Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into Europe

Arabic numerals, which originated possibly with the Hindus in India, were introduced into Europe after their function was described in an Arabic text from the ninth century and then translated in the early twelfth century into Latin.

Summary of Event

Despite much study and investigation, neither the time nor the place of the origin of numerals is known. Although often referred to as Arabic, they have never been used by Arabs. The claim that the origin of our numerals lies in the Sanskrit language notation itself is difficult to prove. The forms of the Hindu-Arabic numerals show great variation. [kw]Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into Europe (c. 1100)
[kw]Numerals Are Introduced into Europe, Arabic (c. 1100)
[kw]Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into Europe (c. 1100)
[kw]Europe, Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into (c. 1100)
Numerals, Arabic
Europe (general);c. 1100: Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into Europe[1730]
India;c. 1100: Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into Europe[1730]
Cultural and intellectual history;c. 1100: Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into Europe[1730]
Mathematics;c. 1100: Arabic Numerals Are Introduced into Europe[1730]
Severus Sebokht
Khwārizmī, al-
Adelard of Bath
Leonardo of Pisa

About the second century c.e. and before the zero had been invented, Indian numerals were brought to Alexandria and from there they spread to Rome and West Africa. The origin of zero Zero, concept of is as uncertain as the origin of the other numerals. Without zero, the Hindu system would be no better than other number systems, because one of the most distinguishing features of the Arabic number system is place value. Even the origin of the word “zero” is a matter of dispute.

In the eighth century, after the notation in India had been already much modified and perfected by the invention of the zero, the Arabs at Baghdad received it from the Hindus: The Arabs of the West borrowed the zero from those in the East, but they retained the old forms of the nine numerals in order to be different from their political enemies of the East. The old forms were remembered by the Western Arabs to be of Indian origin and hence were called “Buger-numerals” (dust numerals) in memory of the Brahmin practice of reckoning on tables strewn with dust or sand. Since the eighth century, the numerals in India underwent further changes and assumed the greatly modified forms of the modern Devanagari numerals.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Hindu origin of Arabic numerals was commonly accepted, but later scholars G. R. Kaye in India, Carra de Vaux in France, and Nicol Buubnow in Russia have doubted this theory. Though their arguments are strong, the Hindu origin nevertheless appears to be the most satisfactory theory.

Arabic numerals came westward through a book on arithmetic written in India in the eighth century and soon afterward translated into Arabic. Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Fazārī Muḥammad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Fazārī in the second half of the eighth century made a translation of the Hindu tables that were included in the Sidhanta, a seventh century Hindu treatise on astronomy.

An astronomy lesson, based on advanced mathematics, depicted in a thirteenth century breviary.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The earliest known numeral forms are found on some stone columns built in India about 250 b.c.e. by King Aśoka Aśoka , a great patron of Buddhism. The only numerals that have thus far been found on these Aśoka decrees are those for 1, 2, 4, 6, 50, and 200, involving three different symbols. Other records in India, if interpreted correctly, include those cut in the wall of a cave on the top of the Nāna Ghāt hill, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) outside the city of Poona, which date to about 100 b.c.e. Other inscriptions of about 200 c.e. are found in the caves of Nasik. These early inscriptions contain no symbol for zero, nor do they indicate that the principle of place value was developed at this early date. The positional value and the use of the zero must have been introduced into India sometime before 800 because mathematician al-Khwārizmī Khwārizmī, al- describes such a system in a book he wrote in 825. The earliest authentic document of India that contains the perfected Hindu numerals with the zero dates from the year 876. That some kind of numerals with zero were used in India prior to this time, however, is indicated by Brahmagupta Brahmagupta (c. 598-c. 660), who actually provided rules for computing with zero.

The earliest known reference to Hindu numerals outside India is given by Bishop Severus Sebokht Severus Sebokht of Nisibis, a philosopher and scientist who lived in a monastery at Kenneshre on the banks of the Euphrates. Judging from a fragment of a manuscript from the year 662, he was much impressed with the nine existing Hindu numerals. Even though it has not been determined whether his numerals are the ancestors of those used in the West or whether he used the principle of place value, he may well have been one of the channels by which knowledge of the numerals was transmitted from the Hindus to the Arabs. It now seems clear that these numerals reached the monastic schools of Mesopotamia as early as 650.

