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by al- Bīrūnī

al-Biruni Essay - Critical Essays



al-Bīrūnī 973-1048?

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


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


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"


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.


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


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.


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.


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 possibility of the American continents, which no scientist of his age, before or after him had done. For even the discoverers of America were actually searching for a shorter passage to India by sea, and they gave the inhabitants of the Americans the name of "Red Indians" because they thought they had reached India when they came across some islands there.

Al-Beruni also measured the length of a terrestial degree, devising his own method of calculation, and found the length of a degree to be a little more than 56 Arabian miles, which according to Barani's calculations falls short by about 12 miles in the radius and 70 miles in the circumference as compared to our modern scientists. This trigonometrical method, as suggested by al-Mamun's astronomer Sind inb Ali, was resorted to by Al-Beruni at the fort of Nanda (western Punjab, India), while he was in detention there. This must have happened at the end of the year 408 A.H.. or at the beginning of 409 A.H., soon after which we find him "wandering in a very sore state of mind in the neighbourhood of Kabul."

Al-Beruni also measured the area of the earth's surface and its volume, and its weight in gold. India is indebted to this great astronomer for his study of Indian geography, and for calculating the latitudes of a number of towns in northern India, and Afghanistan. His findings are approximately correct. He gives a clear picture of the physical geography of northern India, as well as its climate, its flora and fauna, and its topography. His description of the road system emanating from Qinnauj is remarkable. He describes the main roads leading from Qinnauj to Kabul, Addishtan (Srinagar) Gangsagar (mouth of the Ganges), Orissa, Rameshwaram, Konkan, Tiz, and other coastal points, giving the distances in FARSAKHS. I have drawn a map of this road system (published in Medieval Indian Miscellany, Aligarh, University), but the source of his knowledge is unknown. It is probable that these roads existed in the Maurya and Cupta periods, and they are probably the roads that Suri and then the Mughals reconstructed. In describing these roads, he mentions a number of Indian towns and ports. The latitudes and longitudes of many of them are given in his Al-Qanun-I-Masudi

In the field of geography, we have, besides Al-Beruni, al-Maqdisi who laid the foundations of geography as a science. Al-Bayhani and Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, both of Afghanistan, and al-Istakhri and Ibn Hauqal were the forerunners of al-Maqdisi. This school of Balkhi geographers was the first to draw maps and present geographical information on a regional basis, which is a method still in use.

Besides geography, Muslim scientists of the early period between the eighth and twelfth centuries contributed original concepts and theories through experimental and theoretical work in various fields, surpassing the Greeks and the Indians. I am not competent to speak on these sciences authoritatively, but these conclusions can be drawn from the research of Orientalists. For instance, it was Ibn al-Haykham who first studied the structure of the eye, and discovered the properties of the lens. Thus, the construction of the telescope, which revolutionized astronomical science, though occurring in Italy centuries later, was based on his work, as is every sort of scientific equipment employing the lens. It was Ibn al-Nafis who, long before Harvey, discovered the circulation of the blood in the body. The Muslim surgeons of the period invented a number of surgical instruments, including a kind of syringe for drawing blood. Indeed, the names of Ibn Sina and Razi are outstanding in this field. Their works formed the text books for medical studies in Europe up to the 17th century (when they were given up because of the revolt of medical students against studying outdated Arabic texts, wanting to draw knowledge by dissecting the body directly). It was at this stage that TIB-E-YUN-ANI and allopathy branched out from the ancient Greek sciences. Likewise, in the field of chemistry, the Muslims were the first to separate matter from spirit, and raised AL-KIMIYA to the status of a pure science which the Greeks were not able to do. In mathematics, they made important original contributions in spherical trigonometry, algebra, and logarythms, which were invented by Mohammad Ibn Musa al-Khuwarizmi. In navigation, Ibn Majid and Sulayman al-Mahri were the outstanding navigators of the 15th and 16th centuries: their knowledge of the Indian Ocean was unsurpassed at the time. They used the magnetic compass and indicated positions on earth by the positions of the stars. Ibn Majid is counted among the first of the modern navigators.

The question, however, arises in the mind of the historians of science as to why, if the Muslims were so advanced in science and technology, was there in the later centuries so little progress on their parts in these fields. George Sarton, in his Introduction to the History of Science, pays tribute to al-Beruni by designating the first half of the 11th century as the era of Al-Beruni. This is like saying that Einstein was the greatest astronomer of the first half of 20th century. To my mind, the answer to this question lies in three important historical factors of his time. And it is my objective here to briefly mention them, so that the scholars who are gathered here may perhaps throw more light on them. For, I think that if the atmosphere had been favorable for the growth of science and technology in this period, the Islamic east might have witnessed a renaissance and industrial revolution the way Europe did. Now the first factor was of a theological and philosophical nature. Soon after the introduction of the Greek sciences and philosophy to schools newly Islamic, a section of the Muslim theologians attacked these studies, saying that the Greek philosophy went against the fundamental teachings of Islam, namely the Greeks believed that the world was eternal, while Islam taught that it was hadith that it had come into being in time. For centuries, the theologians and Muslim philosophers attacked each other over this and other philosophical questions. This is also reflected in the work of Al-Beruni who says that "the extremists among them would stamp the sciences as atheistic, and would claim that they lead the people astray in order to make ignoramuses, like him, hate the sciences." We know that al-Ghazzali warned the mathematicians and the logicians not to dabble in metaphysical questions, for, he said, they would never reach the truth through these sciences. But al-Beruni, who lived hardly a century before al-Ghazzali, believed the opposite. He says: "If a worshipper is a truth-seeker, then he is eventually led to an investigation of the conditions, old and new, of the world, and if he ignores that investigation he cannot pursue truth without reading intelligently about the rules of order in the universe and its parts, and without investigating the validity of those rules. This investigation will acquaint him with the Maker and His deserving qualities." Al-Ghazzali feverishly attacked the Muslim philosophers on their own grounds; Ibn Sina and others were his targets … By attacking the philosophers he indirectly attacked Greek science also, and finally provided the arguments against the philosopher-scientist for all the mutakhallimin of the later centuries. The philosopher-scientist's battle was a losing one from the 11th century onwards. Traditionalism and dogmatism in religious thought and philosophy were established which affected scientific studies and enquiries. Again, it was al-Ghazzali who provided the intellectual basis for the re-orientation of the educational system, by which theological studies were emphasized to a degree greater than science or philosophy. This was initiated at the Nizamiyya College in Baghdad, and it is probable that the Seljuk princes had a political motive in it. They were aware that it would aid them in attacking the "heretic" kingdom of the Fatimids in Egypt. Thus a systematic study of theology with ilm al-Kalam as the guide became the popular form of education throughout the Islamic world. There was little patronage for science and technology, unless the ruler himself was interested in the subject for political or military reasons. This was perhaps the most important factor in the decline of Islamic science in the later middle ages.

The second important reason, to my mind, was that during the first hundred years or so of the Abbasid rule, the society was heading towards a capitalistic form of economy. With the rise of the Buwayhids, however, and the disintegration of the Mamlakat-al-Islam, a feudal economy gradually took hold of the Empire. In a feudal society, the rulers are hardly interested in industrial growth, for the economy is agrarian and trade and commerce are secondary. For the growth of the trade and commerce, patronage of science and technology is essential. We know that with the rise of the feudal kingdoms all over the Islamic world, overseas trade declined, whereas during the earlier period of the Abbasids, trade had flourished and the society was a mercantile one. It was during this period that many new industries, such as the glass industry, began in the Islamic world. In Islam, the rise of feudalism, though not of a European type, reversed the process of growth of science and philosophy. There were no doubt some enlightened rulers, like the Mughal emperor Akbar in India who tried to introduce secular sciences and some philosophy into the education, but could never fully succeed in his efforts. The attitude of almost all of the rulers with few exceptions, such as Ulugh Beg in Central Asia and Akbar in India, was feudal. They were hardly interested in trade and commerce, and hence indifferent to science.

Lastly, dogma and tradition, as I pointed out above, guided the thought processess of the whole society from the 11th to the 19th centuries. It was not only in education. It was also apparent in Islamic law. For it was precisely at this time that the four schools of Islamic law, the Hanafi, Shafi'i", Maleki, and Hanbali became fixed and the old liberal attitude towards, EJTEHAD was given up. Throughout the later period, Islam never witnessed a religious reformation or revolution, which would have created a more liberal attitude towards the religion as the Reformation in Europe did. Thus, the attitude of the whole Muslim society was against the study of philosophy and science, for they believed that they spoiled the tenets of Islam.

Anton Heinen (lecture date 1973)

SOURCE: "Al-Bīrūnī and Al-Haytham: A Comparative Study of Scientific Method," in Al-Bīrūnī Commemorative Volume: Proceedings on the International Congress Held in Pakistan on the Occasion of Millenary of Abū Rāihān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973 Ca 1051 A.D.) November 26, 1973 thru' December 12, 1973, edited by Hakim Mohammed Said, Hamdard National Foundation, 1979, pp. 501-13.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a conference paper in 1973, Heinen considers al-Bīrūnī and al-Haytham, two Islamic scholars of the tenth century, paying specific attention to their methodology in the early development of scientific practices.]


History of science is a relatively young academic discipline in modern institutions of learning; the individual sciences have grown hypertrophically, leaped forward to magnificent achievements, but also into ever greater independence and isolation. Man has been unable to catch up with these breath-taking advances, to integrate them into a unified human consciousness, the essential condition for an unrestricted and wholesome participation in all the macro- and microcosmic processes on which man's entire life depends. So in recent times ever more people, including specialized scientists, have become aware of the need to trace the historical development of the sciences.

Too often, though, this branch of history is guided by a rigidified modern conception of its specific object: science, not as one of man's activities only, but as the abstract, superhuman force, pictured as the ever triumphant conqueror of ignorance throughout the ages. The result is, as we all know too well, a flood of books and pamphlets that look so frighteningly alike: Lists of discoveries and inventions, ascribed to people of whom we seldom get to know much more than their names and such vital statistics as birth and death. These data are often enough the only thing that suggests a measure of historical awareness; for a man's scientific activities are carefully isolated from his other, supposedly less important, concerns: in contemporary and local society, religious movements, philosophical schools, etc.—No, if the history of science is to have a sounder basis than a dehumanized abstraction, it has to study science as the science of man, man the scientist being the center of its investigation, its fundamental reality.

