- Al-Biruni (973 – 1048) was a Persian scholar and Polymath from the Khwarezm region. He is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era and was well versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences, and also distinguished himself as a historian and chronologist.
- In religion he was a Shi’ite Muslim, but with agnostic tendencies. His poetical works seek to combine Greek wisdom and Islamic thought.
- He spent a large part of his life in Ghazni in modern-day Afghanistan, capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty. In 1017 he traveled to the Indian subcontinent and authored “Kitab Tarikh Al-Hind” (History of India) after exploring the Hindu faith practised in India. He is given the titles the “founder of Indology”. He was an impartial writer on custom and creeds of various nations. Most of the works of Al-Biruni are in Arabic.
Kitab Tarikh Al-Hind and Aims of Writing it
- Al-Biruni’s Kitab-ul-Hind is simple and lucid. It is divided into 80 chapters on subjects such as religion and philosophy, festivals, astronomy, alchemy, manners and customs, social life, weights and measures, iconography, laws and metrology. He extensively quotes from vast corpus of Sanskrit literature, like Patanjali, Gita, Puranas, Samkhya philosophy etc.
- Al-Biruni adopted a distinctive structure in each chapter, beginning with a question, following this up with a description based on Sanskrit traditions, and concluding the chapter with a comparison with other cultures.
- He 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.”
- Al-Biruni attempts to understand the Hindu culture in its own terms, letting the subject matter speak for itself. The concern to record facts as they are, without any prejudgments, is one of the most significant aspects of Al-Biruni’s methodology. (http://selfstudyhistory.com/)
- 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. Moreover, Hindus in 11th century India had suffered through waves of destructive attacks on many of its cities, and Islamic armies had taken numerous Hindu slaves to Persia which, claimed Al-Biruni, 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 is clear that India at that time was not an ideal place for a foreigner like Al-Biruni whose intention was to study this new culture with a view to establishing friendly relations between the two cultures, Hinduism and Islam. Al-Beruni wrote his work on India to provide, in his own words, “the essential facts for any Muslim who wanted to converse with Hindus and to discuss with them questions of religion, science, or literature.” According to Al-Biruni, dialogue with Hindus was necessary since there were many subjects that were intricate and obscure, which would be perfectly clear if there were more connection between Muslims and Hindus. Al-Biruni is the first scholar, at least in the Muslim world, whose interest in other religious traditions went beyond the then common tendency of treating the Hindus as heretics or polytheists, despite their apparently idolatrous practices.
- Over time, Al-Biruni won the welcome of Hindu scholars. Al-Biruni collected books and studied with these Hindu scholars to become fluent in Sanskrit, discover and translate into Arabic the mathematics, science, medicine, astronomy and other fields of arts as practiced in 11th century India. He was inspired by the arguments offered by Indian scholars who believed earth must be ellipsoid shape, with yet to be discovered continent at earth’s south pole, and earth’s rotation around the sun is the only way to fully explain the difference in daylight hours by latitude, seasons and earth’s relative positions with moon and stars.
- He read the major Indian religious and astronomical texts; in his account he highlights parts of the Gita, the Upanishads, Patanjali, Puranas, the four Vedas, scientific texts (by Nagarjuna, Aryabhata, etc.), relating stories from Indian mythology to make his point. He also compares Indian thought to the Greek thought of Socrates, Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle and others, and at times with Sufi teaching.
Barriers obstructed Al-Biruni in understanding India
- Al-Biruni, discussed several “barriers” that he felt obstructed in understanding India.
- The first amongst these was language. According to him, Sanskrit was so different from Arabic and Persian that ideas and concepts could not be easily translated from one language into another.
- The second barrier he identified was the difference in religious beliefs and practices.
- The self-absorption and consequent insularity of the local population constituted the third barrier.
- He was aware of these problems so Al-Biruni depended almost exclusively on the works of Brahmanas, often citing passages from the Vedas, the Puranas, Bhagavad Gita, the works of Patanjali, the Manusmriti, etc., to provide an understanding of Indian society.
On Religion and Religious beliefs of India
- Alberuni extensively quotes Sanskrit literatures to discuss the Hindu belief in God. He says that the Hindus believe with regard to God that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end.
