AL BIRUNI: PERSIAN SCHOLAR, LINGUIST AND ASTROLOGER
Abu al-Rayhan Mohammad ibn-Ahmad Al-Biruni, known simply as Al Biruni, was one of the greatest scientists and scholars of the Islamic Golden Age, having a stature roughly equivalent to that of Al-Razi and Ibn Sina, or Avicenna. He was born on September 4, 973 in Khwarezem, in what was then the Samanid Empire of northeastern Persia, in what is modern day Uzbekistan. This region, also known as Khorasan, was one of the outlying regions of the Persian Empire, and so, his nickname or “handle”, Al Biruni, literally means, “the outlier”. Al Biruni distinguished himself in so many fields of science and scholarship that he could rightly be called one of the greatest intellectuals and polymaths of history. Among the fields to which Al Biruni made significant contributions are astronomy / astrology, chemistry, earth sciences and geography, history of religion, Indology (Indian studies), mathematics, pharmacology and mineralogy, physicis and mechanics, and much more. In addition, Al Biruni was a gifted linguist who was fluent in Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit, as well as Greek, Hebrew and Syriac.
An Overview of Al Biruni’s Life
Al Biruni spent the first 25 years of his life studying Islamic jurisprudence, theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy / astrology, medicine and other sciences. Leaving Khwarezem and his homeland when it was taken over by the rival Ma’munid dynasty in 995 CE, he left for Bukhara, which was then under the Samanid ruler Mansur II, and while there, corresponded with another scholar and polymath, Avicenna, exchanging views on a number of different subjects. In 998 he moved to the court of the Ziyarid Amir of Tabaristan, Shams Amol-Ali Abul Hasan Ghaboos ibn Wushmgir. While there, he wrote his first major work, al-Athar al-Baqqiya ‘an al-Qorun al-Khaliyya, which literally means, “The Remaining Traces of Past Centuries”, also translated variously as “Chronology of Ancient Nations” or, “Vestiges of the Past”, completing it around the year 1000. It is a scientific and panoramic view of history, which endeavored to explain how and why the various nations and empires, cultures and civilizations of the past rose and fell. Al Biruni was also a visitor to the court of Gurganj, which was, at that time, gaining fame for the number of brilliant scientists and scholars they had attracted.
In the year 1017, Mahmud of Ghazni took the city of Rey, and Al Biruni, as well as most other scholars, were taken to Ghazni, the capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty. This was to be the most productive period of Al Biruni’s life, as Mahmud ruled a vast realm, and put many resources at Al Biruni’s disposal. The court of Mahmud in Ghazni was located in present day Afghanistan, but Mahmud’s domains spilled over into present day Iran, Pakistan and India. Mahmud had the habit of taking Al Biruni along with him on his military campaigns to India, and, having a quick mind, Al Biruni soon learned Sanskrit, which opened up a whole field of classical Hindu literature to him for study and translation. From his experiences and sojourns in India, Al Biruni wrote his groundbreaking work on Indology, Kitab Tariq al-Hind, or the History of India. Al Biruni firmly believed that, instead of fighting wars and trying to destroy each other, great cultures should try to learn from each other. While other Muslims were bloodying themselves in religious wars and conflicts with the Hindus, Al-Biruni was noted for his ability to engage in peaceful dialogue with them.
Astrology, Astronomy – and Al Biruni
Most literature on Al Biruni focuses mainly on his achievements in astronomy and related sciences as being the apex of his life’s work. Al Biruni was a leader in the use of mathematics, both to measure the heavens and the planetary movements, including those of the earth, and also to measure the precise locations of various towns and cities on the earth – a branch of geography known as geodesy. Al Biruni takes it for granted that the earth is spherical in shape, even though the religious orthodoxy of his day did not consider it to be so, and even used the equations and techniques of trigonometry to measure the radius of the earth with astounding accuracy. The planets all rise and set within a 24 hour period due to the daily rotation of the earth on its axis, said Al Biruni, although their individual orbital cycles through the heavens vary greatly in length.
Indeed, Al Biruni’s achievements in astronomy, geography and geodesy were so pioneering and impressive that those who are more orthodox in their scientific sensibilities cannot reconcile these achievements with the fact that Al Biruni was also an astrologer. And so, the scientifically orthodox tend to downplay Al Biruni’s involvement with astrology by rationalizing that he was simply using astrology as a tool or medium through which to teach the “serious” sciences of mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, astronomy, geodesy, etc… But still, this does not explain certain well known facts about Al Biruni: that he was court astrologer to Mahmud of Ghazni; that he wrote a very detailed and comprehensive textbook on astrology, entitled The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology; and that the derivation of several Arabic Parts used in medieval Islamic astrology is also attributed to him.
