al-Biruni Essay - Critical Essays

al-Bīrūnī

Introduction

al-Bīrūnī 973-1048?

(Full name Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī.) Islamic astronomer, historian, geographer, and mathematician.

Introduciton

A renowned medieval Islamic scientist, al-Bīrūnī exemplified the cosmopolitan and scholarly atmosphere of what is known as the Islamic Renaissance, but his work remained unknown to the West until translations began to appear in the nineteenth century. Al-Bīrūnī was a prolific writer who generally exhibited a fierce desire for truth free of superstition and opinion and a rich understanding of the historical development of scientific theories and concepts. He also, even in his scientific treatises as well as in his cultural and historical works, displayed an interest in and knowledge of Islamic poetry. Often named one of the most original scholars of Islam, al-Bīrūnī significantly contributed to the establishment of the foundations of scientific investigative methods.

Biographical Information

Al-Bīrūnī was born and raised in the town of Khwarazm, which lies south of the Aral Sea; his family history and early life remain obscure, but his interest in scientific experimentation developed at a young age and was cultivated through formal studies with a well-known mathematician, Abu Nasr Mansur. Due to civil unrest, al-Bīrūnī was forced to interrupt his formal studies and soon found a patron in the ruler of Gurgan, to whom he dedicated his earliest extant work, the Chronology (written c. 1000), a treatise on time and various religious calendars. Around this time he also began a somewhat confrontational correspondence with one of his contemporaries, Avicenna, a philosopher and physician. In 1003 al-Bīrūnī moved to the court of the reigning Shah of Kwarazm, Abu'l 'Abbas Ma'mun, who was later overthrown by Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna (in present-day Afghanistan)—both became patrons of al-Bīrūnī.

During these years, al-Bīrūnī produced more than one hundred separate works, devised numerous scientific instruments, and conducted astronomical, meteorological, and geographical experiments. Also during this period, al-Bīrūnī traveled extensively in India and learned Sanskrit in order to better comprehend the scientific, literary, and historical accomplishments of that culture. Although the date of his death is usually listed as 1048, some scholars contest this claim and suggest that he lived well past 1050.

Major Works

Al-Bīrūinī produced well over one hundred scholarly works, of which twenty-two have survived. His major works are primarily devoted to astronomy, but other...

(The entire section is 1026 words.)

Principal English Translations

The Chronology of Ancient Nations [Kitāb al Āthāru 'l-Bāqiah (history) [Edward C. Sachau, ed.] 1879

India [Tahqiq mā li 'I-hind] (history) [Edward C. Sachau, trans.] 1888

The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology [Kitāb fi ista'ab al-wujuh fi san 'at alasturlab] (treatise) [R. Ramsay Wright, trans.] 1934

Compendium on Precious Stones [Kitāb Al-Jamāhir] (treatise) [F. Krenkow, ed.] 1936

Crticism

Syed Hasan Barani (lecture date 1952)

SOURCE: "Al-Bīrūnī's Scientific Achievements," in Indo-Iranica: The Quarterly Organ of the Iran Society, Vol. V, No. 4, April, 1952, pp. 37-48.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a lecture to the Iran Society, Barani surveys the major scientific accomplishments of al-Bīrūnī and provides a brief biography.]

I feel most honoured by the privilege so very kindly bestowed on me to deliver a short lecture on the Scientific Achievements of Al-Bīrūnī on this memorable occasion when we have all collected here to celebrate the Millenary of the great savant and scholar under the auspices of the Iran Society, which has recently published an excellent Commemoration Volume, and under the presidentship of your illustrious Governor, whose personal interest in the celebrations should by itself be a significant guarantee for their success. It is also in the fitness of things that Calcutta should be the venue, for in the modern India it has always been in the forefront of our intellectual life, and recently also served as the standard-bearer in the march of Al-Bīrūnīan studies.

When on behalf of the Society I was invited by my friends, the President and the Secretary, to come and address you, the idea, so welcome in other respects, e.g., the precious opportunity of meeting the intellectual elite of Calcutta and other places, was, let me confess to you, almost terrifying. For although my attachment to Al-Bīrūnī as his biographer and admirer appears to be mainly responsible for the choice, I have never deemed myself fully equipped to deal with the Scientific Achievements of such a many-sided genius. In such matters the biographer and historian's role is usually very much lightened by the results obtained in their respective fields by the historical researches of the specialists, and all that is generally required of the former is to bring those researches together to the door of the general reader in a lucid, connected and attractive form, rather than to launch on the hazardous task of the original researches in so many different subjects, with most of which he may have only a nodding acquaintance; more so where the East is concerned, when he has also to get over the double hurdle of the languages and ideas, and in the case of Al-Bīrūnī, also over a still more perilous hurdle of traversing across the most varied areas of nearly all the Sciences and learning of his time and showing their bearing on our modern knowledge.

You have no doubt heard of the great Arab Renaissance of Learning from the 8th to the 13th centuries, connecting link between the Antiquity and the Modern times, which Renaissance had reached its peak, in the 10th and 11th centuries A.D., and the 4th and 5th of the Hegira, and wherein Iran of those days played the most leading part. In that vast Himalayan range of learning Al-Bīrūnī stands out like the Mount Everest peak. I, therefore, honestly believe that it should yet be the task of the organised labour of so many for many more years to come, before anything like justice could be done to the master's work.

What I, therefore, propose to do just now is to fix a few sign-posts, indicating fertile lands, spread in all directions for those seeking to traverse them, and also cite a few instances which will give some idea of Al-Biruni's Scientific Achievements, and to leave the whole paraphernalia of the texts, authorities and other details for the notes, which could conveniently be added later on.

Al-Biruni was a born Scientist in the sense in which you talk of a born Poet, Artist or Philosopher. Taking all the knowledge and learning of his time into his province, and making considerable part of it his own, and embellishing all the rest that he found time to touch, his outlook, temper and method were strictly Scientific. In his later years he still claimed himself to belong to a single branch of Mathematics, i.e., Astronomy, to which, he says, he had devoted himself from childhood.2 It must have been merest modesty on his part to say so, for we all bear witness to the fact that besides his main subject he commanded an almost encyclopaedic range of learning. One could very well deal with him as a mere Literateur,3 for he was a poet and prose-writer of distinction; or as a Philologist,4 for besides the languages of his own land and religion he had mastered Sanskrit, from which and into which he could translate Scientific and Philosophical works, and knew something of Hebrew and Syrian, and a little of Greek, on which he could depend for his purposes; or as a Historian,5 for we know the names of his historical works, including a history of Mahmud and his father, the loss of which is regrettable; or as a Sociologist6 with wide interests in Archaeology, Anthropology, Comparative Religion, Culture, Manners and Morals; or even as a Philosopher, although Muslim historians were not inclined to take him as such in the sense in which they held his great contemporary Ibni Sina, who had specialised and left a complete encyclopaedia on it.

