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IslamiCity > Articles > The Life and Science of Al Beruni
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973-1048 Abu Rayhan Al-Beruni. Field of Study: Astronomy, Mathematics, History & Linguistics
Audio The Life and Science of Al Beruni

The Life and Science of Al Beruni
3/23/2009 - Education Science - Article Ref: IC0611-3175
Number of comments: 10
By: Haroon Ishaque Jangda
IslamiCity* -

In the meantime, conditions had become favorable for him in his own country. The new rulers of Khwarizm, who had displaced his former patrons of the house of Iraq, had become impressed with his fame. Ali bin Mamun, the second king of this new line, invited Al-Beruni to his court. The king had a very able minister who was fond of scientific studies. As a result of his love of learning, the court of Khwarizm had become a meeting place for scholars of note. One of these was the great philosopher and well-known physician, Abu Ali bin Sina. Debates on scientific subjects were sometimes held between him and Al-Beruni. But like most debates they solved nothing and merely created bitterness between the two great men. Chiefly, on account of his great book on medicine, "the Qanun", Ibn Sina enjoys far greater fame then Al-Beruni. The latter, however, was a far more original thinker. He took delight in searching out facts for himself and made valuable additions to the existing knowledge of his times. Ibn Sina on the other hand, contented himself largely with explaining and expanding what the Greek philosopher, Aristotle had written.

The respect, Al-Beruni enjoyed in the sovereign's court of Khwarizm, is evident from this incident. One day the King of Khwarizm was going in procession with royal pomp and dignity. He happened to pass by Beruni's house. The king ordered the procession to stop and sent a message to Al-Beruni that the king was waiting for him. Al-Beruni took sometime to get ready and see the king. The king decided to dismount the horse and go to Al-Beruni himself. When he was about to dismount, Al-Beruni came out and implored to the king to keep seated. The king, who was a great patron of scholars, on hearing Al-Beruni's earnest request, recited a poetic composition in Arabic. It mean: "Knowledge itself is a respectable city, it does not go to the people, but the people go to it."

The story that Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna invited Ibn Sina and Al-Beruni to his court does not seem to be correct. It is more probable that when Mahmud conquered Khwarizm, Al-Beruni was obliged to leave his native city. It was no longer the seat of a splendid court but had become and unimportant provincial town. Al-Beruni then went to Ghazna (Afghanistan) to seek his fortune. However, he never forgot the kindness of his old patrons and in his poem we find verses in which he says:

"The House of Mamun, especially Ali Bin Mamun gave me full encouragement and support and the last of them named Mahmud made me rich and famous and raised my rank."

Mahmud knew Al-Beruni's worth and received him with open arms. About him, he says in the same poem:

"Mahmud never kept back wealth from me. He made me rich and satisfied. He overlooked my faults and held me in respect and raised me to a high position."

He lived in Ghazna until 1019 A.D. and mostly kept himself busy in the observation of stars. Mahmud had erected for him and observatory which is a building specially suitable for the observation of heavenly bodies and provided with necessary instruments.

3. VISIT TO INDIA

Al-Beruni was now forty-five. But his thirst for knowledge was as great as ever. He had mastered the Greek sciences through Arabic translations. But he could not say the same thing of the Indian sciences. Some Indian works on astronomy and other branches of mathematics had been translated into Arabic during the early days of the Abbasi Caliphs. But the translations were extremely faulty and, therefore, unsatisfactory. Al-Beruni felt that he must go to India and learn from the original source. Luckily for him, the country had just been opened to the Muslims by the victorious campaigns of Mahmud. 

