How the Turbulent Politics of Medieval Central Asia Shaped a Polymath’s Achievements

When his patron captured Indian Brahmins, Abu Rayhan al-Biruni saw the chance to study a living link to a lost Greek civilization

How the Turbulent Politics of Medieval Central Asia Shaped a Polymath’s Achievements
A view of Khiva in Uzbekistan, the capital of the Khwarazm region where al-Biruni was born. The region is now split across modern-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. (Isa Terli/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Sometime during the 1020s, a formidable Muslim scholar in the town of Ghazna, now the city of Ghazni in Afghanistan, was turning his attention to yoga. This was Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, already famous for many works of philosophy, science and religious history written in Arabic, the lingua franca of the Islamic world. His output was enormous, covering disciplines from mineralogy and geography to the study of past civilizations. But of the astonishing 155 books he lists in his bibliography, only 20 have come down to us today. Among these 20 is his translation, from Sanskrit into Arabic, of the yoga sutras of Patanjali. To read this book now is to witness a conversation between two great civilizations, both flourishing in the 11th century: that of India and that of Islamic Central Asia. And it was by no means the only contribution al-Biruni made to the study of this ancient yet still surviving civilization. He translated many other works from Sanskrit, lost to us now, his interest in Indian thought and culture culminating in his magnum opus, titled “The Book Confirming What Pertains to India, Whether Rational or Dismissible” — or the “India.”

His monumental achievements in the study of India were largely due to his assiduous attention to Sanskrit texts and his ability to learn directly from Hindu pundits, which in turn depended upon the tumultuous geopolitics of the time. Life was uncertain for an intellectual seeking employment, as he was always at the mercy of patrons, moving from court to court as a result of repeated coups, invasions and collapsing ruling powers. There were even times when he might have considered his life as a court intellectual akin to actual enslavement.

“I was driven into worldly affairs and became the envy of fools, the pity of the wise,” al-Biruni wryly remarks. Yet this political backdrop and his dependence on the whims of the ruling elites also took al-Biruni into India itself, accompanying the Ghaznavid ruler Sultan Mahmud on his military campaigns in the early 11th century. Brahmins captured in the same campaigns were brought back to the court in Ghazna, giving al-Biruni ample time to learn from them. They taught him their languages and texts, and thus their philosophy and religion. He describes how they went through the yoga sutras “word for word” together, and his translation reflects this close contact and his subsequent deep understanding. “May you live in interesting times” may be a Confucian curse, but given al-Biruni’s thirst for knowledge, and in view of the range of his output, it proved to be a mixed blessing.

Al-Biruni’s early years prepared the ground for his lifelong fascination with and openness to other cultures. He was born in 973, in the city of Kath, in Khwarazm, in modern-day Uzbekistan. Khwarazm was home to many philosophers and theologians including, most obviously, al-Khwarizmi, the ninth-century mathematician who left his mark on the English language in the ever-more relevant word “algorithm.” Al-Biruni received an education reflecting the highest standards of the day in both Islamic and Greek sciences, but his geographical location meant that his intellectual milieu also included elements from Persia, Central Asia, India and China.

We know little about al-Biruni’s personal circumstances. We do not know whether he was married or had children. In a poem, he claims not to know who his own father was. Much of what we know about his movements comes from his records of the lunar and solar eclipses he observed and from the dedications of his books to various patrons. We do not even know the year of his death, sometime after 1050. But we do know that he lived a long life devoted to scholarship, evident in his bibliography and the ubiquitous references to him down the centuries, including his afterlife in Latin as Alberonius.

What is recorded of his life reflects the politics of the day in the courts east of the Caspian, where dynasties were short-lived. They shot to fame, attracted the most gifted politicians, poets and thinkers, and then were toppled. The courtiers of the ousted dynasty either could petition the new regime for reemployment or, if they had been too closely connected to the previous regime, they were in mortal peril and had to search for new patrons.