My life-long study of his available works has led me to believe that, like Ariotele, in the various parts of Al-Biruni's life some special subjects kept him more attracted than others,7 and he never ceased to attach a new trophy every time as he advanced from Science to Science to the end of his life of more than 80 years.8

Born in a small suburban village of Khwarizm in 362 A.H. (973 A.D.) of insignificant and almost unknown family, and most probably orphaned at a very early age, he was brought up, and trained by a most distinguished Mathematician and Astronomer, Abû Nasr Marsû, who belonged to the reigning family of Khwarizm, a meeting place of the Eastern and Western cultures of those days, and was most probably of Persian extraction, although the Turks so vehemently claim him with Ibni Sina and Al-Farabi to be of Turkish origins. The purity of races was perhaps never so much ensured in that land lying between the homelands of the Mongols and the Aryans. Coming almost at the crest of that intellectual wave that had swept from end to end over the Muslim world after the impetus given to it by the earlier Abbasids, of whom the names of Al-Mansûr Al-Hârûn and Al-Mâmun are so well known, he is the third in the golden chain of the Persian Mathematicians and Astronomers beginning with the well-known Abu'l-Wafâ of Bfizjan, the acknowledged teacher of Abu Nasr Mansur, Al-Bīrūnī's own patron and master—a fact which is not yet so well known.9

While only about 18 Al-Bīrūnī had begun to make researches at his own Observatory in an insignificant mountain village in his land, trying later on to bring them into line with the Solar observations that were being simultaneously carried on by Abu'l-Wafâ at Baghdad.10 After several years his whole work at the Observatory was frustrated by the internal war, leading to the extinction of the ancient rulers of the land, though his teacher Abfu Nasr survived. And for several years Al-Biruni was in exile, wandering in the Northern Iran and the neighbouring kingdom of Jujân, where reigned Qâbûs, himself an author and literateur and lover of Science, who was so much enamoured of Al-Biruni that he would fain share ruling power with the latter.11 But the discerning eyes of the scholar saw in him the bloody tyrant that he was,12 and led him to return to his own country to the fold of the more enlightened and humane rulers and to carry on his labours for about another decade or so, and also be the trusted adviser and minister13 to the throne. This time he established an Observatory in the royal palace, and was once more busy in the Astronomical and Geographical researches, when the work was again frustrated by another bloody revolution soon followed by Mahmud's invasion and annexation of Khwarizm in 408 A.H. (1017 A.D.). Thus closed the first chapter of his life at the age of 46; to begin the more fruitful second of it.

For his activities during the earliest part of his life Kitab Al-Âthâru'l-Bâqiah written for Qâbûs in 390 A.H., i.e. about 1,000 A.D., is a significant index. And we know what a range of scientific interest that work discloses. His predominant interest in it is Mathematical, Astronomical and Historical, the subject-matter being a comparative study of all the ancient and current Calendars known to him, but his superabundant knowledge overflows the limits.14 As the text and English translation are well known and have been drawn upon by several scholars, and a good Persian translation is also in print, we need not expatiate on it.

Another interesting piece of work from these times is a collection of letters15 exchanged still earlier between himself and his younger contemporary Ibn-i Sînâ before both came together at the Amir of Khwarizm's court towards the end of the 4th century A.H. Here Al-Biruni poses an amazing string of searching questions, mostly directed against the orthodox Aristotlian science—e.g. the possibility of the revolution of the planetary spheres in the elliptic courses, saying that there was no justification why Aristotle's idea of revolution in complete circle be taken as conclusive and final. Others relate to the Atomic Theory discredited by Aristotle; the existence of other Universes, so vehemently denied by Aristotle; the nature of changes caused by the mixing of the elements of matter and the nature of sight, where too Aristotle had gone astray. Throughout you mark his independence of mind and vision for right views. Again and again we find him here as elsewhere trying to free the human intellect from the bonds set on it by the intellect of the great Greek master much in contrast against the mental attitude of some other great thinkers like Ibn-i Rushd (Averroes) Ibnu'l-Haitham and Ibn-i Sînâ (Avicenna), who were certainly more attached to Aristotle, though certainly not all of them as mere camp followers. I take liberty to quote here an interesting passage from another later work of Al-Biruni:—

And the trouble with these people is their extravagance in respect of Aristotle's opinions, believing that there is no possibility of mistakes in his views, though they know that he was only theorizing to the best of his capacity, and never claimed to be God's protected and immune from mistakes. (His book on the Celestial Phenomena is full of errors.)16

But in a much later work, of which there exists in Istanbul possibly in Al-Biruni's own hand the unique copy of 416 A.H.,17 references to his labours during all these years abound; and it should serve as a rich mine of information when the entire text is faithfully reproduced in photographs.

It appears that subsequent to the study of Calendars he was very much interested in the Astronomical and Physical Geography, and prepared a Hemisphere of the diameter of about 15 feet covered with a net of longitudes and latitudes, and whereupon he used to locate the important places, of which he had fixed exact situations from oral and documentary sources, or by his own personal observations.

When taken to Ghaznah he had to leave the Hemisphere behind and also all the data so laboriously collected by him, though he still hoped and pined to recover them by turn in fortune and eventually to complete the unfinished work.18

With Al-Biruni's arrival at Ghaznah we see the amplest widening of his Scientific and literary interests. We have now materials enough to controvert Sachau's opinion that Al-Biruni had little direct dealings with Mahmud's court. On the contrary in a rare autobiographical piece of poetry written just after Mahmud's death he counts the latter as his greatest patron,19 though I do not exclude the possibility that just after his arrival there he was for a very short while detained in the fort of Nandana now in the Western Punjab, where he carried out his researches in Geodesy, of which I have rendered an account in the Al-Biruni Commemoration Volume. When released he was at once admitted into the brilliant court circle as the royal Astrologer, and set up in Ghaznah his third Observatory, wherein in the years 409, 410 and 411 A.H. he revived his former Astronomical researches and fixed the longitude and latitude of the Metropolis. For the same purpose at great peril to himself he visited Kabul20; and during his travels in the Western part of India he took care to fix some places of which he has left a record in the Indica. A complete table for the entire World fortunately now in print forms an important part of Al-Qânûn.21 For how many years he continued his work at the Ghaznah Observatory, and what actual newer results he obtained there, could be discussed only after a thorough study of his opus magnum. It is to the new independent states of India and Pakistan as well as to the Soviet Central Asia, Iran and Afghanistan that my mind naturally turns as those best entitled to undertake it, but above all to our own Republic of India where I am sure we can count on the sympathy and support of such enlightened, learned and discerning minds as our President, Premier and Education Minister happen to possess.22

