By Syed Shafiq Ahmad
19 January 2019
I enjoin my students to read about men like Al Beruni so that they can understand that despite being staunch followers of Islam they can excel in scientific and secular studies. I tell them further that invoking religion of these medieval figures neither could explain Muslim ascendance then nor could it explain our downfall today. Again, it’s not the modern European style secularisation of society that we need to bring our renaissance but the medieval quest for knowledge, scholarship and scientific enquiry without losing our faith. This is quite possible. Al Beruni can be a case study for those young minds in whom we need to rekindle the spirit of free enquiry while remaining faithful.
Life and Works of the Great Man
Abu Rayhan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al Beruni was born in Khwarazm, Persia which falls in today’s Uzbekistan-Turkemenistan region, in September 973 CE and died on December 1050 at Ghazni Afghanistan. As a child, he helped his mother in the morning and studied Qura’an, Fiqah and Hadith in the evening. Khwarazm was the birth place of a famous Algebric mathematician, al Khwarazmi, Fakharuddin Razi, a theologian and scholar and Allama Zamakhshiri, a famous Mu’tezillian scholar. Al Beruni’s contemporaries included Firdousi- a poet and author of world’s longest epic poem, Shahnama, Ibn Sena (Avicenna), regarded as father of early modern medicine and Ibn Hasham(Ibn Haitham), father of modern optics ( His famous book was Kitab ul Manazir, Book of Optics). The king of Khwarazm was himself an astronomer and supported Al Beruni in his research. The King bestowed him with the title, Al Beruni- “outsider” or “foreigner” signifying his extra-local background. When Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi occupied Khwarazm, many ulemas along with Al Beruni were taken as hostage. He was brought by the king to Ghazni where he died in December 1050.
Al Beruni was an unparalleled polymath having written more than 140 books–35 on Astronomy, 23 on Astrology, 15 on Mathematics, 2 on Trigonometry,8 on Arithmetics, 9 on Geography, 2 on medicine, mineralogy and gems each, 4 on history, 10 on geodesy and so on. However, most of his books are lost now. As a scientist, he determined the radius of earth by his unique method of measuring the height of a mountain for which he earned the title of “father of geodesy” (a scientific field that studies measurement/representation of earth, its gravitational field and so on).
Al Beruni discovered that the speed of light was far greater than the speed of sound. He also propounded that the Earth rotated along its axis and that’s how days and nights were formed. He hailed the scientific spirit of 6th century Indian Astronomer, Aryabhatta and judged Brahamgupta ( he translated his Brahmasiddhanta into Arabic) as the best mathematician of his time, lacking, however, “courage” to be a pioneer unlike Aryabhatta. Writing in 11th century, he rebuked Brahamgupta for his contradictory stand on the former’s scientific methods on the one hand and religious orthodoxy on the other and bemoaned his lack of “courage” when he calculated diameter of the moon to explain lunar eclipse as per the theory of Aryabhatta et al. To paraphrase Amartya Sen, this understanding of “the constructive role of heterodoxy and of courage to disagree” in Science was “remarkable” by eleventh-century standards on his( Al Beruni’s) part ( The Argumentative Indian, by Prof Amartya Sen, pages 29-30).
Apart from his contributions to Science, one of his most significant contributions was the study of Indian culture and civilization which invited him the name of al Ustad (The Master). He became the founder of Indology by describing 11th century India in his book Kitab ul Hind. Al Beruni translated Bhagwad Gita into Arabic, learned Sanskrit, studied Indian medicine, astronomy mathematics, Sanskrit religious and philosophical texts( while in Ghazni) , talked to people in India and conducted an extensive research as a participant observer for 13 years before writing the book. Dr Akbar S Ahmad (Ibn Khaldun Chair, American University Washington DC) describes him as the “first anthropologist” as “all characteristics of Anthropology are present in his works” (caravandaily.com, Dec 22,2018). Kitab ul Hind deals with religion, philosophy, festivals, alchemy, social life, laws, weights and measures and so on. Indians remembered him as Vidyasagar, ocean of knowledge.
Apart from this, one of his major works includes his collection, analysis, compilation, description of properties of various minerals and gems and their occurrence.
Syed Shafiq Ahmad, a teacher at Al Beruni Classes, Sogam, Lolab