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(This is Part II of a blog entry from last month. Comments are welcome below on both Parts.)

So where then does the symbol of zero enter our Western world? If we turn to the etymology of the word “zero” we will find a telling trajectory of its history. And the origins in fact turn out to be not from the West at all, but from the East. This perhaps should not surprise us, since we know that both Hinduism and Buddhism are much more embracing of the notion of nothingness or the void. The notion is built into the very roots of their thinking, since all reality first stems from and then returns to the void. We might even say that coming to terms with this void is the heart and soul of these systems of thought and practice, even in all their variations. Take for instance the Atman, the supreme principle of the universe in Hindu belief. This principle, as a total and all-encompassing infinity, is in effect identical with a pure nothing, since it is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. In coming to terms with this nothing one comes to term with both self and universe.

In India, the Sanskrit word for “empty” or “blank” is sunya. This sunya is transliterated, within the Indian system of numerology, as the idea of zero and indeed the symbol “0” as we know it today. If we think about the round circle, it suddenly takes on an appropriateness to the notion of nothing, even pictographically. For at the centre of its circumference is a blank, a void, an abyss. It as if we are peering into an empty chasm, brought into greater relief by the circumference, but of course a relief that is an inverse relief, with an infinite inversion.

This symbol and its idea then begins to move West. Sunya is transliterated in Arabic as çifr. The Islamic world picked up the zero form of O when they conquered India in the 8th century. From there they passed it on to the West. This development, one might argue, is one of the most essential and primary dividing lines between the Western and Arabic worlds, but one that is rarely if ever understood or acknowledged. For in accepting and adopting the concept of nothingness from their contact with India, the Arabic people, and the Islam they espoused, was in effect rejecting the Greek heritage. They were gainsaying the idea of logos and its conceptual tradition built up by the august Greeks, and gainsaying what came to be the ruling Aristotelian cosmological view, which had rejected any possibility of the void (even if, ironically, it was through medieval Arabic scholarship that Aristotle was re-introduced to the West). Islam could reconcile the idea of the nothing with the Abrahamic notion of void as it is presented in the first creation story of Genesis (the Elohimic tradition), without having to accept the Logos tradition that Christianity later appropriated from the Greeks, as in John’s reworking of Elohim’s void in John 1.1: “In the beginning was the Logos”. In permitting the void conceptually, there was thus little resistance to its use as a written symbol, and hence the zero entered into the Arabic system of numerical notation. This is the system the West inherited to replace the Roman numeral system, and still uses today. But the inheritance was not without its misgivings: originally zero, as “0”, was called the “infidel symbol”, since it admitted a concept that defied Christian orthodoxy. It was only after accounting systems required more sophisticated notation – and the rise of capitalism is extremely significant in this regard – that Western Christian resistance to the “0” eventually breaks down.

Finally, in its etymological development, çifr gives way to the Latin cifra or ciphra, from which we get our word “cipher”. From cipher we get zefiro or zephiro, which in turn, through cognate Latinate languages (French, Italian), becomes “zero”. (Connected to cifra is also the French word chiffre, which means “digit”.) Nothing then becomes official, at least in terms of accounting. And it becomes acceptable, at least in terms of a workable, if still dangerous, concept.

So from both the symbol and the word, we can see that zero is not something indigenous to the Hellenised West. Moreover, the passage back to its Eastern roots is one often fraught with tension and unease, or even, as we continue to see in today’s geo-political and geo-theological world, with division and conflict.


(To follow up in greater detail on the idea and history of zero, there are four key texts, all of which have helped to inform the discussion here: Brian Rotman, Signifying Nothing: The Semiotics of Zero (Macmillan Press, 1987); Robert Kaplan, The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of O (London: Oxford University Press, 1999); Charles Seife, Zero: The Biography of a Dangerous Idea (London: Souvenir Press, 2000); and John D. Barrow, The Book of Nothing (London: Vintage, 2001).)

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