It appears that during these years his one main preoccupation was to determine the Obliquity of the Ecliptic, one of the most important problems of the ancient Astronomy. A number of previous Muslim observations from Al-Mâmûn's times onward had distinctly varied within a very short range from the Indian and Greek observations; and in order to be sure Al-Biruni devoted off and on more than 30 years from 380 A.H. to 411 A.H. at his three different observations and found it as 23°-35′ as against 23°-51′-20″ of the later Greeks and 23°-54′ of the Chinese and 24° of the ancient Greek and Indian astronomers. Evidently the angle of this Obliquity had been progressively decreasing. But Al-Bīrūnī failed to discover it.23

Still much earlier the problem of the Spherical Projection and its application to Map-making had engrossed his attention, and in his Al-Âthâr he claims original devices of his own—a subject very well discussed by the Iranian scholars Sairafī and Deh-Khudâ, showing that he had anticipated Mercater and others in this matter. Even much towards the end of his life he was still busy in perfecting and applying his methods to actual maps, as some titles of his works show. It is in Ghaznah that the idea of the Indian studies and thereby serving both the nations dawned on Al-Biruni's mind. I am not yet sure of the chronology of his Indian travels and am awaiting more light from some of his other works that may be discovered in the future; and although his Muslim biographers, impressed by his Indian learning, exaggerated the length of these travels to 40 years, I am inclined to think, from 7 to 10 years must have been mainly devoted to the Indian subjects before he completed his Indica soon after Mahmud's death.24 In an unnoticed passage in Al-Jamâhir I find Al-Bīrūnī saying that he had a talk with Mahmud on the way while the latter was returning from Mathura.25 Apparently Al-Bīrūnī did not himself accompany Mahamud to Mathura, and it must have been somewhere in the Western India or the Eastern Afghanistan. It would be no good on my part to revert to the Indica, that inexhaustible mine of information and constant source of study and research by the scholars of the East and the West. It is, however, amply evident that both in his Indica and Al-Âthâr his interests are mainly Scientific, though not exclusively so.

And now we have before us a very important series of the four Mathematical and Astronomical treatises of Al-Bīrūnī and 15 of his master Abû Nasr Mansûr's all published by the Dâiratu'l-Ma'arif of Hyderabad (Deccan).… Besides some biographical and historical references of general interest you have in them a whole series of the Mathematical solutions which Al-Bīrūnī claims as his own or derived from purely Indian origins altogether unknown to the Muslims of his times; and about which the opinions of the better informed alone could be of much value.

Having rendered account of his Indian researches and carried out translations into Sanskrit and Arabic of some Scientific and Philosophical works he turned his attention to the chiefest field of his studies and took up to give a full and uptodate account of the Astronomical Sciences of his times in Al-Qânûn al-Maśûdū, completed after 427 A.H. And what an advantage he had therein of utilizing, besides his own, all the Indian, Greek and Arab researches up to his times. The story goes that Sultan Maśûd rewarded him for this work with an elephant load of silver, which the great scholar returned with thanks, saying that he needed none of it. This must have been the crowning moment in the master's life. All are agreed that Al-Qânûn is by far the best work of its kind, full of much new information.

In the last years of his life Al-Bīrūnī interested himself in the Medical Science and History, in Mineralogy and Precious Stones, and piled treasures of original material researches in Al-Jamâhir, now in print, and Al-Saidana, only partly so, though a complete copy of it exists at Brusa in Turkey awaiting publications. In Medicine his main interest besides its history was in the Drugs and Medicinal Simples rather than in its theory and practice. Al-Bīrūnī was the first Muslim author to give an account of the Chinese tea;27 though not of the Chinese porcelain.28

In sundry other sciences, e.g. Optics, he had separate works and one of them Lam 'at was cited and drawn upon not long ago in your own Province by the author of the Jamai Bahadur Khâni, wherein are extracted several of Al-Bīrūnī's original theorems.29 If we are ever able to trace this work, it would be most interesting to compare its contents with the original researches of his contemporary Ibnu'l-Haitham, the greatest Arab Optician, the complete Ms. of whose Al-Manâzir, long deemed lost, exists in Istanbul and forms the subject matter of a most valuable detailed study by an Egyptian savant, Mustafâ Nasîf Bak.30

Al-Bīrūnī was interested from the outset in the nature of Light and Sight and actually proposed queries on these subject to Ibn-i Sînâ&,31 who with Al-Bīrūnī and Ibnu'l-Haitham believed that the objects themselves emitted rays to the eyes, thereby causing the formation of their images in the eyes.

Al-Bīrūnī also wanted to know whether Light was material or immaterial. Geology had not yet become an independent science. But much in advance in time we have in his Al-Tahdid some observations on the antiquity and gradual development of the Earth through natural causes. The passage is too long and involved for full reproduction here and I only give you a very brief resumé of its first few paragraphs in the following:—

Our World is not eternal, but it is not possible to give its age or date of origin. All that is obvious is that events have succeeded within the unknown and unspecified periods of time. We have neither revelation nor records of history to help us n this matter. Even in the Quran the days of the Creation are meant to be thousand or fifty thousand years long.

We have to go upon the records of the rocks and vestiges of the past to infer that all these changes should have taken place in very very long times and under unknown conditions of cold and heat: for even now it takes long time for water and wind to do their work. And changes have been going on and observed and noticed within the historical times.32

Then follows that long passage citing specific instances which has been extracted and dealt with by the learned Knenkow in your Commemorative Volume.33

On Meteorology, on the Scientific Instruments, on Specific Weights, and Weighing Mechanisms, on the Ratio between the Weights of Metals and Jewels, on Meteors and Comets, on Dawn and Sunset, and on Marvels, Prodigies of Nature, and on Solar Spots, you have his separate works.34

Besides new Astrolabes of his own contrivance, he had constructed for the mosque of Ghaznah a special machine for ascertaining the exact times for the Muslim prayers. But the narrow-minded Imâm rejected it as it was based on the Solar system and the Roman months.

Al-Biruni was so much offended that he scrapped the entire machine and remarks that it was foolish to deprive ourselves of the benefits of Scientific knowledge merely because it came from foreigners. The Romans were men just like ourselves and we would not give up walking and eating simply because they also did the same.35

As to Al-Biruni's Scientific outlook much is already known to you of his catholicity of mind and complete freedom from prejudice and fear. He deserves well to be classed as a staunch pacifist in an age so much devoted to military exploits. In a well-known passage in Indica he speaks disparagingly of Mahmud's Indian raids. The same sentiment is apparent in other places in his works.36

Trained from the outset in the exact sciences and hoping to bring all human knowledge to their precision, he is fond of relying on Experience and Experimentation.37 He is impatient with those who in Science are prone to rely on mere authority against evidence to the contrary as also against those who in the name of Religion assail or reject Scientific truths. Otherwise his attitude to Religion is most sympathetic, although not favourable to Mysticism or Esoterism.38 I may be allowed to mention here an interesting fact given by Al-Biruni himself in one of his later works. He says he used to put on a ring with two different types of the same stone separately venerated by the Sunnîs and Shi'as, just to show that he belonged to both of them.39

But even the best human minds have their limitations. He was never able to appreciate Râzî's researches in Chemistry. Alchemy had to him all the appearance of a pseudo-science on account of its search for the Elixir of life and unsatiable greed for gold.' Modern researches, however, go to show that in the hands of the eminent Muslim Physician Râzî it yielded good and great Scientific resultants. After all, the Alchemist's basic theory regarding the change of the Elements was not really such a wild dream, although we had to wait to our own times for its actual Demonstration. On the other hand Al-Biruni's attitude to Astrology was surely not so hostile, though he indicates in [AI] Tafhîm that he did not very much believe in it.41 But we know for certain that he remained attached to it to the end, even consulted it in his own troubles, and was reputed as the greatest Astrologer.42 On the contrary Al-Fârâbî, Ibn-i Sînâ and Ibn-i Rushd had no faith in it.

