Tale of an Arabic Mathematician

G. Stolyarov II
Issue XXIV - July 16, 2004
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  Legend has it that, during the seventh century AD, a number sprang out of the Arabian desert that had eluded the greatest minds of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, that neither Pythagoras nor Euclid nor Archimedes had ever come upon.

 If the name of the inventor of the zero had reached us, he would likely be as illustrious as any of them, for his character and wit certainly merited it. Alas, he lived during a barbarous time, when the young Islamic Califate was engaged in a brutal campaign of suppressing the “infidels” of all lands to which the sword of the fundamentalist warrior carried rivers of scarlet. At the head of the conquest was the Calif Omar, a man with a simple mind and a simple credo: “All that is written which repeats the Koran is superfluous. All that is written which transcends the Koran is heretical.” The torrents of blood the Calif brought also swept away the great libraries of the era, and, for many years, all scholarship was declared a crime.

            Thus it was when the Calif Omar’s troops came to the city where the mathematician lived in a lush garden home, a residence that the commander of the invading forces found all too inviting. The commander realized that he could have anything in the city that he wished, only if he were given a pretext to execute an edict given him by the Calif Omar. Because Omar did not believe in writing anything that was not in the Koran, he had only presented the order to the commander in words: “Nothing which is outside the Koran shall be tolerated.” Violation of the Calif’s edict was tantamount to death, and the commander thus possessed the means to destroy almost anyone he chose.

All the commander wanted, however, was the mathematician’s house, and he sent agents throughout the city in order to find out the identity of its occupant. The commander snickered when hearing the reports that his henchmen brought him: the dwelling was inhabited by a man who had only recently announced his great and unprecedented discovery. The commander polished his executioner’s sword and wasted no time in rushing to the mathematician’s residence.

He met the mathematician while the latter was staring at his books.

-         “Yes?” the scholar asked absentmindedly.

-         “I have come for you, because you have violated the order of the great Calif Omar.  I hear that you claim to have discovered something not in the Koran,” the commander pronounced fiercely.

-         “Whatever in the world do you mean?” the mathematician decided to be clever. “I discovered nothing!”

Though this line would have been sufficient to ward off a typical layman, the commander, having been trained in the finest fundamentalist madrassas, was a master at sofistry. He had a counter to the mathematician’s remark.

-         Nothing is outside the Koran,” he said smugly. “For, you see, the Koran carries a great and holy message; it contains something, and, thus, it cannot be that nothing is also present in it.  Thus, you are still liable to be put to death.”

-         “Wait a minute,” replied the mathematician. “Do you concede that I have discovered nothing?”

-         “Why, yes.” The commander said simply.

-         “Very well, then. And do you affirm that this nothing is outside the Koran, as you have said?”

-         “Get on with your point,” the commander stated with irritation, apparently having not a clue as to where the mathematician was headed with that line of argument.

-         “Well, then, to kill me would be a violation of your Calif’s edict. For you see, what I have discovered is nothing, and it is outside the Koran. The Calif’s edict states that ‘Nothing, which outside the Koran, shall be tolerated!’ Thus, to follow it, you must tolerate me and my nothing, which is outside the Koran.”

The commander snarled.

-         “But wait. That is not all,” said the mathematician. “Do you call it toleration when someone enters a man’s home, seeking his head, and intruding upon his studies? It seems that you have already broken your Calif’s edict by threatening to destroy me and my nothing, which is outside the Koran. Tell me, who carries out the Calif’s orders in this city?”

-         “I do,” the commander replied, shaking.

-         “Very well, then, loyal servant of the Calif, you have a violator to apprehend in this very room. You know the penalty for disobeying the Calif’s words.”

The commander could do nothing, for he could not dispute the mathematician’s wit. He had no choice but to go to the city’s central square and behead himself.

Time passed, and the Calif Omar died. Rumor has it that he did not read the label on the medicine that his court alchemist had prescribed him, and overdosed. That label was not in the Koran, after all! He was replaced by more tolerant rulers who generally left mathematicians alone. The inventor of the zero lived to a ripe old age, generating quite a handsome profit from his discovery of nothing, which was outside the Koran. Unfortunately, his primary texts, on which his name was published, were burned by Crusaders five centuries later, who carried with them the edict of their pope: “Nothing which is outside the Bible shall be tolerated.” If only our mathematician had been alive then, perhaps the cross-bearing rabble would have waged Holy War on themselves instead!

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Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's novel, Eden against the Colossus, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's comprehensive treatise, A Rational Cosmology, explicating such terms as the universe, matter, space, time, sound, light, life, consciousness, and volition, here.

Read Mr. Stolyarov's four-act play, Implied Consent, a futuristic intellectual drama on the sanctity of human life, here.