al-Biruni

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Authors born between 800 and 1100 CE

Ki no Tsurayuki ] [ al-Biruni ] al-Ma'arri ] Samuel ha-Nagid ] Bilhana ] Omar Khaiyyam ] Anna Comnena ]

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Contents

Introduction

Hearsay

Reliability of Sources

Understanding other Nations

Understanding India

Errors of Scribes

Errors of Versifying

Errors of Religion

Errors of Nationalism

Value of Science

Causes of Eclipses

Rays from the Sun

India was Once a Sea

Witchcraft and Alchemy

Duration of an Era

Era of the Creation

Era of the Deluge

Origins of Idols

Value of Understanding

Sources

 

Introduction

Al-Biruni (973-1048 CE) was born in Khwarizm, the modern Khiva (Uzbekistan). His full name was Abu-Raihan Muhammad ibn‘Ahmad al-Biruni, and in Eastern literature he is often referred to as Abu-Raihan. He was well grounded in mathematics, physics, astronomy and ancient medicine. He discussed the earth’s rotation on its axis and computed latitude and longitude with some accuracy. A meticulous observer of natural and social phenomena, he recorded information about calendars, festivals, theories, and practices among many nations. Some of these were dying out as he wrote, and he is thus often our only source of historical information about them. His thoroughness set a high standard for observers of other countries than their own. He concluded that most countries, including his own, had an unjustifiably hostile view of neighboring countries.

Al-biruni spent the first part of his life at Khwarizm, at the court of the country’s rulers, the Ma’muni princes. He also lived some years in Jurjan, of Hyrcania, on the southern shores of the Caspian Sea, where he wrote the Chronology of Ancient Nations. He was carried off to Afghanistan with other scholars during a rebellion in about 1017. Although he settled there, he left shortly afterwards to travel through India, returning to write A History of India. He settled in Ghazna, Afghanistan, and died there in1048, aged 75 years. Although he wrote his major works in Arabic he also wrote in Persian

As an observer of other people’s traditions, al-Biruni sought to understand and to evaluate them. He had a clear idea of the different motives for lying that might falsify the reports he received. He sifted the wheat from the chaff, and disbelieved everything that militated against the laws of nature and of reason. He identified, for example, Indian theories about lunar and solar eclipses that are accurate, and while recording the other theories that existed, rejected them as nonsense.

In some cases al-Biruni tried to bring exotic Hindu ideas nearer to the understanding of his Arab readers by comparing them with the theories of ancient Greece. His library had a considerable portion of the then extant Greek literature and al-Biruni used it to confront Greek thought with Indian. Although he intrudes his own thoughts only rarely in his copious observations, they show insight and imagination. His scientific inventiveness is indicated by his suggestion that India may have at one time been largely covered by a sea. The following extracts from the two books mentioned above focus on his comments about his task rather than on the voluminous details that he recorded.

 

Hearsay

1     No one will deny that in questions of historic authenticity hearsay does not equal eye-witness reports; for in the latter the eye of the observer apprehends the substance of that which is observed, both in the time when and in the place where it exists, whilst hearsay has its peculiar drawbacks. If it was not for these, it would even be preferable to eye-witness reports; for the object of these reports can only be actual momentary existence, whereas hearsay comprehends alike the present, the past, and the future, so as to apply in a certain sense both to that which is and to that which is not (that is, which either has ceased to exist or has not yet come into existence). Written tradition is one of the species of hearsay—we might almost say, the most preferable. How could we know the history of nations but for the everlasting monuments of the pen?

Reliability of Sources

2     The tradition regarding an event which in itself does not contradict either logical or physical laws will invariably depend for its character as true or false upon the character of the reporters, who are influenced by the divergency of interests and all kinds of animosities and antipathies between the various nations. We must distinguish different classes of reporters.

     One of them tells a lie, as intending to further all interest of his own, either by lauding his family or nation, because he is one of them, or by attacking the family or nation on the opposite side, thinking that thereby he can gain his ends. In both cases he acts from motives of objectionable cupidity and animosity.

     Another one tells a lie regarding a class of people whom he likes, as being under obligations to them, or whom he hates because something disagreeable has happened between them. Such a reporter is near akin to the first-mentioned one, as he too acts from motives of personal predilection and enmity.

