Mahmood Ghaznavi, the great Muslim conqueror of the 11th century A.C. occupies an outstanding place amongst the patrons of learning. He drew to his court two of the greatest luminaries of the Islamic world, namely Firdausi and Biruni. Firdausi became the author of the world-famous Shahnama, while Biruni, was a versatile genius of the age who ranks amongst the greatest thinkers of Islam and in whose lifetime the greatest intellectual giant of the middle ages, Ibn Sina, is said to have taken to flight due to fear of competition with Al-Biruni. According to the celebrated Indian historian, Sir J. N. Sircar, “Few know physics and metaphysics. Amongst those few, the greatest in Asia was Al-Biruni, at once a philosopher and a scientist and pre-eminent in both of these two seemingly incompatible fields.” A contemporary of the renowned Avicenna, Biruni occupies a distinguished place among the intellectual wizards produced by the world of Islam. “Abu Rayhan Muhammad Al-Biruni called the Master,” says Max-Meyerhof, “a physician, astronomer, mathematician, physicist, geographer, and historian, is perhaps the most prominent figure in the galaxy of universally learned scholars who constitute the golden age of Islamic science.”
Abu Raihan Muhammad ibn Ahmed, better known as Al-Biruni was born near the town of Khwarizm or Khiva, situated on lake Aral in Central Asia, in September 973 A.C. Little is known of his early life and education. He had acquired in his youth a good reputation as a scholar. When his native state was conquered by Mahmood, he joined the court of the celebrated Conqueror and had a chance to visit India along with him. Mahmood’s conquests had opened North-Eastern India to Islam and Biruni taking advantage of these golden opportunities, traveled for twenty years throughout the length and breadth of the sub-continent, learning Hindu philosophy, science and religion from the learned Pandits and imparting Arabic and Greek sciences to them in return. He took pains to learn the difficult Sanskrit language in advanced age in order to have an access to the vast storehouse of Indian knowledge. He spent more than forty years visiting different parts in quest of knowledge. He died in 1048 A.C. at a matured age of 75 years.
Al-Biruni was a prolific writer, whose versatility enabled him to attempt with outstanding success such diverging subjects as philosophy and mathematics, geography and astronomy, physics, and metaphysics. His earliest biographer writes: “He never had a pen out of his hand, nor his eye ever off a book and his thoughts were always directed to his studies”. His keen sense of observation and accuracy of experiments-pervade through his illuminating works, which have baffled even the modern scientists. He had incorporated the results of his studies in India in his outstanding work, “Tahqiq al-Hind” (Facts about India) which contains a comprehensive and accurate account of the history, geography, philosophy, science, and social conditions of India in the 11th century. This book provides the missing link regarding the life and customs of the subcontinent between the periods ranging from the visit of the Chinese Buddhist pilgrims in the 7th century and the writing of Ain-i-Akbari in 1590, A.C., Dr. Sachau (1888) translated the book into English. An English critic of the 19th century pays glowing tributes to Al-Biruni when he says, “Abu Raihan is the only Arabic writer who investigated the antiquities of the East in a true spirit of historical criticism.” This book contains an account of Hindu numerals which is the best on the subject recorded in medieval times.
He was the first Muslim who introduced Indian chess to Islamic countries; and explained the problems of advanced trigonometry in this book. At the end of the book “Tahqiq-al-Hind”, Al-Biruni says, “I have translated into Arabic two Indian works (Sanskrit books), one entitled “Sankhya” which discusses the origin and quality of the things that exist and the other ‘Patanial’ (Yoga Sutra) which treats of the deliverance of the soul from the trammels of the body”. This book on India gives an accurate and authentic history of the invasion of Mahmood and the origin of Somnath. Despite the entire resources of the state being at his disposal, Abul Fazal’s Ain-i-Akbari written about six centuries later is poor in comparison to Al-Biruni’s book. Abul Fazal borrowed the idea and the arrangement of his work from his great predecessor. On his return from India, he wrote “Qanun al-Masudi” in 421 A.H. (1030 A.C.), an astronomical encyclopedia, which he dedicated to his patron, Sultan Masood. The following anecdote recorded by his biographer testifies to his strength of character and his utter disregard for wealth. “Sultan Masood on receiving, “Qanun al-Masudi” presented to the author an elephant load of silver, which Al-Biruni returned to the royal treasury”.
His outstanding achievement in the realm of physics is the accurate determination of the weight of 18 stones. He also discovered that light travels faster than sound. His most brilliant work is Asrar al-Baqiya, a chronology of ancient nations, containing the minute and accurate details of geographical and historical information. The subject of calendar and era of ancient races has been specially dealt with in this book, which also discusses the current theory of the rotation of earth on its axis. Longitudes and latitudes have been accurately determined by the famous author in this book. Besides the above, he has immensely added to the geological knowledge by providing a correct explanation of the formation of natural springs. He suggested that formerly the Indus valley was a basin filled with alluvial soil. Baihaqi, the Court historian of the Sultan of Ghazna said, “Abu Raihan was beyond comparison, superior to every man of his time in the art of composition and in scholarly accomplishments. He had a most rigid regard for truth.”
One gets a glimpse of the wide range of his scientific knowledge when he comes across such books as Kitab-al-Saidana (Materia Medica) dealing with medicine, the Kitab-al-Jawahar discussing different types of gems and their specific gravity and Al-Tafhim, a treatise which was translated into English by Wright in 1934.
Thus Al-Biruni figures in history as a subtle-minded mathematician whose accuracy in astronomical calculations had earned for him the nickname of “Magician” He was much respected by his great patron Mahmood. According to George Sarton, “His critical spirit, toleration, love of truth and intellectual courage, were almost without parallel in medieval times.” Of such intellectual curiosity tirelessly pursued through a long life, there is hardly any other example recorded in the annals of Islam.