And so it came to pass...





Emmental and Orientalism

Adel S. Bishtawi


There is something peculiar about the delicious Emmental cheese. The larger the holes, the more difficult it is to slice, sometimes causing the cheese to crumble. Likewise, the moment any student of history decides to slice apart the “evidence” produced in denial of the Arabic origination of the Arabic numeric system, the “evidence” immediately disintegrates. Thus, it has become customary to periodically “inject” the old cheese with new scholarly glue to hold it together. Remarks that would have attracted nobody’s attention in normal circumstances are given critical importance if they can be used to sustain the orientalists’ appropriation of Arab and Islamic culture.

Take for example a comment attributed to a Syriac holy man, Severus Sebokht, by the French Orientalist François Nau; himself a holy man ordained as a priest in 1887, six years after France occupied Tunisia, adding it to Algeria, which was occupied in 1830. Nau claimed to have found a “fragment” of a document by Severus in which the Syriac priest is supposed to have written, “I will omit all discussion of the science of the Indians, a people not the same as the Syriacs; their subtle discoveries in this science of astronomy, discoveries that are more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians; their valuable methods of calculation; and their computing that surpasses description. I wish only to say that this computation is done by means of nine signs.”[1]

Now, we all know how difficult it is to identify the writer of any manuscript, but identifying writers from a “fragment” is far more difficult. Supposing this fragment is not a forgery, and probably it is not, what is there to write home about seeing a numeral system with “nine signs”? The Arabs had a numeral system made of 10 signs, but it was not much until they invented the zero. In fact, every numeral system known in the Middle East is a base-10, base-12 or base-60 system, but all are obsolete. Had Severus told us in the “fragment” that he also saw a zero it would have been something, but he saw no zero. It also seems a bit odd for somebody to claim, “Computing that surpasses description”, and then fail to describe what those “nine signs” looked like and for what computations they were used. He is supposed to have lived in Syria, quite a distance from “India”, and we have no confirmation that he ever visited the place.

No disrespect intended, but Severus’s act was a disservice to all concerned, including the Indians, Syriacs, and himself. Had he copied down the excellent numerical system he described and then diffused it throughout Christendom, the renaissance may have seen the new light five hundred or six hundred years earlier. Mathematics, astronomy and all branches of science would have advanced rapidly, and all lovers of numbers would have been grateful to him forever. Arithmeticians would have been spared three or four hundred years of struggling with an inefficient number system built on Roman numerals, and probably the history of the world would have been different. Regrettably, a great opportunity was lost and the indebtedness was to a numeric system developed by the Saracens. Because of this, Severus’s reported statement became an important one for the historiography of the Arabic numeric system, not for history.

The main problem we have concerning the claim of both Nau and Severus is the word “Indian”. Where was India exactly? As a citizen of Byzantium and a priest, India for Severus may have been somewhere totally different compared to our present-day conception. For example, it is stated in the New Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium that Emperor Constantine dispatched a certain Theophilus to India, where he found some Christian followers of the apostle Bartholomew, but it is known that Theophilus the Indian was sent to perform missionary work among the Homerites (Himyarites) in Arabia Felix.[2] Geographer Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500-post 565) said, “The Nile River, flowing out of India into Egypt, divides that land into two parts as far as the sea.”[3] On page 41 of The Third Anniversary Discourse on the Hindus, Jones says, “the people who received the first light of the rising sun, according to the limited knowledge of the ancients, are said by Apuleius to be the Arü and Ethiopians, by which he clearly meant certain nations of India.”

The problem of identifying where India is was not limited to ancient people. Even in the 8th and 9th centuries, India remained too mysterious to be understood in geographical terms; hence, we find that it means different things to different people. Philip Mayerson says it meant ‘confusion’, because there was an Asian India and an African India, and as of the end of the 15th century, we had American Indians as well. Sometimes, it referred to the entire East. It also meant ‘South Arabia’ in Byzantine records.[4] Mayerson says that historians dealing with commerce between Rome and the East were aware of several Indias. E.H. Warmington, speaking of the Roman trade with Indians following the 4th century, propounds, “it was in reality trade with the Ethiopians and even under Justinian in the sixth century Byzantine subjects visited not India so much as Arabia and Axumite realms (particularly Adulis) and the ignorance now shown about India was truly prodigious.”[5]


The careful reader of al-Beiruni’s history of Hind would realise straight away that he was providing neither a historical nor a geographical record of the places he visited but a cultural history of comparative nature between ‘them’, generally referring to Brahmin, and ‘us’ meaning Muslims. Several comments he made can be traced to earlier Arabic texts about India. If we compare concepts of contemporary India with what we read in Arabic histories it would be distinctly clear that Arab and Muslim historians were describing an ancient reality that has no place in today’s world, nor in India after its independence in 1947. For a historian like al-Yaqubi, India was a vast province stretching from the borders of China to the Arabian Sea, adjacent to Hijaz. Al-Idrissi speaks of Sind and Hind. He refers to a distinctive language that he named ‘Sindi’, no doubt the Sindhi known and used today.[6]


India, then, was a generic term unlike Sind that was reasonably well known by Arab historians and geographers. In general, “Sind and Hind signify for the Arabian writers, the hither and remoter India,” “remoter” meaning more exotic and mysterious.[7] As such, it would have been ideal as the location of “credible fables” such as those narrated by al-Yaqubi in his Tarikh. Others like him saw no need to be specific about lands recognised more vividly by means of the imagination, as depicted in the Arabian Nights, rather than by means of geographical borders. There was no need for precise information. Hind was Hind.


