One of the Outstanding Minds of All Times
About 1,000 years ago an Iranian youth, Abu Rayhaan Biruni, came up with new revolutionary theories in astronomy, mathematics, chronology, physics, medicine, history and geography that continue, in many instances, to hold good today. Among his theories was that the earth rotates on its axis. He accurately calculated longitude and latitude. And he determined with a remarkable degree of accuracy the specific weights of 19 precious stones and metals.
No history of mathematics, astronomy, geography, anthropology, or of religion is complete without acknowledgement of his immense contribution.
Biruni is a demonstration of the universality of timelessness of a great mind. One could compile a long series of quotations from Biruni written a thousand years ago that anticipate supposedly modern intellectual attitudes and methods. The range of his learning was prodigious, particularly for an age when there was no mass publication of books, no scientific journals, no rapid distribution of the knowledge that was available.
As a historian Biruni was pre-eminent. Any good historian needs to be soundly grounded in geography. Biruni understood this, and his geographical reports are first class. Whether discussing location, direction, distances, coastal configuration, river courses, or rainfall, he was comprehensive, systematic and precise. His terms were clearly defined, and his facts made contributions to fuller understanding of the human factors. His description of how a vapour-charged cloud is condensed by contact with a steep mountain slope is perfectly correct.
He had to be a philosopher in order to write the history of philosophy; and his definition of problems, his comments on their solutions show that in this field also he was one of the great minds of the time.
Politically and economically a large area of the world had been becoming one under the expansion of Islam, a unity, which with immense effort, observation, and judgment was being systematically recorded by the great Arab geographers.
Al-Biruni studied the stars and minerals, probed the secrets of the heavens and the earth. He read thousands of books in order to fathom the meaning of history. He constructed a globe of the earth - the first in Central Asia - and was equally gifted as a poet. He lived through the feverish final years of the powerful Samanid dynasty and witnessed the rise and fall of two early feudal empires - the Karakhanid and the Ghaznavid.
Al-Biruni completed his Chronology of Ancient Nations at the age of 27, just before the 11th century was born. "My aim in this book," he explained, "was to establish as accurately as possible the time span of various eras." His study begins at the dawn of the human race, moves on to the period of the great flood, and covers everything then known about the times of Nebuchandnezzar and Alexander the Great. The book explains various calendar systems such as the Arabian, Greek and Persian. The history of rulers, heroes and political events is interwoven with the history of culture, customs and morals. The Chronology of Ancient Nations should not be considered as purely historical work, but as a partly historical and partly ethnographic study that retains its full significance to this day.
Soviet scholars of the 1930s referred to the Chronology again and again in their research on ancient Central Asia. Only in al-Biruni's work could they find an account of the Soghdian calendar, essential to their study of early 8th century Soghdian documents; only here could they find information about pre-Muslim Khwarism, which archaeologists were just beginning to study.
A true scientist, al-Biruni strove to share knowledge as well as to obtain it. He translated Euclid's Elements and his own treatise on astronomy into Sanskrit. He also began a translation of the Pancharantra into Arabic, as he considered the existing translation of this immortal literary classic to be adequate.
Al-Biruni's India became the major source for studying 11th century India. It covered the caste system, philosophy, the exact sciences, religion, laws, customs, superstitions, legends, the system of weights and measures, the written language and geography of India. In writing it, al-Biruni quoted 24 works by 14 Greek writers and used 40 Sanskrit sources. He was an objective researcher, free of racial bias, with a deep respect for the advanced culture of another people.
Besides Arabic names of herbs, al-Biruni listed about 900 Persian, 700 Greek, 400 Syrian and 350 Indian names in his Pharmacology. He referred to Aristotle's work on biology, and also to the writings of Dioscorides and Galen. Unfortunately, the Pharmacology was not completed, but even in the form it has come down to us, its value is self-evident.
Al-Biruni's contemporaries spoke of him thus:
"Except for two festive days each year, his hand never stopped writing, his eyes observing, his mind contemplating."
When he died in 1048, at the age of 75, more than 150 works had flowed from his pen. They include 70 on astronomy, 20 on mathematics and 18 on literature, including translations, and bibliographies. He was famed as a cartographer, meteorologist, physicist, philosopher, historian and ethnographers.
In the ninth and tenth centuries (CE) in Islam, a great page was written in the history of civilisation. The Persian contribution was particularly brilliant. Al-Razi, Rudaki, Ferdousi, Qabus ibn Washamgir, Avicenna, and a host of productive and provocative minds, of which we know too little, all came out of the same background as Biruni's. They all had important traits in common.
Al-Biruni was of his time; yet nonetheless a supremely great individual. His humour, his courage, his enterprise, his objectivity, his honesty, his prodigious industry, and his technical intellectual skills were nothing that happened automatically. They were Biruni himself.
(Coutesy: Yaqeen International)