Al-Biruni’s first court position was that of astronomer to the Afrighid dynasty, rulers of Kath, the capital of Khwarazm, where he grew up. In 995 the Afrighids were toppled by the Mamunid dynasty of Jurjaniyya (Gurganj), Khwarazm’s second city. Al-Biruni was 22. He had been close to the defeated Afrighids. He decided to try his luck elsewhere.

The next three years of his life are more obscure, with hints of time spent in Jurjaniyya (modern-day Iran), Bukhara (modern-day Uzbekistan) and Khwarazm (which straddles modern-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan), searching for patronage. At some point he encountered Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Abd Allah ibn Sina, known in the Western tradition as Avicenna: a charismatic philosopher of dazzlingly complex ideas, a well-connected and high-ranking politician and every inch the boy genius. They embarked on a philosophical correspondence, with al-Biruni asking questions about Peripatetic, or Aristotelian, philosophy, challenging ibn Sina, the most famous representative of this philosophical school both at the time and still today. Al-Biruni’s initial 18 questions, ibn Sina’s 18 replies, al-Biruni’s 15 further queries in response and replies to these from ibn Sina’s star pupil all survive in the text “Questions and Answers,” a testament to the robust philosophical discussions of the time and the independence of thought of the young al-Biruni, publicly querying the period’s dominant school.

In Question 2, for example, al-Biruni takes Aristotle to task for overreliance on the theories of his predecessors rather than on his own observations. In Question 6 al-Biruni ponders the elliptical, lentil-shaped movement of the heavens, rather than the more usual theory of the time, of planets and stars moving in circular orbits around the sun. Ibn Sina praises this question. Several questions concern the concept of a vacuum. Thus Question 17: If things expand through heating and contract through cooling, then why does a flask full of water break when the air within it freezes? It soon becomes clear that al-Biruni was critical of Aristotle, on the basis that his ideas were not empirically grounded.

A reliance on empirical approaches and rigorous testing was to be a hallmark of al-Biruni’s work for the rest of his life. This was accompanied by an independence of thought and open-mindedness that can be seen in many examples: in his willingness to entertain the hypothesis of a heliocentric universe (one centered on the sun) if it could better account for empirical data; in his unusual conclusion that northern India had once been under sea level; in his measurement of the circumference of the earth based on his command of geometry and observation of Mount Nandana in the Punjab, a measurement not far off from the one we use today; and in his calculations of the speed of the movements of the heavens. He also brought his critical awareness of sources to his studies of other cultures, both ancient and modern.

In 998, at age 25, al-Biruni finally found a more reliable patron, moving to the Ziyarid court in Tabaristan (in modern-day northern Iran), where he spent the next decade of his life. Here, in the year 1000, he began “The Extant Remains of Bygone Eras,” a monumental history of religions, encompassing the pre-Zoroastrian Persians (thought to be Buddhists), Zoroastrians, Sogdians (an old Iranian civilization), Khwarazmians (al-Biruni’s own people), Jews, Syrian Christians, pagans of Edessa, pre-Islamic Arabs and Muslims.

Al-Biruni concentrates on the history of these religions and how they arranged and fixed their calendars, feasts and festivals. The first three chapters deal with the basics: How do we establish temporal units? Chapters 4 to 8 outline the reigns of kings and pseudo-prophets in an attempt to establish a chronology against which the other periods can be determined. Chapters 9 to 20 describe the various religious calendars and Chapter 21 gives an account of the stations of the moon.

This approach to the calculation of calendars and chronologies shows al-Biruni’s obsession with time — and not just bygone eras but the past, present and future. Of the 20 books that have survived, most investigate the accurate measurement of time to come. They explore mathematical geography, geodesy (the study of the earth’s shape, size and place in the universe), the measurement of the earth, astronomy and applied mathematics. This passion for chronometry led him to explore time past, in the “Extant Remains of Bygone Eras.” And in the “India,” his crowning achievement, he endeavored to capture the present. By describing the Indians, al-Biruni sought to give them permanence, keeping their ideas alive in writing. And because he considered the Indians and the Greeks of long ago to have been “like one household,” by documenting contemporary Indian culture he was simultaneously preserving an aspect of the past glories of ancient Greece.

