August 9, 2012 By Savad Muhammad

AL Biruni: Romance, Voyage and Science

Khiva-old-town_1They were star-crossed lovers. Yet stars made them lovers. When Muhummad Ibn Ahmad Abu Rayhan Al Biruni (973-1048) was living in the observatory of Khawarism King Abu Nasr Mansur, he stole the heart of the king’s sister Rayhana-later to be known as Lady Rayhana-and she stole his, as well. But Rayhana (whom later al Biruni married) was betrothed to her father’s cousin, Ali, son of the governor of Gurganj. Kings hardly break their pledge. Rayhana got married to Ali, thereby leading the kingdom to fall to the hands of the governor who let loose many years of tyranny and burnt the observatory.

Nowhere in Lady Rayhana is so poetically described and nowhere is the romance Al Biruni, who was able to calculate the height of a mountain by measuring its shadow and whose theory of location of landmasses opposite to Eurasia helped him knew about the Americas five hundred years before the Europeans discovered the New World, is melodramatically narrated but in Muhammad Kaimar’s Brilliant Biruni, a biography of a man who is known for many accolades: physician, mathematician, astrologer, polyglot  ….etc. Mohammad Kamiar, Professor at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, is a brilliant Biruni scholar, who has earlier written a bio-bibliography of Biruni (both the works were published by Scarecrow Press,  London). That book has ‘a brief biography and geography of Biruni’s birthplace, and all available references related to him were put together under a single title. For the first time, names of all of Biruni’s 183 books in Arabic, Persian, transliteration, and English, with brief annotations, were given in one place. Again, for the first time, some selected resources available on Biruni on the Internet were provided.’

However Kaimar realized the insufficiency of the book. ‘The aforementioned more technical book about Biruni makes research very convenient for the students and scholars in the fields of geography, classical works, medieval research, and Islamic civilization. It is, however, to be used for serious research and investigation in related fields with specific agendas. This means that a Bio-Bibliography for Biruni is not geared toward public consumption. Therefore, I was led to write the present book for that purpose. In the book in your hand, I have tried to give the reader a simplified version of the life of one of the greatest scholars in the history of the world. This is the life story of the boy who became Biruni, a life story of the survival of a scientist who brightened the dark skies of the Middle Ages.’

Kaimar’s narrative takes the trip of a novel, though spilling valuable information on the scholar and his oeuvre on its way forward. Kaimar’s aim is to bring Al Biruni across, but keeping readers glued to the narrative. Al Biruni’s exposition of Musa Al Khawarismi to Rayhana is remarkable in the context: Who invented the astrolabe?” asked Princess Rayhana. Mohammad responded, “It was Muhammad Ibn Musa Khwarazmi. He was born right here in our city in 780 and died in 850 C.E. in Baghdad. He lived in Baghdad under the caliphates of Mamun and Mutasim in the first golden age of Islamic civilization. His algebra book, the first in the world, was a compilation of rules for arithmetical solutions of linear and quadratic equations. He is the one who gave us the word algorithm. In his geography book he calculated coordinates of many towns, for the first time. He actually corrected many mistakes made by Ptolemy. As our hometown scholar, we should be proud of him.”

Especially, in chapter nineteen, where the relationship between al-Razi and al Biruni in the context of adopting a stand regarding Aristotle is insightful: ‘Biruni sent Ibn Sina a set of eighteen questions, mostly pointing to problems in Aristotle’s philosophy. One of the questions was, “Why does ice float on water?” These questions indicate the fact that Biruni did not consider Ibn Sina a major scientist. These questions are a manifestation of Biruni’s command of peripatetic studies as well as the exact sciences. Some of these questions were answered by Ibn Sina himself or by one of his students. Most of them, however, were left unanswered and ignored. And most of the answers were not accepted as correct by Biruni. When Ibn Sina was unable to defend Aristotle, he attacked Abu Bakr Muhammad Zakariya Razi in return, who is considered to be one of Biruni’s mentors. Razi (865–925 C.E.) was a physician and a well-known surgeon by profession who had spent most of his life in the cities of Rayy and Baghdad. He is believed to be the first person who discovered the properties of alcohol. He is credited as the first Muslim surgeon to carry out human autopsies. In his books, Razi rejected metaphysics and all prophetic institutions of revealed religions. He has been called as a “full-time freethinker” (Stroumsa, 1999, p. 87).