A hopeful beginning, it seems to me, has been made by historians of science in antiquity and the Middle Ages, although they often do not guard carefully enough against the common trend of making rash comparisons with the achievements of the Renaissance or modern times, before the work of these earlier scientists has been duly studied and appreciated in itself. Thus A. C. Crombie's pioneering studies on Robert Grosseteste and his contemporaries1 led to an increased interest in the methods and philosophical preconceptions of medieval scientists; not only their crystallized results, but even more their characteristic attitudes, and methodological choices that occasioned them, in short, their personal involvement as humane in scientific tasks, has become the more interesting 'object' of a history of science that is more truly a branch of history.

As far as the history of science in the Islamic countries is concerned, these broader, more human aspects of scientific development can still not be said to get the attention they deserve. In too many cases the basic texts are not even analysed and published yet, so that doing research in this area usually means that first the painstaking job of establishing the individual texts and their contributions has to be done. In some cases, however, thanks to the efforts of generations of devoted orientalists, this indispensable work has been completed already, or has at least progressed very far. And fortunately, this can be said of two of the greatest scientists in Islamic history: Al-Bīrūnī and Ibn al-Haytham. Thus the impatient student may be allowed to look ahead once and, relying on the ground-work laid by great scholars, gather some clues that cast light on the works of these two scientists, their origins and methods. This is done by way of comparison in order to give greater contrast to the characteristic features. In the case of Al-Bīrūnī and Ibn al-Haytham this procedure promises to be specially fruitful because they were contemporary Muslim scientists whose works covered so much the same ground that both men could be called "another Ptolemy"2, but who lived so far apart from each other—and in such different states as Fatimid Egypt and Sunnī Ghaznah: that they apparently never came to know of each other's existence.

I have to admit I was quite pleased to find out that Eilhard Wiedemann, some forty years ago, already planned to write a comparative study of Ibn al-Haytham and Al-Bīrūnī3 this assured me that I was not after something unreasonable and useless, although I can hardly hope to provide a substitute for a study which this great pioneer of Islamic history of science had not had the time to carry out.

I. Ibn al-Haytham, the Ingenious Physicist

Although a distressingly big number of the works ascribed to Ibn al-Haytham and Al-Bīrūnī are lost without any hope of recovery, both men—and the destructive forces of the turbulent centuries that divide us from them—were good enough to leave us lists of their own writings and autobiographic reflections. Any study of their scientific works, and especially a comparative evaluation that tries to lay bare the roots and methodological orientations of their science, will therefore be able to start from their own explicit statements. Further details, however, will then have to be gathered from their other extant literary compositions; and only a careful reading of these works can show how far their scientific programs and methodological reflections have been carried out and where they have led.

To start with, the older one of the two men,4 Ibn al-Haytham is never satisfied to just state the facts as they present themselves; he always has to inquire into the causes, to ask the question 'why?'; thus he reflects on what made him a scientist and led him to his many discoveries, but this time he contents himself with an admission of ignorance:

I do not know how I attained to (what has been written down below) since the time of my youth. You may say, if you so wish, it was through a miraculous coincidence, an inspiration from God, a fit of madness, any other cause or whatever pleases you.5

He has no answer to this question, but he is fully convinced that nothing is more valuable and bringing man closer to God than the search for truth and knowledge.

This search—as Ibn al-Haytham sums up years of experience—has to be an independent one that endeavours to penetrate to the very roots and principles of knowledge and is not satisfied with what the traditional authorities have said about the matters under investigation. Considering the fact that steadfast loyalty to such authorities has determined intellectual history for thousands of years and has still a greater effect than we like to admit, Ibn-al-Haytham's critical attitude deserves all the more attention, especially since it follows from the mature experience of a great scholar. In his words:

Since my youth I have constantly reflected on the views of various people concerning their doctrinal convictions; every group of them tenaciously holds on to what it deems right according to the view that has taken form. I began to doubt about all this; for I became convinced that there is only one truth, and that its differing conceptions merely stem from the methods used in the investigation.6

A few words first about the critical part of this puzzling text: Sometimes it has been taken in isolation and interpreted in a restricted theological sense, as if Ibn al-Haytham had lost his faith in Islam or any existing religion and become a modern atheist. If his other writings are taken into consideration, it will appear that this interpretation is inspired by modern anti-religious dogma rather than by textual evidence. What Ibn al-Haytham in fact came to extol above everything else is a commitment to truth for its own sake, independent of school traditions and sectarian dogmatism; and although he has the highest regard for Aristotle and Ptolemy, whom he is happy to accept as master and guide, he nevertheless advocates the most vigorous criticism of any scientific writing. His program of methodical criticism should be at least as well known as that of the much later Descartes:—

Truth is sought for its own sake. And those who are engaged upon the quest for anything that is sought for its own sake are not interested in other things. Finding the truth is difficult, and the road to it is rough. For the truths are plunged in obscurity. It is natural to everyone to regard scientists favourably. Consequently, a person who studies their books, giving a free rein to his natural disposition and making it his object to understand what they say and to possess himself of what they put forward, comes (to consider) as truth the notions which they had in mind and the ends which they indicate. God, however, has not preserved the scientist from error and has not safeguarded science from shortcomings and faults. If this had been the case, scientists would not have disagreed upon any point of science, and their opinions upon any (question) concerning the truth of things would not have diverged. The real state of affairs is however quite different. Accordingly, it is not the person who studies the books of his predecessors and gives a free rein to his natural disposition to regard them favourably who is the (real) seeker after truth. But rather the person who is thinking about them is filled with doubts, who holds back with his judgement with respect to what he has understood of what they say, who follows proof and demonstration rather than the assertions of a man whose natural disposition is characterized by all kinds of defects and shortcomings. A person, who studies scientific books with a view to knowing the truth, ought to turn himself into a hostile critic of everything that he studies … he should criticize it from every point of view and in all its aspects. And while thus engaged in criticism he should also be suspicious of himself and not allow himself to be easy-going and indulgent with regard to (the object of his criticism). If he takes this course, the truth will be revealed to him and the flaws … in the writings of his predecessors will stand out clearly.7

The second, i.e. positive, part of Ibn al-Haytham's autobiographic statement quoted above takes us into the heart of his scientific originality.. "for I became convinced that there is only one truth, and that its differing conceptions merely stem from the methods used in the investigation." This unitary view of truth gives the characteristic vigour and direction to all scientific projects and achievements of Ibn al-Haytham; according to the first list of his writings, transmitted by Ibn Abī Usaybo'ah, he also wrote special treatises in support of this unitary view, however, they do not seem to have survived the destructions of history. Only their titles are still known:—

Treatise on the fact that there is only one method of attaining truth (nr. 25), and:

Treatise on the fact that there is only one proof, but that it is applied as a constructive one (sina') in geometrical questions, and as a dialectical one (kalāmi) in the physical and metaphysical questions (nr. 26).8

Since these general methodological treatises are lost to us, we have to turn to the introductions of the extant works, almost all of which contain a concise explanation of his methodology, and to these works themselves. What is most characteristic in Ibn al-Haytham's works is first the careful analysis of his object of investigation that allows him to distinguish its various scientific aspects, and then—with the simple consistency of the true genius—the combination of the appropriate methods for the study of these aspects;9 for the truth of the matter is only one, no matter how many different aspects, and correspondingly methods, the mind of the scientist produces. And it seems that Ibn al-Haytham gives preference to such objects and problems that more obviously permit or require the combined use of different scientific methods; his favourite one is doubtlessly light, and it is in optics where he made his most famous discoveries. He wrote a separate treatise on light in which he gives us a very clear and concise elucidation of his approach as scientist:

The discussion of what light is belongs to the natural sciences, and the discussion of the man of radiation of light reqires the help of the mathematical sciences because of the lines along which the rays of Light end. Similarly, the discussion of what the ray is belongs to the natural sciences, and the discussion of its form and shape belongs to the mathematical sciences. Similarly also the transparent bodies through which light passes. The discussion of what their transparency is belongs to the natural sciences, and the discussion of the manner how light extends through them belongs to the mathematical sciences. So it is necessary that the discussion of Light and ray and transparency belongs jointly to the natural sciences and the mathematical sciences.10

This method of jointly using the tools and arguments of different sciences for the same object of investigation is something surprisingly new, according to M. Schramm's thesis,11 as new as Galileo's turn to modern physics, only—Ibn al-Haytham lived some 600 years before the great Italian scientist. For as the many examples of physico-mathematical research with frequent recourse to experimental observation in Ibn al-Haytham's various optical works show, his science is already—at least in this particular field—that systematic use of mathematical functions for the description of physical processes which, since Galileo has marked the swift progress of modern physics. Surely, he still sounds quite Aristotelian when he speaks of light as a substantial form; but for him the intensity of this form can mathematically be described as a function of the angle of refraction, for instance.

The consequences of this new approach to scientific problems are naturally quite far-reaching. Physics deals no longer merely with abstract principles, aiming at the philosophical description of the natures and qualities of the various substances, but with the operational effects of these things that can be measured and mathematically formulated in functions. And since Ibn al-Haytham's primary object of physical research is much a universal phenomenon as light, being part of the sublunar as well as of the supralunar world, his new physics extends quite logically to the planets and stars, while with Galileo the laws of earthly mechanics are simply projected on the movements of the heavenly bodies. Astronomy, consequently, is in Ibn al-Haytham's view of the sciences not limited to purely mathematical circles and spheres, invented to "save the phenomena", but it deals with the real movements of the heavenly bodies and therefore also real spheres.

