BĪRŪNĪ, AL- (ah 362–442/973–1051 ce), more fully known as Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī; Muslim scientist and polymath. Among the most brilliant, eclectic, and fertile minds produced by Islamic civilization in its peak middle period, al-Bīrūnī is a genius to be compared to but two contemporary Muslim literati, Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna; d. 1037), the medical philosopher, with whom he maintained an intermittent correspondence, and Firdawsī (d. 1020), author of the heralded and often illustrated Persian epic, the Shāh-nāmah. Firdawsī shared with al-Bīrūnī the unhappy fate of being a scholar-prisoner in the court of the Turkic warrior Maḥmūd of Ghaznah (r. c. 1000–1030).
Al-Bīrūnī's life illustrates the keen interest that Persian-Turkic dynasts of the tenth and eleventh centuries had in promoting scientific learning and literary productivity. It also reveals the extent to which all scholars, like all branches of scholarship, were dependent on the taste—and sometimes the whim—of powerful political patrons. While official support allowed al-Bīrūnī to travel widely, to gather disparate data, and to develop a broad network of contacts in Central and South Asia, certain of his patrons, especially Maḥmūd, may have impeded as much as they aided his intellectual undertakings. Only kings and princes, in his view, "could free the minds of scholars from the daily anxieties for the necessities of life and stimulate their energies to earn more fame and favor," but, he adds, "the present times are not of this kind. They are the very opposite, and therefore it is quite impossible that a new science or any new kind of research should arise in our days. What we have of sciences is nothing but the scanty remains of bygone better times" (E. C. Sachau, trans., Alberuni's India, vol. 1, p. 152).
Despite that harsh judgment, al-Bīrūnī's biography serves to highlight the manner in which a genius, though subject like other mortals to political strictures and the vagaries of fate, nonetheless maximizes the narrow opportunities provided him. Born near Khorezm, just south of the Aral Sea in modern Uzbekistan, he studied under eminent local scientists. Though he favored mathematics and astronomy, he gained competence and even renown in several fields. Political disturbances constantly uprooted him; from 995 until 1004 he found employment under patrons of the Samanid and Ziyarid dynasties. After his return to Khorezm in 1004, he was caught up in diplomatic as well as academic pursuits until 1017, the date of the Ghaznavid conquest of his native region. Pressing al-Bīrūnī into his royal entourage, Maḥmūd sent him first to Ghaznah (Afghanistan) and then to parts of India during prolonged military compaigns there. Maḥmūd died in 1030, but al-Bīrūnī remained in Ghaznah, where he served first under Maḥmūd's son and successor, Masʿūd, and then under weaker dynasts, until his own death in 1051.
Al-Bīrūnī's scholarship transcends the limiting circumstances of his life and reveals a mind of broad interests and encyclopedic learning. He was first and foremost an empiricist, fascinated by discoveries of the physical world derived through precise observation and careful calculation. Benefiting from the comprehensive curricular resources available to the intellectual elite of the eastern Muslim world by the eleventh century, he studied and wrote about astronomy, mathematics, geology, pharmacology, languages, and geography. He also concerned himself with history, philosophy, and religion. During his lifetime al-Bīrūnī wrote approximately thirteen thousand pages of publishable text, most of it highly technical in nature. This may be sorted out into 138 titles, although some have said he wrote 146 or even 180 independent volumes. Only 22, however, are known to have survived: most were written in Arabic, his preferred scholarly language, although some also exist in Persian versions. Among the most notable are the following:
- Al-āthār al-bāqiyah ʿan al-qurūn al-khāliyah (Vestiges of bygone days), his first major work, completed around 1000 but subsequently revised. In it al-Bīrūnī sets forth a comparative chronology of the eras and festivals of various ethnic and religious groups.
- Qānūn al-Masʿūdī (The canon Masʿudicus), compiled over several years but dedicated in 1031 to Maḥmūd's son and successor, Masʿūd. It is the most systematic and comprehensive of his numerous works on astronomy and includes an appendix on astrology that leaves little doubt about his personal distaste for it as a pseudoscience, despite its popularity among his coreligionists.
