Books

Al-Biruni — the founder of Indology

Muhammad Mujahid Syed

INDIA (Kitabul Hind) by Al-Biruni is an abridged edition of the famous German scholar Edward C. Sachau’s (1845-1930) English translation edited with an introduction and notes by Qeyamuddin Ahmad and published by National Book Trust, India. It was translated first into German from Arabic. Since 1872-73 this book has been translated into German, English, Russian, Urdu, Hindi and Bengali. In the present abridged edition, Qeyamuddin has tried to draw the attention of the “general reader to the approach and methodology of Al-Biruni, the core of his direct observations on the Indian society and sciences.”

Al-Biruni introduces his book saying it is a, “simple historical record of fact.” Al- Biruni tries to show his readers the similarities of theories of Hindus and Greeks.

Abu Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni was of Iranian origin. He was born in Kath, Khwarizm (now Kara-Karpakskaya, Uzbekistan) on Sept. 15, 973 A. D. He had immense opportunities to learn during his childhood, which was a rarity at that time. He began studies at a very early age under the famous astronomer and mathematician Abu Nasr Mansur. At the age of 17, he was engaged in serious scientific work. In 990 A. D., he computed the latitude of Kath in the region of the Aral Sea by observing the maximum altitude of the sun.

Al-Biruni was a great linguist and a prolific writer. Besides the knowledge of his mother tongue, Khwarizmi (a Persian dialect of the northern region with Turkish influence), he knew Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac and Sanskrit. He was well acquainted with the works of Plato and other Greek masters through Syriac and Arabic.

Most of his works, including Kitabul Hind, are in Arabic. Those days Arabic was not only an international language but also the language of science and arts. The end of the 10th century and beginning of the 11th century was a period of an unrest and upheaval in the Islamic world. There were civil wars in the region where Al-Biruni was born. Khwarizm was part of the Samanid Empire, which was ruled from Bukhara. It is not clear when Al-Biruni left Khwarizm. But as records show he had the patronage of Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni (999- 1030).

Al-Biruni lived and worked in Ghazni until his death at the age of 75 in 1048 A. D. In order to complete his research work he stayed in India among Hindus for 13 years. Al-Biruni had developed particular interest in India and the Indians when he was still in Ghazni. He was an astrologer and astronomer of repute in Mahmud’s court.

As India’s works on astronomy, mathematics and medicines had been translated into Arabic in the early days of the Abbasid dynasty, Al-Biruni was quite familiar with them. According to Qeyamuddin, “There was a continuing interest in Indian scientific treatises and other works in some Muslim circles as is evident from the writing of the Kitabul Hind.”

Al-Biruni also had an opportunity to get first-hand information of Indian scientific works by Indian scholars. Al-Biruni wrote 114 books. Out of those only two, the Atharul Baqiya and the Kitabul Hind, are available in print.
We find Al-Biruni honestly acknowledging incompleteness of his information on any topic but it is not a pretext to provide his reader half or incorrect information.

Al-Biruni is very honest and intelligent in his investigation of the facts. He tried to get all the information from original books and manuscripts that were available in his times. For this he diligently learned Sanskrit and other languages. Since he knew many aspects of sciences, he cannot be compared with the scholars of modern day whose knowledge remains limited to a particular branch of science or literature. His scientific methodology is modern and comparative approach unique. His comments on India and knowledge of Indian society and its caste system show his “sociological insight.”

Al-Biruni’s keen observation of Indian caste system is still relevant. He depicts a real picture of Hindu society. According to him, “The universal duties of the Brahman throughout his whole life are works of piety, giving alms and receiving them. For that which the Brahmans give reverts to the pitaras (is in reality a benefit to the fathers). He must continuously read, perform the sacrifices, take care of the fire which he lights, offer before it, worship it, and preserve it from being extinguished, that he may be burned by it after his death. It is called “homa”.

Al-Biruni gives many more details of what Brahmans are obliged to do. “Kshatriya reads the Veda and learns it, but does not teach it,” he writes. “He offers to the fire and acts according to the rules of the Puranas... He rules the people and defends them, for he is created for this task.”

Then he mentions other castes: “It is the duty of the Vaisya to practice agriculture and to cultivate the land, to tend the cattle and to remove the needs of the Brahmans”. He describes the Sudras in these words, “The Sudra is like a servant to the Brahman, taking care of his affairs and serving him. If though being poor in the extreme, he still desires not to be without a yajnopavita like Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaisyas. Every action which is considered as the privilege of a Brahman, such as saying prayers, the recitation of the Veda, and offering sacrifices to the fire, is forbidden to him, to such a degree that when a Sudra or a Vaisya is proved to have recited the Veda he is accused by the Brahmans before the ruler, and the latter will order his tongue to be cut off. However, the meditation on God, works of piety, and alms-giving are not forbidden to him.” This shows the real social condition of Indians during Al-Biruni’s times.

From the preface to the concluding remarks Al-Biruni’s honesty is enlightening. He elaborates in detail Hindu astrology, Hindu society, religion, social sciences and ancient Indian civilization. He seems to correct past mistakes of his predecessors in this regard. He provides a clean picture of India.

On the solar and lunar eclipses, celestial objects, comets, order of the planets, their distances, sizes, the concept of time, medicine, physics, chemistry and mathematics his comparative study of Hindu and Greek theories is excellent. Due to his firsthand information of different branches of knowledge Al-Biruni surpasses his predecessors. No scientist, linguist, theologian, historian and expert on Hindu sciences can claim to reach the pinnacle of Al-Biruni’s knowledge in the field of Indian culture, history and sciences.

Besides all his greatness Al-Biruni is modest. In the concluding lines of his book he writes, “We think that what we have related in this book will be sufficient for any one who wants to converse with the Hindus, and to discuss with them questions of religion, science or literature on the very basis of their own civilization... We ask God to pardon us for every statement of ours, which is not true. We ask Him to help us that we may adhere to that which yields Him satisfaction. We ask Him to lead us to a proper insight into the nature of that which is false and idle, that we may sift it so as to distinguish the chaff from the wheat.”

In this era when, in the name of research and civilization, even developed countries are mixing chaff into the wheat and mudding perennial springs of knowledge with poison of lies and disinformation, Al-Biruni stands like a huge lighthouse on the shores of the ocean of civilizations. (Arab News)

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 June 2015 on page no. 21

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