- He observes the belief of the educated class different from that of uneducated class. The former strives to conceive abstract ideas and to define general principles while the later is happy with the derived rules without going into details. For the uneducated class, Al-Biruni finds most of their views on the concept of God are simply abominable. But he goes on to argue that similar errors occur in other religious traditions.
- He sums up the Hindu definition of God in the following words: “They call him Isvara i.e. self-sufficing, beneficient, who gives without receiving. They consider the unity is really a plurality of things. The existence of God they consider as a real existence, because everytjing that it exist through him.”
- He further enlists differing Hindu opinions for example on such philosophical concepts as action and agent. According to Hindu belief, the spirits or the soul do not differ from each other in substance but have an identical nature. However, their individual characters and manners differ as bodies with which they are united differ.
- He also discuss at length the Hindu convepts of paradise and hell. The Hindu call the word “loka” i.e. paradise, the low “nagarloka” i.e. world of the serpents, which is hell besides they call it naraloka, and sometimes also “patala”, i.e. the world of men. He quotes Vishnu Purana to elucidate the Hindu traditions of a large number of hells, of their qualities and their names and the special hell for each kind of sin. Hindus are known to consider swarloka (paradise) as a higher state where a man lives in the state of bliss due to his previous good deeds. On the contrary, they consider migration through plants and animals as a lower stage, where a man dwell for punishment for a certain length of time.
- He also discusses the concept of Moksha. He makes a very interesting parallel between Patanjali’s definition of ‘Moksha’ and the term of Sufi for the ‘knowing’, being and his attaining the ‘state of knowledge’.For Sufis also there is believe that a human being has two souls – an eternal one, not exposed to change and alteration, and another, a human soul, which is liable to bring change.
- To Al-Beruni the Hindus were excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astronomers, though [out of a certain self-confidence] he believes himself to be superior to them, and disdains to be put on a level with them. He does not conceal whatever he considers wrong and unpractical with them, but he duly appreciates their mental achievements … and whenever he hits upon something that is noble and grand both in science and in practical life, he never fails to lay it before his readers with warm-hearted words of approbation. Speaking of the construction of the ponds at holy bathing-places, he says: “In this they have attained a very high degree of art, so that our people (the Muslims), when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them.”
- According to Al-Biruni, not only was the available literature on Hinduism insufficient, it was also misleading, which was a more serious violation of being truthful to truth (al-haqq). He complains, “Everything which exists on this subject in our literature is second hand information which one copied from the other, a farrago of materials never sifted by the sieve of critical examination.” This, according to Al-Biruni, was inconsistent with the ethical framework provided by the Scriptures of both Christianity and Islam. He illustrates his argument by referring to the Qur’an and the Bible. The Qur’an reads, “Speak the truth, even if it were against yourselves.”
- Al-Biruni was critical of Indian scribes who he believed carelessly corrupted Indian documents while making copies of older documents.
- He admired the Hindu civilisation but was critical of the attitude of the scholars and the dichotomy between the scientific awareness and ignorance that existed side by side among the Hindus. He condemns the hypocrisy of Brahmin Scholars, who inspite of knowing the scientific explanation of various natural phenomenon preferred to mislead the masses and keep them steeped in ignorance and supersitious.
The salient features of Indian society as mentioned by Alberuni in Kitab al-Hind
(1) Caste system
Alberuni in his Kitab al-Hind beautifully sums up theories and practices of Indian caste system.
He discusses the origin of the four varna (Chatuh-varna) system in the basis of the Purusha-Sukta hyms.
(a) The highest caste are the Brahmaṇa were created from the head of Brahma.
(b)The next caste are the Kshatriya, who were created from the shoulders and hands of Brahma.
(c) After them follow the Vaisya, who were created from the thigh of Brahma.
(d) The Sudra, who were created from feet of Brahma.
The four castes do not live together with them in one and the same place.
Each of the four castes, when eating together, must form a group for themselves, one group not being allowed to comprise two men of different castes. Since it is forbidden to eat the remains of a meal, every single man must have his own food for himself.
