The “Islamic Golden Age” in ancient Khorasan and Muslim Spain lasted from about the mid-8th century to the end of the 14th century. It has produced many luminaries in various fields of study. Some of them were polymaths, in the true spirit of the expression, and rare geniuses. One of these scholars was Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad, commonly known as al-Biruni.
Al-Biruni was born in September 973 AD in Kath, now named Biruni in his honor. the town is located in Uzbekistan on the northern bank of the Oxus River, where he remained for almost 25 years of his life. He received his early education in the local medersas and studied theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. He touched on most of the sciences. The name of only one of his teachers, for astronomy and mathematics, is known. It was Abu Nasr Mansur, member of a royal family. ES Kennedy, a historian of science, gave a detailed account of al-Biruni’s life and work in his “Dictionary of Scientific Biography.”
Although further details of his education and the institutions he attended are not known, scholars and polymaths of his caliber are not formed without an appropriate intellectual environment. Located in the heart of the enlightened region of Khorasan which offered excellent educational facilities, Kath must have provided a conducive learning environment. It is known that the region had well-stocked private and public libraries where an inquisitive young mind could expand the horizon of his knowledge. An example of the scholarly atmosphere of the time is that al-Biruni and his younger contemporary Ibn Sina corresponded with each other on philosophical matters when the former was in his twenties and the later only a teenager. Their to exchange continued well into their mature years.
Al-Biruni’s mother tongue was Khawarizmian; a language related to Pehalvi; the old Persian used during the Parthian and Sasanian empires before the Arabs conquered Persia. Khawarizmian became obsolete after the Turkification of Central Asia. Al-Biruni was also able to communicate well in Arabic and Persian; the two languages that were the lingua franca of the Islamic caliphates. Later in life he learned Sanskrit, Greek, Syriac and Hebrew. His command of Sanskrit reached a point where, with the help of experts, he was able to translate some Indian books into Arabic and Arabic books into Sanskrit.
Al-Biruni studied India and Hinduism objectively and wrote without prejudice. He stated in the preface to his Tarikh that if there was something wrong with Muslims, then they should leave it up to Hindus to defend it because that is their belief. As such, he refused to refute anything about Hinduism, as he considered his writings on India to be a mere historical document.
Following civil unrest in Kath, Biruni left the town for Ray, a center of literary activity. He also traveled to Bukhara and Gilan. During this time, he collected data on the ancient history of Central Asia and published his authoritative book titled Timeline of ancient times. The book remains one of the most reliable sources of information on the region, and many scholars, for example CE Bosworth, have cited it extensively in their work. If al-Biruni had not written this book, a very valuable story would have been lost and forgotten.
Al-Biruni then spent a few years in Jurjaniya, the ancient city of Konye Urgench. Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the city in 1017. The sultan carried away all the scholars and artisans of a conquered city to his native Ghazni. Also from Jurjaniya he captured many scholars, including al-Biruni, and took them to Ghazni. He also wanted to capture Ibn Sina but he had fled to Hamadan. Al-Biruni remained in Ghazni until his death in 1050 at the age of 77.
Sultan Mahmud raided India seventeen times between 1000 and 1027 AD. In the summer of 1017 he had campaigned in Central Asia, during which he carried off al-Biruni. During the winter of the following year, he raided deep into the heart of northern India to plunder Mathura. In this raid, al-Biruni accompanied the Sultan’s army and remained in India for a few very productive years. Al-Biruni’s fairness and zeal for knowledge has been acknowledged by Hindu sources, although they held genuine resentment against Sultan Mahmud. According to Chaturvedi Badrinath (Dharma, 2019), “While Sultan Mahmud Ghazni’s main purpose was to plunder […]Albiruni’s sole purpose was to profit from the immense wealth of Indian philosophies and sciences.”
Al-Biruni was fascinated by India, its people, religion, geography and culture. He immersed himself in the study of India. According to Dr. Edward Sachau, a renowned German orientalist, Al-Biruni considered the Hindus to be excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astronomers. He reveled in the pure doctrines of Bhagavad-Gita and is the first known Muslim to have studied the Puranas. In short, Al-Biruni studied India and Hinduism objectively and wrote without bias. He said in the preface to his Tarikh that if there was anything objectionable to Muslims, then they should leave it up to Hindus to defend it because it is their belief. As such, he refused to refute anything about Hinduism, as he considered his writings on India to be a mere historical document. In fact, al-Biruni declared in his “History of India,”This is why I like to confront the theories of one nation with those of the other simply because of their close relationship, not to correct them..”