Similarly, he was surpassed by another contemporary Astronomer Abû Sa'îd of Sistan, who had an idea of the world's Rotation and Revolution and also a premonition of the Gravitational pull. As a well-known passage translated below would show Al-Bīrūnī did not altogether rule out the possibility of the Earth's movements, but for himself he stuck to the end to the Ptolemaic theory and defended it:

I have seen the Astrolabe called Az-Zarqânî, invented by Abú Sa'îd Sijzî. I liked it very much and praised him a great deal, as it is based on the idea entertained by some to the effect that the motion we see is due to the Earth's movement and not to that of the Sky. By my life it is a problem difficult of solution and refutation.…

For it is the same whether you take it that the Earth is in motion or the Sky. For, in both the cases, it does not affect the Astronomical Science. It is just for the Physicist to see if it is possible to refute it.43

Some other Muslim Astronomers of his time and later times succeeded in discovering the fact that the Obliquity of the Ecliptic was progressively decreasing in a regular way;44 but Al-Biruni, in spite of his protracted observation and full knowledge of the results of the earlier Astronomers, failed to discover it.

Al-Bīrūnī frankly admits that Arabic and Persian were not his mother tongues. For the Scientific subjects he has a distinct preference for Arabic, though he is quite critical of the system of the Arabic alphabets.45 As he advanced in life his style matured to conciseness and brevity, so that in his time he was blamed for obscurity and difficulty. And all of us who have to deal with him in the original texts meet with no little embarrassment. You cannot take away a single word without damaging the sense, but you have to do some reading between the lines, and sometimes elicit references to his life and surroundings to avoid pitfalls, instances of which are not lacking in the existing foreign translations of his works. He himself used to reply to the critics saying that he had written only for those who would dive deep into his writings, but in my opinion probably pressed so constantly as he was by new ideas and plans, he had to resort to economy of language, or maybe his command of Arabic did not equal that of Ibn-i Rushd and Ibnu'l-Haitham, who were born into it. But after making all such allowance we must admit that no other scholar had ever to put Arabic to such a severe test by bringing the entire Indian Sciencés and learning within the Muslim fold and coining hundreds of technical terms for his purposes.

It is, therefore, with a justifiable pride in his life-work that in a rare self-applauding mood he bursts out in poetry saying:—…

By my own efforts I have surpassed the leaders
of learning
They have not acquired knowledge as I
have done;
They have never sat for discussion in so many
seats of leaning,
Nor have they ever been taken prisoner
by the knotty problems as I have been;
And ask my worth from the Hindus in the East,
And in the West from him who has
considered the hard fight I had to
put (for the sake of learning).4"

Notes

2 The preface of Al-Qânûn al-Mas 'ûdî reproduced in the Appendix 1 (pp. 225-234) of my "Life of Al-Bīrūnī" (Urdu), 2nd Edition, Aligarh, 1927.…

3 As has actually been done by Yâqût in his Irshâdu 'lArîb, Vol. VI (pp. 308-314) (Gibb Memorial Edition), & Vol. XVII, pp. 188-194, (Cairo Edition), where he cites Al-Bīrūnī's literary works and also quotes several passages of poetry.

4 The range of Al-Bīrūnī as a mere linguist is really very wide. He was fully acquainted with the various Iranian and Turkish dialects of Central Asia. e.g. of Saghd (Bokhara), and would try to learn the words of any other language he came across in his actual life or studies, as is quite apparent from his extant works like al-Âthâr, Al-Jamâhir and A l-Saidanah.

5 He wrote the history of his own country Khwarizm, part of which work has been preserved in Persian translation by Baihaqî in his History of Mas 'ûd of Ghaznah's reign, (pp. 836-868, Calcutta Edition), and also of the Shi'ah sects of Qarâmita etc. Al-Âthâr is equally a work of Ancient History. And Al-Bīrūnī's treatment of purely Scientific subjects is always historical and comparative. When dealing with any problem or topic he generally traces its history. Numerous instances can be gleamed from Al-Qânûn, which would serve as a great source-book for our study of the entire history of Mathematical and Astronomical Sciences up to Al-Bīrūnī's times.

6 Al-Bīrūnī's interests in the Social Sciences were very extensive, and all his extant works, e.g. Al-Âthâr, Indica dsA Al-Jamâhir, are full of numerous instances The subject is too wide for a cursory treatment here, and would need a complete study.

For instance, his old biographers Al-Baihaqî and Ash-Shahrzûri were not prepared to deem him properly gifted for the Philosophical topics. Evidently these authors accepted Philosophy in its limited sense of purely Metaphysical discussions.

7 A complete chronology of his works is yet to be made to throw full light on the gradual development of his studies.

8 The ordinarily accepted date for his death on Friday, 2nd Rajab 440 A.H., (11th September, 1048 A.D.) at the age of 77 years 7 months is not now acceptable in view of his clear statement to the effect that he wrote his Al-Saidanah after he was eighty

9 A full study of Abû Nasr Mansûr's life and works and Scientific achievements is yet to be made. Nasiru'd-Din Tûssi, who based his treatise on Menelaus' Spherics on Abû Nasr's recension, spoke very highly of the latter's merits. A set of his 15 smaller works have been published by the Dâiratu'l-Ma'ârif, Hyderabad (Deccan). They were mostly written by the master in response to his pupil, Al-Bīrūnī's queries. Abû-Nasr had written a complete work on Astronomy entitled as Al-Majistî ash-Shâhi which is most probably altogether lost.

His major work based on Menelaus' Spherics has, however, survived and been published in Berlin in 1936. His death should have taken place much earlier than 427 A.H., as Al-Bīrūnī mentions him as of a dead person in 427 when he wrote his Risâlah on the bibliography of his own and Ar-Râzî's works.

10 See Al-Tahdîd (Parts only published by Zeki Valido in the Memoir No. 93 of Ind. Arch. Survey) pp. 58-59 etc.

11Yâqût, p. 182 (Cairo Edition).…

12 Al-Birûnî himself says (p. 187).…

13 For a short study on Qabus as a writer of Arabic prose and poetry see Zakî Mubarak's An-Nasru 'l-Funni fî Qarani'r-Rabî, pp. 277-289.