Before the time of the Prophet Muḥammad, the Arabs had no numerals. It has been asserted, though there are grounds for doubt, that a set of astronomical tables was taken to Baghdad in 773 and translated from the Sanskrit into Arabic at the command of the caliph. The translation is said to have been made by al-Fazari about 773. Probably the numerals were known in Baghdad at that time; however, they were certainly known by 825. Al-Khwārizmī, who lived during the reign of ՙAbbāsid Dynasty caliph al-Ma՚mūn (r. 813-833), recognizing their value, wrote a small book to explain their use. His writings were probably the main channel through which the Hindu numerals became known in Islam and later in the West. This book was later translated into Latin, probably by Adelard of Bath Adelard of Bath , with the title Algoritmi de numero Indorum (c. 1100; “Thus Spake al-Khwārizmī,” 1990). The Hindu forms described by al-Khwārizmī were not used by the Arabs. The scholars in Baghdad evidently derived their forms from other sources, possibly from Kabul in Afghanistan in some modified form. The earliest Arabic manuscripts containing the numerals are dated 874 and 888.

In a work written at Shiraz in Persia in 970, the numerals occur again. Close to the Jeremias Monastery in Egypt, they appear on a pillar of the church with the date 961. The oldest definitely dated European manuscript to contain the Hindu-Arabic numerals is the Codex Vigilanus, written in the Albelda Cloister in Spain in 976. A Vatican Library manuscript of 1077 also contains the numerals, written similar to modern symbols. The earliest known English manuscripts containing the Hindu-Arabic numerals are contained in the British Museum and date from the thirteenth century.


Leonardo of Pisa Leonardo of Pisa was the first great mathematician to advocate the adoption of Arabic notation in Europe with his book Liber abaci
Liber abaci (Leonardo of Pisa) (1202; English translation, 2002). The learned classes readily accepted it, but the merchants and monks in the monasteries adhered to the older forms as late as 1300. Even one hundred years after the publication of Liber abaci, the merchants of Florence were forbidden to use Arabic notation in bookkeeping, one reason being the possibility of forging documents by interchanging the numerals 0, 6, and 9. By about 1275, Arabic notation began to be widely used. Roman numerals, however, were widely employed for bookkeeping in European countries until the eighteenth century, mainly because of the facility of using them in addition and subtraction.

Further Reading

  • Ball, W. W. Rouse. A Short Account of the History of Mathematics. New York: Dover, 1960. Chapter 9 surveys the history of Arabic mathematics.
  • Cajori, Florian. A History of Mathematical Notations. 2 vols. La Salle. Ill.: Open Court, 1952. A comprehensive text that details the symbols for Arabic numerals and the symbols used in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and numerical analysis.
  • Cajori, Florian. A History of Mathematics. 5th ed. Providence, R.I.: AMS Chelsea, 2000. This book is devoted to the general history of mathematics and attempts to speculate on the origins as well as the variation of Hindu-Arabic numeral forms.
  • Hill, G. F. The Development of Arabic Numerals in Europe. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1915. A still-useful description of the forms of early numerals in Europe.
  • Ifrah, Georges. The Universal History of Numbers: From Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer. Translated by David Bellos et al. New York: J. Wiley, 2000. Comprehensive survey of numerals and numeration throughout history. Includes a chapter on the importation of Indo-Arabic numerals into Western Europe.
  • Kunitzsch, Paul. “The Transmission of Hindu-Arabic Numerals Reconsidered.” In The Enterprise of Science in Islam: New Perspectives, edited by Jan P. Hogendijk and Abdelhamid I. Sabra. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003. Explores the development of Eastern Islamic numerals into the Western Islamic numerals that were later introduced into Europe.
  • Kūshyār ibn Labbān. Hindu Reckoning. Translated by M. Levey and M. Petruck. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1965. The oldest surviving Arabic text using the Hindu numerals.
  • Newman, James R. The World of Mathematics. 4 vols. 1956. Reprint. Redmond, Wash.: Tempus Books, 1988. A study of number and numerals may be found in volume 1, part 3, no. 3.
  • Rotman, Brian. Mathematics as Sign: Writing, Imagining, Counting. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2000. A study of the importance, meaning, and effects of written numbers.
  • Smith, D. E., and L. D. Karpinski. The Hindu-Arabic Numerals. Boston: Ginn, 1911. A classic and standard reference book.