Nature Middle East | House of Wisdom

Remembering Al-Biruni – the first anthropologist

Everyone who heads to Google today will notice that the search giant has provided a new Google doodle, celebrating the anniversary of Abu Raihan Al-Biruni, a Muslim scholar often regarded as one of the greatest scientists of the medieval Islamic period.

Al-Biruni, a Persian scientist who spent the first part of his life in modern-day Afghanistan, is credited with bringing Indian science to the Islamic world – often given the title of “founder of Indology”. Little is known of his early life. He even claims he never knew his father nor his family origins. He was engaged in science at an early age, publishing his first book on cartography when he was 22 years old. Like most scientists of the era, he was a polymath, excelling and writing about various topics from astrology and mathematics to geology and anthropology.

Al-Biruni was born in a time of major political strife, several civil wars and ever changing princes ruling the land. He traveled around often, escaping wars and conflicts, before finally ending up in the court of Maḥmūd – a merciless warlord who finally ruled the whole region – probably unwillingly. He traveled into India with the warlord often, and that is where he became an expert on everything Indian and wrote some of his most encyclopedic works that documented the region’s lore, myths, science and culture. This culminated in a massive book, translated from Arabic into Verifying All That the Indians Recount, the Reasonable and the Unreasonable.

Approximately 65% of the 146 books that are known for Al-Biruni are about mathematics and astronomy, making them the fields he was most prolific in. He studied and tried to explain the rotation of the Earth, a question that he often debated with Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and dabbled in the heliocentric and geocentric hypotheses. He also studied the moon and it’s rotation and in the 18th century, Dunthorne used his data to determine the acceleration of the moon. The most important book he published on astronomy was Al-Qānūn al- Mas’udi (The Mas’udic Canon) in which he gathered all the astronomical knowledge from different sources, such as al-Khwarizmi and Ptolemy. The book was not just a collection, however, with accurate input from Al-Biruni where he developed many new mathematical techniques to improve on the measurements from the previous astronomers.

In his book The Determination of the Coordinates of Places for the Correction of Distances Between Cities, defends the role of mathematical sciences against the attack of religious scholars who could see no use for mathematics. He also used it to detail longitudes and latitudes on Earth and discussed the formation of mountains

Besides astronomy, Al-Biruni had many contributions to physics, where he unified statistics and dynamics in the science of mechanics. He was also an avid scholar of religions and studied several different ones objectively. He did not seem to disprove any, but to understand them all and the common themes that flow through them.

Less than one fifth of his books survived, the others lost along the years. Little is known of his personal life, but what is known is mostly found through his writings rather than stories about him. He remained an unwilling guest to Maḥmūd until he died, but his excursions into India with the warlord shaped much of the famous scholar’s thoughts about science, religion and tolerance.

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    Amelia Carolina Sparavigna said:

    Al Biruni was a great scientist. For what concerned statics and dynamics, he studied the Balance of Wisdom, which was in fact the hydrostatic balance, to determine with a high accuracy the specific weight of materials
    (see please my discussion in “The Science of Al-Biruni”, A.C. Sparavigna, published in ijsciences, http://www.ijsciences.com/pub/article/364)