     Another tells a lie because he is of such a base nature as to aim thereby at some profit, or because he is such a coward as to be afraid of telling the truth.

      Another tells a lie because it is his nature to lie, and he cannot do otherwise, which proceeds from the essential meanness of his character and the depravity of his innermost being.

     Lastly, a man may tell a lie from ignorance, blindly following others who told him.

     If, now, reporters of this kind become so numerous as to represent a certain body of tradition, or if in the course of time they even come to form a consecutive series of communities or nations, both the first reporter and his followers form the connecting links between the hearer and the inventor of the lie; and if the connecting links are eliminated, there remains the originator of the story, one of the various kinds of liars we have enumerated, as the only person with whom we have to deal.

     The man who shrinks from a lie and always adheres to the truth, he alone is praiseworthy, enjoying credit even among liars, not to mention others.

   

Understanding other Nations

3     The best and shortest way leading to that which I have been asked about, is knowledge of the history and tradition of former nations and generations, because the greatest part of it consists of matters which have come down from them, and of remains of their customs and institutions. And this object cannot be obtained by way of reasoning from philosophical concepts, nor from induction based upon the observations of our senses. It comes solely by absorbing the information of those who have a written tradition, of the members of the different religions, and of the adherents of the different doctrines and religious sects, by whom the institutions we are interested in are used. And it comes by making their opinions a basis on which afterwards to build up an understanding of their system; in addition, we must compare their traditions and opinions among themselves, when we try to establish such a system.

4     But before that we must clear our mind from all those accidental circumstances which corrupt most men, from all causes which are liable to make people blind against the truth. For example, inveterate custom, party-spirit, rivalry, being addicted to one's passions, the desire to gain influence, etc. For that which I have mentioned, is the nearest way you could take, that leads to the true end, and the most efficient help towards removing all the clouds of uncertainty and doubt, which beset the subject. It is impossible in any other way to reach the same purpose, notwithstanding the greatest care and exertion.

5     On the other hand, we confess that it is by no means easy to act upon that principle and that method which we have laid down. On the contrary from its recondite nature and its difficulty, it might seem to be almost unattainable--on account of the numerous lies which are mixed up with all historical records and traditions. And those lies do not all on the face of it appear to be impossibilities that might be easily distinguished and eliminated. Here, however, that which is within the limits of possibility, has been treated as true, as long as other evidence did not prove it to be false. For we witness sometimes, and others have witnessed before us, physical appearances that we should simply declare to be impossible, if something similar were related from a far remote time.

  

Understanding India

6     Before entering on our exposition, we must form an adequate idea of that which renders it so particularly difficult to penetrate to the essential nature of any Indian subject. The knowledge of these difficulties will either facilitate the progress of our work, or serve as an apology for any shortcomings. For the reader must always bear in mind that the Hindus differ entirely from us in every respect, many a subject appearing intricate and obscure which would be perfectly clear if there were more connection between us.

7     The barriers which separate Muslims and Hindus arise from various causes. First, they differ from us in everything which other nations have in common. And here we first mention the language, although the difference of language also exists between other nations. If you want to conquer this difficulty (that is, to learn Sanskrit), you will not find it easy, because the language is of an enormous range, both in words and inflections, something like the Arabic, calling one and the same thing by various names, both original and derived, and using one and the same word for a variety of subjects, which, in order to be properly understood, must be distinguished from each other by various qualifying epithets. For nobody could distinguish between the various meanings of a word unless he understands the context in which it occurs, and its relation both to the following and the preceding parts of the sentence. The Hindus, like other people, boast of this enormous range of their language, whilst in reality it is a defect.

  

Errors of Scribes

8     Add to this that the Indian scribes are careless, and do not take pains to produce correct and well-collated copies. In consequence, the highest results of the author's mental development are lost by their negligence, and his book becomes already in the first or second copy so full of faults, that the text appears as something entirely new, which neither a scholar nor one familiar with the subject, whether Hindu or Muslim, could any longer understand.

  

Errors of Versifying

9     Besides, the scientific books of the Hindus are composed in various favourite metres, by which they intend—because books soon become corrupted by additions and omissions—to preserve them exactly as they are, in order to facilitate their being learned by heart, because they consider as canonical only that which is known by heart, not that which exists in writing. Now it is well known that in all metrical compositions there is much misty and constrained phraseology merely intended to fill up the meter and serving as a kind of patchwork, and this necessitates a certain amount of verbosity.

