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Al-Khuwārizmī, Abū ‘Abd Allāh Muḥammad Ibn Aḥmad Ibn Yūsuf

(fl. in Khuwarizm ca. 975)

transmission of science.

We know little of al-Khuwārizmī other than the biographical data he provides incidentally. He should not be confused with the mathematician Muhammad ibn Mũsā al-Khwārizmī (see below) and the secretary Abu Bakr al-Khuwārizmi (d. 993). The subject of this article wrote a book entitled Mafātih al-’ulũm (“Keys of the Sciences”), which he dedicated to Abu’l-Hasan al-’Utbi, vizier of the Samanid sovereign Nũh II (976-997). Analysis of its contents indicates that it was composed shortly after 977.

Intended as a manual for the perfect secretary, the Mafātih al-’ulũ contains all the knowledge possessed by a cultured person living at that time in eastern Persia. Its purpose was to provide exact definitions of the technical terms in common use. The Mafātih consideres of two parts: the first analyzes the sciences traditionally considered of Arab or Muslim origin (theology, grammar, state administration, poetry, and others); and the second analyzes those imported form the Hellenic world. In the latter part much information on the history of the sciences can be found, for it contains chapters on philosophy, logic, medicine, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music, mechanics, and alchemy. Of special note is the author’s interest in giving the correct etymologies of the terms he defines, their equivalents in Persian or Greek, and, in some cases, numerical examples (for example, when speaking of jabr and muqābala) that avoid misunderstandings.

Al-Khuwārizmī rarely states his sources and, when they do appear, they are not, in the case of scientific subjects, the best ones. Yet the latter were undoubtedly known to him; otherwise the good information that he does transmit could not be explained. On the other hand, he seems to have some points of contact with the Rasā’ill (“Epistles”) of the Ikhwān al-Safā’.


An inventory of al-Khuwārizmi’s MSS is in C. Brockelmann, Geschichte der arabischen Literatur, I (Weimar, 1898), 282, and supp. I (Leiden, 1944). 434, The text has been published by B. Carra de Vaux under the title Liber Mafātih al-olum explicans vocabula technica scientiarum (Leiden, 1895; repr. 1968). Many chs. of the second part have been trans. by E. Wiedemann and others. Details of these trans. can be found in C. E. Bosworth, “A Pioneer Arabic Encyclopedia of the Sciences: Al-Khuwārizmi, Keys of the Sciences, “in Isis, 54 (1963), 97-111. See also G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, I (Baltimore, 1927), 659-660; and E. Wiedemann, “Al-Khuwārizmi,” in Encyclopédie de l’ Islam, II (Leiden-Paris, 1927), 965.

J. Vernet

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