14 I understand that Edm. O. Von Lippman has attempted to make an inventory of the scientific subjects in Al-Âthâr in Abhandluingen und Vortage, Leipzig, Vol. I. 1906, p. 97.

15" The test of these most interesting letters has been published in Jâmi'u'l-Badâ'i, … Cairo, 1335 A.H./1917 … and the Persian translation in Deh-Khudâ's Life of Al-Bīrūnī, Tehran, pp. 29-64

16.. wrongly cited in Ibrahim b-Sinafi's work Harakatu 'sh Shams. p. 56.

17Kitabu 't-Tahdîd.

18 Al-Bīrūnī Commemoration Volume, pp. 203-208.

19 Yâqût quotes Al-Bīrūnī…

20Al-Tahdid, p. 60 (Zekî's extracts) …

21 Zakî Validi, pp. 9-53.…

22 I am informed by the Hon'ble Maulânâ Abu'l-Kalâm Azâd that he is taking personal interest in the matter and it is hoped that before long Al-Qârûn may at last be published now.

23 The entire subject was ably dealt with in a small brochure containing the text, translation, notes and comparative table by Mr. Muhammad Fârooq, M.Sc. (Alig.), published at Aligarh and privately circulated for opinion in 1929.

24 Some of Al-Biruni's own works indicate his presence in Ghaznah in the years 409-411, 416, 418, 422 A.H., and subsequent years. I am, therefore, not inclined to believe that he remained in India for many years continuously. On the other hand it appears that he visited it off and on, mostly carrying on his work with the help of the Pundits in Ghaznah.

25A1-Jamâhir, p. 88. …

27 p 115 Zeki Validi'swork.

28 Op. Cit., pp. 226-227., an interesting autobiographical anecdote. While at Rai (Persia), Al-Biruni was entertained by a businessman who possessed complete sets of chinaware which were valued very highly in those times, a single good piece costing 10 guineas (dinars).

29 p. 198 Jâmi'-i Bahâdur Khâni (1935).

30 2 Volumes; Cairo, 1943.

31 On Ibn-i Sînâ's views on Optics, see Kitâbu 'sh-Shifâ, Volume 1, pp. 307-332 (Arabic Text of Tehran) and pp. 76-107 (Persian translation of Kilábu 'n-Nafs from Ash-Shifâ called "Ravân Shinâsî" by Aqa-i Saìrafi).

32 Zeki's work, pp. 54-58.

For Al-Biruni's similar geological views on India, suggesting that Northern Indian Plains were once seas and filled up in the course of time by the natural causes, see his Indica, Sachau's translation, Volume 1, p. 98.

33 pp. 203-208.

34 For all these and other works of Al-Biruni please see my "Al-Biruni" (2nd Edition, 1927) pp. 109-138.

35Ifrâdu'l-Miqâl, pp. 36-37.

36 Op. Cit. p. 8.

37 Al-Biruni's liking for both is everywhere evident, and numerous instances can be cited, e.g. his not being satisfied with the previous measurements of the Earth and of the Obliquity of the Ecliptic.

38 In proof of his religious-mindedness we may cite his attempts to deal with the problem regarding the direction of the Ka'aba, and his full discussion in ïfrâ-Miqâl pp. 160-197 for fixing prayer times according to the various Schools of Muslim Jurisprudence and the description of the methods and instruments to be devised for that purpose.

39A1-Jamâhir, p. 215.

40 Al-Biruni's hostile attitude to Ar-Râzi's views on Religion and Alchemy may be ascertained by referring to the interesting Risâlah of 427 A.H. re. to bibliographies of Ar-Râzi's as well as Al-Biruni's own works.

41Kitâbu't-Tafhîm, p. 316.…

42Ar-Risâlah, pp. 41-42.

43 Quoted by Deh-Khudâ, p. 12.

44 See Nallino's Article on Muslim Astrology etc. in the Encyclopaedia of Religion, Vol. 12, pp. 88-101.

45 [cf.] Islamic Culture (Hyderabad Deccan), Vol. VI, p. 531.…

46 Yâqût's Irshâd, p. 188 (Cairo Edition).

Jan Z. Wilczynski (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "On the Presumed Darwinism of Alberuni Eight Hundred Years before Darwin" in Isis, Vol. 50, No. 162, December, 1959, pp. 459-66.

[In the following essay, Wilczynski examines the theory of natural selection as it is discussed by al-Bīrūnī in his study of Indian philosophy and history.]

The name of Abû-Alraihân Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Albernmi, who lived between 973 and 1048 of our era, must be well known to all Arabists and Indologists but cannot be found in any of the treatises dealing with the history of biology.1 This circumstance seems to be quite understandable since Alberuni's interests and specialization were centred chiefly on astronomy and, as he lived near the border of India, were penetrated by his eagerness to control the Hindu language in order to impart its knowledge to Arab-speaking nations at the beginning of the eleventh century.

T. I. Raïnow called attention only quite recently to the fact that in Alberuni's fine and substantial work entitled India,2 which is devoted to the history of all fields of Hindu thought, one may find the whole theory of Darwinism already expounded more than eight hundred years before the publication of the theory of natural selection.

The pertinent quotation from Raïnow's paper3 reads as follows:

Thus, in modern language we could express this thought of Alberui [the full quotation of which appears further on in this article] as follows: Nature performs natural selection of the most adequate, well-adapted beings through the extermination of others, and, in this case, it proceeds in the same way as farmers and gardeners.

We see, therefore, that Darwin's great idea of natural selection through the struggle for life and survival of the fittest was already reached by Alberuni approximately eight hundred years before Darwin. It is true that he seized it in the most general outlines only, but, curiously enough, even the very meaning and the way in which he came to it were the same as Darwin's. The latter, as we know, discovered natural selection by observation of the methods of artificial selection, as applied by animal breeders.

The present note is an attempt to verify such an assertion and to give a more documented presentation than Raïnow gives us in his paper.

1

There can be no doubt that Darwin was not acquainted with Alberuni's work itself, or even aware of its existence, since there is no mention of it in the Historical Sketch devoted to his forerunners that forms the introduction to his Origin of Species, or among the data concerned with the sources of our natural science collected by him in his Variation of Plants and Animals under Domestication. This could not be expected insofar as Alberuni's work was printed by Her Majesty's Indian Office in 1889, that is, five years after Darwin's death. Moreover, we know from Darwin's own Autobiography, as well as from the unanimous opinion of others, that the Essay on Population of Malthus played a directly decisive rôle in Darwin's conception of his theory, just as it influenced the analogous work of Alfred Wallace.

