Article abstract: One of the greatest scholars of medieval Islam, al-Bīrūnī was both a singular compiler of the knowledge and scientific traditions of ancient cultures and a leading innovator in Islamic science.
Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī was of Iranian descent and spent most of his childhood and young adult years in his homeland of Khwarezm, south of the Aral Sea. (His sobriquet derives from birun— “suburb”—in reference to his birth in an outlying neighborhood of Khiva.) Little is known of al-Bīrūnī’s childhood except for the important matter of his education, which was directed by the best local mathematicians and other scholars; his exceptional intellectual powers must have become apparent very early. Al-Bīrūnī’s religious background was Shiʿite, although in later years he professed agnostic leanings. A precocious youth, while still a student in Khwarizm al-Bīrūnī entered into correspondence with Avicenna (Ibn Sina), one of the leading lights of Islamic medicine. Some of Avicenna’s replies are preserved in the British Museum.
Although he published some material as a young student, the scope of al-Bīrūnī’s intellectual powers only became apparent when he left Khwarizm to travel and learn further. In al-Bīrūnī’s age, the key to scholarly success lay in attaching oneself to a powerful and influential court society and obtaining noble patronage. He found the first of many such benefactors in the Samanid sultan Mansur II, after whose demise he took up residence in the important intellectual center of Jurjan, southeast of the Caspian Sea. From here, al-Bīrūnī was able to travel throughout northeastern Iran.
While at Jurjan, al-Bīrūnī produced his first major work, al-Athar al-baqiyah ʿan al-qurun al-khaliyah (The Chronology of Ancient Nations, 1879). This work is an imposing compilation of calendars and eras from many cultures; it also deals with numerous issues in mathematics, astronomy, geography, and meteorology. The work is in Arabic—the major scientific and cultural language of the time—as are nearly all al-Bīrūnī’s later writings, although he was a native speaker of an Iranian dialect. As would have been common among Muslim scholars of his time, al-Bīrūnī also was fluent in Hebrew and Syriac, the major cultural and administrative languages in the Semitic world prior to the Arab conquest.
Around 1008, al-Bīrūnī returned to his homeland of Khwarizm at the invitation of the local shah, who subsequently entrusted him with several important diplomatic missions. In 1017, however, his tranquil life as a scholar-diplomat took a rude turn. The shah lost his life in a military uprising, and shortly thereafter forces of the powerful Ghaznavid dynasty of neighboring Afghanistan invaded Khwarizm. Together with many other scholars—as part of the booty of war—al-Bīrūnī found himself led away to Ghazna, which was to become his home base for the remainder of his life.
Ironically, this deportation afforded al-Bīrūnī his greatest intellectual opportunity. The Ghaznavids appreciated scholarly talent, and the sultan, Mahmud, attached al-Bīrūnī to his court as official astronomer/astrologer. Mahmud was in the process of expanding his frontiers in every direction. The most coveted lands were in India, and during the sultan’s campaigns there al-Bīrūnī was able to steep himself in the world of Hindu learning. In India, he taught eager scholars his store of Greek, Persian, and Islamic knowledge. In return, he acquired fluency in Sanskrit, the doorway to what was, for al-Bīrūnī, essentially a whole new intellectual universe.
In 1030, al-Bīrūnī completed his marvelous Tarikh al-Hind (translated by Edward Sachau as Al-Beruni’s India, 1888). This masterpiece remains, in the eyes of many scholars, the most important treatise on Indian history and culture produced by anyone prior to the twentieth century. The degree of scholarly detachment and objectivity displayed in Al-Beruni’s India is almost without parallel for the time, and the work consequently is still of enormous value to contemporary scholars.
Almost at the same time, al-Bīrūnī produced another work dedicated to the sultan Masud ibn Mahmud, heir to the Ghaznavid throne. Kitab al-qanun al-Masudi fi ʿl-hay a wa ʿl-nujum (c. 1030; Canon Masudicus, 1954-1956) is the largest and most important of al-Bīrūnī’s mathematical and geographical studies.
During his long and productive life, al-Bīrūnī authored many other treatises of varying length—he himself claimed to have produced more...
(The entire section is 1950 words.)