The Forefather of Religious Studies 5 May 2015

Khiva from airAbdul-Azim Ahmed explores the life and work of al-Biruni, a tenth century polymath famed for producing one of the earliest pieces of comparative religious studies.

The turn of the first to the second millennium was an exciting time of scholarship, trade, and war across Asia. It was the centuries on either side of the millennium that saw the philosophers Avicenna and Averroes reimagine Greek philosophy; it was the time that saw al-Ghazali pen the Summa Theologica of Islam – The Revival of Religious Sciences. It was also the era immediately after the Translation Movement that started in Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, a movement which made knowledge available to scholars in a way that would not be rivalled until modernity.

Many sciences flourished. Astronomy and philosophy foremost amongst them, but so too mathematics, the development of the scientific method, medicine, history, pharmacology and countless more fields. Oft forgotten is that it was during this era, through scholars such as al-Biruni, that some of the earliest works of comparative religion were penned.

History of Religions

Religious studies is not an ancient discipline. While the first universities were often founded to teach theology, they were rarely interested in religions other than their own. If they did examine other religions, it was often as heresiology in some way or another – the study of religions that were considered wayward and false.

The distinction between religious studies and theology is difficult for some to grasp. Whereas theology or religion can be taught as a believer, to other believers, for the purposes of salvation, religious studies is somewhat different. In religious studies, a religion is analysed from a many perspectives to understand the human experience. Religious studies can be history, sociology, or even to examine literature and myth.

What we recognise as religious studies today, sometimes called comparative religion, is a phenomenon that dates its growth back a century or so to the work of Egyptologist C. P Tiele and philologist Max Muller. The work of both scholars gave rise to Religious Studies departments in Western universities. But there were antecedents to both these scholars – early pioneers who delved into studying religion. Al-Biruni was among them, introducing a new realm of scholarship to his Muslim contemporaries a millennia before the same field flourished in Europe.

Who was al-Biruni?

Born in Kath, 973 CE, al-Biruni was born in the heartlands of Muslim Central Asia – Khwarezm. Today, the area is divided between Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. It’s often forgotten today in the scope of global politics. Historically however, Khwarezm was an important region, located on the Silk Route, which brought with it wealth and placed the world at its doorstep.

His name, al-Biruni, is a reference to his place of birth – outside the city walls, the ‘birun’, of Kath. It is a testament to the legacy of his achievements that the entire city is now called Beruniy in his honour. We know little about his early life, other than that he did not know his father and he mentions little about his own upbringing. Some later Muslim historians believed he belonged to an ancient noble family, the Afrighids.

He was nonetheless afforded an education of the highest standard, and had a particular flare for astronomy and mathematics. At the age of 17, he calculated the latitude of his hometown, the beginning of a lifelong fascination for geography.

In 995, al-Biruni’s hitherto quiet life of study changed dramatically. His home was conquered by Mahmud al-Ghazni, and he was taken hostage.

The turn of the millennium was incredibly volatile time for the Islamicate world. Old dynasties were coming to an end, with new ones emerging to take their place. Mahmud al-Ghazni was one such upstart who founded the Ghaznavid Empire. To add legitimacy to his claim of being a Sultan, he would need the intellectual prestige that others in the region already had. It was for this reason he had kidnapped al-Biruni, to act as a scientist-cum-ambassador for his new dynasty.

This set al-Biruni’s life on a new trajectory. In his lifetime, he would serve six princes, yet he was remarkably capable of keeping the turbulence of the politics that surrounded him separate from his scholarship.

The Polymath

“Vital and lasting contributions” were made by al-Biruni “to the fields of astronomy, mathematics, geodesy, geography, mineralogy, pharmacology, history and chronology” according to Peter Groff, Professor of Philosophy at Bucknell University.

Al-Biruni wrote works in these fields in Arabic and Persian, while also maintaining fluency in his own language of Khwarazmi, and learning several additional languages to aid his studies, notably Sanskrit.

