Al-Biruni: Against the Grain by Bruce B. Lawrence

Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni liked school. No, he loved school.The challenge to read and recite, to count and to calculate was fun, but the real sport was to contest the ideas of others, to engage their motives and call into question their goals. A Muslim, he was also a Persian. And the Persian gene – some would call it ‘genius’ – was to argue, to debate, to advance through active exchange with the ideas of thoughtful others. Not everyone in his community was born thoughtful. Some never went to school. Some went to school and only memorised or repeated what others told them. He only did battle with equals, but he never ceased to find even his equals lacking.

Biruni was privileged to have a private tutor from a very early age. Born in 973, in the outskirts of Khwarizm (hence the name Al-Biruni, the outsider, or suburban), he may have lost one or both parents when he was very young. As a result, his academic tutor, Abu Nasr al-Mansur, also became his familial mentor. He made certain that Biruni learned all the basics of scientific inquiry in Arabic, and literary inquiry mostly in Persian. Abu Nasr also made it possible for his young protégé to undertake experiments on his own.

Biruni was impatient. A devout Muslim, he was also a sceptic about all received forms of knowledge. He was restless to know what the Author of the universe meant by the array of systems within the great system called the cosmos. He learned about distances, and loved geography. He excelled in mathematics, and delved into physics. He examined rocks and found their study, known as mineralogy, a constant fascination. He wondered about the nature of the earth and its component elements, their size, shapes and subfields, anticipating geodesy. Thinking about medicine, he explored the use, or misuse, of plants and their extracts for cures; he excelled in pharmacology. But above all, he looked to the stars, to their relationships, their movements, their influences, and so he delved deeply into astronomy.

Biruni made his first independent astronomical observations when he was 18 years of age, in 991. But he did not continue to work independently, or without interference. Though he had already developed strong views by the age of 20, and even engaged in correspondence with an older Iranian scholar, ibn Sina, while still in his 20s, he had no job security. It was a politically turbulent period of Iranian history. He found himself compelled to leave his native home of Khwarizm. For a brief time, he secured patronage with the Samanids, then rulers of Bukhara, but after they were conquered, he settled in another Central Asian court for perhaps a decade before it too fell to hostile forces during 1000. It was the Turkish ruler Mahmud of Ghazna (r. 998–1002) who captured the capital of Biruni’s patron. His prize: to take hostage all the scholars of the defeated monarch and to employ them in his own expanded court.

Well, not quite all. There is a famous anecdote that depicts the defining moment of conquest and capture with a notable twist. Jealous of the splendour of his rival’s court circle, Sultan Mahmud sent him an ultimatum demanding that all the leading scholars there be sent forthwith to Ghazna in order to adorn his own court. The story goes on to tell how the philosopher Ibn Sīnā escaped to the west, serving in the court of a Western Persian monarch, the Kakuyid ʿAlāʾ-al-Dawla Moḥammad in Isfahan, till his death there in 1037. But Biruni, along with others, went to Ghazna and entered Maḥmūd’s service. Biruni then spent the remainder of his life, what must have been well over three decades, on the borders of India in present day Afghanistan, first with Maḥmūd, and then with his successors, notably Masʿūd and Mawdūd, till his own death in 1050.

None of these activities would have made Biruni a freethinker. He could have been, and was labelled, a great scientist. He was perhaps unique in his time in being a polymath. As one scholar noted, there were numerous notable Muslim  scholars who were also exemplary scientists.  In the eleventh century two stood out: Ibn Sina (980–1037) and Biruni.Yet Biruni

‘surpassed ibn Sina both in the breadth and catholicity of his sceptical erudition in the fields of history and chronology, mathematics, astronomy, geography, pharmacology, mineralogy, history of religions and Indology.’

It is Biruni the precocious student who let his curiosity and intelligence take him down many paths we can justifiably described as a freethinker. He challenged not just his scientific predecessors  but also his foremost contemporary scientific colleague, ibn  Sina. Ibn  Sina needs  no introduction. He is, as Ahmad Dallal observed, ‘the greatest and most influential Aristotelian philosopher in Islamic history.’ But Biruni was his superior not just in the breadth of his knowledge but in the depth of his inquiry into the presuppositions of astronomy. Biruni challenges the Aristotelian cosmology. The mathematical astronomer, in his view, is not bound to any prior system. He must view the evidence with as much openness to observation as his instruments and his knowledge permit. Because ibn Sina had commented on the material nature of the universe, Biruni initiated a correspondence with him. He puts forth a number of questions that critique the presuppostions  of Aristotelian physics. Bluntly, but also politely, he asks ibn Sina to respond to these questions, in effect, to justify his own predilection for, and reliance on, Aristotle.

