Al-Beruni's India

By Namit Arora | Nov 2006 | Comments

The first significant intrusion of Islam into India was led by Mahmud of Ghazni who, quite justifiably, lives in Indian history as a cruel and bloodthirsty fanatic, destroyer of temples, and plunderer of their wealth, but in his own dominion he was known as a patron of the arts, literature, and science (not unlike Genghis Khan who is a great and beloved hero in Mongolia today, gracing its currency, plazas, airports, etc.). He assembled in his court and the university he established at Ghazni (in modern Afghanistan) the greatest scholars and writers of the age.

Albiruni One such scholar was al-Beruni (973-1048; another was Firdausi), "commissioned" by Mahmud of Ghazni to produce his monumental commentary on Indian philosophy and culture — Kitab fi tahqiq ma li'l-hind. "In his search for pure knowledge he is undoubtedly one of the greatest minds in Islamic history." Romila Thapar calls him "perhaps the finest intellect of central Asia ... His observations on Indian conditions, systems of knowledge, social norms, religion ... are probably the most incisive made by any visitor to India."

Born near modern Khiva in Uzbekistan, he possessed "a profound and original mind of encyclopedic scope ... conversant with Turkish, Persian, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Syriac (Armenian) in addition to the Arabic in which he wrote. He applied his talents in many fields of knowledge, excelling particularly in astronomy, mathematics, chronology, physics, medicine, mineralogy and history."

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." He traveled in India for thirteen years, observing, questioning, studying. The result was a comprehensive exposition of Indian thought and society. "Not for nearly 800 years would any other writer match al-Beruni's profound understanding of almost all aspects of Indian life."

He read the major Indian religious and astronomical texts; in his account he highlights choice 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, Galen and others, and at times with Sufi teaching. Here is one of his observations on the Hindus of his day:    

"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. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner ... Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khorasan and Persis, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar. If they traveled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is." 

His translator, Edward Sachau, observes:

"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." 

Al-Beruni records some of the more egregious plundering by his boss, Mahmud of Ghazni (esp. at Mathura and Somnath); for obvious reasons he doesn't explicitly denounce it though his text betrays a definite sense of lament. He does say that Mahmud "utterly ruined the prosperity of the country", created a hatred of Muslims among the locals, and caused the Hindu sciences to retreat "far away from those parts of the country conquered by us" to places "where our hands cannot yet reach." Sachau also notes that "he dares not attack Islam, but he attacks the Arabs", reproaching the original Arabs for destroying the civilization of Persia. 

Besides his work on India, "In his works on astronomy, he discussed with approval the theory of the Earth's rotation on its axis and made accurate calculations of latitude and longitude. In those on physics, he explained natural springs by the laws of hydrostatics and determined with remarkable accuracy the specific weight of 18 precious stones and metals. In his works on geography, he advanced the daring view that the valley of the Indus had once been a sea basin. In religion he was a Shi'ite Muslim, but with agnostic tendencies. His poetical works in the main seek to combine Greek wisdom and Islamic thought." He also corresponded with the famous philosopher Ibn Sina (Avicenna). A lunar crater is named after him.

[Alberuni's India by Al-Beruni (973-1048) (Kitab fi tahqiq ma li'l-hind or simply, Ta'riqh al-hind), early 11th century, translated by Edward C. Sachau. Edited with introduction and notes by Ainslee T. Embree, The Norton Library, 1971. This is an abridged version - the complete version by Sachau spans two volumes and is really for the specialist. Al-Beruni is also spelled Alberuni and Al-Biruni.]


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