When learning about Islamic history, it’s hard to not be amazed at the scientific and intellectual accomplishments of Muslims in the past. From medicine to mathematics to philosophy to art to physics, during their golden age, Muslims were at the forefront of almost all sciences, making new discoveries and building on earlier ones. Names like Ibn Sina, Ibn al-Haytham, Ibn Khaldun, and al-Farabi come to mind when people think of the giants of Islamic science.
One man who is in this elite group of the greatest scholars of all time is the Muslim Persian polymath, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. He lived from 973 to 1048 and spent most of his life in Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. During his illustrious career, al-Biruni became an expert in numerous subjects, including history, physics, mathematics, astronomy, linguistics, comparative religion, and earth sciences. Despite the unsettling political problems the Muslim world was dealing with during his life, he managed to rise above the instability and become one of the greatest scholars of history.
Al-Biruni was born in the province of Khorasan, in Northeastern Persia in 973. Like many other children in his time, he was educated at a young age, learning the Arabic and Persian languages, as well as basic Islamic studies, and natural sciences. Early on, he took an interest in mathematics and astronomy, which he specialized in under the eminent astronomers of the day.
In his 20s, he moved away from home in his pursuit of knowledge. For 3 years he traveled throughout Persia, learning from scholars about numerous subjects. When he finally settled in Jurjan (modern Gorgan) in 998, he worked for the local ruler, Shams al-Ma’ali Qabus. For the next 10 years, he lived in this small northern Irani city, doing research, writing books, and learning more.
During this time, he wrote a monumental work that analyzed historical chronologies of ancient civilizations, along with the rise and fall of empires. The book foreshadowed his future as a scholar of numerous subjects. It is more than just a history book, as it brings history, science, astronomy, and cultural studies together to explain events of the past. Al-Biruni clearly became one of the foremost minds of his day through his work in Jurjan.
Al-Biruni would not accomplish some of his greatest works until he moved to Ghazni, and was under the patronage of Sultan Mahmud. Ghazni was a major city at the time, located in what is now Afghanistan. Mahmud’s empire stretched far beyond the borders of modern Afghanistan, however, into present-day Iran, Pakistan, and India. In this powerful empire, al-Biruni had the resources and ability to show what he was capable of doing.
Of particular benefit to al-Biruni was the fact that Sultan Mahmud regularly embarked on military expeditions into India to protect his domain there. Mahmud had a habit of taking al-Biruni along on all his military campaigns, so al-Biruni was exposed regularly to language, culture, and religion in India.
Blessed with a mind that was capable of picking up new ideas easily, al-Biruni quickly managed to learn Sanskrit, the language of Hindu liturgy. This opened up an entire realm of Indian books that he could learn from and compare with books from other parts of the world. He translated books from Sanskrit into Arabic and Persian, and also translated from Arabic to Sanskrit. He was a firm believer in the idea that civilizations should aim to learn from each other instead of destroy each other.
Because of his ability to read ancient Hindu texts, al-Biruni was able to compile an encyclopedia of ancient Indian history, known as Kitab Tarikh al-Hind – The Book of Indian History. In fact, much of what is known today about ancient India comes directly from al-Biruni’s book. Tarikh al-Hind does more than tell the reader about ancient India, however. It is also a testament to the fact that al-Biruni was able to put together so many different sciences to fully understand the background of historical events. The book is a window into Indian philosophy, geography, and culture, which al-Biruni immersed himself in to give himself a better understanding of Indian history. As such, Tarikh al-Hind can truly be considered one of the world’s first books on anthropology – the study of human societies and their development.
Besides being an expert in Indian history and culture, al-Biruni managed to find time to make scientific advances as well. Because of his travels, he was able to see different geographic features first-hand, and come up with theories as to how they are connected. By analyzing the different types of soil particles in the Ganges River from its source to the Bay of Bengal, al-Biruni formulated theories about erosion and how land forms are shaped, particularly noting the role of water in this process.
In a related study, he discovers fossils of ancient sea animals in the mountains that cut India off from the rest of the world – the Himalayas. It seems unlikely that lowly sea snails and other shellfish would travel thousands of miles inland and up the side of a mountain, so al-Biruni came to the conclusion that the Himalayan Mountains must have been under the ocean at one point, and moved to their present location over millions of years. This directly led to the modern understanding of plate tectonics – how continents move and shift over time.
Al-Biruni also pioneered the field of geology, as he collected, analyzed, and compiled hundreds of metals and gems. He described their properties, how they are made, and where they can be found. His books on gemstones served as a standard for understanding precious stones for hundreds of years.
Al-Biruni continued a remarkable career in the early 1000s, doing research into fields such as:
How the earth spins on its axis
How wells and springs transport water to the surface
Combining statics and dynamics into the study of mechanics
Recording the latitude and longitude of thousands of cities, which allowed him to determine the direction towards Makkah for each city
The optical nature of shadows, particularly their use for the calculation of prayer times
Separating scientific astronomy from superstitious astrology
During his 75 years, al-Biruni managed to revolutionize the way numerous subjects were understood. By the time he died in 1048, he had authored well over 100 books, of which many have not survived till today. His intellect and mastery of various subjects, and his ability to relate them together to gain a better understanding of each puts him among the greatest Muslim scholars of all time. His life serves as proof of the ability of Muslim scholars of the past to push the limits of knowledge and establish new frontiers in the sciences. It also serves to show the ability of the best scholars to rise above political problems, wars, and and general instability to still do world-changing research and make remarkable discoveries.