The consequences for mathematics, especially geometry, are even more staggering, as appears principally in his short treatise on space, a remarkable elaboration of the basic Aristotelian conception, but far beyond Aristotle.12 Space is for Ibn al-Haytham no longer identical with the surface of the surrounding body, but it is an imaginary three-dimensional entity that consists of the dimensions extending between the opposite points of the area surrounding an imaginary vacuum. However, it does not exist in an absolute sense, as he seems to have clarified in a special treatise of which we only have the title: "Treatise on the non-existence of an empty or a fully occupied space beyond the heavens".13 In any case, spatial extension, the very basis of geometry, is seen in correlation with the physical interaction of bodies to such an extent that the path of light as the straightest possible line is actually proven by way of experiment. Surely, this particular experiment is not very fanciful at all. A beam of light is simply collated with a straight rod and declared straight because no divergence can be perceived. But it is remarkable that early in the Middle Ages the straightness of light beams is neither simply taken over from the long tradition of optics nor deduced with the help of a priori principles, but is seen as merely the physical agreement with a standard taken from ordinary sense perception. Is it too much to say that quite modern developments in science are fore-shadowed in this unusual scientific attitude of Ibn al-Haytham?

II. Al-Bīrūnī, the Great Mathematician

This mathematical point may lead us over to the discussion of the scientific methodology of al-Bīrūnī, surely one of the greatest mathematicians of the Middle Ages. To consider his work after that of Ibn al-Haytham will make it easier for us to select the essential features of his approach as a scientist which otherwise tend to get lost in the very extensive and variegated investigations, calculations and historical accounts that make up his major writings. And al-Bīrūnī has not reflected so intensively on his own method as did his great contemporary Ibn al-Haytham.

The contrast between the two contemporary scientists is quite obvious from the beginning: While Ibn al-Haytham, as he himself informs us, endeavoured systematically to absorb and further develop the Aristotelian treasure of knowledge, scientific work seems to have come quite spontaneously to al-Bīrūnī, almost as the natural outflow of his rich personality. All his books bear this mark of effortless, and sometimes playful, ingenuity; one does not mind his numerous digressions at all, because whatever he writes is highly interesting and—inspite of his mathematically concise language—extremely informative. It is curious how the great al-Bīrūnī in his old age reflects on his awakening interest in science early in his childhood, namely in the preface of his last book, the Kitāb al-Saydānāh, which he apparently left unfinished:14 A foreigner, who appears to have been a Byzantine merchant, travelled through young Abū Raihān's hometown and gave the child an opportunity to inquire about foreign names for the familiar objects of his environment. This little incident is characteristic of large sections of the later "master's" scientific publications: Precise descriptions of corresponding systems used in different nations for astronomical or astrological calculations, fixation of calendars, geographical determinations, mineralogical and pharmacological handbooks, philosophical speculations, etc. Their scientific value rests less in forward-looking inventiveness than in their exact and objective manner of description and the enormous amount of information they contain.

For al-Bīrūnī all scientific research seems to hinge on one or the other branch of mathematics, and mathematics itself is rooted in man's nature:

Counting is innate to man. The measure of a thing becomes known by its being compared with another thing which belongs to the same species and is assumed as a unit by general consent. Thereby the difference between the object and this standard becomes known15

This natural drive of man to count the objects around him, and to establish a quantitative correlation among them, accounts for most of al-Bīrūnī's scientific work, although he himself also repeatedly stresses usefulness of knowledge as an important motive for his own research and the promotion of science in general. Since this usefulness is, in his view, primarily the one to religious man, as he emphasizes even in such a technical book as the Kitāb Tahdīd al-Amakin, science assumes a certain religious overtone:

We look around and we see that man's efforts are directed only towards earning a living, and for this purpose he endures hardships and fears, though he needs his food only once or twice a day for his life in this world. But he pretends ignorance and neglects what he must not fail to do for his soul in the hereafter, five times in every day and night, thinking that his ignorance is a valid excuse, though he has the opportunity and the power to know it (what is good for his soul).

The Jews also need a direction, because they turn in their prayers to the Temple in Jerusalem which is of known longitude and latitude …—The Christians need the (direction of) true east because their elders, whom they call fathers, prescribed to them that they should turn to Paradise in their prayers.…16

This whole perspective is strikingly different from Ibn al-Haytham's science for science's sake; but this text should not mislead us either, as if truth in itself was not beautiful enough for al-Bīrūnī, "for (as he says in the same book) the intrinsic worth of a thing is different from the casual material benefit that it brings in its train".17 And it is knowledge in itself that makes a true human being of man:

… It is knowledge, in general, which is pursued solely by man, and which is pursued for the sake of knowledge itself, because its acquisition is truly delightful, and is unlike the pleasures desirable from other pursuits.18

Furthermore, al-Bīrūnī's attitude to former scientists and their schools, as well as to religious and philosophical traditions, differs quite markedly from that of Ibn al-Haytham who shows himself impressed by hardly anyone besides Aristotle and Ptolemy, and even in regard to them grows increasingly independent. Al-Bīrūnī, on the contrary, does not hesitate to declare:

I must assay all aspects of this statement, because I do not refuse to accept the truth from any source, wherever I can find it.19

In light of this statement it cannot surprise that his writings abound with quotations from and references to the works of other scholars. However, he does not adhere to one master's school, to the extent to which Ibn al-Haytham always remains an Aristotelian. He has words of high praise for al-Rāzī, but he explicitly dissociates himself from the school of this famous Persian physician and philosopher.20 But the many quotations from Plato seem to suggest that he had a definite preference for the Platonic tradition.

We saw above how Ibn al-Haytham's strong conviction of truth being only one, inspite of the methodological differences, led him to a new and most fruitful combination of mathematics and physics. Al-Bīrūnī, for his part, keeps the different sciences clearly distinct and he considers it possible and preferable to pursue them one at a time. This might seem to be the natual thing to do, but it does not give consistency to his whole scientific system, as the comparison with that of Ibn al-Haytham shows. Take, for instance, his extensive use of mathematical calculations in their application to the physical realities of the universe: Infinity appears to be their sole logical termination, nevertheless, al-Bīrūnī draws a certain—or rather uncertain—line somewhere, as a sarcastic remark in his India shows:

We on our part found it already troublesome to enumerate all the seven seas, together with the seven earths, and now this author thinks he can make the subject more easy and pleasant to us by inventing some more earths below those already enumerated by ourselves.21

Enumeration and mathematical calculation must come to an end at some point; but where exactly? In view of Ibn al-Haytham's fruitful combination of mathematics and physics, and the later development of science, it must look like a tragic omission in al-Bīrūnī's scientific system that he was clearly aware of the problem, but did nothing to solve it satisfactorily. Since he does not modify his scientific approach following the admission of physical limits at which man's counting and measuring comes to an end, it must appear as a mere theological or philosophical restriction that for him man's knowledge cannot reach out indefinitely into space and time, but goes only as far as sense perception. Thus he approvingly quotes from the followers of the Hindu philosopher Aryabhata:

It is sufficient for us to know the space which is reached by the solar rays. We do not want the space which is not reached by the solar rays, though it be in itself of an enormous extent. That which is not reached by the rays is not reached by the perception of the senses, and that which is not reached by perception is not knowable.22

And concerning time, al-Bīrūnī himself makes a similar restricting statement:

We do not know of the conditions of creation, except what is observed in its colossal and minute monuments which were formed over long periods of time, for example, the high mountains which are composed of soft fragments of rocks, of different colors, combined with clay and sand which solidified over their surfaces. A thoughtful study of this matter will reveal that the fragments and pebbles are stones which were tom from the mountains by internal splitting and by external collision … All those changes are necessarily of long duration, and their causes are of unknown nature.23

The last sentence must baffle the critical reader; for it is hard to understand how the great astronomer and scientist al-Bīrūnī can so offhandedly push aside any investigation into the proximate physical causes of such earthly changes as those of erosion. The most likely explanation seems to be that his Platonic approach to reality, or his high appreciation of mathematical exactitude that simply could not be found in the sublunar world to the same extent as in the movements of the heavenly spheres, stood in the way, preventing him from aspiring after a complete scientific explanation of all the natural phenomena.

It should not be forgotten that al-Bīrūnī's achievements as one of the greatest mathematicians and astronomers of the Middle Ages are so outstanding in themselves that they alone lift him above all his contemporaries. But they probably would have been even more fruitful had he not, because of a particular philosophical preconception, been satisfied to merely negatively limit his research to the physically, i.e. through the rays of the sun, accessible world, and, instead, drawn the positive conclusions for all possible scientific knowledge of our world; after all, Ibn al-Haytham did precisely this, when he realized that even our sense organs are parts of the physical world, and that therefore all human science has to be composed of physics and mathematics, or sense phenomena as matter and mental structures as form.24 By his scientific endeavours man participates in the processes of this world, he does not merely lay his mathematical co-ordinates over it, the work in which al-Bīrūnī seems to have found the greatest pleasure.

Surely, al-Bīrūnī was aware of the necessary correlation between the observer's logical and mathematical systems, on the one side, and the dynamic interaction of physical bodies, on the other; but that does not occasion him to engage in any elaborate studies of these dynamic aspects, not even to the extent of laying a firm basis for his own observations and measurements. As we saw above, in the case of Ibn al-Haytham it was the inquiry into the nature of light that led him to the discovery of a new scientific method, so extremely fruitful in modern physics; al-Bīrūnī, for his part, was satisfied with the mere question whether light was material or immaterial, and his Optics seems to have followed the traditional mathematical line.25

In addition to light, there were, of course, innumerable other natural phenomena and processes that could have served as stimuli for al-Bīrūnī to make his own, doubtlessly valuable, contribution to physical science, the most likely ones being the physical effects of the heavenly bodies on each other, and especially on all events here on earth. But, inspite of his many, most exact astronomical observations and mathematical calculations, carried out with no less effort and vigour in astrology than in astronomy, he merely enumerates the various physical effects of the moon, for instance, on earthly substances and events, almost in the same fashion as Ibn al-Haytham, in the beginning of his Optics, reviews the variegated effects of light in our environment. However, we look in vain for a detailed examination based on experiments and a mathematical description of the processes by means of functional correlations. Consider, for instance, the following text from his India, to which many others from his Astrology could be added:

That the moon has certain effects on moist substances, that they are apparently subject to her influences, that, for instance, increase and decrease in ebb and flow develop periodically and parallel with the moon's phases, all this is well known to the inhabitants of seashores and seafaring people. Likewise physicians are well aware that she affects the humors of sick people, and that the fever-days revolve parallel with the moon's course. Physical scholars know that the life of animals and plants depends upon the moon, and experimentalists know that she influences marrow and brain, eggs and the sediments of wine in casks and jugs, that she excites the minds of people who sleep in full moonlight, and that she affects linen clothes which are exposed to it. Peasants know how the moon acts upon fields of cucumbers, melons, cotton, &c., and even make the times for the various kinds of sowing, planting, and grafting, and for the covering of the cattle depend upon the course of the moon. Lastly, astronomers know that meteorologic occurrences depend upon the various phases through which the moon passes in her revolutions.26

Nobody would deny that this list includes many phenomena that should challenge the curiosity of any scientist, as light did in the case of Ibn al-Haytham. A precise casual analysis, based on extended observations and carefully planned experiments, could enable him to give a more exact and detailed description of the processes involved, and with the necessary mathematical functions he could formulate the universal laws that would make the different phases of these processes truly comprehensible. But nowhere in al-Bīrūnī's voluminous works do we find traces of such physical investigations. They would seem to be the natural prerequisites of his numerous and most intricate astrological calculations, still they do not seem to have ever been made by al-Bīrūnī. The question, whether he "believed" in astrology or not, has often been discussed; Sachau's view, namely, that he must have had some belief in it, considering all the material he published on it, might be modified in the sense that he "believed" in it insofar as it gave him plenty of opportunities to practise his mathematical skills, but that he never cared much for the physical effects ascribed to the planets and stars, since he not even cared for the ordinary casual interactions between bodies in the sublunar or supralunar world.