Fascinated with the astrolabe, an instrument on which he relied and whose use he perfected, Biruni noted that one could pursue mathematical astronomy from either a geocentric or heliocentric perspective. It is not a matter of philosophical certainty but of experimental openness that is at stake. Like many scientists of his time, Biruni thought not only that the cosmos was shaped like a sphere and was made up of different regions but also that the earth was at the centre of the solar system. Yet he was also aware of the probability – though not the absolute certainty – of a sun- centred system. Instead of arguing for either theory, he, unlike ibn Sina, saw the scientific, psychological, and cultural importance of both models. Indeed, one cannot understate the radical nature of Biruni’s challenge to ibn Sina and so to Aristotle. Once it is possible to prove that some part of Aristotelian natural philosophy does not fit all the evidence, the entire system becomes suspect, its formulations unhinged.The stars and planets, that is, the heavenly bodies, are the subject on which Biruni begins his set of queries to ibn Sina. Some may sound obscure or overly technical to a non-scientist. For example: how do you explore and explain weight in space? How do you determine whether or not heavenly spheres are heavy or light? But one issue is germane to all physical and metaphysical reflection: are there other worlds than the cosmos as we know it from mathematical astronomy? For Aristotle, as for ibn Sina, the answer was no. For Biruni, the answer was maybe. Though we cannot prove the existence of other worlds, neither can we disprove their existence, he argues.

As fascinating as the correspondence and the debate between ibn Sina and Biruni – equivalent to the exchange between Einstein and Bergson on the theory of relativity or Einstein and Heisenberg on the uncertainty principle – are, they underscore how professional specialisation was already an issue in the eleventh century. Ibn Sina, in trying to counter/ refute the arguments of Biruni, often refers to his lack of knowledge in the mathematical sciences, where Biruni is expert, at the same time that he suggests Biruni does not have the credentials to venture into his field, which is natural philosophy. Biruni did not back down. As Dallal has acutely noted, ‘he refused to concede the intellectual authority of systems of knowledge outside his own system’.

It would be hard to summarise his multiple accomplishments in the sciences. One writer has astutely observed that because he saw nature as a harmonious, self-regulating system, Biruni applied his philosophical observations of the world to his scientific studies of natural phenomena. But he did more than that. He used his powers of observation to describe the details of his environment, including birds, plants, minerals, and animals.While some of his theories about nature have been since disproved by modern biology, Biruni’s studies of the natural world display his acute, unwavering reliance on empirical observations of natural phenomena.

Biruni was so successful in applying  mathematics to his study of geography and the natural world that some consider him to be the founder of geodesy, the science of measuring the size and shape of the earth, mapping points on its surface, and studying its gravitational field. In The Book on Astrolabe, he considers how one can determine the circumference of the earth using geometry. His method involves climbing a mountain and using the horizon and the height of the mountain to create an equation. He attempted on different occasions to  test this method, and used it successfully while travelling in India; his results do not differ significantly from those determined using modern methods.

As he did with his mountain experiment, Biruni sought to test many of his ideas with close observation, relentless logic, and repeated experimentation. In studying gems, for instance, Biruni used mathematics to arrive at the density of minerals. He began by using the weights of gold and the Oriental sapphire as a base for a variety of metals and gems. Through careful experimentation based on the displacement of water by the mineral substances, he was able to calculate the density of various minerals quite accurately.

A similar, radical empiricism characterised his study of geography. Biruni began with the ancient precept that the earth was divided into seven climatic zones. This idea was common to the Islamic world as well as in Greek, Zoroastrian, and ancient Babylonian beliefs, but Biruni was particularly concerned with understanding why certain portions of the earth were what he labelled ‘uninhabitable,’ while others were centres of civilisation and agriculture. His study of the earth’s surface reflects both his work in astrology and his belief that the world exists according to a harmonious design.

