Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni

Abu Rayhan Muhammad Ibn Ahmad al-Biruni, an outstanding scientist and philosopher, lived in the 10th century. He is considered to be one of the greatest scientists of Islam. Al-Biruni proved to be the authority par excellence of classical Islamic knowledge.

Born in Khiva in 973 A.D., and trained initially as a mathematician, al-Biruni ventured into the fields of anthropology and comparative sociology, astronomy, and chemistry. He was a critic of alchemy and astrology, an encyclopedist and historian, a geographer and traveler, a geodesist and geologist, a pharmacist and psychologist, an Islamic philosopher, and a theologian. His mastery of Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek gave him access to the treasures of ancient civilizations and a means to grasp their “truths.” He was the first Muslim scholar to study in India and has been described as the founder of Indian studies.

In his well-known book al-Atharal-Baqia (The Chronology of Ancient Nations), he attempted to connect accounts of the ancient history of nations and related geographical knowledge. In this book, he discusses the rotation of the earth and assigns the correct values of latitudes and longitudes for various locations. Al-Biruni was the first to conduct elaborate experiments related to astronomical phenomena and was one of the earliest leading exponents of the experimental scientific method.

His most famous work, India, was written as a direct result of the studies he made while in that country. It is a massive work covering many different aspects of the country. Al-Biruni describes the religion and philosophy of India, its caste system, and marriage customs. He then studied the Indian systems of writing and numbers before going on to examine the geography of the country. The book also examines Indian astronomy, astrology, and the calendar.

In 1031, al-Biruni completed his extensive astronomical encyclopedia, Kitab al-Qanun al-Mas’udi (Canon Mas’udicus), in which he recorded his astronomical findings and formulated astronomical tables. The book introduces the mathematical technique of analyzing the acceleration of the planets and first states that the motions of the solar apogee and precession are not identical. Al-Biruni also suggested a new method of observation called the “three-point observation” and discovered that the distance between the Earth and the Sun is larger than Ptolemy‘s estimate, on the basis that Ptolemy disregarded the annual solar eclipses.

The early Muslim scholars duplicated Eratosthenes’ technique to measure the circumference of the Earth 200 years before al-Biruni. That technique had a basic flaw, and subsequently, al-Biruni developed a better system to measure the circumference of the Earth based on trigonometry.

Al-Biruni invented a number of astronomical instruments, including an early hodometer and the first mechanical lunisolar calendar, which employed a gear train and eight gear wheels early example of a fixed-wired knowledge processing machine.

Al-Biruni died in 1048 at the age of 75, a year after he completed his book on pharmacology, Kitab al-Saydalah (The Book of Drugs).