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Remembering al-Biruni, the most original polymath in Islamic world
Humaira Ahad

Remembering al-Biruni, the most original polymath in Islamic world

The most original polymath the Islamic world had ever known, al-Biruni was born in Khwarazm, in present-day Uzbekistan. He was educated by a Khwarazm prince, Abu Nasr Mansur, a member of the ruling family of Khwarezm, or the Afrighids.

NOURNEWS- Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was an icon of Islamic Civilization who explored various religions, beliefs, rituals, customs, philosophies, and sciences to build perspectives on human growth throughout history.

The most original polymath the Islamic world had ever known, al-Biruni was born in Khwarazm, in present-day Uzbekistan. He was educated by a Khwarazm prince, Abu Nasr Mansur, a member of the ruling family of Khwarezm, or the Afrighids.

In his own poem preserved in a medieval biographical dictionary, al-Biruni stated that he didn’t know much about his family background.

Spending the initial two decades of his life in Khwarazm, al-Biruni studied theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, etc.

After a period of extensive travels to escape the tumultuous political situation, he joined the court of Mahmud of Ghazni and accompanied him on his campaigns to India.

Despite the fact that only one-fifth of his works have survived, al-Biruni is regarded as the most prominent figure in the multitude of universally revered Muslim scholars.

Iran celebrates the Persian scientist’s birthday as the Surveying Engineer Day.

Al-Biruni as anthropologist and Indologist

Akhbar S. Ahmed, an anthropologist and a renowned scholar of Islam, regards al-Biruni as the first anthropologist.

Accompanying Mahmud of Ghazni to India, al-Biruni spent more than a decade in the country, imbibing the vastness of its culture.

As a linguist, he consulted primary sources and learned Sanskrit and other Indian languages to conduct a scientific study of Indian culture and its philosophy.

Biruni’s book on India, “Taḥqīqmā li-l-hind min maqūlahmaqbūlahfī al-ʿaql aw mardhūlah” (Verifying All That the Indians Recount, the Reasonable and the Unreasonable) which is famously called “Kitab al-Hind”, is an encyclopedia on India and its science, religion, literature, and customs.

As a man of rare intellect and thoroughly honest in his writings, al-Biruni diligently looked for the sources while conducting his studies, mentioning them in his magnum opus “Al-Hind”. He also complemented his writings through his own experiences and conversations with Hindu Brahmins.

The English translator of Al-Hind, Edward C. Sachau, observed that Biruni’s method was not to speak “but to let the Hindus speak” as he gave extensive quotations from the classical authors.

The famous Indologist also translated Hindu metaphysical books, including the “Patanjali” and “Samkya”. Patanjali – a manual on the study and practice of yoga for the soul’s emancipation – was named “Kitāb Bātanjal”.

In this book, al-Biruni’s genius at lexical innovation is visible. He undertakes the tough task of finding Arabic equivalents for the Sanskrit word Pranas – various yogic techniques – and accomplishes it successfully.

Unfortunately, the translation of “Samkya” has not survived.

Swami Vivekananda, a celebrated spiritual leader of India, was impressed by al-Biruni’s work and regarded him as a dominant voice promoting civilizational dialogue.

As an authority of Islamic scholarship on non-Muslim religious traditions, his other encyclopedic work “Kitab Al Athar” or “The Chronology of Ancient Nations” is devoted to an anthropological account of various cultures.

As the father of comparative religions, al-Biruni wrote on Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, and many extinct religions.

Arthur Jeffery, a renowned scholar of Middle Eastern languages and manuscripts, believed that al-Biruni’s contribution to comparative religions, which he called “the sciences of the spirit”, has not yet been fully appreciated by the world.

In his paper, “Al-Biruni: Father of Comparative Religion”, Kamar Oniah Kamaruzaman says, “Biruni presented his views on other religions in an unprejudiced manner, studied them from the original and the best available sources, and was very much concerned about devising a method to make this branch of study rigorous and systematic.”

Al-Biruni as astronomer

As an astronomer, al-Biruni compiled the encyclopedic scientific work “Al-Qānūn al-Masʿūdi” (The Masʿūdic Canon), in which he gathered together the astronomical knowledge of his predecessors and also added his original inputs in the form of tabular functions to facilitate the computation of planetary positions.