His India tours were very successful as he traveled all over northern India and interacted with its scholars with an open and objective mind. To better understand India and its scholarly works, he learned Sanskrit and became so proficient that he translated Patanjali’s Sanskrit grammar into Arabic and Euclid’s geometry into Sanskrit. He also calculated the latitude of several Indian cities.
Al-Biruni’s most monumental work is titled Tarikh al-Hind (Indian history). It is a massive treatise on Indian history, literature, religious beliefs and practices, culture, castes, philosophy, geography, science, rivers, calendars, astrology, legal system, etc He covered all practical aspects of Indian life. It has been translated into all major languages of the world. It also earned al-Biruni many honorary distinctions, including that of Father of Indology.
From his youth, when he was not yet thirty years old, al-Biruni had thought about the variation in behavior among different nations and the reasons for it. Having completed his investigation, he wrote in 999 AD his book titled Kitab al Attar, which is the first book on the comparison of cultures. According to Muhammad Ahsanul Hadi, al-Biruni explained why different people used different times and events for their festivals. Later, when he wrote his book on India, Al-Biruni was well prepared to study and present the culture and religion of India. Because of his analytical and comparative study of Indian culture and religions, he is also called, along with his Spanish contemporary Ibn Hizm, the father of comparative religions and the first anthropologist.
Al-Biruni theorized the existence of a landmass along the vast ocean between Asia and Europe, or what are now called the Americas. He argued for its existence based on his near-accurate estimates of the Earth’s circumference and the size of Afro-Eurasia, which he found covering only two-fifths of the Earth’s circumference.
Biruni had devised a new method to calculate the radius of the earth using trigonometry and more specifically the law of sines. In and around Ghazni he searched in vain for a hilltop whose base was discernible and therefore its height could be accurately calculated using trigonometry. However, when he accompanied Mahmud Ghazni on one of the Sultan’s annual plundering trips to India and moved south between Chakwal and Gujar Khan to cross the Jhelum River opposite Mandi Bahauddin and Malakwal, he spotted a perfectly formed hill at Nandana Fort. He immediately set up his astrolabe. The radius and circumference of the Earth he calculated are within 2% and 1% of the true values, respectively, a result that was not achieved in the West until the 16th century. Criticism of his method has focused on the accuracy of the observations, but the mathematics he used was considered the work of a genius.
Al-Biruni was a passionate geographer. He calculated the latitudes of a number of cities in Central Asia and India. It is said that an embassy of the Volga Turks, visiting Ghazni, informed Sultan Mahmud that further north in their lands there were places where the sun did not set. The sultan considered it heresy but al-Biruni explained that it was possible.
Interestingly, Al-Biruni theorized the existence of the Americas based on the geographical data available to him. Writing in historytoday.com, S. Frederick Starr declares in his So who discovered America? that Al-Biruni had an intellectual intuition about the existence of the American continents. In his Codex Masudicus (1037), Al-Biruni theorized the existence of a landmass along the vast ocean between Asia and Europe, or what are now called the Americas. He argued for its existence based on his near-accurate estimates of the Circumference of the Earth and Afro-Eurasia, which he found covering only two-fifths of the Earth’s circumference. He believed that the geological processes that gave rise to Eurasia must surely have originated from lands in the vast ocean between Asia and Europe.
Al-Biruni made an in-depth study of minerals and gems. In his books he described about 100 minerals; their occurrence, color, hardness and cost. He also devotes himself to astronomy and astrology. His figure representing the phases of the moon has survived and testifies to his intellect.
He produced a large amount of scholarly works. At the age of sixty-three, he prepared a bibliography of al-Razi’s books, to which he added his own 113 titles. He is noted that he wrote 146 books including 35 on astronomy, 9 on geography, 10 on geodesy and cartography, 6 on history, 2 on mineralogy and 15 on mathematics. He lived another fourteen years. Twenty-two of his books have survived the ravages of the Mongols and Timur, and other natural and man-made calamities.
Al-Biruni has been widely recognized for his scientific work. The lunar crater Al Biruni and the asteroid 9936 Al Biruni were named in his honour. Biruni Island in Antarctica bears his name. In the Scholars PavilionAchaemenid-Islamic sculpture presented by Iran to the UN headquarters in Vienna, al-Biruni is one of the four scholars seated under one of the four arches holding the Earth, in testimony to his work on geodesy.
Several countries, including Pakistan, have issued stamps commemorating the scholar. Let’s hope our nation learns to cherish the work of scholars like al-Biruni.