Many think of al-Biruni foremost as a philosopher. By this time, the Islamicate world had discovered the Hellenistic philosophers, whose works were available in Arabic to scholars. This stimulated a period of engagement with the thoughts of Aristotle and Plato that led to an incredibly diverse and dynamic range of scholarly positions. Greek philosophy prompted Muslim scholars to debate questions about God’s nature, his omnipotence, the creation of the universe and the nature of revelation in new ways, stimulating the formation of an Islamic creedal orthodoxy.

Al-Biruni engaged in these debates of his era, though as a philosopher he is often overshadowed by Avicenna, or as he is known in Arabic, Ibn Sina. Despite the fame of Ibn Sina, al-Biruni was both a contemporary and an equal. The two corresponded in writing, debating Aristotelian philosophy in a series of letters later published under the title “Questions and Answers”.

A particularly celebrated work of al-Biruni’s is his Qanun al-Masudi. The Qanun was essentially a summary of the astronomical knowledge of the era, with al-Biruni’s own particular theories and ideas interjected. Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes that “if Biruni’s Qanun was translated into Latin, it would have been as famous as the Qanun of Ibn Sina” – to be a philosopher and to be an astronomer in this era were one and the same thing.

Al-Biruni’s knowledge of astronomy was extensive and thorough enough for him to calculate a circumference of the globe that falls short of modern calculations by a mere 10.44 miles. He additionally collected the longitude and latitude of countless cities across the known world, plotting many of them onto a 16ft high globe.

It was this endeavour that led him to a significant hypothesis – the possibility of a yet undiscovered continent. Writing in History Today, Fredick Starr argues that al-Biruni deserves recognition for discovering America alongside Colombus and Norse seafarers. When al-Biruni plotted the co-ordinates of cities from the known world, he noticed the land occupied a mere fraction of the earth’s surface. In Biruni’s view, the ocean was so large that it disturbed the balance of the physical world. With a series of rational arguments and propositions, in true philosophical style, he surmised a continent that was habitable, of equal size to the known world, and somewhere on the other side of the globe. “From a drop of water a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagara without having seen or heard of one or the other” writes Sherlock Holmes in one of Conan Doyle’s celebrated mysteries – a description that could not be more apt for al-Biruni.

The Religious Studies Scholar

Al Biruni Illustration 1There were many scholars before al-Biruni who studied religion, but they tended towards one of two extremes of a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum were those who studied other religions (or sects) only as deviant sects or religions. Al-Biruni believes those who did this often fell into the mistake of misrepresenting them so as to make them appear self-evidently wrong. Al-Biruni writes on this, lamenting the ease at which it is done:

“Misrepresentation is easily detected in a report about dogmas comprehended within the frame of one single religion, because they are closely related and blended with each other. On the other hand, you have great difficulty in detecting misrepresentation in a report about entirely foreign systems of thought which are totally different both in principle and details”

On the other end of the spectrum are those who study religion but who do so by losing the boundaries that otherwise separate religion, a problem again al-Biruni is conscious of, as he writes of one syncretic scholar of religions before him:

“Abu al-Abbas al- Eranshahri. He himself did not believe in any of the then existing religions, but was the sole believer in a religion invented by himself, which he tried to propagate.”

What made al-Biruni’s approach significant was that he set out to deliver an honest and impartial account of other religions, while maintaining the boundaries of his own religious identity. It was this “rationalistic and reifying approach to religion”, according to Professor of Islamic Studies at the University of North Carolina Carl Ernst, which explains the scholar’s popularity today.

Al-Biruni’s most famous work, the one which earns him the title of one of the first scholars of religions, is Taqīq mā li-l-hind min maqūlah maqbūlah fī al-ʿaql aw mardhūlah (“Verifying All That the Indians Recount, the Reasonable and the Unreasonable”). For obvious reasons, the work is often abbreviated to simply al-Hind, or The India. In translation, it is a two-volume work that spans nearly six hundred pages and details Indian religion and philosophy during the medieval period. Some have described it as a work of sociology, and indeed, Professor of Arabic and Islamic Science at Columbia University, George Saliba calls him an “ethnographist” and “anthropologist”.

