Sep 052013
 

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Today is the birthday (973) of Abū 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

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”).

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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 a 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.”

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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.

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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.

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Uzbek Plov with Greens

Ingredients:

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

Instructions:

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

May 272013
 

Ibn Khaldoun

Today is the birthday (1332) of Abū Zayd ‘Abd ar-Raḥmān ibn Muḥammad ibn Khaldūn al-Ḥaḍramī (بو زيد عبد الرحمن بن محمد بن خلدون الحضرمي) commonly known as Ibn Khaldoun, one of the greatest thinkers in the fields of history, economics, sociology, and anthropology of all times, and is now rightly considered by many experts in those fields to be their great-great grandfather.  Yet most of his work remained unknown in the West for centuries until it was rediscovered in the nineteenth century when many of his fundamental ideas were reinvented by scholars.  Even now in the social sciences his name is hardly a byword.  I first learned about him in graduate school when I took a class on the pre-modern history of anthropology.  Many of his ground breaking theories are current to this day.

Ibn Khaldoun (or Ibn Khaldūn) was an Arab Muslim born in Tunis into an upper-class Andalusian family of Arab descent, the Banu Khaldūn. His family, which held many high offices in Andalusia, had emigrated to Tunisia after the fall of Seville to Reconquista forces around the middle of the 13th century. After the fall of Tunis to the sultan of Constantinople in 1352, he relocated to Fez (Morocco) where he took up the position of writer of royal proclamations for the sultan, Abu Inan Fares I.  However, he got himself in hot water fairly soon for scheming against the sultan and landed in prison for 22 months. He was released on the sultan’s death but had mixed fortunes subsequently.  He decided to move to Granada, capital of the province of Granada in Andalusia, where he expected to be well received because in his time at Fez he had assisted the sultan of Granada, Muhammad V, regain power following his exile. There he came into conflict with the sultan’s vizier and so relocated to North Africa once again where he bounced around, because of his seemingly insatiable desire to cause trouble, finally ending up in Egypt, where he died in 1406. During his time in North Africa and Egypt he mostly devoted himself to writing and some teaching.  These were the years that produced his greatest works.

His best known book is the Muqaddimah, commonly called the Prolegomena in English because it is the introductory volume in his proposed grand history of the world.  In it he lays out his basic methods and theories to be applied in the body of the work.  He starts out with a critique of previous methods in history pointing out that they are often unreliable because of 7 critical errors in method, such as writing with the purpose of currying favor with a ruler, failure to examine the reliability of sources, and bias towards a particular creed or cultural norm (what we now call ethnocentrism). My favorite of them all, the cornerstone of all cultural anthropology, is the error of  failing to place events in their proper historical and cultural contexts and, hence, failing to interpret their true meaning — a principle I live by in my own writing.

You would be amazed at the breadth of his theorizing in diverse fields, and at how well his work continues to accord with contemporary theory. In economics he expounded on markets, laws of supply and demand, labor and human capital, exchange, and the effects of taxation on productivity. In sociology and anthropology he theorized on the nature of social cohesion, the effects of nomadic versus city life on culture, and the ways in which social bonds weaken as cultures move from a subsistence base to one of surpluses, and, eventually, luxury. He proposed that this progression was the ultimate cause of the cyclic downfall of empires. His political theory might best be summarized by his definition of government: “an institution which prevents injustice other than such as it commits itself” which we must all ruefully admit is the case.   He made major contributions to the philosophy and method of history which includes such sentiments as, “History is a science,” “Myths have nothing to do with history and should be refuted,” and “To build strong historical records, the historian should rely on necessary rules for the evaluation of truth.”  Those in the know believe that Ibn Khaldoun was one of the greatest thinkers of all time.

Few people nowadays realize that what is often referred to as the “Mediterranean Diet” has strong Arab influences dating back to the Middle Ages. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Ibn Khaldoun’s ancestral, and actual, home of Andalusia in southern Spain.  This recipe is my modern adaptation from the 13th century anonymous cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh fi al-Maghrib wal-Andalus  (Book of Dishes from Morocco and Andalusia). It is for a raised dough (rather like egg bread) that is shaped into braids, shallow fried, and drizzled with scented honey then dusted with sugar. The original medieval recipe (which is typically vague about quantities and methods) calls for durum flour in preference OR plain wheat flour otherwise. You can choose your own proportions based on preference, experience with durum flour, and availability.  I prefer a 50-50 split because in bread making this makes a lighter product. The original recipe calls for both cinnamon and Chinese cinnamon.  What you buy in the stores today is Chinese cinnamon, also known as cassia. Cinnamon here means “true cinnamon” which is a different species and much more aromatic than cassia. However, you can use one or the other, or mix the two.

Dafaîr (Fried Dough Braids)

Ingredients:

Dough

10 ½ oz (300 gm) durum wheat flour, all purpose flour, or a mix of the two
¼ cup (½ dl) water
1 package ( ¼ oz/7g) fast acting yeast
2 large eggs
pinch of salt
½ tsp powdered saffron
2 oz (56 g) coarsely chopped blanched almonds
Vegetable oil for frying and coating the dough

Honey sauce

2/3 cup (1 ½ dl) honey
freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tsp (50g) true cinnamon, cassia, or a mix
½ tbsp (7.5 g) finely ground lavender flowers or 1- 2 drops of lavender essential oil
caster sugar for dusting.

Instructions:

Put the yeast into a cup with 2 tablespoons of lukewarm water. Stir and let it sit for 5 minutes.

Put the flour and salt in a bowl and incorporate the water little by little. Then add the yeast.  Knead until the dough is elastic.

Pour the saffron into a bowl with the two eggs and beat the mixture thoroughly. Then pour it over the dough, add the almonds and mix them well together. Knead the dough again for a few minutes to be sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed.  Oil the surface of the dough and place it in a clean bowl. Cover with a moist towel and leave it to rise in a warm place.

It should take about an hour for the dough to double in size but you should check it periodically starting after 45 minutes. If a finger pressed into the dough springs back immediately it has not proofed enough. If a finger causes an indentation that remains it has proofed too long.  You ought to be able to press in and have the dough spring back after about 5 seconds. Then it is ready.

While the dough is rising, gently heat the honey so that it is slightly more runny than when cold.  Add the cinnamon, as much ground black pepper as suits your tastes, and the lavender. If you are using lavender oil, add one drop and check for flavor.  Add one drop more if the flavor is too light. Keep warm.

Divide the dough into six portions. Sprinkle the worktop and your hands with flour. Take one portion of the dough and keep the rest covered with a towel. Roll and manipulate the dough until you have a thin sausage about 15 inches long. Cut this in three equal lengths and braid them together, pinching both ends when you are done.  Repeat for the other five portions. Let the braids rest for 15 minutes.

While the braids are resting, pour vegetable oil into a heavy skillet to a depth of about ½ inch and heat until it reaches 340 F (170 C).

Place the braids gently into the skillet without overcrowding. You may need to do this in batches. Fry them  to a golden brown on the bottom , then flip them and cook the other side in the same way.

Place the cooked braids on racks over trays to drain. Don’t use paper towels because then they just continue to sit in the oil. You may pat them with paper towels though.

When the braids have drained, drizzle with the spiced honey, and sprinkle lightly with caster sugar.

Yield: 6