In Alberuni's work we do not find any indications of possible influences from Greek philosophers like Heraclitus, Empedocles or Aristotle, who made the first steps on the field of the future theory of evolution, though he mentions their names on many occasions. Nor was I able to detect any such influence from Indian philosophy—its interest, if any, in the problems of evolution having begun much later, probably not before the sixteenth century.4

2

We find the views resembling Darwinism expounded by Alberuni in his chapter XLVII entitled, "On Vâsudeva and the Wars of the Bhârata," which follows several chapters consecrated to the chronology and characteristics of previous epochs of Indian history, reaching back to mythological times. These chapters depict the period of common harmony in human collectivity, i.e., the so-called "Golden Era."

The introduction to the description of the strife that presumably took place in India after this golden era does not take more than one page5 and seems to be simply an attempt to explain in a naturalistic way why these struggles had to take place. However, the explanation is based not on the history of mankind alone, but on general natural processes in the whole world. It might be said that these processes are concerned with four different phenomena:

  1. The first paragraph deals with the steady, unlimited excess of reproduction on the limited area of the world. This passage runs as follows:

    The life of the world depends upon the sowing and procreating. Both processes increase in the course of time, and this increase is unlimited, whilst the world is limited

    One might perhaps agree that this corresponds to the central idea of Malthus on the disproportion between the increase in the rates of reproduction and means of subsistence.

  2. The second paragraph gives the application of this principle to living beings, in which special mention is made of the fact that, after the species is definitely established, it endeavours to occupy the largest possible area for its expansion. The passage says:

    When a class of plants or animals does not increase any more in its structure, and its peculiar kind is established as a species of its own, when each individual of it does not simply come into existence once and perish, but besides procreates a being like itself or several together, and not only once but several times, then this will as single species of plants or animals occupy the earth and spread itself and its kind over as much territory as it can find.

  3. The third paragraph contains the description of the procedure of agriculturists in which one may discover the idea of an artificial selection:

    The agriculturist selects his corn, letting grow as much as he requires, and tearing out the remainder. The forester leaves those branches which he perceives to be excellent, whilst he cuts away all others. The bees kill those of their kind who only eat, but do not work in their beehive.

    To these quotations one may add, in the margin of this paragraph, that we meet the word "selection" for a second time in the English translation of Alberuni's work in a more remote passage, devoted this time exclusively to human civilization, where he writes about the conditions which must exist in human societies in order for them to enjoy steady progress and not undergo distintegration. It is necessary that

    … men shall be different in their conditions of life and … on this difference the order of the world is based.… The mutual assistance of civilized people presupposes a certain difference among them, in consequence the one requires the other. According to the same principle, God has created the world as containing many differences in itself. So the single countries differ from each other, one being cold, the other warm; one having good soil, water, air, the other having bitter salt soil, dirty and bad smelling water, and unhealthy air. There are still more differences of this kind; in some cases advantages of all kinds being numerous, in others few. In some parts there are periodically returning physical disasters; in others they are entirely unknown. All these things induce civilised people to select carefully the places where they want to build towns.6

    Of course, this passage also foreshadows the notion of artificial selection, and it is all the more interesting as it is based on Alberuni's awareness of the differences in the environment and in life conditions which could lead him, to some extent, to an understanding of similar selection in untamed Nature. The operation of this selection is already taken into consideration, as we shall see, in the fourth paragraph of page 400 of the first volume.

    He also observes comparable differences with respect to the partition of Hindu society into castes when he writes:

    Within these classes or castes of population were subdivisions, distinct from each other, like species within a genus: Brahmana, Ksatrya, Vaisya, S(tdra, some still divided in many guilds.

    But to this passage he immediately adds: "We Muslim stand entirely on the other side … considering all men as equal, except in piety."7 He found a similar point of view in Hindu literature, too. For instance, while emphasizing the existence of the Hindu castes and the resulting disparities among them—social and legal, as well as cultural—Alberuni quotes, not without inner satisfaction, the words of a wise Brahman transmitted by Vaseduva as follows:

    In the judgment of this intelligent man, the Brahman and the Candala [the lowest caste] are equal, the friend and the foe, the faithful and the deceitful, nay even the serpent and the weasel.8

    And further on, in a more philosophically generalizing way, he says:

    All things are one, and whether allowed or forbidden, equal. They differ only in weakness and power. The wolf has the power to tear the sheep; therefore the sheep is the wolf's food, for the former cannot oppose the latter, and is his prey.

    But at once he explains:

    However, such views come to the intelligent man only by knowledge, when in it he has attained to such a degree that a Brahman and a Candala are equal to him. If he is in this state, all other things also are equal to him, in so far as he abstains from them.9

    To end his reflexions upon human civilisation to which his observations of Hindu life have led him, Alberuni cites the following precept as a sort of ideal for the future:

    If the civilisation of the world is that which is intended, and if the direction of it cannot proceed without our fighting for the purpose of suppressing evil, it is the duty of us who are the intelligent to act and to fight, not in order to bring to an end that which is deficient within us, but because it is necessary for the purpose of healing what is ill and banishing destructive elements.10

  4. Lastly, the fourth paragraph on page 400 brings us perhaps the least successful attempt to represent what happens in Nature; in this, however, some presentiment of Darwin's idea of natural selection might be detected. It reads:

Nature proceeds in a similar way; however, it does not distinguish for its action is under all circumstances one and the same. It allows the leaves and fruit of the trees to perish, thus preventing them from realising that result which they are intended to produce in the economy of nature. It removes them so as to make room for others.11

It seems that with these remarks the author ends his naturalistic interpretation of what happens to mankind on the earth.

Passing to this general question he writes:

If thus the earth is ruined, or is near to be ruined, by having too many inhabitants, its Ruler—for it has a Ruler—and His all-embracing care is apparent in every single particle of it—sends it a messenger for the purpose of reducing the too great number and of cutting away all that is evil.

But that is nearly all. From the explanatory note by Sachau to page 40112 we learn that the history of the birth of such a divine messenger, who was Vasudeva or Krishna, is told us in the Vishnu-Purdna, Book V, chapter 3.

The remaining pages of chapter XLVII of India do not contain any further mention of the processes of speciation and bring us back to the mythological traditions concerned with special messengers (i.e., demiurges) sent by Divinity onto the earth in order to incite wars among men with the aim of reducing the excessive increase of population. After this, paradise is supposed to come.

This part of the chapter deals with the mass massacres of children, the malicious interchanges of these, with interminable fratricidal fights, after which only "five brothers" survive; but finally even these perish, owing to their mutual quarrels which arise among them because of a frying pan, carried by one of them in his own belly. Afterwards, from the iron grains produced through the pulverisation of this pan begin to grow in an unrestrained manner new bushes and shrubs, symbolizing perhaps the constant renewal of life. In the end, the only surviving brother (was he not meant to represent, perhaps, the "fittest"?) is condemned to hell for having told only one lie, thus leading a certain Brahman into error. And it is only when this last survivor understands that passing through hell is inevitable that he will beg God's serving angels to restore him to paradise, which, in fact, he finally enters.