This notable work came about as a result of Mahmud al-Ghazni’s various incursions into northern India. He took al-Biruni with him (at the very least into the country if not on the expeditions themselves) which gave al-Biruni the opportunity to author the work. As a scholar and one with an immense amount of respect for Hindus, he disdained Mahmud al-Ghazni’s conquests, but as a hostage of the Sultan himself, he had little scope to object.

There is debate about whether al-Biruni’s book is a product of first hand contact with regions of India. Given the content of his work, as well as his lack of freedom as a court scientist, it is unlikely that the accounts given in The India are based on first-hand eyewitness accounts. Instead, it is likely he was able to meet with and thus interview various Hindu Brahman, priests and philosophers, gathering information from them.

The introduction to The India reads like the methodology chapter of a modern thesis. He outlines how he approached his studies, what presumptions he bases his research upon and the way in which the knowledge is handled and presented to the reader. Al-Biruni writes: –

“This book is not a polemical one. I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them as I believe to be in the wrong. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are.”

And indeed, al-Biruni stays true to his words. In the chapters that follow, the scholar introduces Hindu philosophy, language, their works of literature and religious scripture, and the sciences of astronomy and astrology within the Hindu worldview. He also looks at the sociological aspects of Hindu life, namely marriage and the caste system. In completing The India, al-Biruni learned Sankskrit, and translates into Arabic some of the Hindu scriptures – translations that are still available today.

What is significant, though perhaps not obvious to the modern reader, is that al-Biruni, in describing Hindu religion as a singular phenomenon, is breaking ranks from previous descriptions of Indian religion by Arab scholars. Until al-Biruni, many scholars considered India to have a variety of religions, sometimes numbering in excess of forty. Hinduism was to these scholars too diverse to be a single tradition. Al-Biruni however, saw an underlying unity in the traditions, and so spoke of them as a singular religion. This debate is still ongoing today amongst religious studies scholars, with some opting to refer to as Hinduism the “Hindu traditions”.

Al-Biruni’s major passion however is calendars, and he presents in The India an extensive description of the religious calendar of the Hindus. In another significant work, al-Athar al-Baqiyyah an al-Qurun al-Khaliya, The Chronology of Ancient Nations, he offers a chronology of the religious calendars of major and minor religions in Western Asia during his time, including the Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Christian calendars and those of lesser known religions and peoples such as Sogdians. The work remains valuable, having captured details of nations which otherwise would have been lost.


Screenshot 2015-05-05 18.39.17Al-Biruni died in 1048, aged 75. It was a long life, and al-Biruni’s passion for scholarship did not dim in his old age. True to his polymath nature, the topics he wrote about only expanded. Yet as Seyyed Hossein Nasr writes: –

“Throughout these changes, his interest in religion and cult remained strong, his quotations from the Bhagavad Gita no less than his description of the religious feasts of the religions of Western Asia, give evidence of his intense interest and understanding of religion. His works on comparative religions remain among his most important contributions.”

Al-Biruni is remembered through his hometown, renamed in his honour, through the various statues and edifices found in Iran as well as Europe, and, most appropriately for such a gifted astronomer, through a crater on the moon named after him.

What is perhaps disappointing is that al-Biruni’s passion for religious studies did not ignite a larger movement. Several scholars followed in his footsteps, most notably Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153CE) who authored an equally impressive book documenting the religions of the world, but it never reached the critical mass necessary to turn religious studies into a notable field of its own.

Instead, the baton of religious studies was picked up by European scholars following the Renaissance, who despite a thousand years of difference, were keen to celebrate al-Biruni.

There is little doubt that al-Biruni’s scholarship earns him the title of the forefather of religious studies.

This article is from Issue 10 of On Religion. For more intelligent thinking about religion and society, subscribe for £19 a year and receive a free USB with all our back issues included. Subscribe Button

About Abdul-Azim Ahmed

Dr Abdul-Azim Ahmed is Editor of On Religion magazine. He holds a doctorate in religious studies and an MA in Islam in Contemporary Britain.

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