There are few areas of the geographical sciences that Biruni did not explore. In addition to human geography, he analysed the weather, the climate, and landscape history. He took precise measurements of and mapped coordinates on the earth’s surface. He also contributed knowledge about the effect of physical features such as rivers on the shaping of the landscape, and on the patterns of the monsoon in bringing rain to India. He developed an understanding of variations in the transference of the sun’s energy to the earth at different times of year. Among his most important contributions to the study of the earth’s physical features are theories about erosion and landform creation, conclusions about the force of gravity, the argument that the speed of light is faster than that of sound, discussions of the movement of the sun and the earth, and botanical observations.

Biruni’s understanding of the plants and animals inhabiting different parts of  the  earth  later  helped him to  build knowledge of  the pharmacological properties of certain species. One of his most well- known works on pharmacology is the Kitab al-Saydanah. It is a lengthy text, bringing together a variety of information relating to medicine. The book provides information on drugs and other forms of therapy, including lists of medicinal herbs and their names in a number of languages. Much of the book reflects Biruni’s interest in language and how the names of each drug were derived.

Biruni used both mathematics and visual observations of the heavens to study the universe. Among his accomplishments in astronomy were the calculation of the sizes of the planets and their orbits. He arrived at these figures using a Ptolemaic principle concerning the ratios of planetary distances. He also tried to explain planetary motion, planetary and solar positions, and the phenomenon of the equinox.

As a mathematician, Biruni translated the Hindu methods  of mathematical notation. His abilities in geometry led to the term ‘albirunic problems,’ used to refer to the most difficult geometry problems of his time. He was able to create an accurate method for measuring latitude and longitude, and knew the trigonometric function of the law of sines. Working from Ptolemy’s theory of the sine table, Biruni discovered a more direct way to derive basic trigonometric formulas; and succeeded in solving complex geometry problems, including the trisection of the angle. Much of his work in geometry and trigonometry involves theorems dealing with the chords in circles.

But Biruni’s achievements in science only provide us with a limited understanding of his insatiable, free ranging mind. What bedevils us in exploring, revisiting and then reevaluating Biruni is the wreckage of time. Specifically, of the many, many books he wrote, only a very few have survived. We actually know how limited is our legacy of the preserved writings of Biruni from Biruni himself. In his autumn years, when he was perhaps 62–63 years of age, during 1035–36, Biruni catalogued both his own works and those of Razi. At the urging of a friend, he compiled an Epistle concerning a list of the books of Moḥammad b. Zakarīyāʾ al-Rāzī (d. 932). This consists of two parts.While the first is devoted to Rāzī and his works, the second provides Biruni’s inventory of the books that he himself had authored up to that time. This sort of bibliographical treatment of an individual is modelled on those produced by Galen in antiquity and by the Syriac Christian scholar Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq in the ninth century. Razi was (in)famous in his own circle as a freethinker, so much that Ibn Sina when struggling to refute Biruni in his correspondence, at one point opines that Biruni’s objection to Aristotle must have been second hand, taken ‘either from John the Grammarian, who wanted to mislead Christians by pretending that he disagrees with Aristotle … or from Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi, whose pretensions in meddling with metaphysics made him overestimate his abilities, which were limited to dressing wounds and testing urine and faeces.’

The actual catalogue of Razi’s works, however, suggests that, pace ibn Sina, he did more than toilet sampling. In Biruni’s estimate, there are no less than 184 titles divided into eleven categories: medicine; natural science; logic; mathematics and astronomy; commentaries, synopses, and extracts; philosophy and assessment; metaphysics; theology; alchemy; heretical; and miscellaneous. After it, Biruni presents a chronological table of Greek physicians from Asclepius to Galen followed by brief notes on the history of medicine that relate it to the labour of his scientific predecessor, al-Razi.

In comparison, Biruni’s catalogue of his own literary production up to his sixty-third year, that is 1036, lists a mere 103 titles. They are divided into twelve categories: astronomy, mathematical geography, mathematics, astrological aspects and transits, astronomical instruments, chronology, comets, an untitled category, astrology, anecdotes, religion, and books of which he no longer possesses copies. After an account of the astrologers’ predictions of the length of his life and of a dream he had a couple of years earlier, he adds ten more titles of his own works followed by twenty-five of those written in his name by other scholars. His own works, he says, he regards as his sons, and so also holds the same regard for those that were written in his name! We now know that Biruni composed at least 155 works. Some he wrote after he had finished his bibliography, others he simply forgot to include in it. But alas, perhaps five-sixths of the total number of 155 treatises are now irretrievably lost.

