The ‘Islamic Golden Age’ in erstwhile Khorasan and Muslim Spain lasted from circa the mid-8th century to the end of the 14th century. It produced many luminaries in diverse fields of study. Some of these were polymaths, in the true spirit of the phrase, and rare geniuses. One such scholar was Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad, commonly known as al-Biruni.
Al-Biruni was born in September 973 AD in Kath, now named Biruni is his honour. The town is in Uzbekistan on the northern bank of Oxus River, where he stayed for nearly 25 years of his life. He received his early education in local madrassahs and studied theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy. He dabbled in most of the sciences. The name of only one of his teachers, for astronomy and mathematics, is known. He was Abu Nasr Mansur, a member of a royal family. E.S. Kennedy, a historian of sciences, has given a detailed account of the life and work of al-Biruni in his “Dictionary of Scientific Biography.”
While further details of his education and the institutions he attended are not known, yet scholars and polymaths of his calibre are not groomed without an appropriate intellectual environment. Located in the heart of the enlightened Khorasan region that afforded excellent educational facilities, Kath must have provided a conducive learning environment. It is known that the region contained well-stocked private and public libraries where a young inquisitive mind could extend the horizon of his knowledge. One example of the then scholarly atmosphere is that al-Biruni and his younger contemporary Ibn Sina corresponded with each other on philosophical issues when the former was in his middle twenties and the later only a teenager. Their exchange continued well into their mature years.
Al-Biruni’s mother tongue was Khawarizmian; a language related to Pehalvi; the old Persian in use during the Parthian and Sassanid empires before the Arabs conquered Persia. Khawarizmian became obsolete after Turkification of Central Asia. Al-Biruni was also able to communicate well in both the Arabic and Persian languages; the two languages that were the lingua franca of Islamic Caliphates. Later in his life, he learnt Sanskrit, Greek, Syriac, and Hebrew. His command of Sanskrit reached a point where, with the aid of pundits, 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 biases. He stated in the preface of his Tarikh that if it there was anything objectionable to Muslims, then they must leave it to Hindus to defend it because it is their belief. As such, he refused to refute anything about Hinduism, for he regarded his writings on India as only a historical record
Following civil disturbances in Kath, Biruni left the city for Ray, a center of literary pursuits. He also travelled to Bokhara and Gilan. During this time, he gathered data on the ancient history of Central Asia and published his authoritative book titled Chronology of Ancient Times. The book remains one of the most reliable sources of information on the region, and numerous scholars, e.g. C.E. Bosworth, have quoted it extensively in their works. Had al-Biruni not written this book, a very valuable history 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 used to carry away all scholars and craftsmen from a conquered town to his native Ghazni. From Jurjaniya too, he captured many learned people including al-Biruni and took them to Ghazni. He also wanted to capture Ibn Sina but he had escaped to Hamadan. Al-Biruni remained in Ghazni till 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 had carried away al-Biruni. In the winter of the next year, he raided deep into the heart of north India to plunder Mathura. In this raid, al-Biruni accompanied Sultan’s army and stayed on in India for a few very productive years. Al-Biruni’s fairness and zeal for knowledge has been acknowledged by Hindu sources, though they have a genuine resentment against Sultan Mahmud. According to Chaturvedi Badrinath (Dharma, 2019), “Whereas the chief purpose of Sultan Mahmud Ghazni, was to plunder […], the sole aim of Albiruni was to gain from the immense riches of Indian philosophies and the sciences.”
Al-Biruni was fascinated by India, her people, religion, geography and culture. He immersed himself into studying India. According to Dr. Edward Sachau, a noted German orientalist, Al-Biruni regarded the Hindus as excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astronomers. He reveled in the pure doctrines of the 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 biases. He stated in the preface of his Tarikh that if it there was anything objectionable to Muslims, then they must leave it to Hindus to defend it because it is their belief. As such, he refused to refute anything about Hinduism, for he regarded his writings on India as only a historical record. In fact, al-Biruni stated in his ‘History of India,’ “Therefore I like to confront the theories of the one nation with those of the other simply on account of their close relationship, not in order to correct them.”
