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.
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.
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...
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