Of those that survived, two in particular demonstrate how radical a freethinker Biruni was, not only in his own epoch, but also across the ages, in all the annals of Islamic history extending to culture and religion as well as mathematics and astronomy.The first is The Chronology of Ancient Nations. The second is Alberuni’s India.

The Chronology of Ancient Nations is interesting because it appeared so early in his career, when he was about twenty-seven years old, in 1000. It is peppered with charts, graphs and tables, but also interlinear descriptions of major non-Muslim religious groups whom he had observed in his day. Biruni never hesitates to compare non-Muslims with their Muslim counterparts. For instance, in his account of the life of Zoroaster, he discusses at length the eschatological expectations that Zoroastrian and Muslim sects attached to the 1,500th anniversary of the appearance of the Iranian prophet. Particularly valuable is his detailed description of the Zoroastrian feasts which contains much information on Zoroastrian beliefs, as well as on popular Persian superstitions of his day. And he shows deep respect for Mani, even while disagreeing with Manichaean dualism, not least for what he considers its lack of scientific verification.  He even uses a Manichaean scripture to correct the chronology of the Arsacid kings, going out of his way to emphasise Mani’s reliability: ‘Mani is one of those who teach that the telling of lies is forbidden; besides he had no need to falsify history’. A fierce scavenger of primary sources, he found and used Arabic translations of the Old and New Testaments, but also other Jewish and Christian writings little known even within their own traditions. He devotes much space in Chronology to a description and critique of the Jewish calendar, concerning  which his is apparently  the oldest surviving source of any substance. Similarly, in his description of the celebrations of the Melkite (Greek Orthodox) Christians, he gives valuable bits of information about the Christians of eastern Iran, apparently supplied by Christian informants. When he can’t find informants, he apologises for what he cannot say. Concerning the rites of Jacobite Christians, for instance, he is silent because ‘we have not succeeded in finding anyone who belonged to their sect or knew their principles’.

As a scientific researcher and ethnographic observer, Biruni moves to a new level of sophistication when he undertakes to write about India. Had he followed ibn Sina and gone to western Iran, or had his royal patron offered him less freedom than he had with the restless but hands-off Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, he might never have explored India, learned Sanskrit, and delved into matters relating to the Indic/Hindu tradition. He first translated some major texts, with assistance from scribes/informants captured by Mahmud during his plunders of Gujarat and Rajasthan. They included Samkhya texts and the Yogasutras of Patañjali. Biruni was aware of both the novelty and the precariousness of this undertaking:

Such is the state of things in India [he observes] that I found it very hard to work my way into the subject, although I have a great liking for it, in which respect I stand quite alone in my time, and although  I do not spare either time or money in collecting Sanskrit books from places where I supposed  they were likely to be found, and in procuring for myself, even from very remote places, Hindu scholars who understand them, and are able to teach me. What scholar, however, has the same favourable opportunities for studying this subject  as I have? That would only be the case with one to whom the grace of God accords what it did not accord to me, a perfectly free disposal of his own doings and goings; for it has never fallen to my lot in my own doings and goings to be perfectly independent, nor to be invested with sufficient power to dispose and to order as I thought best. However, I thank God for that which he has bestowed upon me, and which must be considered as sufficient for the purpose.

It was sufficient to make Biruni not just the first but the unrivalled Muslim observer, commentator, and analyst of Hindu belief, thought and practice. Composed around 1030, while Biruni was at the height of his analytical powers, the India represents both a distillation and an extension of what had been broached in his earlier translation of the Yogasutras of Patañjali, Kitāb Bātanjal: to classify and evaluate the major categories of Hindu philosophy and religion. Nearly two-thirds of the India (48 of 80 chapters) reviews the achievement of Indian science in several fields. The India not only communicates but also evaluates the full range of Hindu thought and ritual. The initial twelve chapters provide a magisterial overview of Hindu notions of God, creation, metempsychosis (the passing of the soul at death into another body either human or animal), salvation, and idolatry. The Hindu approach to God, creation, and salvation is generously commended, bearing favourable comparison to reflections that emerged from ancient Greece and classical Islam. The same is not true for metempsychosis. While noting some parallels between it and the teachings of both Greek philosophers and Sufi masters, Biruni stresses the disjuncture between such notions and normative Muslim belief. He himself has memorialised the disjuncture by his oft-quoted remark: al-tanāsukh ʿilm al-niḥla al-hindawīya (metempsychosis is the password of Hindu belief). Nor is Biruni sympathetic to idol worship. He portrays it as class-specific, being the indulgence of uneducated, superstitious masses, rather than the preference of those literate Brahmins with whom he himself was in frequent contact.