By way of conclusion, the comparison between two contemporary scientists can only underscore the importance of methodological choices for the development of science and man's total relationship to his whole physical nature and the universe around him. For, al-Bīrūnī and Ibn al-Haytham can be said to be comparable to each other as are the scholastics of the 14th century, with their highly developed mathematics, with Galileo, the founder of modern physics—i.e. the difference is one of three centuries if the development of science is considered.


1 Crombie, A. C.; Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100 - 1700; Oxford, 1953.

2 The reason might be that both men wrote commentaries on the Almagest.

3 See: al-Bīrūnī: The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology; transl. by R. Ramsay Wright; London, 1934; Preface, II.

4 Ibn al-Haytham was born in 965 A.D.; cf. E. Wiedemann: "Ibn al-Haitam, ein arabischer Gelehrter"; in: Festschrift J. Rosenthal; Leipzig, 1906; p. 151.

51bid, p. 157 (My own translation).

6Ibid, p. 156 f

7 S. Pines: "Ibn al-Haytham's Critique of Ptolemy"; in: Actes du Xe Congres internationale d'histoire des sciences; Ithaca, 1962 (Paris, 1964), I., p. 547 f.

8 E. Wiedemann: "Ibn al Haitam, ein arabischer Gelehrter"; op. cit., p. 165.

9 Cf. E. Wiedemanm: Theorie des Regenbogens von Ibn al Hatam; in: Aufsatze zur arabischen Wissenschaflsgeschichte; Hildesheim—New York, 1970; Bd. H, p. 71.

10 Ibn al-Haytham: M (or Qawl) f al-Daw; nr. 2 in: Majmu' al-Rasa'il; Hyderabad, 1357 A.H. (1938); p. 2 (My own translation). In this context I would like to thank Prof. A. I. Sabra for most helpful suggestions.

11 See: M. Schramm: Ibn al-Haytham Weg Zur Physik; Wiesbaden, 1963.

12 See: E. Wiedemann: Kleinere Arbeiten von Ibn al Haitam. 1. Eine philosophische studie von Ibn al Haitam Uber den Ort; in: Aufsatze, op. cit., Bd. I., p. 525, esp. note 1 (by Horten).

13 E. Wiedemann: lbn al Haitam, ein arabischer Gelehrter; op. cit., p. 165.

14 Cf. M. Meyerhof: Al-Bīrūnī, Das Vorwort zur Drogenkunde des Beruni. ed. and transl.; Berlin, 1932.

15 E. C. Sachau: Alberūnī&ni's India; London, 1910; Delhi, 1964 (Reprint), I., p. 160.

16 Al-Bīrūnī: The Determination of the Coordinates of Positions for the Correction of Distances between Cities; transl. by Jamil Ali; Beirut, 1967; p. 175; cf. p. 3.

17Ibid., p. 8.

8Ibid., p. 2.

19Ibid., p. 79.

20 See: E. Wiedemann: Uber al-Bīrūnīal B r n und seine Schriften; in: Aufsatze, op. cit., p. 487 (Bd. II).

21 E. C. Sachau: Alberūnīm's India; op. cit., I., p. 237.

22lbid, p. 225; cf p. 227.

13 Al-Bīrūnī: The Determination; op. cit., p. 16 f.

24 Cf. E. Wiedemann: Ibn al Haitam, ein arabischer Gelehrter; op. cit. P. Lf&.

25 Nothing definite can be said, though, because it seems to be lost.

26 E. C. Sachau: Alberiini's India; op. cit., I., p. 346 f.

Syed H. H. Nadvi (lecture date 1973)

SOURCE: "Al-Bīrūnī and His Kitāb al-Jamāhir Fi-Ma'rifah al-Jawāhir' in Al-Bīrūnī Commemorative Volume: Proceedings on the International Congress Held in Pakistan on the Occasion of Millenary of Abū Rāihān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973 Ca 1051 A.D.) November 26, 1973 thnr 'December 12,1973, edited by Hakim Mohammed Said, Hamdard National Foundation, 1979, pp. 530-44.

[In the following essay, originally presented as a conference paper in 1973, Nadvi asserts that the moral philosophy of al-Bīrūnī is grounded in revelation rather than empirical factors, unlike his scientific contributions. Nadvi also contrasts al-Bīrūnī's work with the ethical thought of Immanuel Kant and the Utilitarians.]

The School of Baghdad survived the political downfall of the Caliphate. The creative activity of Baghdad although slowed down, did not cease completely until the middle of the XVth Century. Asia, India and China were influenced by the Baghdad School. Abū Rāihān al-Bīrūnī (b.3, Dhii al-Hijjah 362/4 September 973 d. 2 Rajab 440/13 December [1048]),1 served as living link between the traditions of the School of Baghdad and those of India. He enjoyed the patronage of the Court of Mahmūd of Ghaznah (997 - 1030 A.D.).

Kitāb al-Jamāhir reveals a three-dimensional personality of al-Bīrūnī, namely (1) al-Bīrūnī as a teacher of ethics or moral philosophy, (2) as scholar of mineralogy and as expert of precious stones, known in Arabic or in other languages, and (3) as an evaluator of precious stones and the inter-relationship between precious stones and coins.2

Ethics of al-Bīrūnī

Each discipline of thought has its own code of ethics. A lawyer, a physician or a teacher is supposed to be honest in his profession. Thus honesty is a part of ethics. No religion is without ethical commandments: "Thou shall not kill" or "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you". Daily life is also governed by ethical notions which vary, of course, according to the belief system of the community such as, "The end justifies the means", "Might makes right", "Every man for himself', "My country, right or wrong", "Good neighbour policy", "Fair play", or "Taking arms against aggressor is always right course of action", and so on. Reaching a decision, as to what choice among alternative courses of conduct one ought to make, is precisely speaking the subject matter of ethics or moral philosophy. Ethics is concerned with the understanding of what is meant by such terms as "good", "right", "justifiable", "duty", "responsibility" and so on in forming judgement about how people ought to behave when confronted with a choice of alternative.

Value judgement is, therefore, implicit in ethics. It is difficult for all intelligent persons to agree on ethical terms, such as what is right and what is wrong, especially when their own interests and beliefs are different. The great moral teachers of mankind have devoted their lives to reach a conclusion about a way of good life, about a concept of good and bad, right and wrong. Thinking persons or moral philosophers like Confucius, Laotze, Buddha, Zoroaster, Socrates, Epicurus, Epictetus, Spinoza, Kant and Dewey spent their lives in searching answers to ethical problems.3 In western as well as in eastern civilisations conflicting ethical ideals are quite evident. Worldliness of Classical and Renaissance cultures was opposed to unworldliness of medieval and mystic renunciation of all earthly desires. The Catholic ethics of Aquinas and the Protestant ethics of Kant, the evolutionary ethics of social reform and the revolutionary ethics of violent seizure of power are two different ideals diametrically opposed to each other. Socrates' theory that "Virtue is knowledge" was contradicted by the Romantic slogan "Ignorance is bliss", for ignorance keeps men happier. Similar is the conflict between established traditions and changing social conditions. The accepted or socially sanctioned standards of good and bad are not one and the same. Ethical reflections are yet in the process of revealing the philosophy of common morality, acceptable to all religions and civilisations. Since ethical principles are involved in making a choice between alternative possibilities in terms of better and worse, it is the aim of moral philosophy to clarify ethical choice. A "good person" or a "good character" is the product of good beliefs, good breeding, good habits, good education and good religious training. There are many different opinions about what is good in regard to character, breeding, habits, education and religion. Discussing the stable set of habits for the formation of character, Aristotle in the first chapter of his Ethics notes that a young person, ruled by uncontrolled impulses, was not yet ready for the study of ethics. The term "young" does not imply youthfulness in years but in maturity of habits of self-control and of reflections over one's experiences.

Now coming back to the first part of the Kitāb al-Jawāhir, namely the fifteen Tarwīhahs with preceding and succeeding chapters,4 we can see his treatment of good, bad, happiness, moral excellence etc. The moral philosophy and ethical reflections of al-Bfiriln revolve around his theories of virtue … and perfection.… These concepts are evolved in various ways in his different… parts of preamble. The whole philosophy is religious in character rather than abstract rationalisation like those of philosophers. He deals with the spiritual life of man, his virtues and evils affecting the conduct of man and society. His moral philosophy derives its inspiration from the Qur'ān and Sunnah, so frequently quoted in support of his statements and arguments.