- Kitāb taḥqīq mā lil-Hind min maqbūlah lil-ʿaql aw mardhūlah (The book confirming what pertains to India, whether rational or despicable), often simply known as the India, composed in 1030. This work is based on al-Bīrūnī's study of Sanskrit scientific texts and his conversations with Indian pandits whom he met while forced to accompany Maḥmūd on military campaigns against their patrons. Neither the Āthār nor the Qānūn nor any of his extant works can surpass the India's sheer breadth of learning and novel sense of cosmopolitan objectivity.
Al-Bīrūnī's work as a comparative religionist is rated high on the scale of his total scholarly output primarily because of the India. In it he not only distances himself from his warlike patron, Maḥmūd, for whose brutality he expresses barely veiled contempt, but he also attempts to understand what it was that made Indians think as they did; he prejudges neither the truth nor the falsehood of their religious beliefs and ritual practices. If the India reveals any weakness, it is al-Bīrūnī's constant preference for literary evidence over ethnographic observation and his predilection to posit the underlying metaphysical unity of Hindu, Greek, and Muslim elites, with disregard bordering on disdain for the views of nonelites. But the shortcomings of the India pale in comparison with its achievement, a vast, unprecedented, and unrepeated compendium that details the cultural traits of a conquered people from the point of view of one of their conquerors.
Al-Bīrūnī's vast erudition and innovative scholarship should have commended his works to Muslims of his own and later generations. Unfortunately, he stands out as an exception to his time rather than a model for others to respect or emulate. His scientific work did gain him a reputation as the outstanding authority in fields as diverse as astronomy, geology, and pharmacy, yet his contribution as a comparativist inspired no Muslim successors. It remained for nineteenth-century European scholars to rediscover al-Bīrūnī's legacy as a cultural historian and to spark an interest in the further study of him, both among educated Muslims and Western scholars of Islam. One mark of al-Bīrūnī's continued success is the large number of his extant writings that have been edited, published, and translated since the 1930s, some of them by Soviet scholars laying claim to a native son.
While there is no dearth of secondary literature on al-Bīrūnī, there is a dearth of essays providing a competent overview of the range and significance of his writings for the study of religion. The best introductory article to all aspects of his life and work is E. S. Kennedy's "al-Biruni," Dictionary of Scientific Biography (New York, 1970), vol. 2, pp. 147–158. Less critical, especially on his attitude toward astrology, but otherwise valuable is Seyyed Hossein Nasr's An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines: Conceptions of Nature and Methods Used for Its Study by the Ikhwān al-Safaʾ, al-Bīrūnī, and Ibn Sīnā (Cambridge, U.K., 1964), pp. 107–174. For an assessment of his religious data in the Āthār and India, see Arthur Jeffery's "Al-Biruni's Contribution to Comparative Religion," in Al-Biruni Commemoration Volume (Calcutta, 1951), pp. 125–160, now to be supplemented by more recent articles in The Scholar and the Saint: Studies in Commemoration of Abuʾl-Rayhan al-Bīrūnī and Jalal al-Din Rūmī, edited by Peter J. Chelkowski (New York, 1975), pp. 1–168; Biruni Symposium: Iran Center, Columbia University, edited by Ehsan Yarshater and Dale Bishop (New York, 1983); and select papers from Al-Bīrūnī Commemorative Volume (Karachi, 1979), edited by Hakim Mohammed Said. An attractive abridgement of Edward C. Sachau's translation of the India has been done, with introduction and notes, by Ainslie T. T. Embree (New York, 1971). Soviet scholarship can be traced by reference to M. S. Khan's "A Select Bibliography of Soviet Publications on Al-Biruni," Janus 62 (1975): 279–288.
A fuller appreciation of his contribution to the Muslim study of non-Muslim religions must be derived from unpublished or incomplete studies, such as Michael H. Browder's "Al-Biruni as a Source for Mani and Manichaeism" (Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1982) and Shlomo Pines and Turia Gelblum's "Al-Bīrūnī's Arabic Version of Patañjali's Yogasūtra," a text that preceded and informed his evaluation of Brahmanic beliefs in the India, published seriatim in the Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 29, no. 2 (1966): 302–325 (chap. 1), 40, no. 3 (1977): 522–549 (chap. 2), and 46, no. 2 (1983): 258–304 (chap. 3).
Bruce B. Lawrence (1987)
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