ABU RAIHAN MUHAMMAD AL-BIRUNI
(973 - 1048 C.E.)

by
Dr. A. Zahoor

Al-Biruni was an outstanding astronomer, mathematician, physicist, Physician, geographer, geologist and historian. According to Max Meyerhoff, Al-Biruni is perhaps the most prominent figure in the phalanx of those universally learned Muslim scholars who characterize the Golden Age of Islamic Science. His great contributions in so many diverse fields earned him the title "al-Ustadh," the Master or Professor par excellence. Some historians have called the period of his activity as "The Age of Al-Biruni."

Abu Raihan Muhammad Al-Biruni was born in Khwarizm (now Kara-Kalpakskaya in present Uzbekistan) in 973 C.E. He studied Arabic, Islamic Law, and several branches of knowledge. Later, he learnt Greek, Syriac and Sanskrit. His knowledge of several languages helped him in understanding the available work and bring together a fresh and original approach in his work. Al-Biruni was of the view that whatever the subject one should use every available source in its original form, investigate the available work with objective scrutiny, and carry out research through direct observation and experimentation.

He was a contemporary of the famous physician Ibn Sina (Avicenna) and is known to have corresponded with him. Al-Biruni's contributions are so extensive that an index of his written works covers more than sixty pages. His scientific work combined with contributions of Al-Haitham (Al-Hazen) and other Muslim scientists laid down the early foundation of modern science. Al-Biruni died in 1048 C.E. in Ghazna (Afghanistan) after a forty-year illustrious career.

Al-Biruni made original and important contributions to science. He discovered seven different ways of finding the direction of the north and south, and discovered mathematical techniques to determine exactly the beginnings of the season. He also wrote about the sun and its movements and the eclipse. In addition, he invented few astronomical instruments. Many centuries before the rest of the world, Al-Biruni discussed that the earth rotated on its axis and made accurate calculations of latitude and longitude. These observations are contained in his book "Al-Athar Al-Baqia." He wrote a treatise on timekeeping in 1000 C.E.

Al-Biruni was the first to conduct elaborate experiments related to astronomical phenomena. He stated that the speed of light is immense as compared with the speed of sound. He described the Milky Way as a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars. Al-Biruni described his observation of the solar eclipse of April 8, 1019 and the lunar eclipse of September 17, 1019. On the solar eclipse which he observed at Lamghan, a valley surrounded by mountains between the towns of Qandahar and Kabul, he wrote: ... at sunrise we saw that approximately one-third of the sun was eclipsed and that the eclipse was waning. He observed the lunar eclipse at Ghazna and gave precise details of the exact altitude of various well-known stars at the moment of first contact. Al-Biruni's book "Al-Tafhim-li-Awail Sina'at al-Tanjim" summarizes work on Mathematics and Astronomy. It was translated by Ramsay Wright in 1934, Luzac.

Al-Biruni contributions in Physics include work on springs and accurate determination of the specific weight of eighteen elements and compounds including many metals and precious stones. His book "Kitab-al-Jamahir" discusses the properties of various precious stones. He was a pioneer in the study of the angles and trigonometry. He worked on shadows and chords of circles and developed a method for trisection of an angle. He elaborated on the principle of position and discussed the Indian numerals.

In the fields of geology and geography, al-Biruni contributed on geological eruptions and metallurgy, to the measurement of the longitudes and latitudes and methods of determining the relative position of one place to another. He explained the working of natural springs and artesian wells by the hydrostatic principle of communicating vessels. His book Al-Athar Al-Baqiyah fi Qanun al-Khaliyah deals with ancient history and geography, and it was translated by Edward Sachau. Al-Biruni observed that flowers have 3, 4, 5, 6, or 18 petals, but never seven or nine.

Al-Biruni is most commonly known by his association with Mahmood Ghaznavi, a famous Muslim king who also ruled India, and his son Sultan Masood. Impressed by his scholarship and fame, Sultan Mahmood Ghaznavi took al-Biruni along with him in his journeys to India several times. Al-Biruni traveled many places in India for about 20 years and studied Hindu philosophy, mathematics, geography and religion from the Pundits. In return, he taught them Greek and Muslim sciences and philosophy.

Al-Biruni's book "Kitab al-Hind" provides a detailed account of Indian life, religions, languages, and cultures and includes many observations on geography. He stated that the Indus valley must be considered as an ancient sea basin filled with alluvials. In this book, he mentions two books Patanjal and Sakaya. He translated these two Sanskrit books into Arabic. The former book deals with after death accounts, and the latter with the creation of things and their types. Abu-al-Fadal's book "Aein-i-Akbari," written six centuries later during the reign of Akbar, was influenced by Al-Biruni's book.

Al-Biruni wrote his famous book "Al-Qanun Al-Masudi Fi Al-Hai'a Wa Al-Nujum," in 1030 C.E. This book was written after he returned from India and was dedicated to Sultan Masood. It discusses several theorems of trigonometry, astronomy, solar, lunar and planetary motions, and contains a collection of twenty-three observations of equinoxes. His other well-known books are Al-Athar Al-Baqia and Kitab-al-Saidana. The former book gives an account of ancient history of nations and the latter is an extensive materia medica that synthesizes the Arabic Medicine with the Indian medicine. His investigations included description of Siamese twins. He also wrote on the astrolabe and a mechanical calendar.

Al-Biruni was a true Muslim Scientist who benefitted from both the Islamic guidance and scientific investigations. He said: "My experience in the study of astronomy and geometry and experiments in physics revealed to me that there must be a Planning Mind of Unlimited Power. My discoveries in Astronomy showed that there are fantastic intricacies in the universe which prove that there is a creative system and a meticulous control that cannot be explained through sheer physical and material causes." He never exploited his work as a means to fame, authority or material gains. When Sultan Masood sent him three camel-loads of silver coins in appreciation of his encyclopedic work "Al-Qanoon al-Masoodi," (The Mas'udi Canon), Al-Biruni politely returned the royal gift saying, "I serve knowledge for the sake of knowledge and not for money."

Al-Biruni is considered as one of the greatest scientists of all times.

A Short List of References

Copyright © 1992, 1997 Dr. A. Zahoor
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