What Is in a Number?

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 27 Zul-Qa'dah 1424, 20 January 2004

A quiet revolution is taking place in the Arabic language; it is fast losing the character set used to represent numbers. Arabs gave the Arabic numerals to the world, thereby making the tremendous advances in mathematics and science possible. But today they are giving them up in favor of the European ones.

The Arab contribution was the symbols for numbers one through nine, the concept of and the symbol for zero, and the idea of the place value of numbers that made it possible to write all numbers, no matter how big or small, using these ten symbols alone. All of these remain valid today and are the essential elements of the Arabic numbering system. However the symbols themselves changed upon their arrival in Europe. While the European numerals are Arabic in their genesis, their shapes are not the same as those of the Arabic numerals that have been used for centuries in the Arabic world.

First it was the newspapers, magazines, and web sites. Then textbooks. And now even the religious books --- the last refuge of the historic numerals --- are slowly giving way to the European onslaught. There are notable exceptions but the general trend is very clear.

The same is true of Urdu. Its numerals, which are the same as the Arabic ones (with the exception of 4 and 7), have rapidly joined the endangered species list. Today they are absent from all printed matter in mass circulation. In religious books one finds a hodgepodge of the Urdu and European symbols sitting uneasily next to each other, symbolizing the confusion of the writers or publishers.

While Farsi is holding its ground better than either Arabic or Urdu, signs of change are visible there as well.

The computers and the Internet, with their built in bias in favor of English at the current state of their evolution, have a lot to do with this cultural sea change. But there is also a misconception that the European numerals are actually Arabic or that this is a change for the better or at least that it does not matter.

In 1403 AH, the organization of senior ulama in Saudi Arabia, in its 21st congress (Riyadh, 17-28 Rabiul Akhir 1403) reviewed the then emerging trend and passed a resolution addressing these misgivings. It declared that changing Arabic numerals to the prevalent European ones in Arabic was not right. Among the reasons it cited were the following:

1. The claim that the presently used European numerals are the real Arabic ones is neither well known nor true. Centuries of use give legitimacy and authenticity to the Arabic symbols that are now being replaced.

2. The change will have ill consequences as it is a step in the direction of Westernization of the Islamic society.

3. It is a reflection of the blind following of the West.

4. The Arabic numerals have been used in all written works for centuries. If they are now replaced, it will handicap the new generation in benefiting from this great treasure, and cut it off from its history.

A year later (1404 AH) the Islamic Fiqh Academy in Makkah reviewed the issue and issued a fatwa fully supporting the resolution of the ulama. It declared it impermissible to use the European symbols while writing Arabic and warned about very serious consequences of this move.

Today the fears expressed by the Islamic Fiqh Academy can be seen in stark reality. In Pakistan, people are not only using the new symbols for writing, they are increasingly using English when expressing numbers in words in everyday usage. (Example: "Yeh Jora aap ko four seventy five main laga donga."). This Urdish language now evolving is a seriously handicapped language that cannot count, do math, express colors, name an organization, or discuss politics, business or culture without resorting to English. The resulting chaos has not improved their command of English, but it has seriously endangered their language, culture, and civilization.

A similar fate may await Arabic if steps are not taken to reverse the trend. Writers and publishers in Urdu and Arabic need to pause, reflect, and stop this mad rush into numerical disaster. Twenty years later the call of the Islamic Fiqh Academy remains as relevant as ever. And even more urgent.