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Al Biruni – A Great Muslim Scientist

AL-BIRUNI A GREAT MUSLIM SCIENTIST According to Professor Edward Sachau, the greatest authority on the works of Al-Biruni, Sheikh Abu Rihan Mohammad Al-Biruni was the greatest intellectual who ever lived on the face of the earth. The well-known historian of science Mr. George Sarton remarks: “He was one of the greatest scientists of Islam and, all considered, one of the greatest of all times”. He occupies a very prominent place in the history of Arab culture and in the real sense of the word is the first Muslim to write a systematic account of India of his times. As is well- known Al-Biruni was in the employment of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna and visited India in his entourage during the Sultan’s raids on that country. Al-Biruni was born in the suburbs of Khwarizm, the modern Khiva, now the capital of the Uzbekistan Republic of the U.S.S.R., in 973 A.D. Because he was not born in the city itself he became to be known by his surname “Al-Biruni” i.e., an outsider, and this sobriquet persisted, while people almost forgot his real name Abu- Rihan. The land around Khiva in those days was not a semi-desert as modern maps depict the Uzbekistan Republic, but was widely irrigated by numerous canals. The rich alluvial soil produced luxurious crops of cotton, rice, maize and other useful grains. Commerce and trade flourished and communication with the border districts was easy and frequent. Al-Biruni lived at a time when the Baghdad Caliphate was in its last throes, an epoch comparable to the last days of the Moghuls in India. The authority of the Caliph, like that of the last Mughul Emperor, was limited to the palace. The great universities, which played an important part in the history and literature of the Arabs a hundred years later, had not come into existence. The courts of the ruling chiefs were the only centres of learning, as all the accomplished scholars of the day gravitated to them in the hope of receiving patronage and freedom from want, to carry on their literary activities. Consequently the fall of a dynasty or even its temporary eclipse meant a dissipation of the Court and the dispersal of the scholars who were left to shift for themselves. When Al-Biruni was born the Samanid dynasty had come into power in his home province of Trans-Oxania. During their halcyon days Bokhara and Samarkand became great centres of civilisation and culture. The poet Hafiz Shirazi sings of the prosperity and affluence of these two towns even four hundred years later. SOJOURN AT JURJAN Political changes in his native country soon compelled Al-Biruni to leave Khiva and at the age of 22 he migrated to Jurjan. But by this time he had learnt much of astronomy, mathematics, mathematical 54 55 THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS geography, chronology, physics and chemistry. The quotations in his works from Greek writers and philosophers like Homer and Olato prove that he had studied their works in the original Greek, and Sir Henry Elliot in his “History of India” tells of his having executed several translations from the Greek. It was here at Jurjan that he wrote his book “Asar-ul-Baqia” or the Chronology of nations which he dedicated to the ruler of Jurjan “Kabus” in 1000 A.D. from a quotation in this book it appears that straitened circumstances com- pelled Al-Biruni to seek his fortune in Jurjan. The contradictory writings on the measurement of the earth had exercised his mind for a long time. During his stay in India, at a place Nandna by name, some 200 miles to the North-West of Lahore, he at last succeeded in measuring the circumference of the earth by determining the dip of the horizon from a high mountain. The results he obtained were spectacular and are the most correct up to modern times. ASAR-UL-BAQIA Before he left Jurjan it appears that Al-Biruni had composed a small catechism of geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and astrology called “Al-Tafhim al-Awail al-Sanaat al-Tanjim”. In this book there is no mention of his abortive attempt to measure the arc of the earth which he did at Jurjan. Tafhim also showed that he was not yet familiar with the great works of his contemporaries. Nor had he at that time any knowledge of the Indian metric system which he so remarkably treats in his other great work al-Qanun al-Masudi. Asar-ul-Baqia is a learned work on the chronology of different nations. Written in 1000 A.D. it deals chiefly with the calendars and eras of the world as known to the author. KITAB-UL-HIND One of his other works called Kitab-ul-Hind contains an account of the language, religion, philosophy, customs and manners, literature, chronology, astrology, astronomy and peculiar superstitions of the Hindus. It also treats the geographical and physical conditions of the country. . . . Among his scientific contributions are an explanation of the working of natural springs by the hydrostatic principle and the description of several monstrosities including what we call the Siamese Twins. He also composed a Materia Medica entitled Kitab-ul-Saydana or the Book of Drugs. In physics his greatest achievement is the almost accurate determination of the specific gravity of 18 precious metals and stones. A voluminous unedited book on precious stones by him is still extant in manuscript form in the Escorial Library at Beirut. “It contains a description of a great number of stones and metals from the natural, commercial and medical points of view.” His unedited works can help in explaining many passages relating to Indian and Chinese medicinal stones and herbs so frequently mentioned in early Arabic works on medicine. THE REVIEW OF RELIGIONS 56 AL-QANUN AL-MASUDI The greatest work of Al-Biruni is, however, his Qanun al-Masudi dedicated to the son of Sultan Mahmud who succeeded him to the throne of Ghazna in 1031 A.D. This is a book mainly on astronomy and has always been recognised as the standard book of reference in the East. It is meant for advanced scholars of trigonometry and mathematics as is evident from the complete absence of glossaries and commentaries. Dr. Zia-ud-Din Ahmad thinks that Nasir-ud-Din Tusi could not have written his own monumental work on Trigonometry had he not had the advantage of first reading Al-Biruni’s Qanun. Unfortunately no complete translation of this book has yet been possible. The late Dr. Zia-ud-Din, himself an Oxford Wrangler, made two unsuccessful attempts to render this highly technical work into English. This book still awaits a great Arabic philologist and equally great mathematician, well acquainted with ancient astronomy, to edit and publish it. A Turkish scholar has published an annotated Arabic text but no translation in any western language except German has been done. Relevant portions from Patanjali on mathematics and astronomy, which Al-Biruni had earlier translated into Arabic have been incorporated in the Qanun Masudi. The language used by him in this mature work is very terse and highly technical inasmuch as sometimes he is extremely difficult to follow. His great command of Arabic and his digestion of Indian mathematical works, which are mostly in prose-verse, led him to use extremely condensed language. In this book he differed from Ptolemy, the great Alexandrian mathe- matician who flourished in the second century of the Christian era, in the determination of the circumference of the circle. He, however, displays great respect for the Alexandrian astronomer and sometimes expounds his method by adding his own criticism. His observations on the inclination of the moon’s orbit make fascinating reading. In this book he says that the numerals came from the most beautiful form of the Indian figures. He does not, however, give the exact form nor mention the part of the country where they were in use. Most probably it was Multan which town apart from being the seat of Government and the centre of culture was also Al-Biruni’s headquarters. He has also noted peculiarities connected with the game of chess and deals with several questions of mathematical geography. He gives an account of the trisection of the angle which cannot be done with ruler and compass alone. These problems were so characteristic that they came to be known after his name as Al-Birunic problems. A TIRELESS WORKER Al-Biruni was an indefatigable worker. He never had a pen out of his hand nor his eyes off a book. He was very modest in living and only collected the bare necessities of life on the two off-days sufficient to last him for the whole of the year. He is credited with writing a total of 114 books of which only 27 are now existent mostly in manuscript form.