Sep 052013


Today is the birthday (973) ofAbū Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad Al-Bīrūnī ( ابوریحان بیرونی‎‎), commonly called Al-Biruni in English.  He was a Muslim, Persian scholar who made contributions to a wide range of subjects including astronomy, mathematics, physics, history, geography, and cultural anthropology. A crater on the moon is named in his honor.


Al-Biruni was born in the outer district of Kath, the capital of the Afrighid dynasty of Khwarezm (or Chorasmia), now in Uzbekistan. The word Biruni means “from the outer-district” in Persian, and so this became his nisba (sobriquet of affiliation): ” Al-Bīrūnī” = “the Birunian.” His first twenty-five years were spent in Khwarezm where he studied fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence), theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and other sciences. His native language was the Iranian dialect, Khwarezmian, which is now extinct and about which very little is known. Al-Biruni wrote in Arabic, and was also conversant with Persian, Sanskrit, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, and Berber.

He was sympathetic to the Afrighids, who were overthrown by the rival dynasty of Ma’munids in 995. He left his homeland for Bukhara, then under the Samanid ruler Mansur II the son of Nuh. There he corresponded with Avicenna (Ibn Sina), famed polymath, and some of these letters are extant. In 998, he went to the court of the Ziyarid amir of Tabaristan, Shams al-Mo’ali Abol-hasan Ghaboos ibn Wushmgir. There he wrote his first important work, al-Athar al-Baqqiya ‘an al-Qorun al-Khaliyya (literally: “The remaining traces of past centuries” and translated as “Chronology of ancient nations” or “Vestiges of the Past”) on historical and scientific chronology, probably around 1000, though he later made some amendments. Accepting the fall of the Afrighids at the hands of the Ma’munids, he made peace with the latter who then ruled Khwarezm. Their court at Gorganj (also in Khwarezm) was gaining fame for its gathering of brilliant scientists.

Folio92 verso of the Al-Biruni Chronology of the World.

In 1017, Mahmud of Ghazni conquered Rey (now part of Tehran). Most scholars, including al-Biruni, were taken to Ghazna, the capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty. Al-Biruni was made court astrologer and accompanied Mahmud on his invasions into India, living there for a few years. Al-Biruni became acquainted with the culture and history India. During this time he wrote the Kitab ta’rikh al-Hind “(Book of Indian History”), finishing it around 1030.

95 of 146 books known to have been written by al-Biruni were devoted to astronomy, mathematics, and related subjects like mathematical geography (geodesy). Al- Biruni’s major work on astrology is primarily an astronomical and mathematical text. Only the last chapter concerns astrological prognostication. His endorsement of astrology is limited; in fact he condemns horary astrology as ‘sorcery’. In discussing speculation by other Muslim writers on the possible motion of the Earth, al-Biruni acknowledged that he could neither prove nor disprove it, but commented favorably on the idea that the Earth rotates. He wrote an extensive commentary on Indian astronomy in the Kitab ta’rikh al-Hind, in which he claims to have resolved the matter of Earth’s rotation in a work on astronomy that is no longer extant, his Miftah-ilm-alhai’a (“Key to Astronomy”).


He carried on a lengthy and sometimes heated, correspondence with Ibn Sina (Avicenna), in which al-Biruni repeatedly attacks Aristotle’s celestial physics. He argues that by simple experiment a vacuum can be shown to exist; he is “amazed” by the weakness of Aristotle’s argument against elliptical orbits on the basis that they would create vacuum; and he attacks the immutability of the celestial spheres. In his major extant astronomical work, the Mas’ud Canon, Al-Biruni uses his observational data to disprove Ptolemy’s theory of the immobile solar apogee which assumes the earth does not move. Al-Biruni’s eclipse data were used by Richard Dunthorne in 1749 to help determine the acceleration of the moon, and his observational data have entered the larger astronomical historical record, still used today in geophysics and astronomy.

Al-Biruni is one of the most important Muslim authorities on the history of religion. He was a pioneer in the study of comparative religion. He studied Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other religions. He treated religions dispassionately, striving to understand them on their own terms rather than trying to prove them wrong. His underlying concept was that all cultures are at least distant relatives of all other cultures because they are all human constructs and that all humanity was united at one point in distant history. Al-Biruni was disgusted by scholars who failed to use primary sources in their treatment of Hindu religion. He found contemporary sources on Hinduism to be both insufficient and dishonest. Guided by a sense of ethics and a desire to learn, he sought to explain the religious behavior of different groups in their own contexts.  As such he is a significant historical figure in the use of cultural relativism and avoidance of ethnocentrism in anthropology.

albiruni world map

Al-Biruni’s fame as an Indologist rests primarily on two texts. He wrote an encyclopedic work on India called Tarikh Al-Hind (“History of India”) in which he explores nearly every aspect of Indian life, including religion, history, geography, geology, science, and mathematics. He explores religion within a rich cultural context and expresses his objective with simple eloquence:

“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.”


