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Readers and experts correct Gulf News error.

Dubai: Numbers are the bedrock of civilisation and technology. But as Gulf News recently discovered, one rarely considers how numbers, so often taken for granted, have travelled a long and fascinating journey through time.

Gulf News reported last week that Sharjah plans to drop number plates containing "Arabic" numerals, to replace them instead with numbers in English.

A report that initially seemed straightforward soon became news that sparked furore and raging debate among readers, intellectuals and experts in the region.

Abdul Gaffar Hussain, an Emirati intellectual, said Gulf News was wrong in its statement that Sharjah was doing away with "Arabic" numerals. In fact Sharjah retained Arabic numbers, such as 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and so on for number plates of vehicles.

Mohammad Al Hannach, an Arabic language professor at the Canadian University of Dubai, agreed. He said: "The numbers that we read as 'English' today, actually have their origins in Arabic." Al Hannach credited Persia, (modern day Iran), and Andalusia in Spain with disseminating the nine-number arithmetic system to distant lands in the eighth or ninth century.

The camaraderie of India and Arabia in those times also played a key role in the evolution of numbers. Several important Hindu texts were translated into Arabic and improved upon by noted Arab mathematicians such as Mohammad Bin Mousa Al Khwarizmi.

The translation and distribution of this information to Europe and other countries was a turning point in history and the nine-number system then became known as Arabic or Hindu-Arabic numerals.

Al Hannach explained: "Arabs began using Indian numerals, which are still used today as modern-day Arabic numbers. But the numerals that have become so integrated with the European system of mathematics are the ones that are truly Arabic in nature." He added that the so-called English numbers were present in almost all Arab countries because of this reason.

Gulf News readers were clued up on the history and context of Arabic numerals. Within hours of the story being published, Gulf News received several phone calls and letters rectifying the information.

Wosim Tahan, a Gulf News reader, said by providing wrong information to readers, "the reputation of Arabs" was at stake. He emphasised the importance of verifying the history of Arabic numerals.

Abdullah Binayaf, a Dubai resident, wrote in with a similar correction. He said: "Readers should understand why several emirates in the UAE are dropping Indian numerals from number plates. By doing so, they are actually preserving the original Arabic numerals."

For reader Sidi Fetouhi, an Abu Dhabi resident, the fact that English numerals were sourced from Arabic, was not news. He said: "It is common knowledge that the numbers used all over the world today are actually Arabic numerals. I was taught this 45 years ago, as a child in school."

Gulf News stands corrected, thanks to its readers. Sharjah Police have not dropped Arabic numerals from the new number plates but, in fact, have retained them.

Count to ten: Decimal system

The Arabic decimal system (with a base of 10) is used in every nation of the world. This is not surprising, given the number of digits on our hands. Different number systems were used simultaneously in the Arab world over a long period of time. There were at least three different types of arithmetic systems used in Arab countries in the 11th century:

A system derived from counting on the fingers with the numerals written entirely in words. This finger-reckoning arithmetic was the system used by the business community.

The sexagesimal (60 as base) system with numerals denoted by letters of the Arabic alphabet.

The arithmetic of the Indian numerals and fractions with the decimal place-value system.

Indian numerals form the basis of the European number systems which are now widely used. However, they were not transmitted directly from India to Europe but rather came first to the Arab world, from where they were then transmitted all over the globe. The role of Andulusia and Persia was very important in this dissemination of information and the numerals were given the title "Arabic" or "Hindu-Arabic" numerals.

According to Encyclopaedia Britannica, it is often claimed that the first Arabic text written to explain the Indian number system was written by Mohammad Bin Mousa Al Khwarizmi. His book On Calculation with Hindu Numerals, written in about AD825, was principally responsible for the diffusion of the Indian system of numeration in the Middle East and then Europe.

- Information courtesy of IBM Globalisation website

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Geographic Code:7UNIT
Date:Jul 27, 2008
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