Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī

Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī
Al-Birunī (البیرونی)

An imaginary rendition of Al Biruni on a 1973 Afghan post stamp
Full name Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Birunī
Born September 5, 973
Khwarazm, Samanid Persia
Died December 15, 1048(1048-12-15) (aged 75)
Era Islamic Golden Age
Region Khwarazm
Ziyarid dynasty(Rey)[1]
Ghaznavid dynasty(Ghazni)[2]
Main interests Physics, anthropology, comparative sociology, astronomy, astrology, chemistry, history, geography, mathematics, medicine, psychology, philosophy, theology
Notable ideas Founder of Indology
Major works Ta'rikh al-Hind, The Mas'udi Canon, Understanding Astrology

Abū al-Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī[n 1] (born 5 September 973 in Kath, Khwarezm, died 13 December 1048 in Ghazni[3]), known as Alberonius in Latin and Al-Biruni in English,[4] was an Iranian[5]-Chorasmian[6][7] Muslim scholar and polymath of the 11th century.

He is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era and was well versed in mathematics, astronomy, physical and natural sciences, and also distinguished himself as a geographer, historian, chronologist and linguist.[7] He is also considered as impartial writer on custom and creeds of various nations[7] and was given the title al-Ustdadh ("The Master").[7] According to Francis Robinson, Al-Biruni earned the "founder of Indology" and "first anthropologist" titles for his remarkable description of early 11th-century India,[8] although the first in-depth study of India by any Westerner was provided by the Greek ambassador Megasthenes (ca. 350–290 BC) in his "famous"[9] four-volume Indica.



He was born in outer district of Kath the capital of Afrighid dynasty of Chorasmia.[10] The word Biruni means outer-district in Persian language and due to being born in the outer district of Kath, this became his nisba.[10] His first twenty-five years were spent in Chorasmia where he studied fiqh, theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medics and other sciences.[10] The Iranian Chorasmian language, which was the native of language of Biruni,[11][12] survived for several centuries after Islam until the Turkification of the region, and so must some at least of the culture and lore of ancient Khwarezm, for it is hard to see the commanding figure of Biruni, a repository of so much knowledge, appearing in a cultural vacuum.[13]

He was sympathetic to the Afrighids which were overthrown by the rival dynasty of Ma'munids in 995. Leaving his homeland, he left for Bukhara then under the Samanid ruler Mansur II the son of Nuh. There he also corresponded with Avicenna[14] and there exists extant exchanges of views between these two scholars.

In 998, he went to the court of the Ziyarid amir of Tabaristan, Shams al-Mo'ali Abol-hasan Ghaboos ibn Wushmgir. There he wrote his first important work, al-Athar al-Baqqiya 'an al-Qorun al-Khaliyya (literally: "The remaining traces of past centuries" and translated as "Chronology of ancient nations" or "'Vestiges of the Past") on historical and scientific chronology probably around 1000 A.D., though he later made some amendations to the book. Accepting the definitie demise of the Afrighids at the hands of the Ma'munids, he made peace with the Ma'munids who then ruled Chorasmia. Their court at Gorganj (also in Chorasmia) was gaining fame for its gathering of brilliant scientists.

In 1017, Mahmud of Ghazni took Rey. Most scholars, including al-Biruni were taken to Ghazna, the capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty.[1] Biruni was made court astrologer[15] and accompanied Mahmud on his invasions into India, living there for a few years. Biruni became acquainted with all things related to India. He may even have learned some Sanskrit.[16] During this time he wrote the Kitab ta'rikh al-Hind, finishing it around 1030.[17]

Mathematics and Astronomy

An illustration from al-Biruni's astronomical works, explains the different phases of the moon.
Diagram illustrating a method proposed and used by Al-Biruni to estimate the radius and circumference of the Earth

Ninety-five of 146 books known to have been written by Bīrūnī, about 65 percent, were devoted to astronomy, mathematics, and related subjects like math­ematical geography.[18][19]


Al-Biruni contributed to the introduction of the experimental scientific method to mechanics, unified statics and dynamics into the science of mechanics, and combined the fields of hydrostatics with dynamics to create hydrodynamics.[20][21]


Bīrūnī also devised his own method of determining the radius of the earth by means of the observation of the height of a mountain and carried it out at Nandana in India.[22]

