Arab · Islam · Science

Al-Kindi and Deciphering Messages

Egyptians used encryption as a way to communicate messages in obscure form. Julies Caesar wrote his strategic letters in cipher, that is, by so changing the order of the letters of the alphabet. He replaced every letter with the fourth letter; A becomes D, Z becomes C and so on.

A very smart way to send a concealed message is to to shave the head of the messenger, wait till his hair grows back again and send him to the recipient. I am not sure who used this technique but I it is definitely very intelligent.

A very common way to decipher messages is known as frequency analysis:

One way to solve an encrypted message, if we know its language, is to find a different plaintext of the same language long enough to fill one sheet or so, and then we count the occurrences of each letter. We call the most frequently occurring letter the ‘first’, the next most occurring letter the ‘second’ the following most occurring letter the ‘third’, and so on, until we account for all the different letters in the plaintext sample. Then we look at the cipher text we want to solve and we also classify its symbols. We find the most occurring symbol and change it to the form of the ‘first’ letter of the plaintext sample, the next most common symbol is changed to the form of the ‘second’ letter, and the following most common symbol is changed to the form of the ‘third’ letter, and so on, until we account for all symbols of the cryptogram we want to solve [source].

The first known recorded explanation of frequency analysis (indeed, of any kind of cryptanalysis) was given in the 9th century by Al-Kindi, an Arab polymath, in A Manuscript on Deciphering Cryptographic Messages. It has been suggested that close textual study of the Qur’an first brought to light that Arabic has a characteristic letter frequency. Its use spread, and similar systems were widely used in European states by the time of the Renaissance [source].

I can’t find an answer of how a nation that used to be pioneer in science is now tailing behind every other nation in a dramatic way. Europe was a pioneer in science before WWI and WWII and they managed to get back on track after the war. Japan as well after the atomic bomb they stood up  even better than they used to.

The question is why Arabs still performing extremely bad in science? I know it is not the case when it comes to individuals because Arab scientists and researchers are doing great in Europe and the United States. We have the money and we have the brains but, unfortunately, we fail in leadership. Without good leadership we can’t build a successful organization or nation.

 

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12 thoughts on “Al-Kindi and Deciphering Messages

  1. You should read physicist Dr Jim Al-Khalili’s book on the subject–Pathfinders:The Golden Age of Arabic Science (UK title); The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave us the Renaissance (US title). Highly readable and informative. He is an award winning science journalist as well as a professor of theoretical physics. He addresses the issues you raise particularly in the preface and in the final 2 chapters. He did a compelling series on the topic for the BBC which is available on YouTube.

    Great post topic and question!

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    1. Hi Chiara,
      Thanks or the recommendation. Yesterday, I searched for his video on YouTube and found it. It is three parts each about an hour. I already started watching the first episode yesterday but I was too sleepy to finish it. Sounds very interesting. I didn’t hear of Dr. Jim Al-Khalili before. I am sure his book would be a great read as well.
      I am happy to see you commenting again 🙂

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  2. So why is this? Are Arabs looking for a certain kind of leader to rally around before they can flourish in their own countries? I’m curious about your theories on this topic. Very interesting!

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    1. “Are Arabs looking for a certain kind of leader to rally around before they can flourish in their own countries?”
      No. The Arab spring needs decades before we can say it achieved its goal. The problem in the Arab land wasn’t just about the dictatorship. The citizens need to change as well. But I wasn’t referring here to the country’s leadership in a political view.
      I was speaking of a smaller level. The Department’s chair, the Dean, the university president, the CEO of a company or the manager. These people should be role models for their employees. The country’s leader can’t manage every department or section in the country. At a smaller level a manager can either make his employees love their job or hate it.
      In Jordan, for example, almost all public university faculties are US graduates. They did research and published their work while in the US. Yet, in Jordan our universities are used to teach students only not to produce quality research.
      The main reason in Jordan is because the lack of funding. The Arab Gulf countries could fund research in Jordan or Egypt but unfortunately, they prefer to spend millions on building towers.
      I don’t think I have any theory here I was just feeling sad of the Arabs’ status in R&D. Something doesn’t add up.

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      1. “In Jordan, for example, almost all public university faculties are US graduates. They did research and published their work while in the US. Yet, in Jordan our universities are used to teach students only not to produce quality research.”

        Hmmmm. Maybe they lack the incentive in Jordan that they had in the US. I’m trying to figure out if it’s more than “lack of funding.” Thanks for trying to answer my questions. It’s an interesting topic.

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  3. I agree with you, it is the lack of funding and incentives..We have a lot of smart people in need of venues to produce and excel but there is a feeling among citizens educated and none alike, that whatever good work they produce, it will go unrecognized and unappreciated due to the climate of uncertainty and fear that we live in and that is unfortunately taking front and center on our list of priorities..which is a shame to say the least !

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  4. Tareq Al-Suwaidan, the Kuwaity Islamic preacher once said, ” the reason for the decline of any nation lies in the political repression, give the people their freedom and look how they will rise again.”
    maybe that’s the reason!

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    1. Political freedom definitely helps but it is not the only reason. The Arab spring will not put us among other countries when it comes to R&D.
      Russia and China have one ruling political party. Yet, they are doing great, relatively, in science and technology.

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