The artist Banksy has helpfully reminded the world that the greatest industrialist of our generation, Steve Jobs, was the son of a Syrian migrant. End immigration and you risk ending innovation, it seems. There is overwhelming evidence, over centuries, that immigration, trade and travel – all the tools of openness to the ‘other’ – are the key to a culture’s growth. The most powerful example is also the most surprising and is hidden, these days, in many of the things you use and value every day. What has Islam ever done for us? A lot, as it turns out.
The figures we call Arabic Numerals actually originate in India, where they were part of an ancient Hindu counting system. They arrived in the Islamic world in the 9th century, bringing with them their must radical member, Zero. In the Arabic peninsula the zero-based system of counting developed into a prototype of what today we would call Mathematics. The process was driven in part by the demands of Islamic Law. Strict inheritance rules meant that a man’s wealth was shared very precisely amongst his sons. This required robust and reliable calculations for the division, for example, of a piece of land. Zero, the number that wasn’t a number because it counted nothing instead of counting something, made a big contribution to such sums.
Not in Europe, though. Our Christian forebears were deeply suspicious of the whole ‘zero’ proposition. God had made everything out of nothing, so nothing was somehow evil. To count it was to deny creation and cooperate with the devil. It would be four centuries before Europeans began to trust the Muslim zero. When they did, nothing changed everything. Here is a potted history: zero gives us mathematics and calculus which effectively give birth to a large share of science and therefore to the industrial revolution and ‘Western’ culture as we know it. Surprised? There is more.
Ever wondered what is at the very foundation of the computer age? The answer is something and nothing. The something we had already. The nothing came with the Arab traders. From the combination – 1 and 0 – everything digital is built. The very society some claim to be protecting from Muslims owes 50% of its success to Islamic thinking. Do you fear the invasion of Western culture? The erosion of Western ideas? The truth is there is no Western culture. There is only one humanity, and from the genius of that one humanity the device on which you are reading these words is made.