Math + Arabic + Syria

A photo of a whiteboard from my physics class in high school


How I was taught math in Syria (how math looks in a different language)

Ilearnt math in High School in Syria in Arabic. The same principles of calculus, algebra, trigonometry, and everything hold in Syria (thankfully, a thing that still unifies us as humans) but it’s just using different symbols. So instead of using the Greek/Latin letters, and notations. We were taught in Arabic ones, and this blog post is just to deomnstarte what math looked like in that era when I studied math and how few symbols used today might be influenced by Hindu-Arabic origins.

A little bit of History

The political adminstartion in Syria at some point in history believed that imperialism is bad, and the Arabic language is extremely superior to other languages and other crazy nationalistic ideas (See Baathism)* and we should use symbols from our own language to counter the imperialism that the west has enforced on us using education,… yada yada yada.

Anyhow, that edu-political stance remained until some point. During my first year in high school, the Ministry of Education suddenly realized “oh shit, our graduates don’t understand math when they leave Syria, maybe we should switch to Latin/Greek notations (the international standard)” and they flipped our math textbooks, but not physics, so basically our textbooks ended up being a non-homogenious mess of different layouts and directionalities.

So what is it like?

Let’s start with numerals, so we are all in the western world familiar with Arabic Numbers that we use everyday:


For some reason many Arabic-speaking countries adopted what is called Eastern or Perso-Arabic Numerals, and they are the ones that became the standard in my math textbook and they look like:


Even though Arabic is a right-to-left language, numbers maintain the left to right directionality, so for example 1993 is ١٩٩٣ and etc (Yeah, if you’re at a bar showing an ID in Arabic, the bartender might be able to infer your DOB. Tested 👍).

Now let’s get into more interesting examples, I’m going to write the Latin/Greek in LaTeX, sadly I don’t know how to use Arabic LaTeX and the standards I learnt in High School aren’t the ones supported, so I’m just going to write it using pen and paper.


Arabic (Syria)

So the first thing you notice is the directionality of course of the integration symbol. Equations get flipped. The x for the unknown is replaced with the letter س and of course the Perso-Arabic numerals. (The number 0 is written as 3 dots to be more visible since zero in Perso-Arabic numerals is just a dot (٠) and of course the plus sign remains the same.)

Another example:

So you notice that f for function is replaced with تا because ت ا are the first two letters of the Arabic word تابع which means function.

Let’s take it up a level, and use summation in our notations, and the example here is going to be PageRank equation. (Been learning about ML and information retrieval lately)

(Brin-Page 98)
Arabic Equivalant

So the first thing you notice here is probably the weird dot inside of the seemingly sigma, so first, it’s not a sigma, what kind of a westerner imperialist would think of teaching the Vanguards of Baath foreign letters (sarcasm). It’s actually مج so م ج are the first two letters in the word مجموع (majmoua’a) which translates to sum, and is visually similar to a sigma.

In case you know the Arabic alphabet, you will notice that N in the original equation was substituted with a weird letter, so this letter is actually an upside down flipped ن and that was the convention whenever an equation contained an N for a count.

if you’re wondering about how trigonometry looks like, then it’s something like

I’m not missing the dots, but the convention in textbooks wasn’t to put dots for جب and تجب

So you might think oh it’s easy I’m just going to replace x with س and I will be fine, but trigonometry in Arabic is here to prove you wrong. When it comes to angles/trigonometry they used the two letters يه for the unknown. And if you are wondering why that is, the answer lies in the word for angle in Arabic which is زاوية (zawiyeh) so this time they took the last two letters of the word (strange right?) and the symbols for sin and cos are replaced with the Arabic equivalent جب and تجب. It’s important to note here that the word sine is from the Latin sinus which is a translation for the Arabic word جيب (Jayb) which translates literally as a pocket! (i.e. I have four جيب’s in my pants).

The mystery of the root

So the square root notation is a very interesting one when it comes to the root notation origin. So let’s take the example of the quadratic formula

So you notice how the square root notation is reversed, but what is interesting for me, is the notation of the square root itself. the word for root in Arabic is جذر (Ja’zer) and I once watched a documentary on TV (don’t remember the name of source) that Arabic-Speaking mathematicians at that time used the notation جـــ5 to signify something like (√5) because جـ is the first letter of the word جذر (root). And after a quick search about the history of the notation, I found the following answers on mathematics stack-exchange.

I don’t know who is the original inventor of the notation, but it’s important to note that Leonardo of Pisa (Fibonacci) studied with the Moors in Northern Africa where Arabic is spoken, and Fibonacci is attributed for spreading the Arabic numerals (123) we use today in the western world, so he might also be responsible for borrowing our beloved square root notation from Arabic.

Disclaimer: I’m not a mathematician, historian, or linguistics expert. My background is Computer Science (λ ❤), I like math and I just wanted to share an interesting fact about how I learnt math, and how math looks in a different language. In case you find any mistakes, typos, or errors, please let me know!

Note*: Resist your urges to endrose Ba’athism for keeping the language and its claims to resist imperialism, because the same crazy ideology banned Kurds from teaching their language in schools or using it, and taught textbooks in Syria that said “Arabs are the best people and Arabic is the best language” to a nation full of Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, and other different ethnicities, and I have seen so many instances in history where ethnocentrism becomes fascism.

I firmly believe the essence of science is sharing it and communicating it, and trying to create your own standards will only stand in its way of evolving. So, in my humble opinion, I think it’s good now that we all speak math the same way.

Illinois Institute of Technology
College of Science

*This post was originally posted on May, 9th 2016




One Comment Add yours

  1. theayasalah says:

    This was a really fascinating blog post, thank you for sharing. As an educator, I love to learn about the differences and similarities that curricula are taught world-wide. Especially in the Arab world, since I am Arab.

    So I’m curious; in geometry, when labeling vertices of a polygon, do they use Arabic letters as well? Like, Triangle ا ب ت instead of Triangle ABC?


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