  

Errors of Religion

10     Secondly, they totally differ from us in religion, as we believe in nothing in which they believe, and vice versa. On the whole, there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves; at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy. On the contrary, all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them--against all foreigners. They call them mleccha, i.e. impure, and forbid having any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them, because they think they would be polluted thereby.

  

Errors of Nationalism

11     In the third place, in all manners and usages they differ from us to such a degree as to frighten their children with us, with our dress, and our ways and customs, and as to declare us to be devil's breed, and our doings as the very opposite of all that is good and proper. By the by, we must confess, in order to be just, that a similar deprecation of foreigners not only prevails among us and the Hindus, but is common to all nations towards each other.

  

Value of Science

12     Once a sage was asked why scholars always flock to the doors of the rich, whilst the rich are not inclined to call at the doors of scholars. "The scholars" he answered, "are well aware of the use of money, but the rich are ignorant of the nobility of science."

13     The number of sciences is great, and it may be still greater if the public mind is directed towards them at such times as they are in the ascendancy and in general favor with all, when people not only honor science itself, but also its representatives. To do this is, in the first instance, the duty of those who rule over them, of kings and princes. For they alone could free the minds of scholars from the daily anxieties for the necessities of life, and stimulate their energies to earn more fame and favor, the yearning for which is the pith and marrow of human nature.

    The present times, however, are not of this kind. They are the very opposite, and therefore it is quite impossible that a new science or any new kind of research should arise in our days. What we have of sciences is nothing but the scanty remains of bygone better times.

  

Causes of Eclipses

14     It is perfectly known to the Hindu astronomers that the moon is eclipsed by the shadow of the earth, and the sun is eclipsed by the moon. Hereon they have based their computations in the astronomical handbooks and other works.

15     Very odd is that which Varihamihira relates of certain ancient writers—to whom we must pay no attention if we do not want to oppose them—namely, that they tried to prognosticate the occurrence of an eclipse by pouring a small amount of water together with the same amount of oil into a large vase with a flat bottom on the eighth of the lunar days. Then they examined the spots where the oil was united and dispersed. The united portion they considered as a prognostication for the beginning of the eclipse, the dispersed portion as a prognostication for its end.

16     Further, Varahamihira says that somebody used to think that the conjunction of the planets is the cause of the eclipse, whilst others tried to prognosticate an eclipse from unlucky phenomena, as, for example, the falling of stars, comets, haloes, darkness, hurricane, landslip, and earthquake. "These things," so he says, "are not always contemporary with an eclipse, nor are they its cause; the nature of an unlucky event is the only thing which these occurrences have in common with an eclipse. A reasonable explanation is totally different from such absurdities."

  

Rays from the Sun

17     Regarding the rays of the sun many theories have been brought forward. Some say that they are fiery particles similar to the essence of the sun, going out from his body. Others say that the air is getting warm by its being situated opposite to the sun, in the same way as the air is getting warm by being opposite to the fire. This is the theory of those who maintain that the sun is a hot, fiery substance.

18     Further, there is a difference of opinion regarding the motion of the rays. Some say this motion is timeless, since the rays are not bodies. Others say this motion proceeds in very short time; that, however, there is nothing more rapid in existence by which you might measure the degree of its rapidity. For example, the motion of the sound in the air is not so fast as the motion of the rays; therefore the former has been compared with the latter, and thereby its time of passage (its speed) has been determined.

19     As to the reason of the heat which exists in the rays of the sun, people assign it to the acuteness of the angles of their reflection. This, however, is not the case. On the contrary, the heat exists in the rays (is inherent in them).

   

India was Once a Sea

20     India is a plain, limited in the south by the above-mentioned Indian Ocean, and on all three other sides by the lofty mountains, the waters of which flow down to it. But if you have seen the soil of India with your own eyes and meditate on its nature—if you consider the rounded stones found in the earth however deeply you dig, stones that are huge near the mountains and where the rivers have a violent current; stones that are of smaller size at greater distance from the mountains, and where the streams flow more slowly; stones that appear pulverized in the shape of sand where the streams begin to stagnate near their mouths and near the sea—if you consider all this, you could scarcely help thinking that India has once been a sea which by degrees has been filled up by the alluvium of the streams.