An example of al-Biruni’s analysis is his summary of why many Hindus hate Muslims. He explains that Hinduism and Islam are totally different from each other, but that this is not the issue at stake.  Hindus in 11th century India had suffered through waves of destructive attacks on many of their cities, and Islamic armies had taken numerous Hindu slaves to Persia.  It was this militarism and not religious principles, according to Al-Biruni, that contributed to Hindus becoming suspicious of all foreigners, not just Muslims. Hindus considered Muslims violent and impure, and did not want to share anything with him. It was all about politics. Religious ideology had nothing to do with the conflict.

Over time, al-Biruni won the welcome of Hindu scholars. He collected books and studied with these Hindu scholars to become fluent in Sanskrit, and translate into Arabic the mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy and other fields of arts as practiced in 11th century India. He was convinced by the arguments offered by Indian scholars who believed earth must be ellipsoid shape with a yet to be discovered continent at earth’s south pole, and that earth’s rotation around the sun is the only way to fully explain the difference in daylight hours by latitude, the seasons, and earth’s relative positions with moon and stars. Al-Biruni was also critical of Indian scribes who he believed carelessly corrupted Indian documents while making copies of older documents. Al-Biruni’s translations as well as his own original contributions reached Europe in the 12th and 13th centuries, where they were actively sought.

Al-Biruni_5 Al-Biruni_4

While others were killing each one another over religious differences, al-Biruni, though Muslim, had a remarkable ability to engage Hindus in peaceful dialogue. Like Ibn Khaldoun (click here), who came 3 centuries after him, his researches were all guided by laudable principles we would do well to follow: use primary sources whenever possible, check everything against other sources or through experiment, and do not bring your own biases to any investigation.

Al-Biruni’s birthplace is now in Uzbekistan.  Uzbek cuisine is quite similar to the cuisines of Eurasia in general – rice pilaf, kebabs, stuffed vegetables.  Here is a pilaf I like (plov in Uzbek).  Naturally its main ingredient is rice, but the use of greens suffuses the whole dish with a special savor. My technique is not quite the traditional one but I like the results. Traditionally you brown the lamb and onions then add the greens for a quick sauté. Finally you add the rice and liquid and leave it all to steam, covered.  My experience has been that the 20 minutes or so it takes to cook the rice is not enough to make the lamb tender.  So I precook the lamb before adding the greens and rice. You can use any rice, but I prefer basmati for this dish. A tender cut of lamb such as leg is best. You may also use beef instead.


Uzbek Plov with Greens


8 tbsps clarified butter
10 ½ oz (300 g) tender lamb, cut in big chunks
2 onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
12 oz (350 g) chopped spinach,
1 bunch of fresh coriander finely chopped
2 ½ cups of rice
salt to taste
1 tbsp of ground coriander
1 tsp of fresh ground pepper or to taste
6 cups light stock


Heat 2 tbsps of the butter over medium high heat in a Dutch oven.

Sauté  the onions until translucent and set aside.

Brown the meat.  Add the stock and simmer gently for 30 minutes. Remove the meat from the stock and set aside. Pour off the stock and reserve.

While the meat is cooking thoroughly rinse the rice until the water runs clear.

Rinse the spinach and drain, but leave water clinging to the leaves.

Clean out the Dutch oven, return to the stove and add the remaining butter.  Heat over medium heat. Add the onions and meat to heat through.

Turn the heat to medium low and stir in the spinach and cilantro.  Then add the rice and stir to mix.

Add one cup of stock, turn the heat to high, and let it boil.  Add salt and spices.

Observe how much liquid is in the pot.  It should cover the rice by a little less than an inch (2 cm). Add more stock if there is not enough.

Let the pot boil until all the liquid is evaporated.    When all water is evaporated, mix only the top of pilaf. Set the heat on low, cover with a lid and cook for about 20 min.

Open up the lid after 20 min and again mix only the top of the pilaf. Check to see if the rice is cooked. If not, cover and cook until done.

Uncover and mix all the ingredients together. Serve on a large platter with a salad of your choice (tomatoes and onions are traditional).

Serves 6

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