His tours of India were very fruitful because he travelled throughout north India and interacted with its scholars with an open, objective mind. To better understand India and its scholarly works, he learned Sanskrit and became so proficient at it that he translated Patanjali’s Sanskrit grammar book into Arabic and Euclid’s geometry into Sanskrit. He also calculated latitude of several Indian towns.
Al-Biruni’s most monumental work is titled Tarikh al-Hind (History of India). It is a massive treatise on Indian history, literature, religious beliefs and practices, culture, castes, philosophy, geography, sciences, rivers, calendars, astrology, legal system, etc. He covered practicality all aspects of Indian life. It has been translated into all the major languages of the world. It has also earned al-Biruni many honourifics including Father of Indology.
Since his youth, when not yet thirty years old, al-Biruni had been thinking of variation of behavior between different nations and the reasons thereof. Having completed his enquiry, he wrote in 999 AD his book titled Kitab ul Attar, which is the first book on comparison of cultures. According to Muhammad Ahsanul Hadi, al-Biruni wrote about 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 theorised the existence of a landmass along the vast ocean between Asia and Europe, or what is today known as the Americas. He argued for its existence on the basis of his near accurate estimations of the Earth’s circumference and Afro-Eurasia’s size, which he found spanning only two-fifths of the Earth’s circumference
Biruni had devised a novel method for calculating the radius of earth using trigonometry and specifically the Law of Sines. In and around Ghazni, he unsuccessfully searched for a hill top whose base was discernable and therefore its height could be calculated accurately using trigonometry. However, when he was accompanying Mahmud Ghazni on one of Sultan’s annual plundering trips to India and were moving south between Chakwal and Gujar Khan to cross river Jhelum opposite Mandi Bahauddin and Malakwal, he spotted a perfectly shaped hill at Nandana Fort. He immediately set up his astrolabe. The radius and circumference for Earth that he calculated are within 2% and 1% of the actual values respectively, a result not obtained in the West until the 16th century. Criticism of his method has been on the accuracy of observations but the mathematics he used has been considered to be the work of a genius.
Al-Biruni was a keen geographer. He calculated the latitudes of a number of cities in Central Asia and India. It is said that an embassy of Volga Turks, on a visit to Ghazni, informed Sultan Mahmud that further north of their lands, there were places where the sun did not set. The Sultan regarded this as heresy but al-Biruni explained that it was possible.
Interestingly, Al-Biruni theorised the existence of the Americas based on the geographical data available to him. Writing in historytoday.com, S. Frederick Starr states in his So, Who did discover America? that Al-Biruni had an intellectual intuition about the existence of American continents. In his Codex Masudicus (1037), Al-Biruni theorised the existence of a landmass along the vast ocean between Asia and Europe, or what is today known as the Americas. He argued for its existence on the basis of his near accurate estimations of the Earth’s circumference and Afro-Eurasia‘s size, which he found spanning only two-fifths of the Earth’s circumference. He reasoned that the geological processes that gave rise to Eurasia must surely have given rise to 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, colour, hardness and cost. He also indulged in astronomy and astrology. His figure depicting the phases of the moon has survived and testifies to his intellect.
He produced a vast amount of scholarly works. When was sixty-three years old, he prepared a bibliography of books by al-Razi, to which he appended his own 113 titles. It is said that he wrote 146 books with 35 on astronomy, 9 on geography, 10 on geodesy and mapping, 6 on history, 2 on minerology and 15 on mathematics. He lived on for 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 extensively acknowledged for his scholarly work. The lunar crater Al-Biruni and the asteroid 9936 Al-Biruni were named in his honour. Biruni Island in Antarctica carries his name. In the Scholar’s Pavilion, an Achaemenid-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 of his work on geodesy.
Several nations, including Pakistan, have issued stamps commemorating the scholar. Let us hope that our nation learns to treasure the work of scholars like al-Biruni.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org