Actually, astrology was generally considered to be a part of astronomy until the Enlightenment, and many, if not most, astronomers were also astrologers. Johannes Kepler is generally considered to be the last astronomer who was also an astrologer. Even Sir Isaac Newton, whose name is usually associated with reductionistic “billiard ball” laws of physics that appear to be totally at odds with an astrological worldview, was also an astrologer; his involvement with alchemy is far better known, but astrology, as well as alchemy, are parts of the Hermetic arts that Newton studied. To be sure, Al Biruni’s approach to astrology was extremely serious and disciplined; he held that any competent astrologer should also be well versed in the ancillary sciences of geometry, mathematics, astronomy, physics and geography. And this is still true with astrology today, with many professional organizations of astrologers feeling the need to educate their members in the basics of astronomy, geography, and horoscope calculation.
Those who have studied the astrology of Europe in the Medieval and Renaissance periods affirm that the astrology of medieval Persia, of which Al Biruni was a leading exponent, profoundly influenced European astrology in this period. Most importantly, the Persians took the ancient Hermetic Lots from Hellenistic Astrology and developed them further into what became known as the Arabic Parts. European astrologers studied the Arabic Parts of Persian astrology, seeking to discern between what the original formulation of Hellenistic Astrology was, and what was a later Persian / Arabic interpolation. Wlliam Lily, in his master work, Christian Astrology, seems to draw heavily on the astrological aphorisms of Al Biruni. Like William Lily, the medieval Persian astrologers also used Horary techniques for divining questions of the stars.
Al Biruni: A Pioneer of Indology, Ethnography and Comparative Religion
In an era of brutal religious wars and conquests, Al Biruni was a peaceful scholar and roving world citizen. As mentioned earlier, he accompanied his prince and patron, Mahmud of Ghazni, on his travels and military campaigns to India; although many maintain that he went along as a virtual prisoner, Al Biruni seems to have had a genuine interest in his scholarly field studies. He reported on the religion, history, culture and civilization of the Hindus with remarkable objectivity and freedom from bias; according to Al Biruni, the scholar should do his best to understand the religion and culture of another nation or civilization on its own terms. Al Biruni’s fluency in multiple languages enabled him to compare one religion or culture to another, such as the Hindus and the ancient Greeks, and draw parallels and contrasts between them; and so, Al Biruni was a pioneer in the fields of ethnography and comparative religion.
Regarding Hinduism, Al Biruni divided the Hindus into those who were educated versus those who were uneducated, and maintained that the uneducated Hindus were more inclined towards polytheism and idol worship, whereas the educated Hindus were much more monotheistic. This is somewhat reminiscent of Socrates telling us, “Worship the gods if you must, but let your first duty be to know yourself.” Al Biruni draws other parallels between the religious theories of the Hindus and the ancient Greeks in his magnum opus on India. As for the terrible hatred and animosity between the Hindus and the Muslims, Al Biruni explains that the Persian penchant for capturing and abducting Hindus as slaves had led to the mistrust of Hindus towards not only Muslims, but all foreigners. Although Al Biruni was first mistrusted by his fellow Hindu scholars, he gradually earned their trust and confidence, and they taught him the Sanskrit necessary to read and translate their scholarly treatises on mathematics, science, medicine and astronomy / astrology as these were practiced in 11th century India.
In the field of comparative religion, Al Biruni regards all religions as being related to each other, no matter how distantly, and how dissimilar they might appear to be, because all religions are, ultimately, human constructs in an effort to know God, or the Divine. Al Biruni is considered to be one of the most important authorities on the history of religion, and the religions he studied included Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and other religions as well. When it came to Hinduism, Al Biruni deplored the dearth of primary sources that were available to him, and also deplored the works of those scholars who approached the study of Hinduism with the sole agenda of proving it to be wrong. Guided by a high sense of ethics and a sincere desire to learn, Al Biruni sought to explain the various religions of the world to one another. Because of Al Biruni’s objectivity and adherence to the facts regarding the religions and cultures he studied, his works in the fields of ethnography and comparative religion were eagerly sought.
A Summary of Al Biruni’s Other Scientific and Scholarly Accomplishments
In short, Al Biruni was one of the most gifted and prolific scientists and scholars of the medieval Muslim Golden Age. Possessed of an astounding and inquisitive intellect, he was also a great humanist and world citizen, and always strove to promote learning and understanding between different nations, cultures and civilizations. All areas of human knowledge, learning and wisdom were the subject of his tireless investigations, explorations and discoveries.
In the field of geography, Al Biruni’s most celebrated achievement was to use the measured height of a mountain combined with trigonometric calculations, all aided by the use of an astrolabe, to measure the radius of the earth with remarkable precision. Al Biruni is seen as the father of geodesy, or the use of mathematical calculations to determine the geographical coordinates of places on earth. He is also credited as being one of the first to apply the experimental scientific method to the study of mechanics, a branch of physics that deals with the impact of outside forces on the motion of physical objects. Al Biruni united the sciences of hydrostatics and dynamics to create the new field of hydrodynamics. In pharmacology and mineralogy, Al Biruni measured the specific gravity of many metals and minerals with great precision, using an apparatus he designed and constructed himself.