The 1, 2, 3s of Arabic numerals

Website-translation

You want to translate your website into Arabic and decide on using Arabic numbers, i.e. (٠‎١‎٢‎٣‎٤…) rather than the numbers we all know and use in many parts of the world today (01234…).

Stop right there because the numbers we are familiar with today are actually Arabic numerals and the numbers we call “Arabic” are not even Arabic at all, they are Hindu. In fact, both our numbers (Arabic numerals) and the numbers the Arabic language uses (Hindu numerals) are variations that originally stem from India and are more correctly known today as Hindu-Arabic numerals. However, for the purpose of clearly distinguishing between the variations, Arabic numerals and Hindu numerals are used independently here.

So why are our numbers called Arabic numerals? Why does the Arabic language use Hindu numbers instead?

It all started between the 1st and 5th centuries AD when a numeral system was developed in India to represent the numbers 1 to 9. At this time the concept of “0” was known, but no symbol was used to represent it.

A few hundred years later in the 9th century AD, the Hindu numerical system made its way into Persia and the Middle East when Muslim mathematicians adopted it. During this century, the first use of “0” as a number was recorded in India, although interestingly at about the same time it was also being used throughout Persia and the Middle East.

Within the Islamic empires, variations of the Hindu numerals began to develop. What is known as Eastern Arabic numerals developed in present-day Iraq and are used today throughout Egypt and the Middle East (Persian and Urdu have their own variation). A century later, Western Arabic numerals, the “European” numbers we are familiar with today, developed in North Africa and Al-Andalus – the states governed by Muslims in the Iberian Peninsula.

Western Arabic numerals were at first only used in North Africa and Al-Andalus and it was not until the early 13th century that they were introduced into Europe via the Arabs, hence the name “Arabic numerals.” Italian mathematician, Leonardo Fibonacci, was a major player in promoting the Arabic numerals in Europe. He believed, and rightly so, that Arabic numerals provided a much simpler and more practical means of performing calculations than the Roman numerals currently in use then.

Although Arabic numerals were used in European mathematics as early as the 12th century, it wasn’t until the 15th century and the invention of the printing press that Arabic numerals were widely accepted and replaced Roman numerals. From there, Arabic numbers spread to the rest of the world.