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Does America know that they Use Arabic Numerals?

posted on: Sep 24, 2020

“He who can properly define and divide is to be considered a god.” Plato

By: Ahmed Abu Sultan/ Arab America contributing writer.  Numbers are a huge part of everyone’s life. We use them when trading or even just counting time. However, numbers were not the same as they are today. In older times, symbols and letters were used to interpret value and time. Up until the 9th-century that an Islamic scientist came up with an effective way of categorizing value. Several centuries later, these numerals dominated the world and are currently being used everywhere. Arabic Numerals transformed from something made to solve basic trade problems into the world’s most used set of numbers.

Latin Numerals

“I received an excellent education in the methods of the nine Indian numbers; the knowledge of these methods pleased me more than anything else.” Leonard of Pisa (Fibonacci)

As early as the third century AD, western civilization experienced no foreign counting methodology to compete with Latin numerals. Since the birth of the Roman Empire until its death a millennia after, Roman numerals were the primary method for accounting and flow of Capital. Merchants from as far as the Atlantic to the Euphrates river used Latin numerals. However, nowadays, Arabic numerals dominate western civilization mathematics without acknowledgment of the massive rift of the renaissance. It was at that time that the West began to question all institutions.

Latin Numerals had a very specific methodology for conducting mathematical equations. The system is based on Pentacle numerals starting from I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, IX, X, etc. As seen in the previous example, the biggest limitation is the necessity to rely on a significant number of letters. For example, CDXXX added to DCLXX equals M, obviously, for people living under the Roman Church’s authority, this was normal. Although for us it might seem confusing, it made perfect sense to the court of Philip IV of France and his subjects. Nevertheless, why would a system that worked so well be subject to change after working for over a millennium?

Arabic Numerals

Arabic numerals are the decimal system that focuses its mathematical functions starting from 0 all the way to 9. The system was originally based on the Hindu-Arabic numeral system which originated between the 1st and 4th century AD. The system migrated and was adopted by Muslim Mathematicians by the 9th century. The most influential character to its spread among the Islamic world was none other than Al-Khwārizmī who through his book On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals, c. 825 did Arabic numerals acquired its own identity. Other Muslim Scientists contributed such as Al-Kindi and his book On the Use of the Hindu Numerals, c. 830.

Throughout the course of time, Arabic numerals spread across Persia, Al Mashriq, and North Africa. As a result, the sciences saw exponential growth in many fields such as engineering and medicine. Not only did scientists benefit from this system, but merchants from all over the Islamic world also reaped massive wealth due to the ease of the new counting system. It gave them a strong edge against the remnants of what was the Roman Empire at the time in technological advancements. However, this does not explain how the migration occurred to the west.

Leonard of Pisa

“Pure mathematics is, in its way, the poetry of logical ideas.” Albert Einstein

Leonard of Pisa, famously known as Fibonacci, sparked the flame that allowed Arabic numerals to be adopted by the west. It was in the North African city of Bejaia that the Italian scholar Fibonacci first encountered the numerals; his work was crucial in making them known throughout Europe. The first mentions of the numerals in the West are found in the Codex Vigilanus of 976. It was at that period that Arabic numerals found themselves in the west. Many powerful figures, such as Pope Sylvester II, pushed for the use of the new system. However, there was resistance from the Roman Church against such a system due to two major reasons:

  1. Due to the lack of formal education among the majority, the new system was open to fraud among merchants and traders. The reason for that is the flick used on the last digit in Roman numerals to determine the value. This was very hard to tamper with. In contrast, Arabic numerals were open to many interpretations among the burgher class, thus allowing fraud.
  2. The relationship between the West and the East were not flourishing due to the constant conflict between Catholic Crusaders and Islamic Jihadists in the early 12th century.

As a result, Arabic numerals found great resistance from the west until  a few centuries later.


“How do you write zero in Roman numerals?” George Carlin

It was the greatest revolution the west has seen. Renaissance marked the time where western civilization moved from the dark ages into enlightenment. The rebellious nature of the educated to spite the Roman Church was a huge motivator to spread of Arabic numerals. In addition, the invention of the printing press made sure the spread across Europe was done effectively.

However, these were not the reasons for the drastic change in counting systems. The fact was that Arabic numerals provided much easier algebra and mathematics for aspiring scientists and merchants. The reality of the situation was that multiplication using Latin numbers was too complicated for anyone to use. Furthermore, western scientists used a combination of Arabic numerals and Greek calligraphy to reach maximum potential for these numbers. The purpose of that is to have each digit represent the number of angles it holds rather than a fixed value.


The results of the change of systems resulted in massive advancements in western technological development. Engineers, Navigators, Generals, almost every profession reaped the benefits of using this decimal system. It is quite perplexing how many of our educated youth lack knowledge of these events. Nonetheless, Latin numerals have been immortalized in many cultural and historical fields. Even today, many exotic products rely on the use of Latin numerals due to their infinitesimal use in common products, thus increasing the value of the item.

For a summation of this article, please check out this three minute video on Why does the west use Arabic Numerals? (Short Animated Documentary)

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