His “Al-Tafhīm li-awāʾilṣināʿat al-tanjīm” (Elements of Astrology) is still regarded as the most comprehensive book in the field.

Long before the discovery of the telescope, the celebrated astronomer regarded the Milky Way as a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars.

In his book “An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrine”, Dr. Hossein Nasr, a prominent Iranian philosopher and theologian, writes, “If his (al-Biruni’s) Al-Qānūn al-Masʿūdi had been translated into Latin, it would probably have become as famous as Al-Qānūn of Ibn Sina.”

Nasr adds that as an astronomer and astrologer, al-Biruni became almost the prototype and ideal to be followed.

“Regarded as the perfect master of astrology and astronomy, al-Biruni’s extensive works in the field have not yet been fully studied. Religion is not a consideration here, he was a great astrologer and the whole world accepts his mastery,” Kanishk Veer, an astrologist from India, told the Press TV website.

Al-Biruni as mathematician

In “Ketābfīefrād al-maqālfīamr al-ẓelāl” (exhaustive treatise on shadows), al-Biruni developed the familiar trigonometric definitions and applied them to religious practices for determining times of prayer and finding the direction of Mecca.

He developed new algebraic techniques, wrote on arithmetic, and also worked extensively on determining longitudes and latitudes on land. 

The legendary mathematician became the first person to define pi as the result of the division of two other numbers (the circumference of a circle and the diameter), whereas his predecessors had defined it as a geometric ratio.

“Being a devout Muslim, al-Biruni’s study of geography, astronomy, or even the most technical mathematics leads to the affirmation of some attribute of the Creator,” says Dr. Nasr in his book, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines.

Al-Biruni as geographer and geologist

Regarded as the founder of the science of geodesy, al-Biruni wrote a masterpiece in mathematical geography called the “Taḥdidnihāyāt al-amākin li-taṣḥīḥmasāfāt al-masākin” (Determination of the Coordinates of Places for the Correction of Distances Between Cities).

He introduced techniques to measure the earth and distances on it using triangulation. He found the radius of the earth to be 6339.6 km, a value not obtained in the West until the 16th century. His “Masudic Canon” contains a table giving the coordinates of six hundred places.

“The Iranian polymath knew 500 years before Galileo that the earth was round and calculated the earth’s radius with an error of 0.5-2.0%,” Dr. Rehana Qureshi, professor of geography, told the Press TV website.

As a master observer of nature, al-Biruni studied the organic phenomenon and described the flora, fauna, and minerals of various regions of the earth.

His “Kitab al-jamahir” (The sum of knowledge about precious stones) is a complete medieval text on mineralogy covering Asian, European, and African continents.

Al-Biruni as physicist and pharmacologist

Contributing to the field of physics, the Persian polymath made interesting observations on the velocity of light, stating that the velocity of light is immense compared to that of sound.

He studied hydrostatics and made very accurate measurements of specific weights. With the help of an apparatus he himself constructed, he succeeded in determining the specific gravity of a certain number of metals and minerals with remarkable precision.

The gifted scientist was interested all his life in gathering precise information on plants and their medicinal uses and arranged them in a treatise entitled “Ketāb al-ṣaydana”, in which he mentions 1,197 medicines.

Al-Biruni’s philosophy

Al-Biruni, as a “nature’s philosopher”, considered the manifestations of nature as signs of Divinity and attributes of God.

“In the writings of Biruni, it is apparent that the conception of nature as the principle of activity is something that brings about change in the cosmos”, Mehdi Yeilaghi, a researcher of Islamic philosophy from Tehran, told the Press TV website.

Believing that man is the vicegerent of God on earth, he regarded the human microcosm as a universe in itself, composed of diverse and contradictory elements of the cosmos held together in unity.

This idea was reinforced by later Islamic philosophers, including Mowlana Rumi.

“Biruni regarded acquiring knowledge as the duty of every Muslim, and he passed with flying colors while performing his duty,” adds Yeilaghi.

Spending the later years of his life as a court astrologer in the Ghaznavid court, the Muslim polymath who devoted himself to the study of various fields of intellectual sciences, died in c. 1052 in Ghazni, Afghanistan, and lies buried unattended in a country that has not been able to build a mausoleum over the grave of this genius Persian scholar.


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