Al-Biruni returned to his native Khwarazm, to an official position as “nadim” at the Mamunid court in the new capital Jurjaniyyah (now Gorgan, in modern-day Golestan province in Iran). The “nadim” (meaning “companion” in Arabic) was a courtier so trusted that he could share the ruler’s food and drink. A member of the inner circle, al-Biruni also represented the ruler on a number of diplomatic missions. This meant his fortunes were uncertain when, in 1017, Mahmud of Ghazna invaded, annexing Khwarazm. While some scholars, ibn Sina among them, went west, al-Biruni became a member of the Ghazavnid court, in modern-day Afghanistan, where he was to serve Mahmud and two further Ghazavnid rulers. It was in this context that he was to learn so much about India.

Al-Biruni’s life in the service of Mahmud of Ghazna from 1017 to 1030 is another obscure period for historians. He was probably detained there against his will. A later history notes that he incurred Mahmud’s displeasure for a horoscope he had cast as court astrologer, a branch of knowledge he didn’t seem to have much faith in. In his contribution to the subject, “Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology,” he writes: “By the majority of people the decrees of the stars are regarded as belonging to the exact sciences, while my confidence in their results and in the profession resembles that of the least of them.” Despite this lack of confidence, he describes moments of weakness brought on by a long and painful illness, when he would abandon his position of scientific rigor and ask astrologists to cast his horoscope. But the familiar al-Biruni is soon back again, slightly crestfallen perhaps, but scathing in his dismissal of horoscope accuracy.

Alongside this work in which he had little faith, al-Biruni was also given opportunities upon which he seized. He accompanied Mahmud on raids in what was then northern India (in present-day Pakistan), when Mahmud took many Brahmins as prisoners of war. These Brahmins became al-Biruni’s authorities for his study of India and Indian religion. These interactions with Indian society and ideas satisfied al-Biruni’s demands for empirical knowledge and direct observation, and led not only to multiple translations but also to the formidable synthesis of all his knowledge, the “India.”

In an astrological work, al-Biruni explains why he was interested in Indian civilization.

“Allow us please to intercede on behalf of the Indians and be a little bit more lenient toward them,” he writes. “True, they have not been guided to the arguments and the logical methods the ancient Greeks were guided to. Yet in our time they have preserved faithfully the basic principles of their ancestors. Therefore their antiquity and speculative research demand respect. No one can contest this.” That is, he argued, the continuity of their culture, passed down from generation to generation without a break, in itself demands engagement with their ideas.

India wasn’t a completely alien society to those in an Arabic-Islamic intellectual milieu, not least because of the enduringly popular tales of “Kalila wa-Dimna,” a collection of fables within a framing story whose main characters are animals (parts of it are a translation of the “Panchatantra,” attributed by some to Vishnu Sarma). Hindu physicians had been at the Abbasid court in Baghdad since the eighth century, and given that a medical training required a thorough training in philosophy in both Hindu and Arabic traditions, some of their philosophical ideas came with them. But as with everything else, al-Biruni needed to see it for himself, and this pursuit of direct knowledge, from texts and philosophers, led him to a key discovery. “I have for long now been translating from Indian the books of mathematicians and astronomers until I recently happened upon some books in which their elites stored their philosophy and which their ascetics prized jealously, in order to follow their path to true worship.” He then makes it clear he learned directly from these elites: “When they were read out to me letter by letter in the company of a teacher and I had grasped their contents thoroughly, my conscience could not forgo making them available for other eager seekers of truth to share and study.”

Recognizing that Indians had kept their past alive, and perceiving a past link between ancient India and ancient Greece, al-Biruni saw a chance to bring both traditions to life, thereby increasing understanding of the Greek civilization whose philosophy formed the bedrock for his own intellectual tradition. But this was no easy matter. How does one capture a whole civilization in writing, an ancient and sophisticated one, preserved in a language of forbidding difficulty?