Al-Beruni went to India and diligently applied himself to the study of Sanskrit. Just imagine a man past middle age, trying to learn a strange alphabet and to repeat the unfamiliar words. To many an easy going student this might look like a hopeless task. But his constant patience and hard work paid rich dividends. Certainly, it did not take him long to gain mastery over this difficult language. The Hindu pandits are well known for their possessiveness and have always tried to keep their knowledge a close secret. But helped by his sweet temperament and polite manners, he gained entry into their learned circles. They soon realized his worth and learnt the Greek sciences from him, teaching him their own in return. Al-Beruni lived in India for ten years and spent most of his time in Multan which was then a great centre of Hindu learning in the north. This is what he says about the pandits:

"So long as I was unable to understand their language, I behaved as their pupil. But after I had learnt their speech, I was able to show them my knowledge. They were so deeply impressed with it that while speaking to their great men about me, they called me 'vidyasagar' which means ocean of learning."

Al-Beruni made good use of the time he spent in India. Not only did he make himself a master of their science of astronomy and astrology and other branches of mathematics, but he also made a careful study of their customs, religion, history and philosophy.

He was the first Muslim who introduced Indian chess to Islamic countries and explained the problems of advanced trigonometry.

4. HIS WORKS AND DISCOVERIES

In 1029 A.D., Al-Beruni returned to Ghazna. He used the results of his Indian studies to write his second great work, the Kitab-Ul-Hind. About 30 years earlier, he had written his first great work, Asar Al-Baqiya which we have already mentioned.

Asar Al-Baqiya

In the author's words, it gives a detailed account of the areas of the different nations inhabiting the earth; tells us when they began; why different nations adopted different areas; which are the months in which their years are divided; and what are their fairs and festivals.

It is clear that the subject of this book is very vast and in a way, a chronology of ancient nations containing minute and accurate details of geographical and historical information. One can imagine the immense amount of labor which its completion must have required.

Kitab-Ul-Hind

Apart from his personal observations, the book contains valuable information about geography, history, art, science, religious beliefs, social customs, culture and civilization of Hindus and India. The book has been translated into German and English and its Urdu version is also available in Pakistan. Commenting on the book, a European writer says: "The Hindus must consider them as fortunate that a great truthful scholar of his time depicted a picture of their forbearers' culture and civilization as it was then. It is possible that there may be differences among Hindus about Al-Beruni's views, but this fact cannot be denied that he has described with great admiration the Hindu culture and civilization as an impartial observer."

Astronomy and Astrology

Al-Beruni was a pioneer in these fields. In the field of Astronomy, he named various stars and studied in depth their orbital movements. Moreover, he minutely studied the solar system and after some calculations gave scientific reasons for days or nights getting longer or shorter; absence of night in some parts of the world; change of seasons; waxing and waning of moon. Al-Beruni explained the difficult subjects of Astrology in easy language in the form of questions and answers. For this subject, he mainly relied on old Greek books, Hindu religion and some verses of the Holy Quran. He could piece together various events and foretell the future with remarkable accuracy.


Al-Qanun-Ul-Masudi 

After the death of Mahmud, the throne of Ghazna was occupied by his son Masud. This book was dedicated to Sultan Masud. As a ruler Masud was not a success, but he was a great patron of learning and an accomplished scholar himself.

Al-Qanun-Ul-Masudi deals with a variety of subjects such as mathematics, astrology, geology, geography, chemistry, mineralogy, optics and a host of other scientific subjects. The book was published in 1030 A.D.

It is said that Sultan Masud tried to reward the labors of great scientist by presenting him with an elephant laden with silver. Al-Beruni, however, was a true scholar and the idea of making money out of his learning was simply hateful to him. With many thanks and excuses, he returned the generous gift to royal treasury.

Kitab Al-Saidana (Materia Medica)

It deals with medicine, anatomy, health care and hygiene. The book contains more then 700 descriptions of drugs and their effects on human body. The book also explains at length the treatment of various diseases.

Kitab-Al-Jawahar

This book explains the variety of precious stones and gems and their specific gravity. It tells us which parts of the earth contains mines and minerals; the properties of the earth where mines and minerals are discovered. 

