By Akbar Ahmed
December 22, 2018
In my work in the West, both teaching and conducting research, I have found that some of the greatest names of Muslim history are rarely taught in universities and not known. They include people such as Nizam-ul-Mulk, Ibn Battuta, and Al Beruni, who is highly relevant for my discipline of anthropology. I first wrote about Al Beruni in the journal RAIN, published by the Royal Anthropological Society of Great Britain and Ireland, in the early 1980s, where I called him the first anthropologist.
I have returned numerous times to Al Beruni in my work over the years. For me as an anthropologist his work is noteworthy because studying the discipline in the West I was always taught that anthropology was a Western creation, particularly associated with colonialism, which formed beginning in the nineteenth century. The definition of anthropology as I was taught includes extended participant observation of the group to be studied, careful noting of their rites de passage, researching their primary texts and learning their language; and requiring that the findings be presented with objectivity and neutrality using, where possible, cross-cultural comparisons.
All these characteristics are present in Al Beruni’s work, and his example shows that centuries before the discipline developed in the West, non-Western peoples, such as Muslims, were conducting what we would now call anthropology. My initial article on the subject was the catalyst for a discussion in the academy about the nature of anthropology, which I argued had an ancient pedigree in the Muslim world and was part of the Islamic vision of seeking knowledge and understanding of other cultures and societies.
The Central Asian scholar Abu Raihan Muhammad Al Beruni (973-1048) was a many-sided genius in an Islamic age that produced others like him. It was the age of Firdousi (c. 940-1020), Avicenna (980-1037) and Ibn Haitham (965-1040), the high noon of Islamic cultural and scientific achievements. 1258, when the Mongols would shatter this Islamic world forever, was still a long way away. Al Beruni lived in the court of Mahmud of Ghazni (Afghanistan)-with whom he had differences-and wrote about Hindu India. The name Al Beruni-outsider or foreigner-suggests an extra-local background which perhaps sharpened his perception of his own and other societies.
Al Beruni’s versatility is unbounded-he was a scientist, mathematician, astronomer and historian. While I believe he could justifiably be considered the first anthropologist, he is also considered “the father of geodesy”-the science of measuring the earth.
His famous book on India was popularly known as Kitab al-Hind or the book of India. Significantly, the use of the word investigation in the original title Tahqiq ma al-Hind, investigation of India, reflects his own scientific disposition. The Kitab was written after some 13 years of research between 1017 and 1031. It was translated by Dr. B. Sachau into German in 1887 and the next year into English as Alberuni’s India. It remains a key source for our knowledge of Hindu society a thousand years ago.
Chapter titles of the book reflect modern anthropological interests: “On the castes, called ‘colours’ (Varna) and on the classes below them” (IX) and “On the rites and customs which the other castes, besides the Brahmans, practise during their life-time”(LXIV). Women’s issues are also examined: “On matrimony, the menstrual courses, embryos and childbed” (LXIX).
Al Beruni’s methodology is rigorous. As Sachau writes in his preface, “it is the method of our author not to speak himself, but to let the Hindus speak…He presents a picture of Indian civilization as painted by the Hindus themselves.”Al Berunileans heavily on primary Hindu sources, learning Sanskrit for this purpose, writing, “I do not spare either trouble or money in collecting Sanskrit books from places where I supposed they were likely to be found.”
He was perhaps the first Muslim to study the Puranas, the Hindu classical texts. In addition, secondary sources-translations by Arab and Persian scholars-are consulted. He travels extensively in India and associates with Hindus, especially Brahmins and yogis. He emphasizes “hearsay does not equal eye witness.” The anthropologist’s task is to “simply relate without criticizing,” and Al Beruni strictly avoided making value judgments of other people’s customs and cultures.
He is as unsparing to Arabs (when commenting on their pre-Islamic customs) as he is of certain traits of Hindus such as their “haughtiness.” Terming Hindus “haughty” may seem like a value judgment but Al Beruni observed that Hindus saw their land, their customs, their food etc. as the best in the world. The xenophobic pride of the Hindus was to become an essential part of their cultural defence system against the repeated onslaught of Muslims during and after Mahmud of Ghazni’s reign.
Al Beruni throws a wide net for comparative purposes referring to Jews, Christians, Parsis and the ancient Greeks for whom he has undisguised admiration. And his sympathy for universal mysticism is reflected in the comparison he makes between Sufi, Hindu and Christian mystics.
Al Beruni’s dispassionate commentary measures up to the highest contemporary scientific standards in the social sciences. As the Australian scholar Arthur Jeffery wrote of Al Beruni, “It is rare until modern times to find so fair and unprejudiced a statement of the views of other religions, so earnest an attempt to study them in the best sources, and such care to find a method which for this branch of study would be both rigorous and just.” “Above all,” the Pakistani scholar Hakeem Mohammed Saeed wrote in his Al Biruni: Commemorative Volume, “he had an open, universal mind and a keen desire to drink deep from the Fountain of Truth, whatever its source.”
Al Beruni is the embodiment of the Quranic injunction to seek knowledge, or Ilm, and the Prophet (pbuh) had exhorted Muslims to acquire knowledge even if it meant going as far as China. While referring to the Holy Quran to back his statements-his faith in Islam is strong as is his relief to be born a Muslim-he reflects on the essential oneness of man. Al Beruni’s God is the creator of all things and all peoples. Islam has neither hindered the scholar’s enterprise nor has his Muslimness been compromised. When Al Beruni wrote, Islam was on the ascendant in world affairs. Yet neither condescension nor contempt mars his work.
The recognition of Al Beruni as the first major anthropologist of Islam thus opens both theoretical and methodological doors for Muslim social scientists. Almost a thousand years before European Indianists such as Louis Dumont and Adrian Mayer, Al Beruni had exhaustively examined, and suggested a methodology for the study of, caste and kinship in India.
In my work, I have emulated Al Beruni’s method, travelling widely and taking notes and interviewing people to learn from them. My recent quartet of studies about the relationship between Islam and the West, with its most recent volume Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity (2018), is conducted very much in this spirit.
At a time of crisis and turmoil in the Muslim world and the predominance of tension, conflict, ignorance, and misunderstandings between cultures and religions, Al Beruni still has much to teach us.
Akbar Ahmed is the IbnKhaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, School of International Service, American University, Washington, DC, and author of Journey into Europe: Islam, Immigration, and Identity.