It is in chapter seven of the India that we find Biruni’s longest and best documented assessment of Hindu beliefs. If he is to be classed as a radical freethinker, it is perhaps at this moment of engaging the heart of Hindu metaphysical reflection with other traditions that he excels as a critical comparativist. He examines in detail the three paths to liberation, and in so doing, signals his preference for the teachings of Patañjali over the directives of other Indian scriptures, including the Bhagavadgītā. The contest is framed by the discipline of devotion (bhakti-yoga) and the pursuit of knowledge (jñāna-yoga). On the one hand, Biruni draws extensive attention to bhakti-yoga, especially in depicting ethical norms and drawing on parallel notions from the Sufi tradition.  Many of the most extensive quotations illustrating the three-fold path to liberation derive from the Bhagavadgītā. On the other hand, however, the schematisation of these paths and the topical sentences for each are directly quoted or paraphrased from Kitāb Bātanjal. It is to jñāna-yoga that Biruni draws attention time and again. Salvation in his view is inseparable from self-cognition; in its most direct form, ‘it is the return of the soul as a knowing being into its own nature’, or as he states in the India, ‘the soul distinguishes between things by defining them and so grasps its own essence (ʿaqalat dhātahā)’.

If Biruni seems to be an inadvertent theologian in the early chapters of the India, in the later chapters he assumes the role of a pre-modern anthropologist. Ten of the last seventeen chapters in the India address ritual practices, principally initiation and funerary ceremonies but also obligatory sacrifices and dietary rules, together with fasting, pilgrimage, and festival observances. Textual evidence is constantly checked off against the declarations of personal informants, nowhere more tellingly than in chapter seventy-one. Biruni begins by chronicling the mythical separation of scholars and warriors. The innate merit of the former failed because most Hindus, like most people elsewhere, were not philosophers, and so philosophers could not rule. Warriors filled the power vacuum. Becoming kings, they proved to be perverse purveyors of power: they exempted Brahmins from the death penalty but exempted themselves from the penalty of being blinded for theft. Hindu prisoners of war suffered the worst fate, however. According to canonical law (the dharmaśāstras), such prisoners could only achieve expiation by an elaborate rite requiring them to ingest pancagavya, the five products linked to the cow. While that requirement in itself seems extreme, even it is not adequate according to Biruni’s Brahmin informants. In their view, no expiation is possible for Hindu prisoners of war who return to India: they are never allowed to resume their former status.

Throughout the final chapters of the India, Biruni continues to display his penchant for comparing and evaluating. While he tries to offer his readers a compendium of Hindu religious lore, as he read, heard about, and observed it, he also hopes to appropriate the ‘higher’ truth of Indian philosophy, bracketing it with the Hellenistic corpus and integrating both into the worldview of educated Muslims. He cares little for the uneducated– whether Muslim or Hindu – and so the final chapters of the India that are devoted to Hindu rituals, appear as a kind of ethnographic afterthought. They lend an air of completeness to his massive tome without, however, burnishing his own credentials as a scientific explorer or achieving his primary goal: to pursue the Truth. In the final analysis, Biruni is better classified as an anthropological philosopher than a philosophical anthropologist.

Yet Biruni, the maverick thinker and dogged scientist, stands at the apex of Islamic scholarship on non-Muslim religious traditions. After him no one followed his lead as a dispassionate enquirer into the subtleties of Hindu thought until the late medieval–early modern period of Indo- Muslim history. It remained for nineteenth-century European scholars to spark an interest in further study along the lines he had initiated, among both educated Muslims and also Western scholars of Islam.