Between the Vaisya and Sudra, there is no very great distance. Much, however, as these classes differ from each other, they live together in the same towns and villages, mixed together in the same houses and lodgings.
After the Sudra follow the people called Antyaja, who render various kinds of services and are not part of ‘Chatuh-varna’ , but are considered as members of a certain craft or profession. There crafts included: shoemaker, juggler, the basket maker, the sailor, fisherman, the hunter, the weaver etc. They live near the villages and towns of tge four castes, but outside them.
The untouchables like Hadi, Doma, Chandala, and Badhatau are also not part of Chatuh-varna. They are occupied with dirty work, like the cleansing of the villages and other services. They are considered like illegitimate children; for according to general opinion they descend from a Sudra father and a Brahman mother; therefore they are degraded outcasts.
Hindus are said to be differ among themselves as to which of these castes is capable of attaining ‘moksha’. According to some, only Brahmanas and Kshatriya are capable of attaining moksha as others cannot learn the Vedas. Alberuni reports that according to the Hindu philosophers, moksha is attainable by all the castes and by the human race.
Al-Biruni tried to explain the caste system by looking for parallels in other societies. He noted that in ancient Persia, four social categories were recognized (a) knights and princes; (b)monks, fire-priests (c) lawyers, physicians, astronomers and other scientists; and (d) peasants and artisans.
He attempted to suggest that social divisions were not unique to India. At the same time he pointed out that within Islam all men were considered equal, differing only in their observance of piety.
Al-Biruni disapproved of the notion of untouchability.
(2) Indian customs and manners
Indian customs, manners, festivals are also vividly portrayed by Alberuni. Some customs described by Alberuni are the following:
(1) People divide the moustache into single plait to preserve it. They allow nails to grow long, glorifying their idleness, since they do not use them for any work.
(2) The Hindus throw away eaten plates if they are earthen.
(3) They have red teeth due to chewing of arecanuts with betel leaves and chalk.
(4) They sip the stall of cows, but they do not eat thrir meet.
(5) Men use turbans and trousers.
(6) The man wears article of female dress; they use cosmetics, wear ear-rings, arm-rings, golden seal-rings on the right finger as well as on the toes of the feet.
(7) Men take advice of woman in all consultations and emergencies. They do not ask permission to enter house but when they leave it, they ask permission to do so.
(8) They write title of the books at the end of it, not at the beginning.
These customs amuses and sometimes horrifies Alberuni.
(3) Indian festivals
Alberuni enlist all the important festivals without much comment on them. He mentions: 2nd Chaitra (a Kashmiri festival), Guru tritiya, Vasanta etc.
He takes an important note of the fact that most of the festivals are celebrated by women and children only.
On Science of India
- Alberubi was among the first scholar to study India and the Hindu scientific literature. Alberuni was impressed most by the Indian knowledge of astronomy, metrology, arithmetic and geography which he mentioned in Kitab al-Hind.
- He makes observation that science of astronomy is thr most popular wih the Indians because in various ways it is connected with their religion and that is why Indian astronomer should also be a good astrologer.He mentions the planets and their motions, the 12 signs of the Zodiac, the motion and different stages of the moon. He also describes the composition of the Earth and the Heavens as given in the Hindu sculptures. He discusses various astronomical terms such as kalpa, adhimasa etc and analyzes them. He makes comparison between Geek science of astronomy and the Indian.
- Alberuni discusses the five Siddhantas (standard books) on the Indian astronomy:
(a) Surya Siddhanta
(b) Vasishtha Siddhanta
(c) Pulisa Siddhanta
(d) Romaka Siddhanta
(e) Brahma Siddhanta
- In meterology, Alberuni enlists contemporary weights and measures like Suvarna, tola, Masha and Yava, Kala, Pada, Kudava, Prastha, Adhaka, Dropa and Surpa.
- An interesting comparison has been made between tola and the Arabic Mithkal and Alberuni also worked out the equivalent weight of the two.
- In arithmetic, Alberuni’s interest lies in the Indian order of numbers. He mentions the eighteen orders of numbers listed in Sanskrit literature.
- Alberuni quotes the famous Indian astronomer Brahmagupta on the science of numerical writing. Brahmagupta wrotes: “If you want to write one, express it by everything, which is unique, as the earth; two by everything which is double,as, e.g. black and white; three by everything which is three-fold.”
