Who’s Afraid of Arabic Numerals?

Christianity was critical to shaping the Western world we know and from which we benefit.

(photo: Denis Doukhan/Pixabay/CC0)

Mustafa Akyol’s June 4 op-ed at The New York Times (“Who’s Afraid of Arabic Numerals?”) was intended to combat Arabo-/Islamo-phobia while highlighting the contributions medieval Arabic culture made to world civilization. Too bad it reinforces Christophobia and hides the contributions of Christianity to Western and world civilization.

Akyol cites a poll, covertly testing “students’ attitudes toward the Arab world,” in which 56% of respondents opposed teaching “Arabic numerals.” The point, of course, is that world civilization has benefited from substituting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 for I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII, VIII and IX.

Nobody will deny that Arabic numerals have simplified mathematics, and that’s a good thing. I had an analogous experience while learning Chinese. Once, while I practiced reading, my son was listening to one of those school tapes in which the speaker solemnly intoned, “Hammurabi contributed to civilization by developing an alphabet.” He said that just as I was trying to read, “你好, 我是美国人.” I, too, was thankful for good king Hammurabi of Babylon.

For the record, I heartily endorse teaching “Arabic numerals.” My problem is with the rest of Akyol’s article. Admitting “Western civilization does have a great deal of accomplishment worth preserving,” he immediately identifies what he thinks that accomplishment is: “the Enlightenment, which gave us freedom of thought, freedom of religion, the abolition of slavery, equality before the law, and democracy.”

With all due respect, Mr. Akyol, please do some research before further opining about “Western civilization.”

Western civilization, as George Weigel regularly points out, stands on the triad of Greece, Rome and Jerusalem. Much of what “Western civilization” holds dear – including things like equality before the law and democracy – owe more to Jerusalem than even Greece or Rome. Indeed, as Mike Aquilina and James Papandrea note, a lot of what we take for granted in “Western civilization” came from Christianity (and Judaism) correcting Athens and Rome.

Reading Akyol’s article, one would wonder if anything happened in Western philosophy between Aristotle and Descartes, save for Averroës and Avicenna. I would suggest that people like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Anselm, the Victorines, Albert the Great, et al. had a role marginally more influential than Averroës in civilization as we know it. Even William of Ockham, whose late medieval nominalism had a horribly destructive influence (through its perpetuation in classical Protestantism) on Western culture and especially law, still reverberates today. It would be hard, for example, to get to Obergefell v. Hodges’ exclusion of sexual difference from marriage without Ockham (substituting our almighty judiciary for his Almighty Judge).

“Equality before the law” did not spring fresh from the brows either of Voltaire or Zeus. It originated with the Hebrew prophets, like the vinedresser Amos, who insisted that the wealthy could not shaft the anawim, and Micah, who deplored currency speculators and those who wielded adulterated weights and measures against the poor. Equality before the law started with Christians in the Roman Empire, the original “baskets of deplorables” who insisted that every life was valuable, that a newborn could not be abandoned because she was the “wrong sex” or disabled, and that a society that got its jollies watching men murder each other in the arena was depraved.

The first blow to slavery did not begin with Franklin’s Pennsylvania Abolition Society but with Benedict of Nursia, who told his disciples to get on their knees and roll up their sleeves: ora et labora. Thanks to Benedict, people learned that free men were worthy of physical labor, which itself was worthy of respect. Contemplation did not presuppose a slave class—domestic or imported—to starch your toga.

 Did the Enlightenment contribute and advance the effort? Yes—but it certainly did not originate it.

“Democracy?” Franciscans, Benedictines, and Dominicans were electing their superiors in the Middle Ages. As Weigel points out, Pope Gelasius and the whole investiture controversy refined Jesus’ words about “God,” “Caesar,” and not getting those two mixed up. Again, did the Enlightenment further and expand the effort? Yes—but again, democracy did not originate with John Locke.

“Freedom of religion?” Please note that the Christian martyrs of Rome also struck their blow for freedom of religion by standing up for freedom of conscience against a polity that identified worship of the state and its deities (including the head of state) with political allegiance.

Also, please borrow my translation of Stanislaw Wielgus’s Medieval Polish Doctrine of the Law of Nations to learn how Polish medieval scholastics—mostly priests--right through the Council of Constance, defended the freedom of the pagan Lithuanians against the rapacious Teutonic Knights, who used “conversion” as their excuse for invasion.

While acknowledging the scientific achievements Akyol identifies in the medieval Arab world, I also note that the revival of heliocentric astronomy came from a 15th century Polish priest. Oh, and by the way, as Templeton Prize winner Stanley Jaki has repeatedly pointed out, far from being science’s enemy, scientific method required a Christian viewpoint to get started. Only if you believe that the universe is (a) orderly, (b) meaningful, and (c) governed by laws, including cause and effect—all parts of the Judaeo-Christian doctrine of creation—can you engage in replicable scientific inquiry to study that universe and its parts.

“Freedom of thought?” Catholicism gave birth to that institution historically associated with thought and inquiry called “the university,” including mothering a few somewhat important ones, like Paris, Vienna, Oxford, the Jagiellonian, etc. Again, as George Weigel notes, the medieval academic disputation was open to all comers: if you wanted to advance a thesis, be prepared to defend it before anybody, without any “trigger warnings.” It’s the Enlightenment “progressives,” from 18th-century post-French Revolutionary Jacobins to 20th-century totalitarians to 21st-century politically correct academics who are so convinced of the righteousness of their views that alternates need not be heard and ideally consigned to a deep freeze (including, sometimes, in the Gulag).

I might add a few other contributions of Christianity to Western civilization about which perhaps moderns would like to forget. As I’ve noted, in his flawed history of abortion law found in Roe et al. v. Wade, Harry Blackmun admitted that the Hippocratic tradition banned abortion (along with euthanasia, one reason the Oath has disappeared from many medical school graduations), opining it was just another bioethical opinion in antiquity, which owed its eventual dominance to … Christianity. The same might be said about rejecting suicide.

No one can doubt the contributions of the medieval Arab world to preserving Western and advancing world civilization. Neither, however, can we forget about the Irish monks whose scriptoria also had a hand in civilizational maintenance.

But in acknowledging the hand medieval Arabs had in keeping Antiquity alive, let us also not subscribe to a fictional historiography that pretends that the Judaeo-Christian heritage was not critical to shaping the Western world we know and from which we benefit. A.D. 476 (the fall of Rome) to 1619 (Descartes’ “visions”) were not the “Dark Ages.” Christianity and the Middle Ages was not obscurantist and cannot be ignored (as much as some elites might wish) as an essential foundation to Western cultures. It’s too bad Akyol didn’t get that.


         All opinions contained in this essay are exclusively the author’s.