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The celebrated 10th century Moslem scholar Abu Al Rayhan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad Al Biruni was born in Kath, then the capital of the Principality of Khwarezm, Khorasan - the present day city of Khiva in Uzbekistan. The closest approximation of his birth date is believed to be September 973 AD. Early in his life, Al Biruni showed deep interest in the study of the sciences. He started his scholarly scientific career at the age of twenty-two, when he wrote a well-founded exposition on the discipline of cartography.

Soon after this, admiration for Al Biruni's emerging talent grew as he continued to produce insightful and innovative works. At this early period, Sultan Mahmood Ghaznawi invaded Al Biruni's homeland and, finding his intellectual approaches of interest, soon offered him patronage. Al Biruni accepted the offer, and accompanied the Sultan in his travels to India on numerous occasions for over two decades. During his lifetime, Al-Biruni wrote more than a hundred books and documents dealing with a broad range of sciences such as astronomy, astrology, mathematics, geometry, geography, chronology, history, physics, and medicine. Al Biruni's ability to explore and research the different sciences was made easier by his comfort with different languages. He was fluent in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Syriac. He wrote most of his work in Arabic, although that was not his native language. He explained his affection for Arabic by the following passage in which he wrote: "The sciences of the world have been rendered to the language of the Arabs. They were embellished. They penetrated the hearts. The beauty of the language circulated in the veins and the arteries."

One of the most important books that Al Biruni wrote was "Al Qanun Al Masudi" - ("The Canon of Al Masudi"). This was a significant book on astronomy, which he entitled in honor of Sultan Masud of Ghazna. In the book, he endorsed the assumption in favor of the Earth's rotation round its axis and showed precise results in determining latitude and longitude measures. Another of Al Biruni's books was the "Athar Al Baqiyah" - (Chronology of Ancient Nations). In it, he proposes an anthropological account of the formation and character of nations. In the field of astrology, Al Biruni is known to have astonished people by the accuracy of his forecasts. He wrote "At Tafhim", or ("The Elements of Astrology"). In another book,"Kitab As Saydalah", he proposes a classification and description of drugs and their application in medicine. In several of his books on physics, Al Biruni explained natural springs in terms of hydrostatics and made very nearly perfect measurements of specific weights. He explained the ratios between different metals including the densities of gold, silver, mercury, lead, bronze, copper, brass, iron, and tin. He then presented the results mathematically as arrangements of integers and numbers of the form 1/n, n = 2, 3, 4, ... , 10.

Kitab Al Hind and Other Works

Perhaps the most famous work of Al Biruni and his masterpiece is the book "Kitab Al Hind" - the Book of India. Throughout history, scholars from all over the world have come to regard this work as his most significant contribution. Under the patronage of Sultan Mahmood Ghaznawi, Al Biruni set off to India for the first time around 1017 AD. On arrival there, Al Biruni was fascinated by the Indian culture. In "Kitab Al Hind", he provides a detailed explanation of the historical and social circumstances as well as other aspects of India. During the time he spent there, Al Biruni discovered the Hindu philosophy, mathematics, geography and religion from the Pandits. In dialogue with them, he was glad to offer them insight on Greek and Arabic philosophy and scientific disciplines. The "Kitab Al Hind" puts in context the religion and philosophy of India, and tries to explain the caste system, as well as the Indian wedding and funeral rituals. Further, Al Biruni studied the Indian alphabets as well as the Indian number systems, elaborating the principle of position.

After he learned Sanskrit, Al Biruni studied the authentic Indian scripts and translated many of them in Arabic. One such text, called Sakaya, presents an explanation about the creation of things and their types. Another script, known as Patanjal, deals the reality of the spirit leaving the body after death. In Kitab Al Hind, Al Biruni makes a daring assumption that the Indus valley must be have been an ancient sea basin, a notion no one had proposed before that.

After Al Biruni returned from his journeys in India, he decided to spend time in Ghazna, in Afghanistan. It was there that he composed his well-known book "Al Qanun al Masudi, fi al-Hai'a wa al-Nujum", which he dedicated to Sultan Masud of Ghazna. In it, he provides a description of the knowledge of the time pertaining astronomy. Throughout the book, his theories are supported by scrupulous mathematical verifications. Also described in the book are the geometric and algebraic principles necessary for accurately observing the movements of celestial objects along their paths, and their distances relative to Earth. "Al Qanun al Masudi, fi al-Hai'a wa al-Nujum"also critiques a number of already existing theories of astronomy, solar, lunar, and planetary movements and positions. The book also contains a list of the coordinates of six hundred places, almost all of which Al Biruni had direct knowledge.