Such internal transformations, if not the real revolutions, which have tormented mankind through periods lasting thousands of years (the precise computation of which is very complicated in Hindu astronomy and in Alberuni's work as well) would represent, from our point of view, a rather ridiculous mixture of astrological data with the old mythological beliefs of the Hindu people.

In Alberuni's work, we find still another interesting quotation concerning these ancient revolutions, which could easily be taken as a base for a quasi-Darwinian interpretation of the destinies of mankind, and we may suppose that Rainow understood it in that way. From the Hindu tradition, it seems to follow that the history of mankind could be divided into four periods, in the course of which Good, Orderliness, Love and Uprightness receded gradually but constantly in favour of Evil, Fraud, and all kinds of struggles. These periods were even to correspond, in a sense, to the reversed order of geological chronology, since they bear the names of the Quartemary Age (here the oldest and identical with the Golden Era), the Tertiary, the Secondary, and the Primary (the last being the most modern and full of strife)—or in Hindu readings the Kritayuga, the Tretayuga, the Dvapara, and, at last, the Kaliyuga. Alberuni, quoting from the Vishnu-Dharma, describes the last stage thus:

God speaks … in the following words: "When the Kaliyuga comes, I send Buddha … to spread the good in the creation. But then the Muhammira, i.e. the red-wearing ones [from Sachau's explanation it appears that this refers to the reddish-brown garment of buddhist monks]… will change everything that he has brought, and the dignity of the Brahmans will be gone to such a degree that a Suidra, their servant, will be impudent towards them, and that a Sfidra and Candala will share with them the presents and offerings. Men will entirely be occupied with gathering wealth by crimes, with hording up, not refraining from committing horrid and sinful crimes. All this will result in a rebellion of the small ones against the great ones, of the children against their parents, of the servants against their masters. The castes will be in uproar against each other, the genealogies will become confused, the four castes will be abolished, and there will be many religions and sects.… The temples will be destroyed and the schools will lie waste. Justice will be gone, and the kings will not know anything but oppression and spoliation, robbing and destroying, as if they wanted to devour the people, foolishly indulging in far-reaching hopes, and not considering how short life is in comparison with the sins (for which they have to atone). The more the mind of the people is depraved, the more will pestilential diseases be prevalent.13

In another passage we find the statement that the named Muhammira

… leads mankind astray by fraud … [Human] lives will be of different length, and none of them will know how long it is.… The pious will be tom away and will have not a long life, but he who does evil and denies religion will live longer. Sûdras [the lowest caste of Hindu society corresponding to our servants, labourers and beggars] will be kings and will be like rapacious wolves robbing the others of all that pleases them. The doings of the Brahmans will be of the same kind [as heretofore], but the majority will be Sûdras and brigands. The laws of the Brahmans will be abolished.… For all of them have become of the same (wicked) character. Therefore any wish will soon be granted, little merit receive great reward, and honour and dignity be obtained by little worship and service.

But finally, at the end of the yuga, when the evil will have reached its highest pitch, there will come forth Garga, the son of… the Brahman, i.e. Kali, after whom this yuga is called, gifted with an irresistible force, and more skilled in the use of any weapon than any other. Then he draws his sword to make good all that has become bad; he cleans the surface of the earth of impurity of people and clears the earth of them. He collects the pure and pious ones for the purpose of procreation [is this not the first and oldest trace of human eugenics?]. Then the Kritayuga lies far behind them, and the time and the world return to purity, and to absolute good and bliss.14

Might it not have been in these ancient mythological beliefs and historical accounts, so difficult to interpret, that Rainow found some analogies to the historical events through which his own country, Russia, is now passing under Soviet rule? Was it not, perhaps, the Bolshevist Paradise of a deserted and depopulated earth that attracted the attention of Rainow in his attempt to find here, too, the main premises of Darwin's doctrine, which Bolshevist science does not cease to consider (surely only through a queer misunderstanding) as the cornerstone of their political creed?

We see, therefore, that the grounds for seeing in Alberuni's India any foreshadowing of Darwin's theory are rather more than scarce. If viewed in historical perspective, they reveal themselves as utterly anachronistic.

3

In fact, if we look at Alberuni's supposed prototype of some still poorly embryonic notion of natural selection in the light of all the further development of this doctrine, we find that his position differs from all those who come after him in that it was completely bereft of any connection with the idea of evolution. In chapters II to XII of the first volume of the India no trace of the idea in the purely biological sense of the word (even as concerned with the possibility of some phylogenetical implications) can be found. In his work Chronology15 we even find a decisive statement, which Carra de Vaux quotes in French: "La nature conserve les genres et les espèces tels qu'ils sont… fondés sur les lois géométriques."16

Nor can we find any trace of an idea of natural evolution in his firm belief in a God who is endowed to act, according to him, even above the laws of nature, or in the representation of nature in general as being pervaded by a spirit, Purusha, which, flowing through matter, passes through the different shapes of plants and animals, ascending through them according to the rising degrees of their animation. This finally leads to the process of common metempsychosis, understood, however, in the most typical way for Hindu philosophers, as the moral expiation for sins committed. This expiation is necessary to reach the state of absolute freedom of the Soul. As a final remark he quotes the opinion of his countryman Abui-Ya-'kfib of Sijistan that metempsychosis never exceeds the limits of the species; during the metempsychosis "the species are preserved.… Metempsychosis proceeds in one and the same species, never crossing the limits and passing into another species."17

In addition, his knowledge of the fields of botany and zoology, as may be seen in his India, is more than astonishingly scarce. He shows interest in them only as long as they present him with an unusual appearance of extraordinary curiosity. He cites, therefore, the belief of the Hindus that "plants are [considered] as animals because they have the faculty of distinguishing between that which suits them and that which is detrimental to them,"18 but restricts his discussion of the Hindu classification of living beings to the following passage:

… there are three classes of them: the spiritual ones in the height, men in the middle, and animals in the depth. Their species are fourteen in number, eight of which belong to the spiritual beings [here follows their enumeration]. Five species are those of animals—cattle, wild beasts, birds, creeping things and growing things, i.e. the trees. And lastly one species is represented by man.19

After this he adds the remark that "in their [Hindu] enumeration of things there is much that is arbitrary. They use or invent numbers of names, and who is to hinder them?" but he adds not a word from the Greek or Arab natural histories.

Instead, his interest is devoted more to the description of some unusual animals occurring in the India of his time,20 or to the different national festivals of the Hindu people, in which animal fights or love tournaments form a part.21 At any rate, in spite of the high poetical atmosphere, all this is very far from any serious consideration of the struggle for life or any evolutionary processes. Alberuni himself, with his usual sobriety, remarks that in these descriptions there is more "chaff than wheat." Here is further evidence that Alberuni did not take seriously the problems of evolution or the progressive development of animals and of men.