 

Witchcraft and Alchemy

21     We understand witchcraft as making, by some kind of delusion, a thing appear to the senses as something different from what it is in reality. Taken in this sense, it is spread far and wide among people. Understood, however, as common people understand it, as the producing of something which is impossible, it is a thing which does not lie within the limits of reality. For as that which is impossible cannot be produced, the whole affair is nothing but a gross deception. Therefore witchcraft in this sense has nothing whatever to do with science.

22     One of the species of witchcraft is alchemy, though it is generally not called by this name. But if a man takes a bit of cotton and makes it appear as a bit of gold, what would you call this but a piece of witchcraft? It is quite the same as if he were to take a bit of silver and make it appear as gold, only with this difference, that the latter is a generally-known process— the gilding of silver—the former is not.

   

Duration of an Era

23     Era means a definite space of time, reckoned from the beginning of some past year, in which either a prophet, with signs and wonders, and with a proof of his divine mission, was sent, or a great and powerful king rose, or in which a nation perished by a universal destructive deluge, or by a violent earthquake and sinking of the earth, or a sweeping pestilence, or by intense drought, or in which a change of dynasty or religion took place, or any grand event of the celestial or of the ten famous tellurian miraculous occurrences, which do not happen save at long intervals and at times far distant from each other. By such events the fixed moments of time (the epochs) are recognized. Now, such an era cannot be dispensed with in all secular and religious affairs. Each of the nations scattered over the different parts of the world has a special era, which they count from the times of their kings or prophets, or dynasties, or of some of those events which we have just now mentioned. And thence they derive the dates, which they need in social intercourse, in chronology, and in every institution (that is, festival) which is exclusively peculiar to them.

   

Era of the Creation

24     The first and most famous of the beginnings of antiquity is the fact of the creation of mankind. But among those who have a book of divine revelation, such as the Jews, Christians, Magians, and their various sects, there exists such a difference of opinion as to the nature of this fact, and as to the question how to date from it, the like of which is not allowable for eras. The knowledge of everything connected with the beginning of creation, and with the history of bygone generations, is mixed up with falsifications and myths, because it belongs to a far remote age; because a long interval separates us from it, and because the investigator is incapable of keeping it in memory and fixing it (so as to preserve it from confusion).

   

Era of the Deluge

25     The next following era is the era of the great deluge, in which everything perished at the time of Noah. Here, too, there is such a difference of opinions, and such a confusion, that you have no chance of deciding as to the correctness of the matter, and do not even feel inclined to investigate thoroughly its historical truth.

26     The Persians, and the great mass of the Magians, deny the Deluge altogether; they believe that the rule of the world has remained with them without any interruption ever since Gayomarth Gilshah, who was—according to them—the first man. In denying the Deluge, the Indians, Chinese, and the various nations of the east, concur with them. Some, however, of the Persians admit the fact of the Deluge, but they describe it in a different way from what it is described in the books of the prophets. They say, a partial deluge occurred in Syria and the west at the time of Tahmurath, but it did not extend over the whole of the then civilized world, and only few nations were drowned in it; it did not extend beyond the peak of Hulwan, and did not reach the empires of the east.

   

Origins of Idols

27     There is a treatise of Aristotle in which he answers certain questions of the Brahmins which Alexander had sent him. There he says: "If you maintain that some Greeks have fabled that the idols speak, that the people offer to them and think them to be spiritual beings, of all this we have no knowledge, and we cannot give a sentence on a subject we do not know." In these words he rises high above the class of fools and uneducated people, and he indicates by them that he does not occupy himself with such things. It is evident that the first cause of idolatry was the desire of commemorating the dead and of consoling the living; but on this basis it has developed, and has finally become a foul and pernicious abuse.

   

Value of Understanding

28     Now I have fulfilled my promise, and I have comprehended in my exposition all the parts of this science, agreeably to the wishes of my friends, exerting myself to the best of my capability. Every man acts according to his fashion, and the value of a man lies in that which he understands.

 

Sources

3, 4, 5, 17, 18, 19, 23, 24, 25, 28: The Chronolgy of Ancient Nations by Al Biruni, translated by C. Edward Sachau. William H. Allen and Co, London. 1879.

1, 2, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27: Alberuni’s India, by Edward C. Sachau, 2 vol. Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co Ltd., London. 1910

Adaptation and Selection Copyright © Rex Pay 2000