Al-Biruni began painstakingly to read and translate as many Sanskrit texts as he could, often in the company of the Brahmin prisoners of war. He amassed his evidence. But how was he to present this evidence in a meaningful way? No book like it had ever been attempted before, and the project was vast.

Perhaps al-Biruni knew the answer to this problem before he began his book. Perhaps he had a “eureka” moment. We do not know. His solution is what he calls “the geometrical path”: introducing subjects in a systematic order and clarifying foundational concepts before building conclusions about them, although he admits that the challenge of documenting a living civilization meant that he couldn’t follow the system as well as he could were it a more mathematical subject: “It has not been possible rigorously to follow the geometrical path in presenting the antecedent before its consequent. Therefore in some chapters an unfamiliar item may be mentioned, while its explanation will follow in the next chapter.”

Al-Biruni also deploys his subjects according to “the geometrical path.” After an outline of the problems involved for a Muslim studying Indian civilization, he begins with God and theology (including creation and metempsychosis, or the transmigration of souls, particularly after death). Al-Biruni proceeds to the Indian sciences, including grammar, geography and astronomy, and then to the measurement of time and the stars. The work ends with an investigation into Indian rites and cultic observances and how their times are determined. The “India” is a jewel of a book. Mario Kozah, translator of al-Biruni’s translation of the yoga sutras of Patanjali as well as the author of a monograph on his Indian researches, writes that the book “may very well be the very first systematization of ‘Indian’ beliefs into one ‘Indian religion’, as al-Biruni calls it, preceding by almost 900 years the definitions of Hinduism by nineteenth-century European Orientalists.”

The brilliance of al-Biruni didn’t just lie in his sophisticated understanding of another culture or in how he synthesized the information he had as a result of his observations, conversations and translations. It was also in the way he communicated this depth of understanding to an audience trained in the Greek and Islamic sciences, using his extensive knowledge of many other branches of learning to contextualize and compare. His introduction to his translation of the yoga sutras exhorts the student reader to see the links between cultures: “[I]f you listen to their doctrines you sense a combination of beliefs found among the Ancient Greeks, Christian sects, and Sufi leaders,” he writes.

Indeed, al-Biruni believed that the distinguishing feature of the Indian’s belief system, that of metempsychosis (which he compares to the Declaration of Faith for Islam, Trinitarianism for Christianity, and the institution of the Sabbath for Judaism), actually came from the Greeks. “For seven years Brahman, the founder of Brahmanism, was the disciple of Philayus who had traveled to India,” he writes in the “Extant Remains of Bygone Eras.” “It was from him that he learned the teachings of Pythagoras,” including the transmigration of souls. This was one reason for his belief that the Greeks and Indians were originally “one household.”

Yet for all this open-mindedness, al-Biruni did not become a religious skeptic and remained convinced of the rightness of Islam, his own belief system. Kozah remarks that although some scholars have argued “that al-Biruni maintained a belief in a core truth and a proto-religion in which all civilisations have a share,” he sees in the preface to the “India” “the incomparability of Islam, and the truth revealed to and transmitted by the prophets, in contrast to non-Muslim schools and sects.” Al-Biruni repeatedly went back to the source of information, whether observation of the heavens or the earth, conversations with experts and pundits, or foundational texts, yet throughout his acquisition of knowledge he remained firm about his own place — and time — in the universe.

The ability of al-Biruni to achieve all these things relied on the geopolitics of the day and the opportunities they provided. Despite the constant fear of losing a patron in the repeated transitions of power in the region, or worse, of being associated with deposed powers and therefore classed as not to be trusted by the new, and despite the fact that he was detained against his will to serve at court, there were nevertheless upsides, for al-Biruni and for us reading his texts today. The military campaigns of the Ghaznavids gave him the chance to travel to India and converse with intellectual elites over long periods of time. By seizing this chance and applying his open-minded, critical faculties to the job of understanding and synthesizing the information he gained he was able to produce the “India”: a study of another culture that is still a source of information and delight today.

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