Before opening his discourse on ethics, he initiates it with praise of God who created the universe, skies, sun, and moon for the benefit of man and sent down rain to raise his subsistence. He concludes it with the praise of the Prophet.5

In the first Tarwīhah, al-Bīrūnī discusses the five senses of man, so vital for his existence and initial perceptions of Truth. They were, no doubt, blessings of God.6 The second Tarwīhah deals with the senses of man and of animal and describes the superiority of the former over the latter. Animals were created for the service of man, so that man could be grateful to his Creator.…

Mentioning the benefits of the senses of seeing and hearing … he says that man was endowed with these senses so that he could recognise signs of God and listen to His commandments. The importance of such vital senses can be realised only after their loss. He concludes that these senses served as major sources of knowledge. His entire efforts seem to prove the existence of God and His flawless creations for the benefit of man, so that he could lay the foundation of his ethics on revelation rather than on rationalism and invite men to follow the divinely revealed ethics and not an ethics related to human ambitions.…

In these verses indebtedness of man to his Creator, perfection of creation and his accountability to the Lord have been highlighted. It is, however, unfortunate that man, despite all such heavenly blessings, was ungrateful to his Lord.7 The third Tarwīhah defines the nature of associations (al-Jins, or temperamental affinity of good and bad characters with each other). A blind person, for example, feels comfortable only with a blind friend. Evil goes with evil and virtue with virtue.8 Philosophy of renunciation and escapism has been rejected by al-Bīrūnī in the fourth Tarwīhah, for man is a social being and he can't live without a society, without a leader and without a political life. God had created minerals like gold and silver to facilitate man's needs of social and political life.9 The tendency of accumulation and hoarding of wealth by the few has been condemned in the fifth Tarwīhah. Al-Bīrūnī emphatically criticises such evil persons who deprive others from the use of gold and silver, which were not to be eaten by man but to be used for the welfare of man and of State. In this respect metals were regarded as total good. Man's ethics took a turn to selfishness which spoiled his virtues and manliness. The hoarders and accumulators of gold, silver, metals and stones are condemned by al-Bīrūnī and have been warned of severe punishments … because they violate the divine ethics.10

The main concepts of al-Bīrūnī's moral philosophy, are contained in his theories of al-Murū'ah (virtue) and al-Futuwwah (perfection), both being inter-related. They are discussed in the sixth Tarwīhah the former dealing with the ideal of manhood, valour, chivalry, generosity and sense of honour, while the latter treating the totality of noble character, chivalrous qualities of a man, his magnanimity, generosity and noble heartedness. It was the designation of Islamic brotherhood of the Middle Ages and yet is used as names of several youth organisations in Arab countries. Al-Murū'ah is a virtue centered on the individual, while al-Futuwwah is all embracing and beneficial to others. Hātim of Tayī and Ka'b b. Mama' al-Eyadī have been quoted by al-Bīrūnī as examples in this regard. The Arab ideal of generosity and hospitality is personified in Hātim, the source of many anecdotes. The latter gave his life to save the life of his thirsty friend by his generosity. An ideal and virtuous youth, according to al-Bīrūnī, is one who perceives the lawful and the forbidden … as ordained by divine authority, and who is saturated with virtues like gentleness …, amnesty …, sedateness or grave manners …, toleration … and modesty … and who is devoted to the welfare of others. An ideal youth is supposed to repel tyranny and protect truth and safeguard the rights of the neighbour, like Hātim, so well known for his magnanimity and noble heartedness (karam and samaha). Al-Bīrūnī quotes the following verses in support of his theory of al-Futuwwah:

… The ideal youth is not one who sets back and forth to drink radiant and bright morning and evening wine. The ideal youth, on the contrary, is one who goes back and forth for the suppression of the enemy or evil and for the welfare of the friend (truth).

At the same time 'Alī b. al-Jaham's verse is quoted in support of the theory of al-Murū'ah (personal virtue);

… There is no shame if an ideal free man or knight loses his prosperity and happiness but the real disgrace is if he loses courtesy, generosity and etiquette.

Al-Bīrūnī is fully mindful to caution his ideal youth not to spoil his virtues by speaking of obligation … for in this case not only virtues are lost but they are rejected by God. Here again one can see how al-Bīrūnī's ethics is inseparable from his religious beliefs. If Aristotle's young man ruled by uncontrolled impulses was not ready for the study of ethics, Bīrūnī's young man, devoid of al-Murū'ah' and of al-Futuwwah, was not mature enough for the study of ethics. Al-Bīrūnī's moral philosophy is diametrically opposed to the utilitarian ethics.11 The sign of an intelligent man as described by al-Bīrūnī, in the seventh Tarwīhah lies in his perception of the blessings of Lord and not in getting involved in worldly luxuries and pleasures. The intelligent man is always grateful to his Lord. It is only an unintelligent person who is always lost in worldly pleasures with utter disregard to ethics. Precious stones were in fact created for the use of the grateful and virtuous people and not for the wicked and avaricious, always running back and forth for false self-praise and wordly prestige and power.…

The eighth Tarwīhah deals with the variation of human nature, so avaricious for precious things. The philosophy of love, which blinds a man has also been discussed here. It has been concluded that excessive physical and worldly pleasures lead to exhaustion and thus negative virtues.12 The concept of al-Murū'ah has been furthermore elaborated in the ninth Tarwihah. Desire for self-praise according to al-Bīrūnī is negation of virtues.13 The philosophy of cleanliness has also been attributed to the concept of al-Murui'ah. Personal cleanliness, according to al-Blriumi, means cleanliness of heart and of intention …

The second caliph once defined al-Murū'ah as cleanliness of clothes.… The Qur'ānic injunction "Clean your clothes" … has been interpreted by the exegetist as cleanliness of the heart and intentions. Al-Bīrūnī supports this interpretation.14 The tenth Tarwīhah further enumerates the virtues of a perfect man as being large-hearted to cover the weakness of others and help the needy. Religion itself teaches justice and equality. Al-Bīrūnī, emphatically asserts that it is not precious stones which decorate man's character, it is mainly qualities which adorn his conduct and it is a clean heart which pleases Lord. The cleanliness of body and dress, as in the case of pilgrims, is metaphorical implying cleanliness of soul as well as of the body.15

Thus the perfection of cleanliness is analogous to the perfection of al-Muru'ah. The noted emphasis of al-Birmi on the cleanliness of soul and heart is a clear evidence that they are the main fountains of virtues, all good leading to happiness and to all good deeds like justice and other moral excellences, unattainable by abstract reflections on empirical ethics. Soul has been the centre of attention in all religious ethics although neglected in rational ethics, where logical dialectics serve as the basis of analysis of human nature, his concept of good and bad etc.

The religious ethics of al-Bīrūnīin is boldly projected in the eleventh Tarwihah when he asserts that pleasure of God ought to be the objective of all human ethics, for it governs human conduct in terms of a choice of alternatives between good and bad, vice and virtue. He condemns those who fear kings, who destroy human virtues for self-projection and self-glorification and negate the concept of al-Muru'ah. The king would not hesitate in letting loose his tyranny in order to save his throne. Thus a king cannot be a model of virtues. Here we can see a revolutionary al-Bīrūnīrn, rising against the king, prone to destroy the concept of al-Muru'ah and of al-Futuwwah.16 The same idea is developed in the twelfth Tarwihah where al-Bīrūnī presents his theory of a welfare-state. The wealth and treasures of kings according to al-Bīrūnī's moral philosophy were to be used for the welfare of the state and of its people and not for self-concerned individuals. Virtue of wealth lies in being spent for the people.17 Dealing with the utility of wealth, al-Bīrūnī describes in the thirteenth Tarwihah how the rich and the poor used to save their wealth beneath the surface of the earth and how they were lost without being utilised either by the inheritors of the wealth or by the people of the state. Thus the utility of wealth comes to zero. This selfish conduct again negates the philosophy of Futuwwah.18 The fourteenth Tarwfhah deals with the problems of moveable wealth. Kings would carry their wealth from place to place either for their own use or for the benefits of the public but as the problem of transport of gold and silver got difficult, they used to carry precious stones instead, in order to avoid the risk of theft or loss of gold or of silver. Here al-Bīrūnī philosophises his ethics in a most sophisticated manner. He implies that it is quality rather than quantity that matters in ethics. Virtues however small count much. A man who piles a heap of sins in his life and lacks one single virtue is most unfortunate. It is enough for a man to have few virtues to his credit for they were like precious stones. After death, virtuous deeds, although few in number, can be a source of salvation.19 In the last Tarwihah al-Bīrūnī again generalises his moral philosophy that the use of gold and silver utensils were forbidden for the simple reason that they were available only to few individuals, the kings or the rich, and not to the public and masses. Thus a king's love for gold and precious stones, so transitory and unreal in nature, was hazardous and against the principles of al-Futuwwah. Virtue alone is real. It does possess infinity and eternity. It is the misfortune of man who does not perceive this Truth. Only few were endowed with divine wisdom to perceive truth.20 Here the ethical system of al-Bīrūnī in his Kitāb al-Jamāhir comes to a conclusion. This preface, (before his first article on the precious stones), reveals al-Bīrūnī's religious mind whose ethical reflections governed his basic treatment of gold, silver and precious stones. Finally he points out his primary sources and his indebtedness to his Lord who had enabled him to write a book on such an important subject.21

Al-Bīrūnī and the Rationale: Main Ethical Trends in the West—A Comparison

Whether al-Bīrūnī applied empirical methods to his analysis of ethics in Kitāb al-Jamāhir or not and whether he treated reason as the ultimate authority in religion and whether he was influenced in his treatment of ethics by Greek rationalism and naturalism, and if so in what ways, and whether he treated human nature as geometrical problem like Spinoza or whether he emphasised intrinsic value of the individual like Kant or whether he reduced ethics to calculus like Bentham or propagated a utilitarian ethics like J. S. Mill or criticised Bentham's hedonism like Bradley, are queries of most interesting nature.

