art by Jonathan Westbrook
The Mind of Allah
by Stephen Gaskell
Pi: a transcendental number equal to the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter that has an approx. value of 3.14159--symbol π, earliest known textual approximation dates from the Egyptian Rhind Papyrus c. 1900 BC.
Emiliano hurried across the Plaza del Potro, the setting sun skewering itself on the highest minaret of the Great Mosque of Cordoba. On one side of the plaza a dirty beggar babbled the suras of the Quran, a great feat of memory that only earned him the odd dull coin. Emiliano should've been happy. Tonight was his last night in this city of infidels. Tomorrow he would ride east to Barcelona, before setting sail for Venice--for home. The problem was he'd be heading back empty handed.
He ducked into an alleyway, the cries of a muezzin echoing off the stone, the waft of coriander rising off a streetseller's chickpea stew. Many months ago, he'd come in disguise to Cordoba to learn the inner mysteries of pi from the great Moslem mathematician Faisal al-Khalsi, a man who'd calculated the divine number to six places. Six places! Great advances in astronomy, navigation, and warfare--not to mention the glory of Christendom--were locked up in the eternal ratio, and Emiliano's superiors in Rome were terrified of losing ground to the Enemy.
He came to the mathematician's house, whispered a prayer, then knocked on the polished maple door. Faisal himself answered, his silk robe billowing as he swept the door open.
"Brother," he said, clasping Emiliano's shoulder. "Come in, come in!"
Behind him a dark-skinned servant emerged from the cellar door bearing a stout wooden tray. The servant locked the door. Emiliano had always wondered who or what the mathematician hid in the lower level of the house, but he'd been expressly forbidden from going there.
"I'm not interrupting, am I?" he asked, arching his eyebrows.
Brief annoyance registered in the mathematician's eyes, before he composed himself. "Not at all." He spun about, raised his index finger. "Tonight we feast!" As Emiliano was led into a grand room furnished with delicate brocades and colorful cushions, he couldn't help but imagine vast mathematical treasures locked away downstairs.
As they sat, Emiliano wasted no time directing the conversation towards pi. "Tell me, sufi, what more have you learnt of the mind of Allah?" He took no pleasure in referring to the number as the mind of Allah, but it was Faisal's name for it and tonight he would do his best to make his company as sweet as vanilla pods.
"I have gathered only a few grains of sand from the vast deserts that make the Creator's mind. But what a jewel each and every grain is!" From beneath the low table, upon which dishes of stuffed vine leaves, flatbreads, spiced couscous, and a dozen other mouth-watering delicacies sat, the mathematician fished out a scroll. He cleared some space on the table, rolled out the papyrus.
Emiliano goggled at the beautifully crafted digits, each written in a curling script.
3. 1 4 1 5 9 2 6 5.
The numbers were dazzling sequins on rough cloth. He tried to memorize them, but the numbers thrashed in his head like fish in a net.
"How many?" he whispered, drool pooling in the corner of his mouth.
"Nine now," Faisal said proudly, brushing his fingers over the paper, then quickly closing the scroll.
Even if Emiliano had been able to learn the digits by heart, without knowing the method of their calculation he would have no means of checking their veracity. And if the Moslems had the right numbers... he shivered thinking of their warships negotiating rocky waters, decks loaded with trebuchets that could hurl missiles with pinpoint accuracy. Sicily, Bari, perhaps even Venice herself would be in danger.
For the rest of the meal and its aftermath, when the two men took turns inhaling fragrant shisha from an ornately carved hookah, Emiliano quizzed his host incessantly. Was his method based on Greek geometry or Arabic algebra? Did it involve differentials, considerations of chance, the squaring of the circle? Emiliano jotted and explained and sketched his ideas, but his thick-bearded host would only shake his head.
"You have a fine mind, brother," he said eventually. "Go back home and explore these notions. They are seeds in fertile ground and will yield you bounteous harvests."
Emiliano didn't want speculations. Rome certainly wouldn't. Head swimming from the pungent tobacco, he grasped his host's robes and yanked him close. "You're lying! As a Moslem it is grave sin to speak a falsehood, yet you shake your head at each and every one of my conjectures."
"As is the truth!" Faisal thundered, pulling Emiliano's hands away. "We know Christian lands are gripped by darkness and heathen spies attempt to steal our wisdom, but we didn't know they could be so brazen! Very well, Impostor, you want to know how I have come to enumerate the mind of Allah? I will tell you for a price." Faisal stood, smoothed down his robes, while Emiliano's heart beat faster. "Your freedom."