Born in Nazareth, Palestine, Adel S. Bishtawi has published short stories, novels, histories, and hundreds of articles and interviews in Arabic and English. In addition to printed material, his resume includes TV documentaries. Origin of the Arabic Numerals is a scholarly attempt to trace the numerals back to ancient hand and finger signs.
Along with exploring the earliest systems of counting, the book offers a frequently fascinating overview of ancient trade and linguistics. The narrative– which is enhanced by tables, charts and illustrations–takes place in Egypt and throughout the Middle East, with an emphasis on Arabia and side-excursions to Sicily and Andalusia, then eastward to India.
That he should end his journey in India is not due to any accident of history. Bishtawi is bent on demonstrating that our numerical system goes back to the Arabs, and not–as many have asserted–to ancient India. He blames this misconception on European (in particular British) colonialism and anti-Muslim bias (“settling cultural scores with Islam”) : “The [European] Orientalists were too eager to adopt the artificially constructed version of the [Indian] Brahmins, and critical questions were seldom asked.”
Origin of the Arabic Numerals is a lengthy and generally interesting contribution to the ongoing discussion concerning the origins of Arabic numerals. Nevertheless, it is somewhat marred by the author’s concern for scoring cultural points for Islamic (and against Western) civilization, a concern that in places overrides dispassionate historical discussion. A notable example is the section on the British defeat of the Indian Muslim ruler Tippu Sultan in 1799, which paints the British in the worst possible way.
If readers can overlook this obvious bias, they will find an abundance of thought-provoking and valuable material between these covers.
Note: In spite of Bishtawi’s erudition, the book contains some academic anomalies, such as the inconsistent use (and at times non-use) of parenthetical in-text references and footnotes, and the alphabetical listing of authors by their first names, rather than last names in the bibliography.