What You Need to Know About Arabic Numerals

Arabic numerals colorful artwork

Arabic numerals are the most common symbols used to represent numbers in the world. They are also known as “Hindu-Arabic” or “Indic” numerals. The origins of these numerals are unknown, but they were first used in India around the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE.

At the time, they were known as Hindu-Arabic numerals because they were introduced to the Arab world by Indian mathematicians. It was from the Islamic world that they eventually made their way to Europe were introduced to Europe through the writings of Middle Eastern mathematicians, especially al-Khwarizmi (On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals, c. 825) and al-Kindi (On the Use of the Hindu Numerals, c. 830), about the 12th century.

The name “Arabic numerals”

These numerals are called “Arabic” because they were introduced to Europe via Arabic-speaking countries. However, they are not actually used all over Arabic-speaking countries today. In fact, These symbol sets can be divided into three main families: Western Arabic numerals used in the Greater Maghreb and in Europe; Eastern Arabic numerals used in the Middle East; and the Indian numerals in various scripts used in the Indian subcontinent. Most Arabs today use the Eastern Arabic numerals which uses different symbols for certain numbers than what we use in English. The digits 0-9 are written like this:

Western Arabic numeralsEastern Arabic numeralsArabic nameTransliteration
0٠صِفْرṣifr
1١واحِدwaḥid
2٢إثْنانithnan
3٣ثَلاثةthalātha
4٤أَرْبَعةarbaʿa
5٥خَمْسةkhamsa
6٦سِتّةsitta
7٧سَبْعةsabʿa
8٨ثَمانيةthamānia
9٩تِسْعةtisʿa

The Eastern Arabic numerals, also called Arabic-Hindu numerals or Indo–Arabic numerals, are the symbols used to represent numerical digits in conjunction with the Arabic alphabet in the countries of the Mashriq (the east of the Arab world), the Arabian Peninsula, and its variant in other countries like Persia (Iran), Afghanistan, and Central Asia. In countries of the Maghreb—such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—a different numeral system known as “Western Arabic” is used. This system uses the same symbols that we use in English.

Usage of Arabic numerals today

Even though Arabic numerals came into to Europe during the 12th century, they didn’t become widespread until the 1500s as the Roman numeral system was already in place.

Over time, though, people began to see the advantages of using Arabic numerals. For one thing, they’re much easier to write than Roman numerals (try writing “MMMCMXCIX” five times fast!). They’re also much easier to work with when doing mathematical operations like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. As a result of these advantages, Arabic numerals gradually became the standard numbering system in use throughout the world.

In most parts of the world, including Europe and North America, Hindu-Arabic numerals are used for everyday purposes such as writing dates and times, taking phone numbers down, measuring weights and temperatures, etc. In addition, these numerals are also used extensively in mathematical and scientific contexts. Hindu-Arabic numerals have surpassed all other numeral systems in terms of worldwide usage and popularity.

Arabic numerals are some of the most ubiquitous symbols in the world; you probably see them every day without even realizing it! These handy little symbols have a long and interesting history spanning centuries and continents. So next time you reach for a pen to jot down a phone number or do some simple math, take a moment to appreciate the humble Arabic numeral!

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