Pharmacology and Mineralogy

Due to an apparatus he constructed himself, he succeeded in determining the specific gravity of a certain number of metals and minerals with remarkable precision.[23]

History and Chronology

Biruni's main essay on political history, Ketāb al-mosāmara fī aḵbār Ḵᵛārazm (Book of conversation concerning the affairs of Ḵᵛārazm) is now known only from quotations in Bayhaqī’s Tārīḵ-e masʿūdī. In addition to this various discussions of historical events and methodology are found in connection with the lists of kings in his al-Āṯār al-bāqīa and in the Qānūn as well as elsewhere in the Āṯār, in India, and scattered throughout his other works.[24]

History of Religions

Bīrūnī is one of the most important Muslim authorities on the history of religion.[25] Al-Biruni was a pioneer in the study of comparative religion. He studied Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other religions. He treated religions objectively, striving to understand them on their own terms rather than trying to prove them wrong. His underlying concept was that all cultures are at least distant relatives of all other cultures because they are all human constructs. “What al-Biruni seems to be arguing is that there is a common human element in every culture that makes all cultures distant relatives, however foreign they might seem to one another.” (Rosenthal, 1976, p. 10). Al-Biruni was disgusted by scholars who failed to engage primary sources in their treatment of Hindu religion. He found existing sources on Hinduism to be both insufficient and dishonest. Guided by a sense of ethics and a desire to learn, he sought to explain the religious behavior of different groups.

Al-Biruni divides Hindus into an educated and an uneducated class. He describes the educated as monotheistic, believing that God is one, eternal, and omnipotent and eschewing all forms of idol worship. He recognizes that uneducated Hindus worshipped a multiplicity of idols yet points out that even some Muslims (such as the Jabiriyya) have adopted anthropomorphic concepts of God. (Ataman, 2005)


Bīrūnī’s fame as an Indologist rests primarily on two texts.[26] Al-Biruni wrote an encyclopedic work on India called “Tarikh Al-Hind” (History of India, also known as “Indica,” or simply “India”) in which he explored nearly every aspect of Indian life, including religion, history, geography, geology, science, and mathematics. He explores religion within a rich cultural context. He expresses his objective with simple eloquence: I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them, as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them (1910, Vol. 1, p. 7; 1958, p. 5) An example of Al-Biruni’s analysis is his summary of why many Hindus hate Muslims. He explains that Hinduism and Islam are totally different from each other. Moreover, Hindus in 11th century India considered all foreigners, not just Muslims, impure and refused to have any connection with them. Furthermore, when the Muslims entered India, the land had already been devastated by two previous invasions by the Sakas and the Hunas. On top of that, Mahmud of Ghazni, the Muslim sultan of India and a contemporary of al-Biruni, plundered the wealth of the region. (Ataman, 2005). Al-Biruni intended to facilitate dialogue between Hindus and Muslims. He thought that the two groups had a great deal they could learn from one another. (Biruni, 1910, Vol. 1, p. 17). Al-Biruni collected books and studied with Hindu scholars to become fluent in Sanskrit. He translated books both from Sanskrit to Arabic and vice versa. (Ataman, 2005). While others were killing each other over religious differences, Al-Biruni had a remarkable ability to engage Hindus in peaceful dialogue. Mohammad Yasin puts this dramatically when he says, “The Indica is like a magic island of quiet, impartial research in the midst of a world of clashing swords, burning towns, and burned temples.” (Indica is another name for Al-Biruni’s history of India). (Yasin, 1975, p. 212).


A statue of Biruni adorns the southwest entrance of Laleh Park in Tehran, Iran

Most of the works of Al-Biruni are in Arabic although he wrote one of his masterpieces, the Kitab al-Tafhim apparently in both Persian and Arabic, showing his mastery over both languages.[27] Bīrūnī’s catalogue of his own literary production up to his 65th lunar/63rd solar year (the end of 427/1036) lists 103 titles divided into 12 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.[28] His extant works include:

