Islamic Words in Science

Growing up I noticed many scientific words that begin with “al”. After years of studying mathematics and science, I learned that these words were of Islamic origin, particularly of the Arabic language. There is a good historical reason for this. Around the 7th – 10th century, Islamic scholars of Arab and Persian heritage translated the scientific works of ancient Greece, Rome, pre-Islamic Persia, India, and China. Many of the works were on philosophy, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, and alchemy. The collected knowledge were then synthesized and expanded upon by Muslim scholars between the 9th century to 14th century AD.  Here I present five words used in modern science that are of Islamic origin.

1. Chemistry
The word chemistry is actually a reduction of the word alchemy. The word alchemy comes from the Arab word al-kimiya, which literally means “The Egyptian science”. The Arab prefix al- is equivalent to the word “the” in English. “Kimi” was the late-Egyptian or Coptic name for Egypt. During the time of the pharaohs, Egypt was called “kmt” (pronounced something like kemet).

2. Alcohol
The word alcohol comes from the Arab word al-kuhl. “Kuhl” comes from the word “kohl”, a main ingredient found in cosmetics and used to produce antiseptics. 

3. Algebra
Algebra, the type of math many schoolchildren detest, is derived from the title of a mathematical text written by a Persian scholar named Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi (c. 780 – 850 AD). The text is written in the Arabic, and its full title is rather long.

Al-kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa al-muqabala
(The book on calculation by restoring and balancing)

The word “al-jabr” literally means the reunion of broken parts, or to restore.

Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi

4.  Algorithm
When people speak of algorithms, they usually refer to some computing procedure. The name algorithm is a direct borrowing from the name of the guy who introduced the word algebra: Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. “Al-Khwarizmi” literally translates to “the native of Khwarazm”, a place located between modern-day Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan. This name translated to “algorism” in Latin, which described arithmetic and algebraic procedures of Islamic, Indian, and Chinese origin.

5. Alkali
The word alkali means a substance with a pH measurement between 7 and 14 (basic substance as opposed to acidic). This word originates from the Arab word “al-qali”, which literally means “the ash of saltwort.” Saltwort is a class of plants that can be used to produce soda ash.


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