Scientific Involvement

It seems Al Biruni was a man who was genuinely interested in almost everything around him. His scientific inquiry led him to such remarkable results as precise calculation of the specific densities of 18 different stones and metals. He reviewed those in his book the "Kitab Al Jawahir" (the Book of the Pearls). In the book, he employs hydrostatic principles to calculate the specific gravity, by a method devised by Archimedes, of 9 metals, based on the weight of gold, and 9 gems based on the weight of "oriental sapphire". For example, he gives the values of 19.05-19.26 for gold (actual 19.29), 8.72-8.83 for copper (actual 8.85), 12.74-13.59 for mercury (actual 13.56) and 8.55-8.67 for brass (actual 8.40). In a completely different field, he also produced the book "Kitab Al Saidana". This was an encyclopaedic work, which bands together the Arabic understanding of medicine with that of the Indian knowledge.

In other scientific endeavours, Al Biruni found a way to trisect an angle and solved other mathematical problems which cannot be worked out with a ruler and a compass alone. Also, almost hard to believe, hundreds of years before anyone else, Al Biruni proposed the notion that the earth rotates around its axis. Although adhering to the then broadly accepted geocentric view of the world, with the earth in the middle of the universe, he was curious of the heliocentric view of the world - with the sun being in the middle. Because of this, Al Biruni was the first to undertake experiments related to such astronomical facts. Eventually however, he left the heliocentric argument because of his inability to present actual confirmation. Related to these observations, Al Biruni established that, in comparison with the speed of sound, the speed of light is immense. These and other of his mathematical discoveries make up a broad base which deals with of theoretical and practical arithmetic, summation of series, combinatorial analysis, the rule of three, irrational numbers, ratio theory, algebraic definitions, method of solving algebraic equations, geometry, Archimedes' theorems and more.

In his book on geography, "Kitab Tahdid Nihayat Al Amakin", or Determining the Coordinates of the Cities, Al Biruni put forward the notion of "descriptive geography" by reviewing and describing the make up of different geographical areas not only in terms of their flora and fauna, but also in terms of the minerals present in those regions. Here he also introduced methods to determine distances on the earth by triangulation techniques. This led him to finding out an accurate value of the radius of the earth to be 6339.6 km, which was not obtained in the West before the Renaissance in the 16th century. Confident of his geographical knowledge of the world, Al Biruni drew up a world map which is one of the earliest surviving such maps. Also in this book, he claimed for the first time that the Indus Valley is of sedentary origin. Interestingly, he supposed that the Arab desert, in contrast must have been an ancient sea, which had receded. He made his assumptions on the fact its soil is of stratified nature seen "when one digs wells ... and with fossiles found in it."

The geography of the "Old World", as presented by Al Biruni.

Here the South is at the "North Pole". If rotated upside down, the lands of Africa, the Arab Peninsula, Italy, Spain, and Asia Minor are recognizable..

Al Biruni's most successful calculation of the circumference of the earth from his book "Al Qanun Al Masudi".

After having spent more than 40 years of study and scientific contributions which he recorded in his books, we can infer some facts about Al Biruni with a certain degree of confidence. It is sad that only less than one fifth of his texts have survived to the present, but from them we can understand enough about the character of this Moslem scholar. It must be said that Al Biruni was in fact not the most vigorous scientific inventor. He was nevertheless great in his insightful and profound examination methods building upon the accumulated world knowledge. His tasks were made ever so much easier by the fact that he was fluent in so many languages. Using this to his advantage, Al Biruni was capable of studying authentic texts from numerous sources and of combining them into more truthful and accurate scientific works.

It is estimated that the total number of books that Al Biruni wrote throughout his scientific career comes up to 146. Some sources round up the figure to180 books, plus an impressive number of 13,000 "folios". (A folio is a hand written document which is usually one to two pages long). These estimates are correct to a great extent. In his book "Fi Fihrist Kitab Muhammad Ibn Zakariya Al Razi", Al Biruni himself registers 114 of his own books.

Overall, Al Biruni deservers respect as an accomplished scholar and a very able scientist. He was one of the outstanding individuals of his time and duly many things have been affected by his contributions. Al Biruni has been regarded as one of the greatest intellectual figures of the Islamic world and of the world as a whole. His analytical mind, his devotion to discovering reality, and his precise methodical techniques enabled him to accomplish great results. His fervor for learning can be noted from his phrase, which states: "The fact that Allah is Omniscient does not justify ignorance."



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