With so little known from the life of Sutayta Al-Mahmali, one might wonder why her history feels so sparse
You are travelling eleven centuries back in time, looking for the right place for you to settle in. You look towards the west and find it in shambles; a continent reminiscing on memories of its lost greatness and depleting its energies on aspirations of holy wars. Certainly not the place for you right? As a curious new soul exploring the tenth-century world, there’s one place that would most certainly appeal to you; Baghdad! – the Islamic capital and the home of science and inventions.
Tenth-century Baghdad was brimming with the most brilliant minds in the world. Mathematicians of the time travelled the lengths and breadths of the world on missions to measure the curvature of the Earth. These scientists were developing paper technologies with wood imported from Asia and shaping them into service to feed a growing book industry that not only boosted the economy of Baghdad but also helped to support and promote the nation’s artists, translators, commentators, poets, and researchers, all thriving on the glories of the written word.
If you find your way to this city of bustling wisdom, having a keen interest in mathematics, our compass is most likely to point you to the home of one great mathematician of her time; Sutayta Al-Mahmali – the algebraist who was renowned for her legal mind as for her mathematical mastery, a genius greatly celebrated by her culture and people, praised for her abilities by three of the era’s greatest historians, and today sadly obliterated from the pages of history and reduced to a historical footnote.
Sutayta studied Arabic literature, jurisprudence, the interpretation of sacred texts, and mathematics a full two hundred years before Europe produced women of comparably broad education and fame in the form of Heloise of Argenteuil and Trota of Salerno. She was an expert in hisab (arithmetics) and fara’idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics that were developing in her time. She was widely consulted for her legal and mathematical insight and she solved problems of inheritance that implied an advanced knowledge of that era’s hot new field – ALGEBRA.
As a matter of fact, the name algebra was coined from the term al-jabr by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi for the operation of rewriting an expression to eliminate negative terms. In his works, he applied his techniques to the complicated systems of equations that result when you try to mathematize a web of competing claims on an estate. According to historian Dale Debakcsy, Sutayta Al-Mahmali made original contributions to this field, and to the theory of arithmetic, which at the time was truly coming into its own thanks to the adoption of a numerical system that wasn’t aggressively hostile to computation. She invented solutions to equations that have been cited by other mathematicians, denoting aptitude in algebra. Her solutions to the cubic type equations gripped the imaginations of her near successors Ibn al-Haytham (965-1040) and Omar Khayyam (1048-1130). Mathematicians made use of her work, referenced it and built on it. Historians such as Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi and Ibn Kathīr praised Sutayta Al-Mahamali for her extraordinary brilliance. She was also known to have memorised the Qur’an and she was praised for her modesty and virtue.
With so little known from the life of Sutayta Al-Mahmali, one might wonder why her history feels so sparse, like disjointed pieces of a puzzle needed to be pieced together. The answer is not so far-fetched. Sutayta and other intellectual Muslim women of her time were succeeded by a number of Islamic faithful who found themselves outnumbered by the phenomenal expansion of the early Islamic empire and the rise in both male and female scientists and intellectuals. This bothered the Islamic faithful a lot, causing them to revert to a more repressive and traditional pre-Islamic conception of a woman’s place, and using their influence to retroactively write their beliefs into the core principles of the shari’ah. This, in turn, reflected in the way history was constructed, leading to the erasure of women almost completely. However, the knowledge that once upon an Islamic empire, in a golden city of wisdom, walked a woman who wove law and algebra together with utmost perfection that her history couldn’t be completely obliterated gives us hope that what once was, could definitely be again, and perhaps has started to become.
- (1) Episode 6: Sutayta Al-Mahāmali | Inspirational Muslim Women – YouTube
- The Algebraist of Baghdad: Sutayta Al-Mahamali’s Medieval Mathematics (womenyoushouldknow.net)
- Extraordinary Women from the Golden Age of Muslim Civilisation | Islam in Ukraine
- Wiebke Walther, Women in Islam from Medieval to Modern Times
- Guity Nashat and Lois Beck, Women in Iran: From the Rise of Islam to 1800,
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