Al-Biruni: The Great Father of Indology

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Updated on: Educator Review By: Michelle Connolly

Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni is a Muslim scholar of the Islamic civilisation, traveller, philosopher, geographer, astronomer, pharmacist, geologist, historian, and translator of the cultures of India. He studied mathematics at the hands of the scholar Mansour bin Iraq and was a contemporary of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and Ibn Miskawayh. It is said that he spent most of his life in Afghanistan. In 1017, Al-Biruni travelled to India and became one of the most important inspirations for the Indo-Islamic sciences. They gave him the title of “the founder of Indology.”

Al-Biruni was described as one of the greatest minds known to Islamic culture. He said that the Earth rotated around its axis in his book The Key to Astronomy, and he wrote more than 120 books. He is considered one of the most outstanding scientists known to the Islamic era in the Middle Ages. His knowledge included physics, mathematics and natural sciences, and he had a distinguished position as a historian, linguist and chronologist.

Al-Biruni studied almost every field of science, and his research and hard work were rewarded. The royal court and influential members of society sought him out to urge him to conduct scientific research, study, and reveal some matters. Al-Biruni lived during the golden age of Islam, in which scientific research took place alongside the methodology and thinking of the Islamic religion. In addition to this kind of influence, Al-Biruni was influenced by other nations, such as the Greeks, from whom he got his inspiration while studying philosophy.

Al-Biruni spent most of his time in Ghazni, which became the capital of Ghaznavid, and is currently located in the eastern centre of Afghanistan. Al-Biruni travelled to South Asia and wrote a treatise on Indian culture, “Achieving what India has from a saying accepted in mind or sent down”, after exploring the Hinduism practised in India.

Al-Biruni is the “founder of Indology or the science of India”. He was also known for his topical writings on the customs and beliefs of many nations. He was called the Professor due to his unprecedented description of India at the beginning of the eleventh century. He contributed to earth sciences and was called “the father of geodesy”, a geo-mathematical branch of mathematics. Through this research, I will introduce you to Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni from his inception until his death.

His Early Life

Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni was born in September 973 CE in a suburb of the city of Cath, the capital of the state. Khiva, present-day Khiva, western Uzbekistan. Al-Biruni is related to Al-Birun, a Persian word originally meaning “outside or apparent”, which indicates that he was from outside the city.

Al-Biruni lived the first 15 years of his life in Uzbekistan. He departed to Gorgan in 999 CE and was then twenty-five years old. In the entourage of Prince Abi al-Abbas Mamoon Khwarizmshah, who assigned him some political missions due to his fluent tongue. However, when the emirate fell into the hands of Mahmoud bin Sabkatkin, the ruler of Gharna, he joined him with a group of scholars in his court and, at that time, published his second book.

Al-Biruni wrote most of his writings in Arabic, and he was also proficient in writing in the Persian language. In European books, orientalists referred to many of his valuable writings in their research and studies.

Languages he mastered

Al-Biruni mastered several languages, such as:

  • Persian.
  • Arabic.
  • Sanskrit.
  • Hebrew.
  • Syriac.
  • Greek.

His Contributions

Al-Bironi was a historian, mathematician, astronomer, philosopher, traveller, geographer, linguist, literary poet, encyclopedic scholar, and the most extraordinary mentality known to Arab and Islamic history. He is the first to speak of the Earth’s rotation around its axis and the founder of Indology. He wrote many books and pioneered innovative scientific research in mathematics, astronomy, engineering, pharmacy, history, geography, natural sciences and physics.

In Astronomy and Mathematics:

  • He wrote a lot of comments on Indian astronomy in his book History of India, where he talked about the Earth’s rotation around its axis in a letter to the work of astronomy that no longer exists, and he also talked about this topic in his book The Key to Astronomy.
  • He attacked Aristotle in his belief that the celestial bodies are fixed, and he explained the phenomena of eclipses and lunar eclipses.
  • His observations were the primary reference for Danthorn for calculating the moon’s acceleration.
  • The Milky Way has been mentioned as part of many other galaxies.
  • He entered into many discussions about the Earth’s rotation, especially with Avicenna, and he objected to Aristotle’s predictions about astronomy.
  • Al-Biruni wrote 95 books on astronomy and mathematics out of a total of 146 books containing 65% of what was discovered in astronomy and the basic rules on which he relied in the modern era.
  • He invented some of the instruments used in astronomy.

In Physics:

  • Al-Biruni talked about the density of many metals, such as gold, silver, water, copper, iron, bronze, and mercury.
  • He said that the speed of light is incomparable with speed and that its rate is greater than the speed of sound.
  • He conducted several experiments in physics.
  • Participate in dynamics and statics.
  • He was deeply engaged in dynamics.

In Geography

Al-Biruni drew latitude and longitude. He developed a theory to measure the radius of the Earth and calculate its circumference. He measured the height of the mountain and then transferred it to Mount Pindan Khan in Pakistan.

In Mining

In mining, Al-Biruni invented a conical device to measure the specific weight of precious metals and stones. It is the oldest measure of mineral density, and he reached the specific weight of eighteen compounds.

In Literature

Diwan Abu Tammu Mukhtar explained antiquities and poems. He wrote in philosophy, such as the book Articles, Opinions and Religions, the key to the science of India, and the mosques found in the thoughts of the Indians.

In Indology

Al-Biruni became famous as a scholar of Indian women because of two texts. Al-Biruni wrote an encyclopedic work on India entitled Achieving what India has from a saying that is acceptable in mind or rejected. In this book, Al-Biruni explored almost every aspect of Indian life, including geology, religion, history, geography,  and mathematics. But he did not pay much attention during his excursion into military and political history.

