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Pinar Selcuk - A Genius Beyond Its Time: Al-Biruni

One of the greatest scholars (1) of XI. Century Muslim world and even all times Ebu Reyhan Muhammed bin Ahmed el-Biruni was born on 4 September 973 as a child of a poor family in the suburbs of West Harezm’s capital “Kas” city which lays in the borders of Uzbekistan in our present day. He did not recognize his father and also his mother’s name is unknown for us. In one of his poems he states “How possibly could I know my grandfather while I did not even see my father”.

During his childhood right after the passing of his parents even the dynasty members heard about his genius. Under the caretaking of Harezm Ameer’s cousin astronomer and mathematician Ebu Nasr El-Mansur, Biruni took lectures from the reputable scholars of time; thus he gradually progressed at astronomy and mathematics and grew up to be well educated. Moreover he had the chance to study the famous manuscripts in the palace library those translated from Greek to Arabic.

Biruni never certainly mentioned his own ethnical identity in around 20 literary works those reached us. It is known that he has over 180 works in several topics. It is assumed that his name el-Biruni  is rooted from the Persian word “Birun” which consist the meanings of outer and provincial. Besides, in the Ottoman population register books the word birun was used for the families who are members of stranger tribes.

Biruni wrote his works in the current science and literacy language Arabic. He knew Arabic, Turkish, Persian alongside Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, Romaic and Sanskrit. The Arabic in his works is not supple since it is not his native language (2). Biruni provided works in a very large scale; among them he is distinguished as a philosopher, mathematician, astronomer, astrologist, physician, geologist, geographer, historian, pharmacologist and litterateur.

Although his masterwork in astronomy El Kanunu’l Mes’udi reached our present day, most of his works in this field are missing. There is no doubt Biruni is one of the most profound astronomers in Muslim world (3).

He started his astronomy works with observations at young age and scientific calculations such as cities’ geoghraphical locations and distances to each other, latitude and longitude and axial tilt of earth. He found a new method on detecting longitudes, made important inventions on trigonometry. He had significant contributions to civilization on astronomical observartion and building up observatories. He calculated 29 substances’ specific gravities very close to original values.

Biruni’s approach to astrology is in the scope of the holism of the sciences and especially in relation with astronomy. In his era astronomy and astrology were individable. According to the great scholar magic, prophecy and fortune telling are realms out of science. A scientific mindset owner Biruni has not believed in magic and claimed that practioners are liars who aim to fool people by illusion and sleight of hand. Furthermore, by revealing the lies of astrologers he has been against the perception of astrology as a way of telling facts from the future and definitely objected to making statements from stars and flights of birds. In this context, it is observed that prioritizing rationalism Biruni acts in order and abstain from superstitious beliefs and preconceived ideas which may obstruct scientific researches. He has been subject to Islam religion, yet he has been against all kinds of superstitions and fanaticism. (4)

Only 3 of  his 23 astrology works remain (5) and among them the most significant one The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology has been published in 1934 with the translation of Robert Ramsey Wight from the original Arabic and Persian. (Unfortunately, this masterpiece on astrology is still not translated to Turkish.) Biruni has been influenced by ancient Greek and especially Indian astrologies. He has examined Aristo’s Physics, Metaphysics, Meteorology, De Caelo books, Euclidea and Archimed’s works and Ptolemy’s Almagest in their original languages (6). Furthermore, he translated “Almagest” to Sanskrit and Euclidea’s book “Elements” to Arabic.

During the era of Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud between 1017 – 1030 he joined the military campaign to North India, later on he made trips to the region himself as well, learned Sanskrit and had meetings with Indian scientists. In fact, he bacame famous with the titles Sagar (ocean) and Knowledge Wizard in India and Ghazna. (7)

Biruni who is claimed to be the palace astrologist of Ghaznavid Mahmud (8), died around the age of 78 in Ghazna Afghanistan leaving many works both in positive and social sciences. There is no certain date for his death, allegedly in 1061 by all means definitely after Ghaznavid Mahmud. Along his lifetime he was favored by many sultans and ameers, supported by them and worked in their palaces. Being a frequent traveling scholar, he has travelled around Iran, Afghanistan and North India. He had letter correspondence with famous scholar Ibn-i Sina who was only 7 years younger than him and debated on physics, philosophy and astronomy topics in the light of Aristo’s doctrines.

He starts his extant book “The Book of Insruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology” shortly known as “Tencim” with analyzing the relationship between the 4 elements and the zodiac signs in accordance with their characteristics. He states that zodiac signs can be divided into two main groups as hot and cold mannered. Hot signs are Aries, Gemini, Leo, Libra, Sagittarius and Aquarius. Cold signs are Taurus, Cancer, Virgo, Scorpio, Capricorn and Pisces. They are also subdivided into two as moist and dry. Hot and dry ones (Aries, Leo and Sagittarius) are bound up with fire and associated with anger and fury in reference to ancient physiology. Cold and dry ones (Taurus, Virgo, Capricornus) are bound up with soil and associated with melancholy. Hot and moist ones (Gemini, Libra, Aquarius) are bound up with air and associated with blood. Cold and moist ones (Cancer, Scorpio, Pisces) are bound up with water and associated with phlegm in the body (9).

