Al-Biruni: The First Anthropologist

Al-Biruni acted as a scientific bridge between cultures, translating Sanskrit texts to Arabic and vice-versa.

It’s well known that Christopher Columbus misunderstood India, and consequently ‘discovered’ the Americas. He found the New World after failing to locate India. But six hundred years prior to him, an Uzbek scholar who spent most of his life sitting under the stars in Afghanistan, managed to do the same job better.

Al-Biruni thoroughly understood India – and was the first to theorize that the Americas exist.

Al-Biruni is considered the first Indologist – a person who studied India with the intent of understanding its languages, people and beliefs. Accompanying Mahmud of Ghazni in the first campaigns into India, Al-Biruni brought a host of knowledge and learning into the world. A mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, Al-Biruni could also translate Sanskrit to Arabic and vice versa. Among his most significant findings was the theorizing of a large land mass on the other side of the world.

For, one day, likely sitting before a makeshift globe (that the world was round was no big discovery to scholars of Biruni’s calibre), the learned Uzbek decided to plot out the known locations of every land whose existence he had verified. He found a huge gap in contemporary knowledge of the earth – more than three-fifths of this globe were empty.

As Professor S. Frederick Starr theorized, scholars at the time would have filled in these missing gaps with water.

The most obvious way to account for this enormous gap was to invoke the explanation that all geographers from antiquity down to Biruni’s day had accepted, namely, that the Eurasian land mass was surrounded by a ‘world ocean’…

Using logic, Al-Biruni derived that the same forces that lead to the creation of land amidst water in this hemisphere must have created two or three large islands on the other side. Al-Biruni, by then in his 70s, would have been in no position to go discover this theorized New World by himself. But had Columbus been better read about India and the people who theorised it, he would not have been so hasty to call the Native Americans ‘Indians’. He’d know from the outset that he was to locate the world’s missing continents.

The town of Ghazni in Afghanistan bears a deserted look today. The famous minarets of Ghazni bear a solitary look to them. This was the location Al-Biruni spent most of his life in. It’s the place where science in the first millennium A.D. was elevated to its pinnacle.

Al-Biruni would be called an Uzbek today. Born in 973 near the town of Khat in the Khwarizm region, he was lucky to have an early affiliation with the astronomer Abu Nasr Mansur. By the time he was seventeen, Al-Biruni had computed the latitude of Kath simply by observing the sun.

Al-Biruni was separated from his teacher by a regional coup, that displaced him to a state of poverty. It was the turning point of his life, as he would write:

After I had barely settled down for a few years, I was permitted by the Lord of Time to go back home, but I was compelled to participate in worldly affairs, which excited the envy of fools, but which made the wise pity me.

The region’s instability did not last, and Al-Biruni returned once the Khwarizm region was restored as a place of education and learning. He developed a confrontational nature, reading and challenging the works of thinkers from Aristotle to Al-Razi.

In the year 998, Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the lands of the Bukhara Dynasty and took all their scholars to the capital, Ghazni. For the rest of his life, Al-Biruni would serve either Mahmud or his son, Mas’ud. It was at Ghazni that he wrote the Tarikh al-Hind – the history of India.

The Tarikh al-Hind provided an account of Indian life, languages, science, religion and geography. It is thoroughly referenced, with Al-Biruni having a preference for factual reporting over opinion. As he wrote:

This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.

Some of the source materials he used (a commentary on Brahmagupta’s Brdhmasphutasid-dhanta) no longer exists, making Al-Biruni’s work a crucial historical document. It is for this reason that he is considered the first anthropologist. His work earned him the title of ‘al-Ustadh’ or ‘The Master’ in India.

That his work maintained an impartial tone in a time of invasion is particularly noteworthy. As the scholar Mohammad Yasin wrote, it was like “a magic island of quiet, impartial research in the midst of a world of clashing swords, burning towns, and plundered temples.”

Al-Biruni does not seem have gotten along well with his first king; leaving no dedication to him in his greatest work; the Canon Masudicus (An Encyclopaedia of Astronomical Sciences). His contributions to astrology include developing an astrolabe, an ancient device that could track celestial movements. He even helped teach the Indians how to construct this – motivated by a desire to spread knowledge.

He famously described the Milky Way as “… a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars”.

Al-Biruni was also a noted scholar in comparative religion, and the first person to introduce the Bhagavad Gita to the Muslim world. Al-Biruni highlighted the similarities between Hinduism and Islam, pointing out how ignorance was a common enemy to the tenets of each. Only knowledge could liberate a soul from the chains of ignorance.

He was no fan of India’s self-imposed limitations. He called the caste system “one set of people treating the other as fools.”

Al-Biruni lived and died in the golden age of Islamic Science. A lunar crater is now named after him, as is a town near his birthplace. From a Soviet stamp to a Google doodle, Al-Biruni is rightfully honoured for his contributions to science. But a great deal of his work remains to be seen; out of 144 known titles, only 22 have survived, of which only half have been published. Could there be more discoveries from this giant of Medieval science?


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