Who was the first to make experiments related to
astronomy? Most people would say Galileo, Ptolemy, or some scientist from
the Renaissance. The real answer is Abu Raihan Mohammed Ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni.
Born about five centuries before the Renaissance, Al Biruni proved to be one
of the most prominent scientists of all times. Abu Rayhan Al Biruni was born
in Khwarazm, a region adjoining the Aral Sea now known as Karakalpakstan.
The two major cities in this region were Kath and Jurjaniyya. Al-Biruni was
born near Kath and the town where he was born is today called Biruni after
the great scholar. He lived both in Kath and in Jurjaniyya as he grew up and
we know that he began studies at a very early age under the famous
astronomer and mathematician Abu Nasr Mansour. Certainly by the age of
seventeen al-Biruni was engaged in serious scientific work for it was in 990
that he computed the latitude of Kath by observing the maximum altitude of
Al Biruni learned Hindu philosophy, mathematics, geography and religion from
the experts to whom he taught Greek and Arabic science and philosophy. He
wrote about his travels through India in his well-known book Kitab-al-Hind
which gives a graphic account of the sub-continent.
At the age of 22, he wrote a number of short works. One which has survived
is his Cartography which is a work on map projections. As well as describing
his own projection of a hemisphere onto a plane, Al Biruni showed that by
the age of 22 he was already extremely well read for he had studied a wide
selection of map projections invented by others and he discusses them in the
treatise. The comparatively quiet life that Al Biruni led up to this point
was to come to a sudden end.
The end of the 10th century and beginning of the 11th century was a period
of great unrest in the Islamic world, with civil wars in the region in which
Al Biruni was living. Khwarazm was at this time part of the Samanid Empire
which ruled from Bukhara. Other states in the region were the Ziyarid state
with its capital at Gurgan on the Caspian sea. Further west, the Buwayhid
dynasty ruled over the area between the Caspian sea and the Persian Gulf,
and over Mesopotamia. Another kingdom which was rapidly rising in influence
was the Ghaznavids whose capital was at Ghazna in Afghanistan, a kingdom
which was to play a major role in Al Biruni's life.
The Banu Iraq were the rulers of the Khwarazm region and Abu Nasr Mansur, Al
Biruni's teacher, was a prince of that family. In 995 the rule by the Banu
Iraq was overthrown in a coup. Al Biruni fled at the outbreak of the civil
war but it is less clear what happened to his teacher Abu Nasr Mansur at
this stage. Describing these events later.
Exactly where Al Biruni went when he fled from Khwarazm is unclear. He might
have gone to Rayy (near to where the city of Tehran stands today) at this
time, but certainly he was there at some time during the following few
years. He writes that he was without a patron when in Rayy, and lived in
poverty. al-Khujandi was an astronomer who was working with a very large
instrument he had built on the mountain above Rayy to observe meridian
transits of the sun near the solstices. He made observations on 16 and 17
June 994 for the summer solstice and 14 and 17 December 994 for the winter
solstice. From these values he calculated the obliquity of the ecliptic, and
the latitude of Rayy but neither are particularly accurate.
Other work which al-Biruni undertook as a young man was more theoretical.
Before Al-Khujandi discussed these observations, and his large sextant, with
al-Biruni who later reported on them in his Tahdid where he claimed that the
aperture of the sextant settled by about one span in the course of al-Khujandi's
observations due to the weight of the instrument. Al-Biruni is almost
certainly correct in pinpointing the cause of al-Khujandi's errors. Since
al-Khujandi died in 1000, we can be fairly certain that al-Biruni spent part
of the time between 995 and 997 at Rayy. He must also have spent part of
this time in Gilan, which is bordered by the Caspian Sea on the north, for
around this time he dedicated a work to the ruler of Gilan, ibn Rustam, who
had connections with the Ziyarid state.
Among Al Biruni's books, his as-Saydanah fit-Tibb on pharmacy and materia
medica is the last. Of this crowning achievement only a few copies have come
down to us from its first and only draft autograph. Al Biruni died shortly
hereafter, at the age of 78, before having the chance to revise it. However
the manual represents one of the finest contributions to pharmaceutical
science during the Middle Ages, and a great masterpiece of all times. Indeed
it stand as one of the most original texts in Arabic on the subject in
More distinctly than is observed in al-Ghafiqi's al-Jami, al-Biruni's manual
comprises two important, distinct and separate sections. The first,
and most original, contains authentic definitions of the apothecary arts as
well as pharmacology, therapeutics and related fields of the healing arts,
lexicology and lexicography, toxicology, omissions and substitutions of
drugs, and their synonyms. It also presents valuable historical and
biographical information not found anywhere else in Arabic literature. It is
very probable that it surpassed any other in any language up to its time on
this particular subject.
Also, this first section presents the author's own motivations and
objectives in writing his book and what the reader should expect from it. He
further gives a timely, sententious and shrewd defense of the Arabic
language as the lingua franca of the contemporary sciences and the arts
during this period. Such deliberate and useful discussions and
interpretations, the first of the kind ever recorded in an Arabic
medico-pharmaceutical text, were almost lacking in al-Ghafiqi's introductory
statements which centered on self-defense. Significantly, this allows al-Biruni
the well-deserved title of 'Father of Arabic Pharmacy.'
The second section of as-Saydanah is devoted to materia medica. In it
Al Biruni explains over seven hundred simples of the three natural kingdoms
conveniently and scrupulously arranged in alphabetical order. In several
entries the discussions lead us to believe that the author observed the
natural product that he and his collaborator, the physician-pharmacist
Sheikh Ahmad an-Nahsha'i, described : The latter, we are told in al-Biruni's
words in the introduction, used to bring several varieties of drugs from
herbalists and pharmacy shops at Ghaznah for their firsthand examination and
study. Quite a few of these simples were never mentioned before by the
Greco-Roman authors and their commentators prior to the Arabian period. Many
of these, Al Biruni must have observed during his repeated travels (thirteen
in all) in Pakistan-India Subcontinent, as can be easily detected from his
Al Biruni wrote two hundred books and made a few instruments for astronomy.
Although only one fifth of his works have survived, we get a clear picture
of the great Muslim scientist. We see a man who was not a great innovator of
original theories, mathematical or otherwise, but rather a careful observer
who was a leading exponent of the experimental method. He was a great
linguist who was able to read first hand an amazing number of the treatises
that existed and he clearly saw the development of science as part of a
historical process which he was always careful to put in proper context. His
writings are therefore of great interest to historians of science.
Al Biruni died in 1048 CE at the age of 75, after having spent 40 years in
gathering knowledge and making his own contributions to its different
branches. He is one of the notable scientists in the Islamic world, and
indeed one of the greatest of all times.
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