Dr. Haider Shah

Opinion is the medium between knowledge and ignorance (Plato).

OVER A COFFEE: Learning from the story of zero, The Daily Times, August 02, 2014

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The human race is lucky in the way that when one civilisation suffers from intellectual dementia, another human group somewhere in the world works tirelessly for the advancement of human knowledge

Dr Haider Shah

In small things we can discover endless wonders we are told by many sages. Just take the example of a water droplet. Urdu and Persian poets have used it as a metaphor for the transient nature of life. Ghalib urges us to see the whole in the constituents by discovering the River Dajla (Tigris) in a drop of water. Similarly, Iqbal asks us to see the vicissitudes of life in a droplet as it is soft when it appears as morning dew but, at other times, becomes as hard as a gem and sometimes turns into a tear. If we employ this way of dispassionate thinking we can easily discover the fact that every single object around us is the story of how various civilisations have collaborated to produce the modern world where the miracles of yesterday are taken for granted facts of life today.

Just look at the number zero. Like the world it is not only round but also contains an abridged history of human endeavour and collective wisdom. As a notation there are two distinct uses of zero. One is as an empty place indicator in our place-value number system. We see this use in the Babylonian civilisation of Mesopotamia as far back as 700 BC. The Greeks began showing interest in mathematics around 400 BC but they focused more on geometry and did not care much about the notations of numbers. Some Greek astronomers began using a circular symbol to indicate an empty place.

The second use of zero as a whole number lying exactly between +1 and -1 is traced back to ancient India. The rules regarding zero in addition, subtraction and multiplication, that we take for granted today, can be found in the work of Brahmagupta in the seventh century AD. This Indian work was transmitted to China in the east and the Muslim mathematicians who, in turn, transferred the knowledge to the west. Al-Khwarizmi, a renowned Muslim scientist, recognised indebtedness to the Indian work by calling it the Hindu art of reckoning. An Italian mathematician, Fibonacci, became the bridge between Indian, Arab and European mathematics by writing his voluminous book Liber Abaci. He had referred to the numerals as Hindu but later writers began using Hindu-Arabic numerals as the name zero itself comes from the Arabic word sifr. In Europe, however, adoption of zero was extremely slow as it began getting widespread acceptance only in the 17th century.

In the story of zero we therefore find that no single race or civilisation can claim exclusive monopoly over the corpus of knowledge we identify as the basis of the modern world today. Humans from various lands and cultures have collaborated to produce it. When a society is gripped with intolerance and discourages free opinions, long-term stagnation results. The human race is lucky in the way that when one civilisation suffers from intellectual dementia, another human group somewhere in the world works tirelessly for the advancement of human knowledge. New ideas challenging accepted solutions can only grow in societies where there is a culture of sharing opinions and listening to others. It took many centuries of hard campaigning before freedom of opinion was acknowledged as a basic norm of society and a necessary determinant of progress in the European countries. Long before, in the golden era of Muslim Spain, we observe that the period was very productive and splendid as Muslim rulers patronised art and science, and employed scholars from all faiths including Jews to establish a knowledge economy of those days. The golden period came to an end when puritans began attacking the liberal foundations of the state.

Men that create new knowledge need an extra allowance to share their scepticism over commonly held beliefs or holy ideas. For instance, the Persian Abu Bakr Razi is considered to be the main source of therapeutic medical knowledge until after the Renaissance and is sometimes called the greatest clinician of all times and father of paediatrics. His massive book on medicine compiles theories on diseases from various civilisations. He challenged the many medical beliefs of his time using his scientific approach. Such a spirited scholar of his times found well-entrenched religious beliefs open to question as well. He refused to accept any authority of religious writers and campaigned vigorously for a renaissance in the Muslim world. But, unlike European writers, he was not very successful in generating a rational and scientific movement in Muslim society.

From Ibn-e-Sina to Sir Syed, Muslim scholars in the past tried in vain to reverse the trend of fundamentalism in Muslim society. They did not succeed. Unfortunately, both electronic and social media today are further solidifying streaks of intolerance and blind faith among Muslims. We need to be humble when we assess our role in the development of human civilisation. While the Arabs and Persians played an important role when they patronised the arts and science, they were not the only ones who were the original contributors. As shown in the case of zero, we see different cultures coming together and benefiting from each other’s contribution. “You created Night. I (man) created Light.” When humans have faith in themselves they can change the world.

Author: Dr. Haider Shah

Academic, Researcher and Writer

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