The Science of al-Biruni
By: Amelia Carolina Sparavigna.
Department of Applied Science and Technology, Politecnico di Torino, Italy
George Sarton, the founder of the History of Science discipline, defined al-Biruni as “one of the very greatest scientists of Islam, and, all considered, one of the greatest of all times” [1,2]. A universal genius that lived in the Central Asia a thousand of years ago, al-Biruni “was so far ahead of his time that his most brilliant discoveries seemed incomprehensible to most of the scholars of his days”, so wrote Bobojan Gafurov in his article on the Unesco Courier .
Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (973–1048), was born in Kath, Khwarezm . Khwarezm, also known as Chorasmia, is a large oasis region in western Central Asia, bordered by Aral Sea and deserts. It was the country of the Khwarezmian civilization and of several kingdoms. Today, it is fractioned and belongs to Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. Leaving his homeland, al-Biruni wandered in Persia and Uzbekistan. Then, after Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the emirate of Bukhara, Al-Biruni moved in Ghazni. This town, which is in modern Afghanistan, was at that time the capital of Ghaznavid dynasty [4-6]. In 1017, al-Biruni travelled to the Indian subcontinent, studying the Indian science and conveying it to the Islamic world [4,5].
Αl-Biruni was an astronomer, mathematician and philosopher, studying physics and natural sciences too. He was the first able to obtain a simple formula for measuring the Earth’s radius. Moreover, he thought possible the Earth to revolve around the Sun and developed the idea the geological eras succeed one another . In fact, in his scientific body of work he addresses almost all the sciences [4,7]. He had excellent knowledge of ancient Greek and studied several works by ancient Greek scientists in their original forms; among them there were the Aristotle’s Physics, Metaphysics, De Caelo, and Meteorology, the works of Euclid and Archimedes, the Almagest of the mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy [7,8]. “When religious fanaticism swept medieval Europe… al-Biruni, as a forerunner of the Renaissance, was far in advance of the scientific thought then obtaining in Europe” [7,8]. After a short discussion on his life, let us review some experimental methods and instruments this outstanding man proposed and used.
al-Biruni: Life and Works
As previously told, al-Biruni was born in Kath, a district of Khwarezm. In fact, the word “Biruni” means “from an outer district”, in Persian, and so he was known as “the Birunian”, with the Latinised name “Alberonius” [4,9]. In his early youth, fortune brought al-Biruni in contact with an educated Greek who was his first teacher . His foster father, Mansur, was a member of the royal family and a distinguished mathematician and astronomer.
He introduced al-Biruni to Euclidean Geometry and Ptolemaic astronomy . Then, al-Biruni spent his first twenty-five years in Khwarezm where he studied the body of Islamic law, theology, grammar, mathematics, astronomy and other sciences. In the time, Khwarezm had long been famed for its advance culture. Its cities had magnificent palaces and religious colleges, and the sciences were esteemed and highly developed .
Leaving his homeland, al-Biruni wandered, unsettled, for a brief period of time. He was interested in continuing his studies in astronomy, but this would be possible only in a large city. Then, al-Biruni settled on Ravy, which was located near the present day Teheran . Unfortunately, in 996, al-Biruni was not yet well known outside of Kath and then he was unable to find a patron in Ravy; he was poor but remained confident and continued to study .
It happened that al-Khujandi (940-1000), a respected astronomer, recorded in 994 the transit of the Sun near the solstices, measuring the latitude of Ravy. Al-Biruni found al-Khujandi’s results inaccurate. In his “The Determination of the Coordinate of Locations and for Correctly Ascertaining the Distances between Places”, al-Biruni explained that the problem was in the sextant used for measurements. Because of this observation, he began to be accepted by other scholars and scientists .
In 998, al-Biruni went to the court of the Amir of Tabaristan . There he wrote an important work, known as the “Chronology of Ancient Nations”. Al-Biruni explained that the aim of his work was to establish, as accurately as possible, the time span of various eras . The book is also discussing various calendar systems such as the Arabian, Greek and Persian and several others . When Mahmud of Ghazni conquered the emirate of Bukhara (1017), he took all the scholars to his capital Ghazni. Al-Biruni spent then his life serving Mahmud and later his son Mas’ud.
He was the court astronomer and accompanied Mahmud during the invasion of the north-west of India, living there for a few years . During this time, he wrote the “History of India”, ending it around 1030. Let us note that most of the works of Al-Biruni are in Arabic although he wrote one of his masterpieces, the Kitab al-Tafhim, both in Persian and Arabic .
Al-Biruni catalogued both his own works and those of al-Razi. In 1035-36, or a little thereafter, al-Biruni wrote, at the urging of a friend, an “Epistle Concerning a List of the Books of Mohammad ibn Zakarīyā’ al-Rāzī” . This epistle consists of two parts, the first devoted to al-Razi and his works, the second to al-Biruni himself with an inventory.
This sort of bibliographical treatment is modelled on those produced by Galen in antiquity . Al-Biruni’s catalogue of his own literary production lists 103 titles divided into 12 categories: astronomy, mathematical geography, mathematics, astrological aspects and transits, astronomical instruments, chronology, comets, an untitled category, astrology, anecdotes, religion, and books of which he no longer possesses copies [4,11].
His extant works include the “Indica, a Compendium of Indian Religion and Philosophy”, the “Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology”, and the above mentioned “Chronology of Ancient Nations”. We find also “The Mas’udi Canon”, an encyclopaedic work on astronomy, geography and engineering, dedicated to Mas’ud, son of Mahmud of Ghazni, “Understanding Astrology”, which is a book containing questions and answers about mathematics and astronomy, the “Pharmacy”, about drugs and medicines, “Gems” a book on geology, minerals and gems, dedicated to the son of Mas’ud, the “Astrolabe”, the “History of Mahmud of Ghazni and his Father” and the “History of Khwarezm” .