Being extremely precise, one can say that al-Bīrūnīii in his Kitāb al-Jamāhir seems to be a true believer in revelations, the only source of human knowledge in regard to ethics and moral philosophy and the only basis of all human happiness. Moral good and excellence lie in mainly virtues as defined in al-Murū'ah and al-Futuwwah. Man must be grateful to his Lord, must obey His commandments, this being the only condition of human happiness. Moral virtues must be all embracing and not individualised and selfish in nature. Man should serve others and should emancipate himself from the love of gold and silver, so transitory and short lived in nature. They were created by the Lord for the welfare of the state and its people and not for the specific use of glorification of the kings and the rich, who were prone to hoard them and to deprive others from their use. Al-Bīrūnī during the whole course of his statements uses neither Greek rationalism nor any geometry or calculus. On the contrary he quotes frequently like a devoted believer in revelation, verses from the revealed book, the Holy Qur'ān, as we have seen in preceding discussion. The western ethical philosophy is confronted with two opposing schools. One believing in empiricism and the other in revelation, rejecting the empirical and scientific verification in ethics for it was a normative discipline whose problem of "what ought to be" is insoluble by the factual or scientific methods. Intuition of eternal moral laws or in other words revelation of a higher or supernatural world, beyond the jurisdiction of scientific method of inquiry, is the starting point of this school. Being ethical absolutist in nature, the school maintains that if "good" virtues and human happiness were regarded as relative to human needs, ambitions and desires, then the concept of all moral claims and obligations were meaningless. Al-Bīrūnī belongs to this very school and he opposes treatment of ethical valuation as hypotheses that arise out of cultural conflicts and have to be tested experimentally by their instrumental value in resolving such conflicts in our human relations. He maintains that political, legal, educational and other social problems cannot be isolated from ethics. If Plato and Aristotle teach that a good man is one who lives in àccordance with the rational laws of the stable society, al-Bīrūnī teaches to live in accordance with divine decrees. If Marx preaches to live in accordance with the economic interests of his class and if Nietzsche's (as iconoclast) ethics transcends all kinds of good and evil by breaking with philistine notions and the slave morality of Christianity and preaches an ideal society of emancipated supermen, declares that God is dead and man is to take over, al-Bīrūnī's ethics teach to surrender before God and follow divinely guided ethics, a real source of all "goods".—happiness, justice and equality.

Al-Bīrūnī in his Kitāb al-Jamāhir is free from rational dialectics of Socrates and of Plato who discuss on the intellectual levels "why is justice better than injustice". Happiness and well being, according to Aristotle are supreme to all human activities and good is equal to happiness. But he concludes that there is little agreement about what constitutes happiness (see ten chapters of Nicomachean Ethics for Aristotle's moral and intellectual analysis). Al-Bīrūnī has solved this crisis by preaching happiness, achieved merely through obeying revelations. Al-Bīrūnī is opposed to pleasure in abstract sense.

He is opposed to all those who want to accumulate wealth, power, social fame and public prestige in addition to sensuous excitements (food, drink and sex) in order to suppress the State and its people. He is opposed to pervasive happiness. He, like Plato and Aristotle, does not establish an absolute cause of all goodness, and has no empirical approach to ethics. In Aristotle's eyes the good man is one whose activity and ethics is guided by reason while al-Bīrūnī is not in favour of the use of scientific reasoning in ethics like those of naturalists or mathematicians or pure theoreticians who seek to demonstrate their conclusions with logical certainty. Al-Bīrūnī cannot agree with Aristotle and Dewey who regarded good as relative to man's interest. Al-Bīrūnī does not subordinate ethics to human nature but subordinates human nature to religious ethical theory. Spinoza treats human nature as he treats geometrical problems to prove scientific objectivity and rational method of proof into ethics and concludes that since emotions follow ordinary laws of nature which are always the same, human nature must be governed by some fixed laws. He thinks that application of geometry to ethics may lead him to deduct fixed universal traits in all human beings. The only salvation according to him lay in the use of reason. But al-Bīrūnī preferred revelation to geometry.

Immanuel Kant seems to be much closer to al-Bīrūnī than any other Western philosopher for the simple reason that he believed in the higher moral world not limited by space and time. He attacked social utility and pleasures and inadequate ethical standards or guides to the individual sense of duty. The "good" for Kant is absolutely independent of the empirical facts or laws. He says that nothing in the laws of natural sciences tells us that we ought to treat human beings as moral ends in themselves. Kant, however, thinks that goodwill is the sterling quality of all ethical characters, and good faith, the moral basis of legal contracts. The greatest contribution of Kant's ethics is its emphasis on intrinsic values of individuals as ends in themselves. Such discussions seen to be not relevant for al-Bīrūnī's ethics in his Kitāb al-Jamāhir. Bentham's hedonistic ethics, being based on a calculus of pleasure and pains, teaches what to seek and what to avoid in our private and public life. He says that good is whatever promotes the happiness. Thus he reduces ethics to calculus. J. S. Mill, like Bentham, is a utilitarian. The utilitarians reject the two worlds of Kant, the physical and the spiritual, the temporal and eternal to which body and soul belonged separately. The utilitarians wanted to bring ethics closer to natural and social sciences. Their basic belief is that moral conceptions and standards must be continually subject to revision. Consequently, they reject the aristocratic ethics of Plato and Aristotle. The a priori ethics of Spinoza, the supernatual revelations of medieval moralists, the intuition of Protestant ethics, the two worldly systems of Kant according to them belonged to the past, and to the passing culture and needed revision in the scientific and technological era. The basic belief of utilitarians is that good is not absolute, self-sufficient and final terminal of moral action. It depends always on psychological, social and historical circumstances, in which reflections over what is desirable, play a decisive role, namely an individual citizen could accept bribe and both Mills and Dewey would allow him to do so, for the utilitarian formula of the "greatest good for the greatest number" will not object to it. But al-Bīrūnī's ethics will not permit any one to accept bribe no matter what the circumstances are or were, for his ethics was not relative to human interest but to divine injunctions. F. B. Bradley's arguments, although dialectical, expose formal contradictions and incomplete character of empiricism in ethics. He criticises Bentham's hedonism and Mill's utilitarianism and defends self-realisation as more concrete goal of a moral activity than evanescent pleasures or happiness in the abstract. Mill is censured for his vague and unattainable ideal in his principle of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. Yet Bradley has no kinship with al-Bīrūnī

While comparing al-Bīrūnī's ethics with dialectical rationalism, we have to conclude that al-Bīrūnī depends more on revelation rather than on rationalism or empiricism and in his Kītab al-Jamāhir, his main sources of inspiration are the Holy Book, the traditions of the Prophet and acts of those around the Prophet.

Al-Bīrūnī and Professor Eduard Sachau:

In the light of the foregoing discussions one can easily decide whether al-Bīrūnī was a good Muslim, a true and devoted believer or a bad Muslim as Professor Sachau maintained. In the preface (English edition) of Kitāb al-Âthâr al-Bāqiyah'an al-Qurūn al-Khāliyah (by al-Blriin) edited by Professor Sachau, the editor has claimed that al-Bīrūnī was (1) a bad Muslim (2) a despiser of the Arabs and of Arabic sciences and finally (3) he was not a Sunni-Muslim. How can al-Bīrūnī be a bad Muslim when he follows the Qur'in and Sunnah in a devoted fashion. His whole writing in Kitāb al-Jawāhir contradicts and rejects this theory of Sachau. No statement on ethics are made without having been supported from the Qur'in. The greatest good on earth was devotion to and service of human beings as explained in al-Futuwwah (the perfection). Al-Bīrūnī preaches gentility, amnesty, sedateness, toleration, modesty, magnanimity and large-heartedness as prescribed and defined by the Qur'ān and the Sunnah and not as dictated by human rationale often motivated by individual selfish interests and desires. His writings in Tarwīhahs prove that he was an orthodox and God-fearing Muslim. Sachau's views have been refuted by another German scholar Professor Krenkow, who worked all his life on al-Bīrūnī, and edited his Kitāb al-Jamāhir and supported Taqī al-Dān al-Hilīl on this issue.22 Al-Bīrūnī was a devoted Sunni-Muslim for in the eleventh Tarwīhah he reveals that in 'Alī he saw the fourth caliph, which shows that he did not believe in the theory of divine determination of 'Alī. Moreover al-Bīrūnī praises the well-guided four caliphs and praises 'Umar b. 'Abd al-'Azīz as well as the caliphs of the Marwanids. He praises only few of the Abbasid caliphs. These beliefs clearly represent well known Sunnī school of thought.23 Al-Bīrūnī was neither an enemy of the Arabs nor despiser of Arabic sciences as Professor Sachau has held. On the contrary, he was a friend of Arabs and preferred them to others for they had al-Murū'ah and some of them even sacrificed their belongings and their lives for the service of others. In the ninth Tarwīhah he speaks highly of Arabian folk and refers to them as an ideal. The eleventh Tarwīhah and fourteenth Tarwīhah reveal how he admired the Arabs and24 how high in esteem was Arabic science in his eyes. He regarded al-Kindī as the greatest philosopher of the Arabs.25

From these documentary evidences, it is quite manifest that Professor Sachau lost objectivity in his evaluation of al-Bl̄rūnī.

Al-Bīrūnī and the Department of Sindology.

There is a great deal of controversy as discussed in this Congress on the question of the birth place of al-Bīrūnī. Some of the early Arabic writers claim that al-Blrianhailed from Sind (now a province of Pakistan), and Bīrūnī was a town in Sind. The two primary Arab sources among others to be cited are Ibn Abī Usaybo'ah and Shahrazūrī. They, in their books Tabqāt al-Atibbā (vol. 2) and Akhbār al-Hukamā' respectively claim that al-Bīrūnī's origin goes to Sind. The latter also describes the fauna and flora of the city and its splendid views and says that there is no wonder that such a genius as al-Bīrūnī hailed from such a beautiful city namely Bīrūn in Sind.26

The theory of al-Bīrūnī's origin has, however, been questioned by other scholars who maintain that al-Bīrūnī belonged to Khwārizm. Some of them quote Kitāb al-Masālik by Ibn-Hauqal, an atlas, which shows a city Nīrūn in Sind and not Bīrūn. They maintain that Nīrūn was mistaken as Bīrūn by sheer misunderstanding. They also quote Sam'ānī's Kitāb al-Ansāb and Yāqūt's Mu'jam al-Udabā, in support of their statements.27

The difference of opinion on Bīrūn and Nīrūn is not the subject of our present discussion. The main point revolves round a question "what further advancements were made in this field of research by the Department of Sindology devoted to discover every intellectual avenue related to the province of Sind?" If no research is conducted in this regard it is amazing. Everyone would agree with this proposition that no matter whether al-Bīrūnīu belonged to Sind or to Khwarizm, a research ought to have been advanced on this issue by the Institute of Sindology. Is it not amazing that Kitāb al-Jamāhir is translated in Russia28 but not in Pakistan where the Department of Minerology needed its help more than that of Russia. It should have been translated by experts in any language of Pakistan, either in Sindhi, Panjabi or in Urdu, the national language. It might have introduced us to the precious stones and its history as al-Bīrūnī had described in his first article about Jawāhir where he discussed the form, circumstances, history and goodness of the precious stones29

And their names as known to linguists and jewellers along with their prices and we might have been benefited by the oceanographic knowledge of al-Bīrūnī and the art of diving etc.…30 Moreover, we might have been able to understand the contemporary prices of precious stones and the relationship between coins and precious stones.31

If more discoveries were made in regard to al-Bīrūnī's birthplace and some more light was shed on the dark film, it might have widened the intellectual avenues of research. It does not mean that a forced judgement to prove that al-Bīrūnī belonged to Sind is made. On the contrary, it simply means a sincere and honest attempt on the part of scholars to push the territory of this research further ahead.