The prevalent historiography has always instructed writers to portray Sind (in Modern Pakistan) as a “conveyer belt” on which knowledge is moved from “India” to enlighten the ignorant nations around it. The fact that the region was a cradle of one of the greatest civilisations of antiquity, and therefore potentially a net disseminator of original knowledge, is not adequately considered. In the artefacts of the Indus Valley Civilization, we find the earliest evidence of the use of mathematics in South Asia. Excavations at Harappan, Mohenjo-daro and other locations in the Indus river valley have uncovered seals depicting the wheel and evidence of the use of practical mathematics. The ancient people of the Indus valley manufactured bricks whose dimensions were in the proportion 4:2:1, considered favourable for the stability of a brick structure. They used a standardized system of weights and attempted to standardize the measurement of length to a high degree of accuracy. All this points to the fact that the area that constitutes today’s Pakistan possessed an advanced civilization, and subsequent generations must have had at least a collective memory of how advanced earlier cultures had been.


Regardless of how it is viewed by non-Muslims, Islam created new realities in the Indian subcontinent of a lasting and irreversible nature. Arabs established settlements in northwest and southern India before the advent of Islam, primarily for trading. The Republic of India has three principle names- one of them is Bharat. Arabs use this word for spices. It is a testament to the importance of this trade in the past that an entire country is identified through the exotic spices it sold to the world. It is also mentioned in some books that the name India is derived from Sindh, and in turn the word Sindh from Indus. This is not supported by Arab historians and lexical references. The word Hind appears to be very old and originally meant a large caravan of 100 or more camels. It is also a popular Arabic feminine name. The conclusion, therefore, is that Hind is of Arabic origin. The other suggested etymologies of that word are not authoritatively supported.


The division of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 created new and irreversible realities, and no one party can claim to be the rightful owner of the culture of the entire Indian subcontinent. The application of the word ‘Hindu’ to ‘Hind’ or ‘Hindi’ used in Arabic sources gives rise to instant confusion of the type that persists regardless of the era involved. For example, the citizens of the new country that became Pakistan were called Indians until they chose to have their own home in the Indian subcontinent. Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), founder of Pakistan, was leader of the All India Muslim League and a key member of the All India Home Rule League and the Indian National Congress. Surely replacing ‘India’ with ‘Hindu’ in the names of these organisations would be impractical, to say the least.


Likewise, the famous Hindi scholar al-Qanouji cannot be described as Hindu just because he is described in Arabic historical records as ‘Hindi’. Unlike many other instances, in this particular case we know his full name: Siddiq Bin Hassan al-Qanouji (1248-1357 AH/1832-1939), obviously a Muslim. When ibn al-Nadim mentions in his Fihrist the “Hindi Book on the descent of Adam, peace be upon him”, he cannot be describing a book written by Brahmins. The tendency to ignore or overlook Pakistan as one of the cradles of ancient civilisation and a major centre of Islamic civilisation is neither helpful nor fair.


To specify even today that the mathematically rich Bakhshali manuscript was located in a village near Peshawar in the north-west corner of India does not reflect the fact that India’s boundaries have changed, and such statements have to be qualified.


[1] David Eugene Smith in, History of Mathematics, Vol. II, pp. 64-65.

[2] This is confirmed by E. Glenn Hinson in The Church Triumphant: A History of Christianity Up to 1300, who on page 175 says, “Theophilus the Indian was sent to Southern Arabia and Ethiopia then he was sent to other parts of India but again this may have meant Southern Arabia.

[3] Procopius of Caesarea, Buildings, (Loeb trans.), 6.1.6.

[4] Philip Mayerson, A Confusion of Indias: Asian India and African India in the Byzantine Sources, Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 113, No. 2 (Apr-Jun., 1993), pp.169-174.

[5] E. H. Warmington, The Commerce Between the Roman Empire and India, (London 1974), pp. 139-40.

[6] See Hind province in al-Idrissi’s Geography, vol, I, pp. 166-190. (Arabic).

[7] Barthélemy d'Herbelot de Molainville, Bibliothèque orientale, (Completed 1697), P. 504.


Bishtawi, Adel S., Origin of the Arabic Numerals - A natural history of numbers, (AuthorHouse, 2011), pp. 334-338.






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