On the contrary, Al-Biruni decided to document Indian scientific and civil life more, interested in culture, science and religion. Al-Biruni explored religion within a rich cultural context. He expressed his purpose and translated the work of the sage Patanjali entitled Translation of The Indian Patanjali In Deliverance From Confusion.

“I will not present the arguments of our opponents to refute them because I think that this is wrong. My book is nothing more than a historic record of facts. I will put in the hands of the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I will mention in the context some theories of the Greeks, explaining the relationship between them”, said Al-Biruni in his book.  (1910, vol. 1, p.7; 1958, p.5)

  • Hindus Muslims conflict

An example of Al-Biruni’s analysis is his analysis of why some Hindus hate Muslims. Al-Biruni points out at the beginning of his book how Muslims struggled to learn the knowledge and culture of the Hindus. He explains that Hinduism and Islam are very different from each other. Hinduism also suffered destructive attacks on many cities in the eleventh century, which – as Al-Biruni claims – contributed to the Hindus’ suspicion of all outsiders, not just Muslims.

Over time, Al-Biruni became welcomed by Hindu scholars, became fluent in Sanskrit, and this allowed him to translate 11th-century Hindu mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy, and other fields into Arabic. Al-Biruni was fascinated by the arguments of Hindu scholars who establish the evidence for the sphericity of the Earth as the only way to explain the difference in daylight hours by seasons, latitudes, and the Earth’s relative position, to the moon and stars.

At the same time, Al-Biruni was critical of the Hindu scribes, believing they distorted documents while copying them. He also criticised Hindus for what he saw them do and not do, such as their lack of curiosity about history and religion.

  • Indian calendar

Al-Biruni was interested in studying the Indian calendar. His study of the subject showed great concentration; needless to say, his approach to scholarly inquiry was superior. He developed a methodology for converting the dates of the Indian calendar into the dates of three of the calendars used in the Islamic countries of his time, Greek, Arabic/Islamic, and Persian. Al-Biruni also used astronomy to define his theories, which involved complex mathematical equations and scientific calculations that allowed one to convert dates and years between different calendars.

The book was not concerned with the tedious battle of recording, as Al-Biruni found that social culture is more important. The work includes research on many topics about Indian culture, including describing Indian customs and traditions. Al-Biruni recorded some critical political and military histories and several sites where essential battles took place, although he tried to distance himself from these events in his study.

  • The rulers of India

Moreover, Al-Biruni recorded stories about the rulers of India, explaining how they ruled, their beneficial actions, and how they acted in the interest of their people. But his details were brief, and he did not refer to the real names of these rulers, contenting himself with listing them only. Al-Biruni did not explain the actions of these rulers outside the lands of their country during their rule, which is consistent with Al-Biruni’s position to distance himself from political history. Al-Biruni also described the geography and earth relief of India in his work.

Document various streams of water and other natural phenomena. These descriptions are essential to modern historians because they used Al-Biruni’s study to locate some destinations in modern India. Historians could make analogies, deducing that some regions disappeared and were replaced by different cities. We were also able to locate most of the monuments, which legitimise Al-Biruni’s contributions and inform them of modern history and archaeology.

  • Objectivity

The neutral statement made by Al-Biruni on Hinduism was unprecedented for its time. He indicated his complete objectivity in writing, and his distance from bias, as an accurate historian should be. Al-Biruni documented everything about India as it happened. He indicated his distrust of some of the accounts he had received from the native Indians but tried to be as accurate as possible.

His works resembled a magical, peaceful, neutral island amid a world teeming with swords, burnt cities, and plundered temples. Al-Biruni’s writings were poetic, which diminishes their historical value by the standards of modern times. Its lack of descriptions of battles and politics makes the picture incomplete. However, some cite al-Biruni’s writings to verify historical information from other sources that may need to be clarified or whose accuracy needs to be better.

His Legacy

Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni is considered one of the brightest scientific faces that Arab human culture has been proud of throughout the history of thought. He wrote many books on the history of science, all in Arabic, and emphasised the status of the Arabic language in the Islamic world culture of his time until the Arab scientific sources moved texts and explanations to the European horizon during the Renaissance era.

Arabs and Muslims participated in the revival and construction of modern science in Europe. The best evidence for this is what the French scientist Robert Stephen Briffault said in his book The Making of Humanity: “Science is the order of service rendered by Arabic civilisation to the modern world. The Greeks organised, generalised, and developed theories, but the spirit of research and accumulation of knowledge certainty, accurate scientific methods, and lengthy placeholder observation were alien to the Greek mood. It was the Arabs who are credited with introducing Europe to all of this. In a word, European science owes its existence to the Arabs”.

In his Introduction to the History of Science, George Alfred Sarton admitted: “The second half of the eleventh century CE was distinguished by the Islamic world’s massive creative production on the approach of modern scientific thinking, and it was called the era of Al-Biruni”.

His Works

  1. Achieving What India Has From A Reasonable Saying In The Mind Or Its Abomination, The Remaining Effects Of The Past Centuries.
  2. The Masoudi’s Law.
  3. A Book On Drugs And Medicines In Pharmacy.
  4. Microscopes In Knowing Gems: Talking About Precious Metals And Stones.
  5. The Book Of History Summary.

His Death

He died on 12/15/1048 CE, at 75 years full of research, writing and study. He was able to study and write about natural and mathematical sciences. Still, he wrote a thousand in history and geography as well as a thousand in astronomy, mathematics and triangles.

If you enjoyed this content why not dive into some more historical eras – check out these articles: Vikings History, Ancient Rome, Ancient Egyptians – The First Woman Pharaoh, Greek Mythology – Medusa, Native American History. Victorian Era, Ibn Khaldun or Celts

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