Knowledge and civilisations have neither frontiers nor boundaries nor nationalities nor have they directions of east or of west, of south or of north. Dr. Nitobe once remarked so truly that "the East is in the West and the West is the East—there are no points in the compass of the soul"32 Whether al-Bīrūnī belonged to Sind or to Khwārizm, his knowledge is and shall ever remain the common heritage of humanity, either in the East or in the West.


It can safely be concluded that the main sources of al-Bīrūnī's ethics were revelational without being influenced by rationalism or naturalism and he was a true devout Muslim and not a bad Muslim as Professor Sachau had thought.

Al-Bīrūnī's refusal to apply empiricism to ethics and moral philosophy does not minimise his position as a great scientist and empiricist in other fields of science. Human history is indebted to him for his contribution to mathematics, astronomy, geology, pharmacology, history, geography, linguistics, religion, ethics and philosophy.


1 This date given by Sachau in the preamble of his Chronology of Ancient Nations has been questioned by Taqī ud-Dīn al-Hilīlī in his Die Eilcitung Zu al-Bīrūnī Steinbuch, Leipzig 1941, p. VII. He, on the authority of Professor Krenkow says that Sachau's date is not in agreement with al-Bīrīnī's statement who says himself in the introduction to Kitāb al-Saydanah, that he was already eighty years at that time, which contradicts Sachau's dating. See pp. VIII and IX.

2 The book is divided into three parts (1) The Preface (Hyderabad ed.). pp. 1-32. (2) First article dealing with precious stones, pp. 32-228 also pp. 1-11 appended at the end of the book. (3) Article dealing with coins and precious stones and their interrelationship, pp. 228-271.

3 Abstract ethical principles cannot however, make a "good person", for ethics are discussed here merely as verbal and intellectual exercise. Professional codes of ethics, and other practical precepts of conduct belong to the study of applied ethics and homiletics. Socrates promoted ethics as rational discipline when he requested people to define justice, courage, friendship and clarify their ideas. For detailed abstract discussions, Plato's Republic, Aristotle's The Nicomachean Ethics. Benedict de Spinoza's On the Improvement of the Understanding and Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions, Immanuel Kant's The Metaphysics of Morals, or Jeremy Bentham's An Introduction to the Principles of Morals, and Legislation, John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism, F. H. Bradley's Pleasure for Pleasure's Sake, John Dewey's Does Human Nature Change.

4 Al-Bīrūnī, Kitāb al-Jamāhir fī-Ma'rifah al-Jawāhir, edited by Professor Krenkow (Hyderabad, 1355 A.H.), pp. 3-32.


6Ibid, p. 4.

7lbid, pp. 4-6.

8Ibid, p. 6.

9Ibid. pp. 66-8.

10Ibid. pp. 8-10.

11Ibid. pp. 10-12.

12Ibid. pp. 12-14.

131bid. pp. 14-17.

141bid. PP-17-22.

15Ibid.. 22-22-24.

16Ibid. 24-24-26.

17Ibid. PP 26-27.

18Ibid.. 27-27-28.

19Ibid, pp. 28-30.

20Ibid., pp. 30-31.

21Ibid, pp. 31-32.

22 Taqī al-Dīn al-Hilālī, Die Einleitung zu al-Bīrunī's Steinbuch mit Erläuterungen übersetzt (Samml. Orientalistische Arbeiten, 7, 24 cm, Leipzig 1941 (pp. V-XXI), see pp. VII-XII.

23Ibid., pp. XII-VIX.…

24 pp. XIV-XV.

25 pp. XV.

26 Al-Bīrūnī… edited by Dr. C. Eduard Sachau, Professor of Oriental Studies, University of Berlin, Maktabah al-Muthannā, Baghdad 1923 (date on the preface of the first edition is July 20,1878, Berlin), p. LIII. Sachau quotes al-Shahrazūrī from manuscript (Ms. Or. Octav. 217 B1. 170 a) …

27 Al-Bīrunī commemoration volume A.H. 362, A.H. 1362, Calcutta, 1951. See the article on al-Bīrunī by Maulana 'Abd al-Salām Nadvi, p. 255.

28 The writer of these lines during his recent visit to England and France (July September, 1973) came across the Russian translation of Kitāb al-Jamāhir at the Cambridge University, whose details are given as below:

"Collection of Information for the Identification of Precious Stones" (Mineralogy).

Translated by A. M. Belenitsky, Edited by Professor G. G. Lemm Lein. Professor Kh. K. Baranev and A. A. Dolima with articles and remarks by A. A Belenitsky and G. G. Lemm Lein.

Published by Academy of Sciences (Moscow) 1963.

It has a supplementary passage from the book al-Hazini 'Versy Mudresti" (Scale of Intellect) containing abstracts of the treatise of al-Bīrūnī on the relationship between metals and precious stones (In Russian text the writer has been helped by Dr. M. Azīmullah).

29 Al-Bīrūnī, Kitāb al-Jamāhir, ed. Krenkow, Op. cit. See … pp. 32-138 al-Maqālah al Ūlā fītal-Jawāhir.

30lbid, … pp. 138-228 al-Maqālah al Thāniahfīal-Falrā.

31Ibid, pp. 228-221.

32 Socichi Saito, In East and West, Conflict or Co-operation? (Student Christian Movement Press, London 1936) p. 112.

F. E. Peters (lecture date 1973)

SOURCE: "Science, History, and Religion: Some Reflections on the India of Abu Raihān Al-Bīrun̄i" in Al-Bīrcunī Commemorative Volume: Proceedings on the International Congress Held in Pakistan on the Occasion of Millenary of Abū Rāihān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973 Ca 1051 A.D.) November 26, 1973 thru' December 12, 1973, edited by Hakim Mohammed Said, Hamdard National Faoundation, 1979, pp. 233-42.

[In the essay that follows, originally presented at a 1973 conference, Peters discusses al-Bīrūrūni's "literary history" of India which was conceived as a way of providing religious and cultural information for Islamic scholars.]

For all his individual genius, Bīrūnī lived in an age when the intellectual life of Islam was preparing its descent into encyclopedism. By the eleventh century medical encyclopedias were already commonplace, and Bīrūnī's contemporary Ibn Sīnā had fulfilled the promise, or the threat, implicit in the "divisions of the sciences" tracts in common use in the university classrooms of late antiquity and had produced the first encyclopedia of philosophy and the sciences in his Book of Healing. History too, with Ya'qūbī and Mas'iidi, had thrown open its doors to allow entrance to world history, a notion that embraced everything from the creation to the death of the latest Caliph.

To compose an encyclopedia demands either a genuine polymathia, a universal understanding, or the ability to assimilate and organize other people's learning on a wide variety of subjects. Islam was schooled in both those arts almost from the beginning in that its legacy from Hellenism came to it in the form of university learning which was already organized in curricula and distributed across a great variety of textbooks. The very first medical literature translated it o Arabic, for example, were Galenic textbooks and medical encyclopedias currently in use in the medical faculties at Alexandria and Jundishapur. The kunnash, the medical encyclopedia, came into Islam well before the masā'il, the research literature.

Ibn Sīnā's Book of Healing illustrates another aspect of Islam's Hellenically-inspired polymathia. A Muslim learned in the "foreign sciences" came to those disciplines as they were understood in the philosophy faculty at Alexandria. Medicine apart, one did not train to be a scientist in late antiquity; one studied philosophy, a discipline that was understood to include logic at one end, metaphysics at the other and between them most of what we call the "natural sciences." Ibn Sīnā's Healing is formally nothing more than that ideal curriculum of the philosophy faculty fleshed out from outline to encyclopedia by the insertion of resumes of the textbooks in their appropriate places. What might have taken eight or ten years to get through by the lecture method at Alexandria in the sixth century was here in the eleventh put between the covers of a single book.

This kind of curricular polymathia, a kind shared by Bīrūnī, was particularly Greek, and its presence in Islam was an inherited good. But Islam rejoiced in another type of polymathia that was unmistakably its own and that was ecumenical rather than encyclopedic. One has only to open the pages of Ibn al-Nadīm's Catalogue and lay them beside the Library of the Byzantine Patriarch, Photius, to appreciate the enormous breadth of learning in Islam and how little it owed its range to Hellenism. The Library of Photius is a record and a digest of the Patriarch's reading in the first half of the ninth century. It is an impressive collection, the reading of a man of considerable schooling and of catholic tastes. But it is all Greek, the classics of pagan and Christian Hellenism. Through Ibn al-Nadīm's tenth century bookstore had passed, on the other hand, not only the books of Islam's home-grown "traditioned sciences" but the learning of the Greeks, Romans and Iranians, the Franks and the Chinese, Jews, Christians, Zoroastrians, Manichaeans and the sects of India.