  • Critical study of what India says, whether accepted by reason or refused (Arabic تحقيق ما للهند من مقولة معقولة في العقل أم مرذولة), also known as the Indica - a compendium of India's religion and philosophy
  • The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology (Kitab al-tafhim li-awa’il sina‘at al-tanjim).
  • The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries (Arabic الآثار الباقية عن القرون الخالية) - a comparative study of calendars of different cultures and civilizations, interlaced with mathematical, astronomical, and historical information.
  • The Mas'udi Canon (Persian قانون مسعودي) - an extensive encyclopedia on astronomy, geography, and engineering, named after Mas'ud, son of Mahmud of Ghazni, to whom he dedicated.
  • Understanding Astrology (Arabic التفهيم لصناعة التنجيم) - a question and answer style book about mathematics and astronomy, in Arabic and Persian.
  • Pharmacy - about drugs and medicines.
  • Gems (Arabic الجماهر في معرفة الجواهر) about geology, minerals, and gems, dedicated to Mawdud son of Mas'ud.
  • Astrolabe.
  • A historical summary book.
  • History of Mahmud of Ghazni and his father.
  • History of Khawarazm.

Chronicle of Nations

Persian work

Although he preferred Arabic to Persian in scientific writing, his Persian version of the Al-Tafhim[27] is one of the most important of the early works of science in the Persian language, and is a rich source for Persian prose and lexicography.[27] The book covers the Quadrivium in a detailed and skilled fashion.[27]

