Centuries ago, the base of many of the world’s greatest breakthroughs were laid down by scientists, mathematicians and explorers of the past. Many among them were Muslim men and women from the Islamic Golden Age, who established the foundations of the systems we know and use today.
Al-Kindi, a Muslim man of many wonders, is one of those Islamic Golden Age pioneers, whose works live on in the present day in a variety of forms.
Abu Yusuf Ya’qub ibn Ishaq al-Sabbah al-Kindi became the first self-identified philosopher in the Arab world, but is also known for his work in a multitude of fields
Born around 800 CE to a noble lineage in what is now Iraq, Al-Kindi is known as the “the philosopher of Arabs.” Not only did his work translate and expand on famous Greek philosophers like Aristotle, but his study of philosophy guided his critical thinking to new theories in a multitude of fields.
Although philosophy was Al-Kindi’s main interest and arguably, what he is most famous for today, he was also knowledgeable in a multitude of other fields: including astrology, medicine, mathematics, engineering, music and even cooking!
One of his most significant contributions is that Al-Kindi revolutionized cryptography — the practice of sending coded messages. Nowadays, confidential messages can easily be sent and the risk of interception of these messages is unlikely. However, at the time of Al-Kindi in the ninth century, messages had to be encrypted so that if they were intercepted, no information was leaked.
In his book “A Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages,” Al-Kindi deconstructed coding methods such as the method of frequency analysis. Let’s take the English letter “e” for example, which is the most common letter in the alphabet. In the frequency analysis method, “e” would be replaced with a symbol like an explanation mark, and seeing that the explanation mark shows up the most in a coded message, it would be decoded as the letter “e.”
A recently rediscovered page from Al-Kindi’s “Treatise on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages”, argued to be the first known recorded explanation of the frequency analysis method
Interestingly, Al-Kindi’s foundations for the frequency analysis method were developed from his study of the Holy Quran, the Islamic Holy Book, in which he noticed characteristics of letter frequency. His innovative work in cryptography was relied upon during some of the world’s most trying moments, such as World War II, when covert agents sent encrypted messages to one another.
Alongside his outstanding achievement in decryption methods, Al-Kindi provided insights into many other fields and became a resource for future researchers in their theories. It is claimed that the work of Ibn al-Haytham, the father of modern optics, was founded on some of the knowledge that Al-Kindi gathered before him. Al-Kindi also developed forms of drug compounding, as a form of medicine, and aided in the engineering of swords to be used by his country. Although much of his work is lost today, it is indisputable that Al-Kindi impacted the shape of the world today, through his expansive knowledge and interests.