Though more specialized than Ibn Sīnā and nowhere so wide-ranging as the author of the Catalogue, Bīrūnī belonged to both traditions of polymathia, the curricular and the ecumenical. He had doubtless studied both the traditional Qur'ānic sciences and the staples of the Hellenic philosophical curriculum, but Bīrūnī's specialization lay within the mathematical quadrivium of the "foreign sciences." These latter disciplines, it is well known, were Greek in their theory, their methods and their general outlook, and how well Bīrūnī mastered the Greek textbook style in his own chosen field is revealed by a simple examination of the first half of his Introduction to the Elements of Astrology which is a model of Hellenic mathematical pedagogy by a man who neither learned nor taught in any educational institution remotely resembling the pre-Islamic university at Alexandria.

The passage of cultural goods across linguistic and religious frontiers was, then, nothing extraordinary in Islam, and wonder at Bīrūnī's interest in India should be tempered somewhat by the realization that his own formation was the result of just such another borrowing. The wonder-workers of that earlier cultural encounter were the pioneer scholars of the late eighth and ninth centuries who also had to master difficult scientific texts with little or no background and in a language other than their own. Bīrūnī had the luxury, as they did not, of thinking Greek mathematics in his own native idiom. Indeed, thanks to generations of earlier scholars, Greek mathematics was Bīrūnī's native idiom.

Through Ibn al-Nadīm and others we have a fairly detailed picture of Islam's earlier discovery and expropriation of the scientific treasures of Greece. Hārūn al-Rashīd and particularly his son Ma'mūn had sent teams of scholars across the political frontier with Byzantium to search out Greek manuscripts. Once returned to Baghdad these same scholars turned to collating their finds and rendering them into Arabic. This early generation of translators was followed in turn by schools of editors and exegetes who glossed the new texts. By the time that Greek philosophy passed to Ibn Sīnā and Greek mathematics to Bīrūnī they had been worked over by many learned hands. Such were the texts and other resources available in Arabic in the eleventh century that it was no longer necessary to know Greek to appreciate the subtleties of Greek science.

On the testimony of the India, Bīrūnī was proposing to perform a somewhat similar task with respect to Islam's eastern neighbour. What leap to view are not, however, the similarities of the efforts but their differences. The earlier discovery of Greece was a true discovery for the Muslim, a landfall of a new cultural continent. There had been scouts, to be sure, in the person of the Syrian Christians who knew and savored Hellenism, but Islam knew nothing of such things. Bīrūnī, on the other hand, was returning to a familiar terrain: though he is not always generous in his estimate of his predecessors, they did exist. His Chronology of Ancient Nations long antedated his study of Sanskrit and his own personal research on India; it contains, nonetheless, signs of the familiarity with Indian science that any Muslim mathematician might be expected to possess.

There is no mystery as to whence such familiarity derived. Three and a half centuries before Mahmūd's arms carried Bīrūnī to India there were Muslim scholars in Baghdad who knew both Indian science and the basic tenets of Hinduism. And yet the tradition so auspiciously begun was not a continuous one, as it was in the case of Greek learning. What started with Mansūr likely ended with Hārūn; Ibn al-Nadīm, at any rate, writing two centuries after that first dawn of interest in India, had only the vaguest idea about the earlier translation activity from Sanskrit into Arabic. Thus Bīrūnī had predecessors in his interest in the body of science in Sanskrit but no on-going and continuous tradition to which he could connect himself.

Nor did he succeed in creating such. Though he clearly addressed himself to the original Sanskrit texts, Bīrūnī's efforts did not issue in the production of Arabic versions of those texts but rather in considerably truncated resumes of their contents. As he himself says (I, 8),1 he had once translated some Sanskrit tracts into Arabic—curiously they were religious and philosophical rather than scientific texts—but he hoped that this present work, the India, would enable the reader to dispense with those translations.

It is instructive to compare Bīrūnī with Hunayn ibn Ishāq in this regard. Hunayn was a translator as well as a scientist. He produced finished Arabic versions of Galen among others and thus, at a stroke, Galen became in effect a naturalized Arab author. The Arabic language was enlarged by the creation of a new technical vocabulary to accommodate the recently arrived "Jālīnūs". Bīrūnī's translations, on the other hand, were for his own personal enlightenment and use. They never became public property in the way Hunayn's had, and the authors thus translated never ceased being alien presences that could now indeed be inspected, but only through the eyes and intelligence of Bīrūnī. Hunayn, once he had translated, stood aside; Bīrūnī's authorities remain embalmed in the India.

There is something of a paradox here. Bīrūn̄i is admired precisely because he was not a translator, that he was not engaged in the business of assimilating things Indian into the intellectual tradition of Islam but in trying to understand them in their original context, that he was functioning in short, as a historian. But here too Bīrūnī's treatment of India differs markedly from what had been done to the Greeks by his predecessors. "Jālīnūs" had indeed become a naturalized Arab author, but there was little or no understanding of Galen as a physician of the Roman Empire or of Plato as a philosopher in fourth century Athens. Islam produced many successful translations of Greek authors but no real history of Greek civilization.

Although historians like Mas'ūdī did have some vague and unrealized sense of the general political structure of the Greco-Roman oikoumene, and perhaps even a greater sense of it than Bīrūnī had of Indian political history, what they lacked and what Bīrūnī possessed was a knowledge of the rich religious and cultural background against which both the deeds of the rulers and the work of the scientists and philosophers could be read. For all their immense learning in Aristotle, for example, the Muslim philosophers stood disarmed before the mysteries of his Poetics, the one work of his that demanded some understanding of the Hellenic paideia. Their ignorance of Homer and Sophocles simply defeated them; Bīrūnī suffered no such defeats.

If it is the glory of Bīrūnī that he approached India with the sensibilities of the historian, the work before us gives no sign of having been conceived in accordance with what his contemporaries understood as history. In its narrow sense tā'rīkh is an era-work, and earlier in his career Bīrūnī had given obvious evidence that he could deal with history in the sense of "eras".… His Chronology of Ancient Nations, as the work is called in its familiar English translation, is in fact the most sophisticated work of its kind in Arabic. Bīrūnī had no peer in this critical investigation of widely varying traditions against a complex mathematical and astronomical background that rendered them all comparable.

Tā'rīkh meant more than the study of eras, of course; it was also used of works that took an established chronological line and arranged alongside the historical narratives … of a people, a dynasty or a ruler. Bīrūnī wrote two such works, the annals of… Mahmūd and his father2 and a book of "conversation" on the history … of his native Khwārizm.3 Neither work has survived, but nothing we know about them suggests an affiliation with the India. Nor is there much visible resemblance between the India and the classical "annals" of Islam, the tā'rīkh of Tabarī, for example. Bīrūnī neither belonged to nor aspired to belong to the muhaddith tradition in history; the world of isnāds, where authority rested upon names rather than upon demonstrative proofs, was alien to him.

It is perhaps more pertinent to compare Bīrūnī with Mas'ūdī. The Golden Meadows, an encyclopedic world history whose seventh chapter is given over to India, was written some twenty years before Bīrīunī's birth, and despite its obviously wider scope, it was set down in somewhat the same spirit as the India. Mas'ūdī had been to Sind, where he must have collected historical information, knew the earlier Arabic translations of some Sanskrit works, and had the help of Muslim predecessors like the geographer-historian Ya'qūbī, the travel editor Abū Zayd al-Sirāfī and two early heresiographers, the Mu'tazilite Abū al-Qāsim al-Balkhī4 and the Shi'ite al-Hasan ibn Mūsā al-Nawbakhtī5, who supplied him with information on the sects of India.

In his seventh chapter Mas'ūdī does attempt to follow a rough chronological line, as he does in the Meadows as a whole, and weaves into it information on geography, political history and institutions, manners and religious customs, religious and philosophical theories. But here as elsewhere it is often impossible to tell where Mas'ūdī is giving oral traditions and where he is simply incorporating large blocks of material from his Muslim authorities.

Even if expanded to the scale of Bīrūnī's work, Chapter Seven of the Golden Meadows is not the prototype of the India. Bīrūnī obviously cared a great deal about chronology, but he was not very concerned to organize his material along a chronological line in the India. He too could write summaries of Indian political history (II, 10-14), and in a clearer and more interesting way than Mas'ūdī. But this is not his method, which is to quote from the Sanskrit material itself. The quotes are not verbatim, to be sure, since many of the originals were in verse (as his own translations of Euclid and Ptolemy into Sanskrit had to be), and Bīrūnī complains more than once how difficult this rendered their understanding (I, 37). The reader is brought, in any event, face to face with the Hindu scholars and theologians themselves, something that never occurs in the Golden Meadows.

In his introduction (I, 5-8) Bīrūnī explains the genesis of the India. It arose from a complaint about the Muslim heresiographies that purported to give an exact description of creeds and sects but fell far short of that ideal.

The information available on Hinduism was a case in point: reports on it were generally uncritical and so unreliable. Bīrūnī mentions the example of Irānshahrī, an author who has excellent material on the Jews, Christians and particularly the Manichaeans but who, when he came to speak of Hinduism and Buddhism, relied on an inferior source. The outcome of this discussion was that Bīrūnī was himself prevailed upon "to write down what I know about the Hindus as a help to those who want to discuss religious questions with them and as a repertory of information for those who want to associate with them."

We know little of what to make of this enigmatic reference to Irānshahrī. Bīrūnī wrote the India sometime about 1032, nearly half a century after the Catalogue of Ibn al-Nadīm, seventy-five years after the Golden Meadows and considerably later than the sources of those two works. Both works, and the sources upon which they rested, Abū al-Qāsīm and Nawbakhtī for Mas'ūdī and an anonymous author of the time of Hārūn in the case of Ibn al-Nadīm, provided material on the beliefs and practices of the Hindus, all of which Bīrūnī either did not know or ignored in favour of Irinshahrl, an author who, like another of Bīrūnī's favourite authorities, Muhammad ibn Zakarīyā' al-Rāzī, was scarcely a Muslim at all.

The India appears, in any event, to have a dual purpose, to provide an appropriate and accurate description of Hinduism for those who wished to engage in religious discussions as well as some broader information for those Muslims who were going to "associate" with them in some not very specific context. It is difficult to think of the India as a handbook for Ghaznavid administrators. It does discuss Hindu marriage customs for example (I, 107-110), though hardly for disinterested motives. They have been set down, Bīrūnīn explains at their conclusion, so that the reader...

(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.)