All hot signs are male and cold signs are female. Due to Indian astrology female signs are luckier than male ones. General opinion is that male signs belong to daytime while female signs belong to night. Daytime planets are stronger in daylight and nighttime planets are stronger in moonlight.

In his book Biruni has grouped the zodiac signs as human, animal, vocal, nonvocal, fertile and infertile. He also classified the signs due to the directions they point and the winds; explained which body parts they correspond to. Where some different approaches emerge between Greeks and Indians he presented them objectively. He revealed the human behaviours in accordance with the signs, typologies they symbolise and their physiological qualifications including against which diseases they are weak or strong. He classified the signs with the geographical specifications, indicated the animals each sign correspond. He manifested the angular interrelations between signs, explained how signs see each other.

In his work he mentioned the famous scientist, astronomer and astrologist Ebu Maser who lived 200 years before him, compared his views about horoscopes’ angular interrelations with his own.

Following the zodiac signs, Biruni has revealed the charasteristics of the planets. In a frame of trio-rulership, he classified the planets as malefic – benefic, male – female, day – night and stated which planets to be in ruler position within 24 hours and days of the week. He explicated the Kalde ranking and Firdaria which is a Persian technique. He has classified the places, regions, countries, metals, plants, flowers, foods, animals, body organs, family members, emotions, illnesses symbolised by the planets. He reflected which planet exalts or falls in which sign and angle. He examined Ptolemy and Egyptian Term tables and clarified Indian Term technique. He presented the eye harming degrees of the signs, indicated the specifications of 12 houses. He described the situations to ask Horary questions. He explained the calcuation of the Part of Fortune on day and night maps, provided detailed information regarding Arab points. He explained applying and separating aspects, planets’ dignities, almutens, condition of being on their own light or not, retro movements and the burning way (Via Combusta). By expressing a hellenistic prediction technique called Profection method, he pointed out annual, monthly and daily planet rulers.

There is no doubt that Biruni has elaborated on all preceding great astrologers’ works and have full command of “Hellenistic Astrological Knowledge”. He paid attention to write “Allah knows all” in several parts of his book with a scientific mind he strived to pass all his knowledge to next generations objectively. Biruni is a marvellous man thinking beyond his time, questioning, researching and who believe the development of the civilization is possible through various opinions and approaches. He presented his works by disciplined and attentive efforts and with a scientific, objective, critical and methodical approach.

Even though he is a faithful muslim, it is understood from his views and works that he adopted the Stoa philosophy. According to Stoa thought best selecter, patiently endurer, most sober and fair distributor is the nature, in other words the substance. Naturized wiseman is in the bliss of a piece of rock. Nothing can shake nor bring him down. The measurement of rationality is befitting to nature. Because the mind is a nature’s creature, a product of substance and all its thoughts are merely reflection of what happens in nature. A mind liberated from delusions and designments can possess the explicit knowledge of nature. Thus would give the man the most correct norm to live and be happy (10).

 

Sources:

  • El Biruni, The Book of Instruction in the Elements of the Art of Astrology, 1029 , trans. R. Ramsay Wright, Luzac - Co, 1934
  • El Biruni, Maziden Kalanlar, 1000, trans. Ahsen Batur, Selenge, 2011
  • El Biruni, Biruni’nin Gozuyle Hindistan, 1030, trans. Kıvameddin Burslan, Turkish Historical Society Press, 2015
  • Emine Sonnur Ozcan, Bilgi Büyücüsü Biruni, Otuken, 2007
  • Milel and Nihal: Belief, Culture and Mythology Research Journale, El Biruni, Volume: 10 No: 3 September - December 2013

Footnotes:

  1. George Sarton, The Introduction to the History of Science, p. 707.
  2. Ahsen Batur, Maziden Kalanlar, p. 18.
  3. Ord. Prof. Dr. Aydın Sayili, Dogumunun 1000. Yilinda Beyruni, essay.
  4. G. Tumer, Biruni’ye Gore Dinler ve Islam Dini, p. 42-45
  5. E.S. Ozcan, Bilgi Buyucusu Biruni, p. 58.
  6. A.C. Sparavigna , The Science of Al-Biruni. In: Int’l Journal of Sciences, vol. 2 n, p. 1
  7. E.S. Ozcan, Bilgi Buyucusu Biruni, p. 42
  8. G. Tumer, Biruni’ye Gore Dinler ve Islam Dini, p. 29,35
  9. Under an esoteric Indian science Ayurveda - which means life science – 5 basic elements ether, air, fire, water, soil appears as 3 basic principles or secretion known as tridosha in human body. Fire and water elements together appears in the body as principle of fire named pitta. Soil and water elements appears in the body as water secretion named kapha. Tridoshas are the core of human’s psychosomatic existence. For more information see; Dr. Vasant Lad, Ayurveda, Okyanus, 2005
  10. O. Hancerlioglu, Dusunce Tarihi, Remzi Bookstore, 1974, p.91