read once that Newton wrote his Principia in Latin because he wanted well-educated men from all over to read it and less-educated men to not read it. – AllInOne Apr 11 '18 at 20:57
  • 7
    @AllInOne - Latin is pretty much exactly the parallel to look at here. – T.E.D. Apr 11 '18 at 21:17
  • 1
    The question title might be misleading. We know he wrote in Arabic, but nothing in your question shows that he spoke Arabic instead of Persian? – user69715 Apr 12 '18 at 17:42
  • 1
    @user69715 That's technically true. I just found out he mainly worked in Baghdad. So, not sure. Him and al-Biruni were both from the region of Khwarezm, I'm not sure what the colloquial language among the people there was. It should probably be change to "wrote", all his works were written in Arabic from info I've seen. – Zebrafish Apr 12 '18 at 17:50
  • Yes, "wrote" would be a more interesting way to phrase the question, unless we want to dig up what language he use to speak to his family/friends and so on. – user69715 Apr 12 '18 at 18:24
14

Persian is used synonymously with Iranian, but it is not a helpful generalization. He was actually Khwarazmian. Khwarazem was a distinct region in Central Asia, south of the Aral Sea, with its own language. It was one of the most distant places that the Umayyads conquered. Because of the distance, the Arab ethnarchy was no so rigid, but instead they intermarried with Khwarazem families, and certain Khwarazmians remained influential. The result of this interaction was a culture that created the Abbasid revolution (750), which led to the proliferation of Khwarazmians in the Caliphate such as Al-Kwharizmi.

The Umayyads (661-750) went through great lengths to destroy the Khwarezmian script. Despite this, the Kwharazem language persisted in the region until the Mongol conquests, being written in a form of Arabic.

Al-Khwarizmi lived and worked in Baghdad, which would remove any possibility of him writing in the Khwarazmian. Regardless, if you wanted to reach the greater world, you wrote in Arabic. The revival of the Persian language in Central Asia began during Iranian Intermezzo (821-979). Still, Arabic remained the Lingua Franca along the Silk Road. Al-Biruni (d. 1050) wrote almost entirely in Arabic.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • 7
    This looks like an excellent answer, but adding some sources would make it perfect. – Evargalo Apr 12 '18 at 8:12
  • 1
    Interesting, both al-Khwarizmi and al-Biruni were from the region of Khwarezm, they both spoke Khwarezmian and Arabic. Quote: "al-Khwarizmi was of Persian descent, he lived and worked in Baghdad and was not known to have produced a single scientific work in Persian." – Zebrafish Apr 12 '18 at 17:36
7

Arabic was the primary literary language in the Muslim world at the time. Partly it's because the early caliphate (the center of power) was Arab, but another reason was that Arabic was the only language in which the Quran was supposed to be read—unlike in Christianity where the Latin version of the Bible was also considered a valid Bible. Therefore, throughout the Islamic world, literate people learned to write and read Arabic, even after the central power of the caliphate waned. This made it an ideal literary language. You can also think of it like how writers today tend to publish papers in English even though it's not their first language.

In much of the Islamic world, Arabic duly became and remained the primary language. Even in places that held on to their local tongue, like Persia, Arabic became an important and even dominant language for writing literature, including philosophy. This is why philosophers from Persia and central Asia—including no less a thinker than Avicenna—wrote in Arabic, which was not necessarily their native language.

-- Peter Adamson (2016), Philosophy in the Islamic World p.4.

The use of Arabic was not restricted to Muslims either. Jewish author in the Islamic world, e.g. Saadia Gaon (d. 942) and Maimonides (12th century) wrote extensively in Arabic.

Further reading

  • 1
    So far I've come across four great figures, al-Khwarizmi, al-Biruni, Avicenna, and Maimonides. Three were Persian, one was Jewish. We know they wrote in Arabic. Now I just don't know whether they wrote in Arabic because they were under Arabic-speaking rulers, or Arabic was the language of Islam, or Arabic was the scholarly language. I suppose many of them may overlap. – Zebrafish Apr 12 '18 at 17:31
  • I would say they wrote in Arabic because it was the literary (or scholarly) language, and the other reasons you mentioned were factors that made Arabic have that status. – user69715 Apr 12 '18 at 17:51
  • John Dee in his answer said "Despite this coexistence, they were forced to speak Arabic.", this is Khwarezm, though doesn't cite anything. Though that's probably not important from my point of view because apparently he wrote his works in Baghdad. – Zebrafish Apr 12 '18 at 17:57
  • @Zebrafish I am refering to the initial Islamization of Khwarazem by the Arabs. this was from about 700-750. I don't have a source for it because I recently read it on a wikipedia page, but I can't remember what one. Everyone spoke Arabic, even the Jews from Iberia to Babylonia. The Iranian Intermezzo was an exception to Arabic as the Lingua Franca, and it was further east, in Persia and Central Asia. I suppose I'm wrong to say that Khwarizmi would have spoken Persian 100 years later because he was in Baghdad. – John Dee Apr 16 '18 at 20:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.