- Because of his travels, he was able to see different geographic features first-hand, and come up with theories as to how they are connected. By analyzing the different types of soil particles in the Ganges River from its source to the Bay of Bengal, al-Biruni formulated theories about erosion and how land forms are shaped, particularly noting the role of water in this process.
- He makes extensive use of Puranic tradition to discuss Indian knowledge of geography. He begins with the Indian concept of Madhyadesha (area around Kannauj) i.e. middle of India. Distance between Kannauj and various parts of the country are noted such as Mathura, Shanesvara, Prayag, Banaras, Patliputra, Kashmir etc.
- He also gives a detailed account of the routes to Nepal, Tibet, Malwa, Gujarat, North West India and some parts of Soithern India. References are made of South-East Asia and those of the Chinese Sea. An account of Varshakala (the monsoon season) in India is given He lists various rivers of India as given in Vayu Purana and Matsya Purana and great knots of the mythical Mt. Abu from where these rivers flow.
- He discovers fossils of ancient sea animals in the mountains that cut India off from the rest of the world – the Himalayas. It seems unlikely that lowly sea snails and other shellfish would travel thousands of miles inland and up the side of a mountain, so al-Biruni came to the conclusion that the Himalayan Mountains must have been under the ocean at one point, and moved to their present location over millions of years.
- He refers to chemistry mainly in the context of alchemy. He condemns such ideas though he concedes the efficacy of some metals and chemicals for medicinal purposes. He had idea of Ayurvedaa and was aware of the Charak Samhita though not of Sushruta Samhita. Consequently, he has nothing to say on the art of surgery.
Criticism of Science in India
- Although Alberuni regarded the Hindus as excellent philosophers, good mathematicians and astrologers, he considers his own knowledge superior. To prove his point of superiority he takes to the method of comparing Greek theories because of their being near akin and of their strictly scientific character as contrasted with those of the Hindus. He identifies Indian knowledge of alchemy (Rasayana) almost with witchcraft and Hindus with socerers.
- He says : “The Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs.They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khorasan and Persian, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar.”
- Alberuni ascribed the decline of Indian science to the arrogance and growing insularity of the brahmans.
Kitab al- Hind as a source of Indian history: Critical Analysis
- Al-Biruni’s Kitab Al-Hind is in many respects a valuable source to study Indian culture and history. His research methodology is innovative and the data provided is generally accurate. Whereas the compilation date of his work, namely around 1030 A.D., is known to us, his field of investigation, that is to say the territory covered by his research as well as his sources, is still subject to doubt.
- First, he rarely makes mention of where his visits took place, or when they did;
- Second the Kitab-al -Hind itself is lacking in positive evidence;
- Finally, sometimes difficulty arises in distinguishing the historical events from the legendary ones.
- The definition of his field of investigation is however crucial for the purpose of using the Kitab al -Hind as a historical source in an appropriate manner.
- Biruni travelled from Uzbekistan, his birth-place, to the East under the protection of Mahmud, the Ghaznavid ruler. Biruni’s mobility depended thus on the conquered boundaries of Mahmud’s empire. Therefore, a distinction between the conquered and unconquered world is needed in order to assess the depth of his information as well as the methodology he employed for gathering information.
- The majority of scholars considers that Biruni’s travels were confined to the boundaries of the Ghaznavid dominion. The question of whether Biruni travelled indeed beyond the conquered borders is however less relevant than knowing whether he really needed to pass across these boundaries in order to collect information.
