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Impacts of a Unique Course on the History of Mathematics in the Islamic World

Nuh Aydin (Kenyon College)


I have been teaching a new and quite unique course on the History of Mathematics in the Islamic World for a general liberal arts audience for the past few years. What I have learned in the process has been transformational for myself and highly surprising and influential for my students. This article discusses several aspects of the course and its impacts on the instructor, students who have taken the course, and others.


The idea that I teach a course on the History of Mathematics in the Islamic World at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, originated from a colleague outside my department. Having no training in the history of mathematics, my reaction was “this is a great idea, but I hardly know anything about it. I would first need to learn the subject before I could teach it.” I am so grateful to this colleague because her suggestion has been profoundly influential and transformative in my intellectual and academic life. The course also has had a similar impact on many of the students who have taken it. Additionally, a larger audience has learned about the subject from the lectures the author has given during the last few years in many different venues, including community centers, departmental colloquia at colleges and universities, and international meetings. My students also gave presentations at a community center to help inform the general public on the subject.

Some of the most fundamental notions of modern mathematics and science are a legacy of the medieval Islamic civilization (see Note). Although current research is far from giving us a full account of their contributions, we know that this legacy includes the number system that we use today, the fields of algebra and trigonometry, the concept of algorithm, the foundations of optics, the scientific method, and important works in astronomy that played a crucial role in the Copernican revolution. Yet, these contributions are generally little known, not only in the West, but also in the Islamic World. Moreover, there are widely held misconceptions about the nature of scientific contributions from the Islamic civilization. The new course I began teaching at Kenyon College is an attempt to increase awareness about contributions to the development of modern science from the medieval Islamic civilization, and to address some of these misconceptions based on evidence and research.

Note: I will be using the terms “medieval Islamic civilization” and “Islamic civilization” in a very broad sense. We are particularly referring to the medieval Islamic civilization for which the time period goes approximately from the late 7th century to the 16th century (inclusive). Geographically, this civilization spanned a large region – from Spain in the west to China and India in the east. Therefore, it encompassed much diversity in terms of languages, ethnicity, and cultures. It also included many different political powers and entities, such as Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, al-Andalus, Seljuk, Ottoman, Safavid, and many others. It was ethnically and religiously highly diverse. Individuals from many different backgrounds contributed to scientific knowledge and progress; being a Muslim was not a prerequisite for this contribution. Arabic was the language of science during this time period, and it has been the language of religious studies. Again, we use the terms “medieval Islamic civilization” and “Islamic civilization” in a very broad sense, and in no way do we mean to imply a monolithic civilization or culture.

Nuh Aydin (Kenyon College), "Impacts of a Unique Course on the History of Mathematics in the Islamic World," Convergence (July 2017), DOI:10.4169/convergence20170702