The Algebraist of Baghdad

Salman Rasheed

The writer is a Karachi-based research analyst and political consultant.

Sutaytah al-Mahamali was a renowned mathematician during her time. Her math skills were so remarkable that the scholars of Baghdad came to her when they could not solve an equation. Through her knowledge of math, she became an expert in the laws of inheritance shares.  By the way, she was a jurist and a mufti too!  Ibn Kathir said she was the most knowledgeable of her people in regards to Shafi law. 

She was born around the late 9th or early 10th century in present-day Baghdad, Iraq to a family of scholars and judges as her father was the judge Abu Abdallah al-Hussein, author of several books including Kitab fi al-fiqh, Salat al-‘idayn. Her uncle was a Hadith scholar and her son was the judge Abu-Hussein Mohammed bin Ahmed bin Ismail al-Mahamli who was known for his judgments and his talents.

Sutaytah being an esteemed jurist of the Shafi school of thought also issued fatwas alongside Sheikh Abu Ali, the son of Abu Huraira (RA). Despite her great intellect as both a jurist and mathematician and receiving praise for her abilities by three of the era’s greatest historians, Ibn al-Jawzi, Ibn al-Khatib Baghdadi, and Ibn Kathīr, sadly, Sutaytah has become a relatively unknown figure to the present generation and relegated to the dustbin of history

She studied Arabic literature, jurisprudence, the interpretation of sacred texts, and mathematics a full two centuries before Europe produced women of comparably broad education and distinction in the form of Heloise of Argenteuil and Trota of Salerno.  The historical accounts state that Sutaytah was regularly consulted for her legal and mathematical understanding and that she solved problems of inheritance indicating an advanced knowledge of that period’s hot new field of study – ALGEBRA.

Sutaytah made original contributions to algebra and the theory of arithmetic. She had expertise in hisab (arithmetic) and fara’idh (successoral calculations), both being practical branches of mathematics that were well developed in her time. Also, she invented solutions to equations that have been mentioned by other mathematicians, these include equations that point to aptitude in algebra. Although these equations were few, they demonstrated that her mathematical skills went beyond a simple ability to perform calculations.

Just picture this, a female genius in jurisprudence and mathematics was the one that the scholars and the community approached for advice and knowledge. This shows that back then, there was no hesitation to seek the counsel and wisdom of a woman. Sutaytah’s intellect is what defined her, not gender.

She didn’t limit her expertise to Islamic fiqh but other fields outside of religion. Also, Sutaytah wasn’t a scholar living in an ivory tower but used her knowledge to solve real-life problems. She connected with her society at a basic level and thereby, serves as an example of leadership, knowledge, and good character. 

Regarding mathematics, Sutaytah wasn’t satisfied in just solving problems but pushed herself to become a trailblazer in this field and an expert amongst all the other scholars. She contributed to common algebra and science that we use today. The world would not know as much as we do now without her in it.

Sutaytah’s life causes us to do an introspection of our own lives and challenges our expectations by not limiting ourselves to seek knowledge or expertise in only one field.  And to pursue knowledge wherever we can find it. Also, we must remember that her scholarship was defined by her good character, as the two are related. Without having traits such as respect, compassion, generosity, and humility, our knowledge will have served us nothing. Sutaytah inspires all of us to confront our limits of knowledge.