The second greatest gift of Ancient Arabs in Southern Arabia to humanity after the alphabet

We have two stories to tell in The History of Arabic Numerals, both of which have never been told in a book before. Because they are naturally simple, they may sound outrageous. This should not be of concern, since shocking one’s readership with simple facts is one reason why many authors write their books. We are confident that most of what we have discovered in the course of our original research is correct, but we have no problem at all with readers calling our assertions ‘claims’ until they can be evaluated by other experts who are better suited to judging the significance of what we have found. Some of our findings will bring immense relief to millions. They may also bring immense frustration to others. We were guided in our research by a sincere desire to bring closure to a serious controversy that was sparked essentially by two orientalists hired by the East India Company two centuries ago.

Their story is the best-kept secret in the history of numbers and now is a good time to reveal our findings. For this reason, we decided to provide an English version of the book that was originally prepared in Arabic, a time-consuming and laborious undertaking, and not without its faults. The temptation to rewrite large sections of the book was strong. However, the scope of our research was extended unexpectedly, and the confidentiality of our work was compromised. This book, therefore, should be considered as a first attempt to present a complex argument in the clearest terms possible, and not to subvert established histories.

The best reward for our many months of arduous work is for this contentious issue to be settled conclusively once and for all, but we are not certain that all those involved will see it this way. We are fully aware that a great deal may be at stake. The possibility that an entire historiography could be exposed as a construct founded on narrative and misunderstood concepts is unlikely to be acceptable. For this and other reasons, we expect to be criticised. This is fine with us. Before a story is told, one must be prepared to tell it. If the price for telling it is criticism, then so be it.

Our other story is much older, simpler, and therefore potentially more outrageous. If we are correct, it may be one of the oldest stories ever told about those little ‘things’ that are so essential to human civilisation, the sudden dissipation of which could cause it to grind to a halt. Symbols that can be recognised by a computer must be special. Symbols that can be recognised by monkeys must also be special, but symbols that can be recognised by machines, apes and humans must be the only universal script invented by human beings in a time beyond the horizon of our remotest past. Speech is rightly described as one of the main discoveries that changed history: writing is the other, and both were essential tools for the creation of civilisations and the recording of history. Sadly, neither of our stories was recorded. An account claiming the non-Arabic origination of our numeric system was proven by our research to have been false. It was merely one of several other stories constructed by a number of orientalists and debunked by new research.

How old the universal numeric system we use today is we cannot say. What can be said is that most of our numerals have an ancient Arabian origin, and they even exhibit close connections with ancient Egyptian, an old dialect of a ‘mother tongue’ in its earliest form before it was temporarily separated from its linguistic sister tongues across the Sinai and the Red Sea. This may also sound outrageous. Like so many issues related to the Middle East, the Egyptian antiquity is controversial due mainly to biblical traditions. Attention in the 19th century shifted suddenly from how magnificent the ancient Egyptian civilisation was, to how dazed the Egyptians were by their strong sun. Out of this dichotomous argument, a new classification of Middle Eastern cultures emerged: Afro-Asian. The eminent and independently-minded scholar Philip Hitti is in no doubt that around 3500 BC, a migration from the Arabian Peninsula forked at the Sinaitic peninsula to the fertile valley of the Nile and “planted itself on top of the earlier Hamitic population of Egypt, and the amalgamation produced the Egyptians of history. These Egyptians laid down so many of the basic elements in our civilisation. It was they who first built stone structures and developed a solar calendar.”

Ancient Egyptian shares with ancient Arabian or Proto-Semitic languages “triconsonantal roots, phemic-phonetic elements (such as the diversity of guttural sounds), feminine nouns and second-person verbal forms ending in –t, gemination (doubling) of the middle radical… similarities of the pronominal suffixes and the independent personal pronouns, performative elements (such as the S-causative and the N-reflexive), and many similarities in etymology.” To all this must be added one of the main characteristics of languages related to the ancient mother tongue, that is the right-to-left writing and reading of Hieratic and Demotic and the ability to write and read hieroglyphic writing and numerals from right to left or horizontally.