To sum up, we may conclude that in Alberuni's India, in itself an outstanding work, some views resembling the basic principles of Darwin's future doctrine are undeniably to be found. They are, however, vague and accidental; at any rate, they do not form any coherent theory, nor did Alberuni himself realize or pretend to ascribe to them any possible significance as far as their biological meaning might be concerned.

Notes

1 Danneman, Radl, Singer, Nordenskiold, O'Leary.

2Alberuni's India An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. An English edition with notes and indices. By Dr. Edward Sachau. 2 vols. (London: Trubner and Co., 1887).

3 T. I. Rainow, Wielikije Uczenyje Usbecistana (IX-XI bb), [The Great Scholars of Uzbekistan (IXth to XIth centuries)], Tashkent: Edition Ousphan, 1943, p. 62.

4 See Paul Masson-Oursel, Esquisse d'une histoire de la philosophie indienne (Paris: Geuthner, 1923), and E. Radhakishnan, Indian Philosophy, 2 vols. (London-Calcutta, 1953).

5India, ed cit., I, 400 (corresponding to page 200 in the Arab original).

6Ibid, II, 145-146.

7Ibid, I,100.

8Ibid, I, 137-138.

9Ibid, II, 153.

10Ibid., 1, 138.

11Ibid., 1, 400.

12Ibid, 1, 355.

13Ibid., 1,380-381.

14Ibid, I,381-382.

15Chronology, I, 290.

16 Bear d Carra de Vaux, Les Penseurs de I 'Islam (Paris: Payot, 1954), II, 149.

17India, I,65.

18lbid, I,43.

19Ibid., I,89.

20 See, Extracts from the tales of Vahamira from Samhita, chapter 12, foreword.

21Ibid, I, 203-204.

S. Maqbul Ahmad (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Al-Beruni and the Decline of Science and Technology in Medieval Islam, and His Contributions to Geography, with Special Reference to India," in Afghanistan Journal, Vol. 100, September, 1973, pp. 91-6.

[In the following essay, Ahmad evaluates al-Bīrūnī's accomplishments in geography and astronomy.]

It is well known that science and technology in the time of Medieval Islam passes through various phases of growth and progress from the eighth to the twelfth centuries A.D., but that in the later centuries, the progress was minor compared to that of the earlier stages. In fact, there was a continuous decline through the ninteenth century; in modern times, the study of the sciences has been taken up as a result of the impact of the west and a renaissance in the Islamic world. During this later period while some sciences like geography, navigation, mechanics, and engineering continued to show some progress, others, like astronomy, mathematics, physics, chemistry, logic, philosophy, medicine, optics, and opthamology, became outdated and ceased to progress. The works of the great masters of the earlier periods continued to be taught in the traditional manner, but little new research or investigation was done by the teachers or the taught. The texts of the masters were taught as bibles, or at most, commentaries were written that did little to expand the subject. Sciences that did show some progress, like geography, navigation, mechanics, and engineering, were those that interested kings and rulers for their military and political value. I believe that, among other factors, the decline of science and technology in the latter period was one of the main causes responsible for the decline of the Islamic society. The period between the eighth and twelfth centuries was truly the age of renaissance for Islamic society; Greek, Indian Roman, and Byzantine scientific, philosophical, and cultural achievements contributed as much towards this flourishing as the genius of the various nationalities and races who formed the component parts of what is called Islamic society. The totality of knowledge possessed and advanced by the scientists and philosophers of medieval Islam, in turn, played an important role in preparing the intellectual and philosophical background for the intellectual awakening in Europe, long before that awakening, the Renaissance occurred. The contribution came by way of transmitting Greek, Indian, and Iranian science and philosophy through Arabic translations, and by spreading an ethic of rational thought and a spirit of enquiry, and counteracting, to some extent, the theological imprint affecting the European intelligentsia. Some western scholars have doubted that the Muslim philosophers and scientists made any worthwhile, original contributions in their fields of work. This remains a moot point, and much work remains to be done before it can be established that the original contributions of the Muslim philosophers and scientists exercised any influence on European thought. But in my mind, it is not far fetched that both the Reformation and the Renaissance, as well as the Industrial Revolution in Europe, should be indebted to the intellectual achievements of the Islamic community during the period mentioned above.

As a student of historical geography, I can say with some authority that the contribution of the Muslim geographers to human geography, astronomical and mathematical geography, topography, cultural geography, and exploration and navigation cannot be challenged. The works of Al-Sharif al-Idrisi were taught in European universities right up to the seventeenth century. Al-Beruni's theory that there ought to be a channel connecting the Indian Ocean with the Atlantic, south of the Mountains of the Moon at the source of the Nile, was in contradiction to the Ptolemic concept of a TERRA INCOGNITE in the Southern Hemisphere which had led Muslim geographers to depict on their maps the Indian Ocean as a lake with only a single channel in the east connecting that body of water with the Atlantic Ocean. It was this concept of Al-Beruni's that finally led navigators to enter the Indian Ocean via the Cape of Good Hope. Again, Al-Beruni was not dogmatic about the geocentric theories of the ancients, and was aware of the other point of view, namely the heliocentric theory of the Greeks, and probably the ideas of those who propounded the heliocentric theory in India. As for his concept of the universe, he was familiar with the Hindu belief that the sky has no limits. But I do not believe that he conceived, like Einstein, that the universe—our solar system—was situated "on the outermost surface of a limited sphere, as was asserted by Seyed Hasan Barani, who was no doubt a great authority on Al-Beruni; like other philosophers of his time, he believed in shape and limited its margins".

Barani's deduction from this sentence seems to be wrong. Einstein's universe is limitless and even he himself was unable to determine its final shape … At best, he described it as the pack-saddles of a horse. Al-Beruni's universe was limited to the solar system, whereas the modern concept is that the solar system is situated in an arm of our galaxy. If Al-Beruni had declared any such views, then the orthodox people of his time would probably have declared him a heretic. For the same reason, for fear of the orthodox Christians, Copernicus was unable to publish his theories during his lifetime.

Al-Beruni did, however, present the thesis that nothing precluded the existence of a land-mass between the eastern and western limits of the inhabited world, i.e. in the unknown parts of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In fact, he saw the theoretical possibility of the existence of land there, and in this he was right, in that he had conceived of the possib

(The entire section is 69053 words.)

Further Reading

Ahmad, S. Maqbul. "Al-Bīrūnī as a Synthesizer and Transmitter of Scientific Knowledge." Indian Journal of the History of Science, Vol. 10, No. 2, November, 1975, pp. 244-8.

Argues that al-Bīrūnī drew on the scientific achievements of India and the Islamic Renaissance and took as his guiding principle the scientific method rather than "any theological or mythological" basis.

Ansari, S. M. Razaullah. "On the Physical Researches of Al-Biruni." Indian Journal of History of Science 10, No. 2 (November 1975): 198-217.

Describes al-Bīrūnī's work in physics and considers his implementation of the scientific method.

Choudhury, M. L....

(The entire section is 654 words.)