Notes and references

  1. ^ Arabic spelling. Persian: Abū Rayḥān Muḥammad ebn Aḥmad Bērūnī (ابوریحان محمد بن احمد بیرونی). The intermediate form Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī is often used in academic literature.
  1. ^ a b The Exact Sciences, E.S.Kennedy, The Cambridge History of Iran: The period from the Arab invasion to the Saljuqs, Ed. Richard Nelson Frye, (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 394.
  2. ^ Kemal Ataman, Understanding other religions: al-Biruni's and Gadamer's "fusion of horizons", (CRVP, 2008), 58.
  3. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica, al-Biruni (Persian scholar and scientist) - Britannica Online Encyclopedia, Britannica.com, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/66790/al-Biruni#, retrieved 2010-02-28 
  4. ^ Al-Biruni Commemoration Volume, (Calcutta, 1951)
  5. ^
    • Bosworth, C. E. (1968), “The Political and Dynastic History of the Iranian World (A.D. 1000–1217)”, J.A. Boyle (ed.), Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 5: The Saljuq and Mongol Periods, Cambridge University Press: 1-202. [45]. Excerpt from page 7:"The Iranian scholar al-BIruni says that the Khwarazmian era began when the region was first settled and cultivated, this date being placed in the early 13th-century BC) "
    • Richard Frye: "The contribution of Iranians to Islamic mathematics is overwhelming. ..The name of Abu Raihan Al-Biruni, from Khwarazm, must be mentioned since he was one of the greatest scientists in World History"(R.N. Frye, "The Golden age of Persia", 2000, Phoenix Press. pg 162)
    • M. A. Saleem Khan, "Al-Biruni's discovery of India: an interpretative study", iAcademicBooks, 2001. pg 11: "It is generally accepted that he was Persian by origin, and spoke the Khwarizmian dialect" [1]
    • Rahman, H. U. (1995). A Chronology of Islamic History : 570 - 1000 CE. London: Mansell Publishing. p. 167. ISBN 1897940327. "A Persian by birth, Biruni produced his writings in Arabic, though he knew, besides Persian, no less than four other languages" 
  6. ^
    "A Persian by birth, a rationalist in disposition, this contemporary of Avicenna and Alhazen not only studied history, philosophy, and geography in depth, but wrote one of the most comprehensive Muslim astronomical treatises, the Qanun Al-Masu'di."
    • L. Massignon, "Al-Biruni et la valuer internationale de la science arabe" in Al-Biruni Commemoration Volume, (Calcutta, 1951). pp 217-219.
    In a celebrated preface to the book of Drugs, Biruni says: And if it is true that in all nations one likes to adorn oneself by using the language to which one has remained loyal, having become accustomed to using it with friends and companions according to need, I must judge for myself that in my native Khwarezmian, science has as much as chance of becoming perpetuated as a camel has of facing Kaaba.
    • Gotthard Strohmaier, "Biruni" in Josef W. Meri, Jere L. Bacharach, Medieval Islamic Civilization: A-K, index: Vol. 1 of Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis, 2006. excerpt from page 112: "Although his native Khwarezmian was also an Iranian language, he rejected the emerging neo-Persian literature of his time (Firdawsi), preferring Arabic instead as the only adequate medium of science.";
    • D. N. MacKenzie, Encyclopaedia Iranica, "CHORASMIA iii. The Chorasmian Language". Excerpt: "Chorasmian, the original Iranian language of Chorasmia, is attested at two stages of its development..The earliest examples have been left by the great Chorasmian scholar Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī.";
    • Helaine Selin, "Encyclopaedia of the history of science, technology, and medicine in non-western cultures ", Springer, 1997. "Al-Biruni", pg 157: "his native language was the Khwarizmian dialect"
  7. ^ a b c d D.J. Boilot, "Al-Biruni (Beruni), Abu'l Rayhan Muhammad b. Ahmad", in Encyclopaedia of Islam (Leiden), New Ed., vol.1:1236-1238. Excerpt 1: "He was born of an Iranian family in 362/973 (according to al-Ghadanfar, on 3 Dhu'l-Hididja/ 4 September — see E. Sachau, Chronology, xivxvi), in the suburb (birun) of Kath, capital of Khwarizm". Excerpt 2:"was one of the greatest scholars of mediaeval Islam, and certainly the most original and profound. He was equally well versed in the mathematical, astronomic, physical and natural sciences and also distinguished himself as a geographer and historian, chronologist and linguist and as an impartial observer of customs and creeds. He is known as al-Ustdadh, "the Master".
  8. ^ Robinson, Francis (2010). Islam in South Asia: Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guide. Oxford University Press US. p. 10. ISBN 0199806446. 
  9. ^ Bosworth, A. B.: "The Historical Setting of Megasthenes' Indica", Classical Philology, Vol. 91, No. 2. (1996), pp. 113–127 (113)
  10. ^ a b c C. Edmund Bosworth, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN i. Life" in Encycloapedia Iranica. Access date April 2011 at [2]
  11. ^ Gotthard Strohmaier, "Biruni" in Josef W. Meri, Jere L. Bacharach, Medieval Islamic Civilization: A-K, index: Vol. 1 of Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia, Taylor & Francis, 2006. excerpt from page 112: "Although his native Khwarezmian was also an Iranian language, he rejected the emerging neo-Persian literature of his time (Firdawsi), preferring Arabic instead as the only adequate medium of science.";
  12. ^ D. N. MacKenzie, Encyclopaedia Iranica, "CHORASMIA iii. The Chorasmian Language" [3] "Chorasmian, the original Iranian language of Chorasmia, is attested at two stages of its development..The earliest examples have been left by the great Chorasmian scholar Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī.