The Palmyrene civilisation was an interesting blend of Greek, Syrian and Parthian (Iranian) elements. It is significant not only in itself but, as in the case of the Nabataean civilisation, as an illustration of the cultural heights which the Arabians of the desert are capable of attaining when the proper opportunities present themselves. That the Palmyrene were of Arabian stock is evidenced from the proper names and the frequent occurrence of Arabic words in their Aramaic inscriptions. The language they spoke was a dialect of Western Aramaic not unlike the Nabataean and Egyptian Aramaic. Their religion has the prominent solar features that characterised the religion of North Arabians. Bel, of Babylonian origin, stood at the head of the pantheon; Baal Shamin (the lord of the heavens) figured in votive inscriptions and no less than twenty other names of deities occur in Palmyrene (pp. 76-78).

The history of the Arabic numerals, exact as the sciences employing them, is the natural history of numbers.
All this may sound strange, but we have much more to tell.

Our numeric system is known as decimal but, strictly speaking, it is not. Of all the numbering systems known to man, the quinary system must be one of the oldest because it originates from the five fingers we have on both hands. Not all quinary systems are alike. The Arabic numeral system, as we know it today, has a quinary sub-system embedded within it. This sub-system is composed of four distinctive numerals expressing the numbers 1 through 4. Numeral 5 is a pictogram in the shape of a ring formed by joining the tips of the index finger and the thumb. At a later stage, the quinary system was upgraded to a biquinary one with five additional pictograms, four of which were pictograms of various positions of the right hand with group number 10 formed by the group number 5 reduced in size. Thus, all numerals of the Arabic system are finger and hand formations, and each is a unique pictogram with variations for numerals 2 and 3 and the unique safr (zero), the only nil-number numeral invented as far as we know.

To appreciate how old our universal numeration system is, we have to dig deep into some of the oldest Arabic classical references and dictionaries for the meanings of numbers 4 and 5. Number 4 (arb‘a) is derived from the tri-consonantal root rab‘a (ربع), which means to sit cross-legged. For a horse, raba‘ is “to gallop” (on four legs, obviously). Rab‘ (ربْع) is also ‘a group of people’, usually related and forming part of a tribe or a clan, while rab‘ and its plural rubou‘ can also refer to ‘land’ and ‘lands’ respectively.

*From the introduction to Origin of Arabic Numerals: A natural history of numbers. AuthorHouse, 2011.

About the author

Adel Bishtawi

Adel S (Said) Bishtawi was born in Nazareth, Palestine, 1945. He read English Literature at Damascus University, attended short courses of familiarisation of languages including Latin, German and Russian, and attended a course in Linguistics at the Central London Polytechnic.

Adel published more than 20 books in both English and Arabic. the last of which is Only When Desire Screams co-authored by Selvi Sado. A journalist since the late 1960s, he became Front Page Editor of Al Arab Newspaper (London), the first pan Arab Newspaper launched in Europe. In 1978, he joined Jihad Al Khazin in launching Asharq Al Awsat Newspaper (London) as Business and Supplements Editor. In 1980, he was appointed Central Managing Editor of the Emirates News Agency in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. In 1988, he joined Jamil Mrowa (who later re-launched the Daily Star in Beirut in 1996) in London for the re-launch of Al Hayat Newspaper and continued under the editorship of Jihad Al Khazin until he left in April 2001 to dedicate what is left of his time to literary and historical writing. as well as investigating origins by means of historical and etymological linguistics.

Adel produced and co-produced a number of TV documentaries. He produced, directed and wrote “Muslims along the Silk Road”, a five part-60-minutes-each documentary tracing Muslim culture and heritage and the legacy of Muslim pioneers and merchants along the Silk Road starting from China.

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