How Do Numbers Matter Outside the Classroom? History and Modern Use of Arabic Numbers

July 28, 2014
Arabic script and Western Arabic numerals used together. Arabic script and Western Arabic numerals used together.


Numbers are an integral part of every language. In addition to learning a new script, grammar, and pronunciation of vocabulary, students of languages like Arabic learn a new set of numbers as well.  Although the set of characters we use in English – 1, 2, 3, and so on – are known as Arabic numerals, they are not always the same ones used by Arabic speakers. The characters we know as Arabic numerals were brought to Europe and then the Americas by Arabic speakers from Northern Africa. The Europeans called these digits Arabic numerals, but because they originated in the Indian subcontinent, in Africa and the Middle East they were referred to as Hindu numerals.  Confusingly, Hindi numerals – ٠, ١, ٢, ٣, ٤, ٥, ٦, ٧, ٨, ٩ –are a different set of characters entirely. They’re also known as Eastern Arabic Numerals, to differentiate them from the Western Arabic numerals that were adopted by Northern African, European, and American languages. Both types of characters are still used in different parts of the Arab-speaking world. As in other languages and cultures, some Arabic numbers carry special significance.  3, 5, and 7 are particularly important recurring numbers in Islam, no matter how they are written.  The religion has five major tenets: The Five Pillars of Islam. These guiding principles are simply described as Shahada, Salat, Zakat, Sawm, and Hajj.

Hallway of a mosque in Bir Ali, Medina, Saudi Arabia. Hallway of a mosque in Bir Ali, Medina, Saudi Arabia.


Shahada (الشهادة aš-šahādah), or Faith, repeats and reasserts the main statement of the Muslim religion: “There is no god but God (and) Muhammad is the messenger of God.”  The second pillar, Salat, is the pillar of prayer. Practicing Muslims must pray 5 times each day: at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night time. Each prayer is said while facing the Ka’aba in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Islam’s most holy site. Zakat (زكاة [zæˈkæːt]), or alms-giving, is the practice of making charitable donations  Muslims are not required to donate a certain amount of money, are expected to pay zakat if they are financially able. The fourth pillar, sawm(صوم), refers to religious fasting. Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan, but also fast as a method of seeking repentance or a form of meditation.  Sawm is required during Ramadan, except for groups that might be endangered by it, like children, the elderly, or pregnant women. Finally, every Muslim is required to make a pilgrimage, or Hajj (حج Ḥaǧǧ), to Mecca at least once during their lifetime. The Hajj consists of a series of rituals that symbolize the lives of Ibrahim and Hajar (the same Abraham and Hagar of Judaism and Christianity), and Hajar’s search for water and food in the desert when she and her son Ishmael were abandoned there.  On the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, Dhu al-Hijjah, pilgrims gather in the town of Mina, outside of Mecca, and prepare to begin the pilgrimage. The following day, the pilgrims perform their first Tawaf: 7 counterclockwise laps around the Ka’aba, Islam’s most sacred location. After this ritual, the pilgrims then run or walk 7 times between Safa and Marwah, the two hills that Hajar ran back and forth between in her search for water.  After this sa’i ( سعى saʿy "ritual walking"), the pilgrims spend the next 3 days in prayer and vigil at different holy sites: first returning to Mina, then spending a day in reflection at Mount Arafat, and finally passing a day in the open air of Muzdalifah, between the two.

Pilgrims circling the Ka’aba in tawaf. Pilgrims circling the Ka’aba in tawaf.


The following day, the pilgrims perform the ritual of Ramy al-Jamarat (رمي الجمرات, meaning stoning of the Devil), affirming their rejection of the Devil.  As Ibrahim was about to sacrifice his son, he was challenged 3 times by the Devil, but refused him each time.  Pilgrims climb the Jamaraat Bridge and throw pebbles at 3 pillars that represent these refusals; in each of these 3 mock stonings, the pilgrims throw 7 pebbles. The pilgrims then celebrate their faith by slaughtering an animal or having one slaughtered in their name.  They return to Mecca and perform another tawaf of 7 laps, spend another night in Mina, perform another set of 3 7-pebble stonings, and finally return to Mecca for the final night of the Hajj. Before their departure on their last morning in Mecca, the pilgrims perform a farewell tawaf, the Tawaf-al-Wida.

Khamsa (image source: Wikipedia Common)


Outside of Islam, a common sight in Arabic homes and jewelry is the Hamsa hand. Hamsa literally means five, or the five fingers of the hand. Hamsa amulets and decorations were originally meant to provide protection against the evil eye – but Muslim and Christian Arabs adopted the Hamsa hand as well. They called it the Hand of Fatima, after Mohammed’s daughter, or the Hand of Mary, after the Virgin Mary. This talisman’s 5 fingers are now associated with the 5 pillars of Islam, and the 5 members of Mohammed’s family.  According to legend, Mohammed owned 5 loyal and perfect mares: the original Arabian horses and founders of the breed. When Mohammed took his entire herd of horses through the desert to an oasis, he tried to summon them back to him before letting them drink. Only these 5 horses ran towards him and away from the water. Each of these mares was the first of a different strain of Arabian horses. They became known as Al-Khamsa, derived from the word hamsa. While this story is generally told as legend and not fact, some breeders will still claim to sell horses descended from the original Al-Khamsa.

For further reading, our Small Wonders series devotes an entire book to the Hand and its significance in Arabic. Small Wonders provides excellent cultural commentary to help your students learn the Arabic language in context, while improving their reading skills. Classroom games like bingo, Sudoku, or even hopscotch are fun and engaging ways to practice writing and speaking numbers as well!