We have selected and discussed briefly the important works of Al-Beruni. It is said that he had written over a hundred books and they contained more then 13,000 pages in all. Most of them have been lost and hardly one-tenth of what he wrote has come down to us. For the most part his writings deal with difficult subjects which it is not possible for young people to understand. In sum, the subjects he dealt with included astronomy, chronology, geography, mechanics, mathematics, medicine, pharmacology, meteorology, mineralogy, history, philosophy, religion, literature and magic. One or more books on these subjects have survived.

Discoveries 

A few simple scientific facts which he was the first to discover are mentioned here. Al-Beruni explained the working of natural springs by the principle that water keeps its level. From the observation of the stones and layers of the earth in the Indus Valley, he arrived at the correct conclusion that it was an ancient sea basin. He found the latitudes and longitudes of a number of important towns and discussed intelligently the problem of the earth's rotation on its axis. He also discovered that light travels faster then sound. It was Abu Raihan Al-Beruni who gave methods for drawing on paper, which has a plane surface, maps of portions of the earth which has a curved surface. He found with great exactness the specific weights of 18 precious stones and metals. He also recorded the densities of various metals, liquids and gems. Al-Beruni's calculation of the circumference of the earth was only 80 miles off from the modern measurement (i.e. 1/5 of 1%). He also discovered an Astrolabe, an instrument used for measurement of celestial bodies and as an aid in navigation.

5. END OF THE LUMINARY

Only a waning candle sheds its light around. It is related that Abul Hassan Ali, a jurist and friend of Al-Beruni visited him when he was terminally ill. Al-Beruni requested him to repeat the mathematical problem he was once discussing with him. Thinking that it was not an appropriate occasion to talk about it, the jurist remained silent. Al-Beruni insisted upon having a reply and said: "Is it not better to die with knowledge then to die in ignorance?" Abul Hassan repeated that problem to which Beruni listened intently and grasped it. A few moments later he passed away at the age of 75 in 1048 A.D. and was laid to rest at Ghazna. Thus, he acted upon the saying of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him): "Acquire knowledge from the cradle to the grave." 

He was an ideal student who spent all his life in search of knowledge. His early biographer writes: "He never had a pen out of his hand, nor his eyes ever off a book and his thoughts were always directed to his studies."  Abu Raihan Al-Beruni was never satisfied with taking things for granted, but always made a thorough examination. He realized the importance of experiment and observation and thus prepared the way for modern science. According to George Sartan: "His critical spirit, toleration, love of truth and intellectual courage were without parallel in medieval ages." He was undoubtedly a physician, astronomer, mathematician, physicist, historian and perhaps the most prominent figure in the galaxy of universally recognized learned scholars who marked the golden age of Islamic science.

 

Following are some questions to consider for academic exercise.

QUESTIONS

  1. What has science done for us?
  2. Compare the system of education of Al-Beruni's days with that of our own.
  3. Who was Mansur bin Ali? What part did he play in making Al-Beruni great?
  4. Mention some of the scientific facts which Al-Beruni discovered or discussed.
  5. Give an account of some of the writings of Al-Beruni.
  6. Explain the meaning and significance of "only a waning candle sheds its light around."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mr. Haroon Ishaque Jangda, graduated in Arts in 1960 and in Law in 1962 from the University of Karachi. He was called to the English Bar in 1969 by Lincoln's Inn, London. Since 1971, he has been practicing Civil and Constitutional Law in the District Courts, the Sindh High Court, and the Supreme Court of Pakistan. A prolific writer , he was awarded the "Citizen Four Seasons Award" by the Reader's Digest Association Far East Ltd. for his essay "Why does a salmon swim upstream in the Summer" in 1981 and second prize in the Essay Competition held in 1982 by the World Memon Foundation (Pakistan Chapter) for his essay "Community related problems and practical ways to solve them." He is the author of "The Battle for Pakistan" published by Ferozsons in 2000. Apart from writing,  the author is a community and social welfare worker.

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