  13. ^ Bosworth, C.E. "Ḵh̲ W Ārazm." Encyclopaedia of Islam. Edited by: P. Bearman , Th. Bianquis , C.E. Bosworth , E. van Donzel and W.P. Heinrichs. Brill, 2007. Brill Online. Accessed at 10 November 2007 <http://www.brillonline.nl/subscriber/entry?entry=islam_SIM-4205>
  14. ^ Firoozeh Papan-Matin, Beyond death: the mystical teachings of ʻAyn al-Quḍāt al-Hamadhānī, (Brill, 2010), 111.
  15. ^ Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol.3, (University of Chicago Press, 1958), 168.
  16. ^ Jean Jacques Waardenburg, Muslim Perceptions of other Religions: A Historical Survey, (Oxford University Press, 1999), 27.
  17. ^ Jean Jacques Waardenburg, 27.
  18. ^ George Saliba, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN iii. Mathematics and Astronomy" in Encyclopaedia Iranica
  19. ^ http://www.antiochgate.com/14_biruni_elements_of_astrology.htm
  20. ^ http://www.antiochgate.com/images/14_Biruni_Elements_of_Astrology_0146.GIF
  21. ^ http://physics.learnhub.com/lesson/16619-classical-mechanics-newton-laws-of-motion
  22. ^ David Pingree,"BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN iv. Geography" in Encyclopaedia Iranica
  23. ^ Georges C. Anawati, BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN v. Pharmacology and Mineralogy, in Encyclopaedia Iranica
  24. ^ David Pingree, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN vi. History and Chronology" in Encyclopaedia Iranica
  25. ^ François de Blois,"BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN vii. History of Religions" in Encyclopaedia Iranica
  26. ^ Bruce B. Lawerence, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN viii. Indology" in Encyclopaedia Iranica
  27. ^ a b c d S.H. Nasr, "An introduction to Islamic cosmological doctrines: conceptions of nature and methods used for its study by the Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, al-Bīrūnī, and Ibn Sīnā", 2nd edition, Revised. SUNY press, 1993. pp 111: "Al-Biruni wrote one of the masterpieces of medieval science, Kitab al-Tafhim, apparently in both Arabic and Persian, demonstrating how conversant he was in both tongues. The Kitab al-Tafhim is without doubt the most important of the early works of science in Persian and serves as a rich source for Persian prose and lexicography as well as for the knowledge of the Quadrivium whose subjects it covers in a masterly fashion"
  28. ^ David Pingree, BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN ii. Bibliography, in Encyclopaedia Iranica. [4]
  • C.E. Bosworth, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN i. Life" in Encyclopædia Iranica [5] (accessed April 2011)
  • David Pingree, ""BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN ii. Bibliography", in Encyclopædia Iranica [6] (accessed April 2011)
  • George Saliba, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN iii. Mathematics and Astronomy" in Encyclopædia Iranica [7] (accessed April 2011)
  • David Pingree, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN iv. Geography" in Encycloapedia Iranica [8] (accessed April 2011)
  • Georges C. Anawati, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN v. Pharmacology and Mineralogy" in Encycloapedia Iranica [9] (accessed April 2011)
  • David Pingree, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN vi. History and Chronology" in Encyclpaedia Iranica [10] (accessed April 2011)
  • François de Blois, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN vii. History of Religions", in Encyclopædia Iranica [11] (accessed April 2011)
  • Bruce B. Lawerence, "BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN viii. Indology", in Encyclopædia Iranica [12] (accessed April 2011)
  • Yano, Michio (2007). "Bīrūnī: Abū al‐Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al‐Bīrūnī". In Thomas Hockey et al. The Biographical Encyclopedia of Astronomers. New York: Springer. pp. 131–3. ISBN 9780387310220. http://islamsci.mcgill.ca/RASI/BEA/Biruni_BEA.htm.  (PDF version)
  • Kennedy, E. S. (2008) [1970-80]. "Al-Bīrūnī (or Bērūnī), Abū Rayḥān (or Abu’l-Rayḥān) Muḥammad Ibn Aḥmad". Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. Encyclopedia.com. 
  • Glick, Thomas F.; Livesey, Steven John; Wallis, Faith (2005), Medieval Science, Technology, and Medicine: An Encyclopedia, Routledge, ISBN 0415969301 
  • Kiple, Kenneth F.; Ornelas, Kriemhild Coneè (2001), The Cambridge World History of Food, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0521402166 
  • Rashed, Roshdi; Morelon, Régis (1996), Encyclopedia of the History of Arabic Science, 1 & 3, Routledge, ISBN 0415124107 
  • Saliba, George (1994), A History of Arabic Astronomy: Planetary Theories During the Golden Age of Islam, New York University Press, ISBN 0814780237 
  • Dani, Ahmed Hasan (1973), Alberuni's Indica: A record of the cultural history of South Asia about AD 1030, University of Islamabad Press 
  • Samian, A.L. (2011). "Reason and Spirit in Al-Biruni’s Philosophy of Mathematics". In Tymieniecka, A-T.. Reason, Spirit and the Sacral in the New Enlightenment. Islamic Philosophy and Occidental Phenomenology in Dialogue. 5. Netherlands: Springer. pp. 137–146. doi:10.1007/978-90-481-9612-8_9. ISBN 978-90-481-9612-8. 
  • Biruni trans. E. Sachau, Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al- (1910), Al-Beruni’s India: an Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws and Astrology of Indiae, London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co. 

, * Rosenthal, F. (1976), E. Yarshter, ed., Al-Biruni between Greece and India,, New York: Iran Center, Columbia University 

* Yasin, M. (1975), Al-Biruni in India, Islamic Culture
* Ataman, K. (2005), Re-Reading al-Biruni’s India: a Case for Intercultural Understanding, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

Further reading

External links

Works of Al-Biruni online

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