The book grippingly yet informatively narrates the eventful life of Al Biruni right from explaining how Muhammad Ibn Ahmad was came to be appended the tag ‘Al Biruni’ ( The village of Vasemereed. A little house bedaubed by mud in the northeastern corner of the village was where Professor Abu-Jafar Ahmad Ibn Ali Andijani’s family lived. After his death, Professor Andijani’s widow and his seven children, four sons and three daughters, were living here. The native villagers addressed them as the Birunis, or “those who came from outside” or just “outsiders.” In Persian the word Birun means “outside.” The reason they were called by this name was that they had emigrated from the city of Khwarazim. This family was still seen as strangers by the local population), to detailing how he came to be in the hands of Turkish Bedouins who took him captive, how he escaped, and how landed in the court of Abu Nasr Mansur.

There are problems with the novelistic way of narrative. Especially, the author has to bring erotic elements-that too out of sync with the main body of narrative-to the story. The author sometimes falls into the trap of stereotypes especially when, without citations, he describes the Turkish Bedouins: ‘They would cut the throats or rip the stomachs of men, rape the young women, and kidnap those they could sell in the slave bazaars. If the villages put up a good defense and were brave, the nomads would shed more blood of the innocent people and those they held guilty of fighting them. Sometimes they would tie up the elderly men and women to their horses, where they would die a dreadful death. Other times, they would throw the babies high into the air and on coming down cut them into halves with their swords. In many cases, the nomads would pick up young children by one leg, swing them around, and hit their skulls on the ground or the walls! Merely for their sadistic pleasure, the invaders would commit all sorts of cruelties. Then they would take whatever they could carry. They were worse than animals; they smelled bad and had no mercy.’ Also, the linear way of narration takes away the gravity of the book and renders it more melodramatic than the subject deserves.

Al Biruni was not a born traveller like Ibn Battutta or Marco Polo. He was rather a settler. But he could not tolerate listless rural atmosphere which hardly yield ground to scientific research he admires. He started to seek after observatories and cities.  Search for knowledge set him on the move. The book portrays this aspect of Ibn Battutta’s life in a telling fashion.

Sometimes, the book contains the author’s bio-bibliographic information on Biruni and he unmistakably mingles it with the main body of narrative:

“Understanding Astronomy, of course, and Masud’s Canon were in astronomy. Biruni had much better relations with Masud than with Mahmud. Masudi Canon is Biruni’s only book that includes the name of a king in its title or is dedicated to one. This book includes an astronomical table and a table of geographical coordinates of six hundred important places in the world. Sultan Masud himself had some interest in astronomy. One day, Sultan Masud asked Biruni a question on the changes in the length of day and night during different seasons. Although Biruni explained his answer verbally, he later wrote a treatise on this very subject in the simplest way possible. The Sultan was very pleased. After Sultan Masud saw this book and his own Canon, he sent an elephant-load of silver to Biruni.”

“ Biruni did not ignore medicine as a part of his scientific studies. He was very familiar with Greek and Indian medicine. Kitab al-Saydanah was written when Biruni was very old, and this was probably his last work, composed after his return from India and after his experience with a disease, perhaps malaria. Sayadanah is a comprehensive book on pharmacy. In this book, Biruni deals with medical issues such as occurrence, medicinal usage, diagnosis, natural drugs, and his approach to natural drugs. Included were etymologies, descriptions that were based on his experience, and a revision of some of the Greeks’ opinions. Biruni provided the exact names of these drugs in Arabic, Greek, Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit.”

“ In some circles, however, Biruni is more famous for his Kitab al-Hind or the Book of India. This book was translated by C. Edward Sachau and was published in 1887 in London. Actually, Biruni called his book Research in India. While in Khwarazim, Biruni studied some Sanskrit and all references about India. His main goal was to learn about Hindu astronomy. He was probably disappointed because he could hardly find anything. Most of the Muslim sources about India were one-sided. The Muslims looked down on India. This country was seen as a backward one where people worshipped idols. Sultan Mahmud’s invasions in the 1020s of India thus were geared toward converting the people of the subcontinent to Islam.”

“Later in life, Biruni wrote a book titled Kitab al-tafhim li-awa’il sina’at altanjim, or Book of Understanding Basics of the Art of Astronomy, for Lady Rayhana. Al-Tafhim, as it is most often called for short, is in itself an enormous achievement for a scholar in the Middle Ages. In this book too, Biruni’s method is to ask questions and provide answers in the simplest possible way. For example, some of the questions in the first part of the book ask, What is geometry? What is a point? What is an angle? On the other hand, Homaii argues that “although this book was written for a young Iranian Princess about a thousand years ago, yet it contains subjects and problems that still are not fully understood in our time.”

For Al Biruni, the love for his beloved could not be separated from his passion for knowledge.

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