112 al Biruni (9731048)

philosopher ibn Sina (Avicenna). By 1022,
Sultan Mahmud had conquered large parts of
India including Waihand, Multan, Bhatinda,
and the Ganges valley up to near Benares. It
was during this time that al Biruni developed
an interest in Indian society, living in an
empire that conquered large areas of the
Indian subcontinent and having the opportu
nity to travel and take up residence there
(Kennedy 1970).
The work of al Biruni that can be consid
ered as sociological is his study of India. His
Kitab ma li al hind (The Book of What Con
stitutes India) aimed to provide a comprehen
sive account of what he called the religions
of India and their doctrines. This included
the religion, philosophy, literature, geography,
science, customs, and laws of the Indians. Of
special interest to sociology is al Birunis con
struction of the religions of India.
Al Biruni considered what we call Hin
duism as a religion centuries before Eur
opeans recognized Hinduism as not mere
heathenism. In attempting a reconstruction of
al Birunis construction of Hinduism, it is
necessary to point out that it is inadequate to
rely on Sachaus English translation of the
Arabic original. The translation, which was
undertaken in the late nineteenth century,
reads into Arabic terms nineteenth century
European ideas about what Hinduism was.
For example, in his preface in the Arabic ori
ginal, al Biruni refers to the religions of India
and their doctrines (adyan al hind wa madha
hibuhum) (Al Biruni 1377/1958 [ca. 1030]: 4),
while this is translated by Sachau as the reli
gions and doctrines of the Hindus (Sachau
1910: 6). Throughout the translation Sachau
uses the term Hindu, leading one to assume
that al Biruni conceived of a single religion
called Hinduism. For example, the second
chapter of the Tahqq ma li al hind was trans
lated by Sachau as On the Belief of the Hin
dus in God, whereas the Arabic original has it
as On their Beliefs in God, Praise be to Him.
Moreover, the term Hindu does not appear in
the Arabic text and the term hind did not
have religious connotations.
The account of the creed of the Indians
begins in chapter 2 with an exposition of their
belief in God, by which al Biruni means
the same God that is worshipped by Jews,
Christians, and Muslims. The exposition
begins with an account of the nature of God,
with reference to his speech, knowledge, and
action (Sachau 1910: 2730; al Biruni 1377/
1958 [ca. 1030]: 202).
We are then told that this is an account of
the belief in God among the elite. Here al
Biruni is making a distinction between ideas
associated with a high tradition and ideas held
by the common people, as far as the concep
tion of God is concerned (Sachau 1910: 312;
al Biruni 1377/1958 [ca. 1030]: 234).
What we get so far is a picture of a mono
theistic religion based on a determinate num
ber of books, the Patan~jali, Veda, and Gita
(Sachau 1910: 27, 29; al Biruni 1377/1958
[ca. 1030]: 201). The Veda was sent down
to Brahma (anzalahu ala brahma) (Sachau
1910: 29; al Biruni 1377/1958 [ca. 1030]: 21).
Sociologically speaking, a distinction has to be
made between the abstract, metaphysical ideas
of the high tradition and the literalist, anthro
pomorphic ideas of the common people.
From the chapter headings of the Kitab ma
li al hind, it is obvious that by the religions
of India and their doctrines al Biruni means
something much broader than religion as
understood in sociology today. He is clearly
referring to the entire corpus of Indian beliefs
and practices, including the various branches
of knowledge that are not seen by modern
sociology to be part of religion. These include
theology, philosophy, literature, metrology,
geography, astronomy, chronology, and the
study of manners and customs.


Al Birunis studies on Indian religions are
important for three principal reasons. One is
that he pioneered the comparative study of
religion. Al Biruni was extremely versatile as
a scholar. In his work in the exact sciences
such as in his Kitab al Jawahir (Book of Pre
cious Stones), he was an experimental scientist.
But he was well aware that such methods were
not suitable for the study of religion and,
therefore, employed a comparative approach
in his study of India. For example, when he
makes the distinction between the abstract,