- Kashmir Valley was not included in the Ghaznavid empire as he explicitly indicates two unreachable locales, namely Kashmir and Varanasi. Yet he gives generous information on the Kashmir Valley: he describes at length geographical, ethnic and social features; he names cities and mountains; he lists itineraries leading to the Kashmir Valley and he mentions customs of Kashmir’s inhabitants; he knows which alphabets and scripts were in use; and he presents detailed accounts of religious practices and of astronomy. As compared to any other region of India, the Kashmir Valley is perhaps the one described in most minute details in the Kitab al-Hind. The amount and accuracy of information given by him about this area suggests first that its isolation has to be reconsidered, and second that his information did not rest on direct observation. (http://selfstudyhistory.com/)
Indeed, it is possible to draw out from the Kitab al-Hind how he obtained his information. For instance, in another extract, he describes certain mobility between people of Kashmir Valley and other areas of India in strictly religious sense and deals with visits to different places of pilgrimage in Kashmir by outsiders. Also he describe how he interacted with Kashmir by giving account of circulation of written documents between the conquered and unconquered (Kashmir) world. His expression “the people of Kashmir whom I have seen‟ indicates that he met informants from Kashmir. Also there is evidence of a scholarly exchange of books between Biruni and a Kashmiri.
We learn then that Biruni acquired information thanks to a certain interaction and mobility between the different regions of India which generated circulation of written and oral data. Kashmiri scholars probably helped him in gathering information. Apart from that, intellectual interactions were equally encouraged by different dynasties of India.
One could expect that direct observation would constitute the main method of Biruni with regard to the conquered land. This expectation is however not confirmed by a closer look at the Kitab India. On the contrary, direct observation is rare in the Kitab al-Hind. Direct observation does not appear to have been the main method of Biruni; as in the case of Kashmir Valley, oral informants and written sources provided data regarding his field of investigation.
Moreover, in other portions of the Kitab al-Hind , Biruni gives the names of two of his sources, Jivasarman and Sripala which informed him about Kashmir and Multan respectively.
A large amount of written sources was equally available to Biruni. He was acquainted with these works either through the accounts of Brahmins or quotations found in books that he read, such as the Vedas, the Smriti of Manu, or many Puranas.
He also translated or began translations of several Sanskrit texts into Arabic, such as the Kitab Sank, the Kitab Patanjal, the Brahmasiddhanta, the Pulisasiddhanta, the Brhatsamhita and the Laghujataka. Biruni keeps silent regarding the origin of his written sources’ authors, except for three of them: Durlabha from Multan, Utpala from Kashmir and Vijayanandin from Varanasi. Since Kashmir and Varanasi were out of reach, Biruni had probably the books brought from these two places. Similarly, Biruni could have collected books from Multan, without even having visited this city.
To summarise, the majority of the information found in the Kitab al -Hind seems to be based on first hand and second hand literature, mainly from the Puraṇas, Gita,the Kitab Sank and the Patanjal for information related to physical or mythical geography, religion, culture, history and philosophy and Siddhantas, Tantras and Karaṇas for information related to astronomy and astrology. (http://selfstudyhistory.com/)
Biruni’s work is based on a vast literature in comparison to his predecessors, whose accounts were generally based on observations and hearsay.
Mahmud Ghazni’s policy helped Al-Biruni
Mahmud’s policy with regard to science played a role in Biruni’s discovery and knowledge of Indian society. Promotion of scholarship was essential for rulers at that time. The presence of poets or scholars at the court of the sultan added to his prestige and reputation. In a sense, the writers contributed to create sultans’ best image at the time. To possess within one’s court numerous scholars and artists also constituted a sign of prosperity and power, and ultimately helped to assert one’s authority over its dependent dynasties and in relation to the Caliphate.
Moreover, Mahmud encouraged scholarship. He brought Biruni from Khwarezm to his court at the same time as he attracted the poet Firdawi and the physician and philosopher Ibn Sina, who however refused to join his court. (http://selfstudyhistory.com/)
Furthermore, Mahmud needed people fluent in Indian languages in order to help him in his military raids and negotiations in al-Hind. In this context, it seems more than probable that Indian pandits and books had been brought to Ghazna or to Kabul where Biruni spent some years; which corroborates the preceding remarks concerning the origin of his source of information. It also emerges from the Kitab al-Hind that Biruni had familiarized himself with various fields of Sanskrit literature.
Q. Discuss the salient features of Indian society on the eve of the campaigns of Mahmud of Ghazni, with particular reference to the observations made by Al-Biruni.
Ans: See the section of solved previous years questions
Q. Attempt a critical essay of the Indian Science and Civilization in the light of Alberuni’s writings.What merits and drawbacks, do you find in his account?
Ans: See the section of solved precious years questions