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al-Biruni (9731048)

Syed Farid Alatas

Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al Biruni
was born in the city of Khwarazm (modern
Khiva) in what is today known as Uzbekistan,
but during his youth was part of the Iranian
Samanid Empire. He spent his early years
under the patronage of various rulers until
finally becoming part of the court of Mahmud
Ghaznavi (9791030), the ruler of an empire
that included parts of what is now known as
Afghanistan, Iran, and northern India. Al Biruni
went to India with the troops of Mahmud
and remained there for many years. During

this time, he studied Sanskrit, translated a
number of Indian religious texts, and con
ducted research on Indian religions and their
doctrines. Al Biruni was the first Muslim and
probably the first scholar to provide a sys
tematic account of the religions of India from
a sociological point of view. Furthermore, his
work is considered to be a vital source of
knowledge of Indian history and society in
the eleventh century, providing details of the
religion, philosophy, literature, geography,
chronology, astronomy, customs, laws, and
astrology of India.
Typical of the great scholars of his period,
al Biruni was multitalented, being well versed
in physics, metaphysics, mathematics, geogra
phy, and history. He wrote a number of books
and treatises. Apart from his Kitab ma li al
hind (The Book of What Constitutes India), he
also wrote Al Qanun al Masudi (on astronomy
and trigonometry), Al Athar al Baqia (on
ancient history and geography), Kitab al Sai
dana (Materia Medica), and Kitab al Jawahir
(Book of Precious Stones). His Al Tafhim li
Awail Sinaat al Tanjim gives a summary of
mathematics and astronomy. His important
work sociologically speaking is his Kitab ma
li al hind, in which he presents a study of
Indian religions. Al Biruni died in 1048 CE at
the age of 75.
The history of Central Asia during the
tenth and eleventh centuries provides an
important backdrop for the understanding of
al Birunis intellectual development. He was
born in the environs (Persian, brun) of Kath,
one of the two main cities of Khwarazm, the
other being Jurjaniyya. The title of Khwar
azmshah had been held for a long time by the
ruler of Kath. But in 995 the ruler of Jurja
niyya killed his suzerain and appropriated
the title for himself. During the civil war, al
Biruni fled the area for a few years. Various
dynasties that once flourished around Khwar
azm, such as the Samanids to the southeast,
the Buwayhids to the west, and the Ziyarid
state in between, were gradually absorbed by
the Ghaznavids under the leadership of Sultan
Mahmud in central Afghanistan by 1020.
During his flight and after, it is likely that
al Biruni lived in places such as Rayy (near
modern Tehran), Bukhara, and Gurgan. In
Bukhara he met the famed physician and