BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN
Bīrūnī was born in the outer suburb (bīrūn, hence his nesba) of Kāṯ, the capital of the Afrighid Ḵᵛārazmšāhs (see āl-e afrīḡ), and spent the first twenty-five years of his life in Ḵᵛārazm studying both the al-ʿolūm al-ʿarabīya “Arab sciences” (feqh, theology, grammar, etc.) and the al-ʿolūm al-ʿajamīya “non-Arab sciences” (essentially Greek: mathematics, astronomy, medicine, etc.); in the later part of his life, much of his contemporary reputation was to be as a monajjem or astrologer at the Ghaznavid court. It is likely that his own sympathies, and perhaps also his family connections, were with the Afrighids, who in 385/995 were overthrown by the rival dynasty in Gorgānj of the Maʾmunids (see āl-e maʾmūn). At all events, he left his homeland for the Samanid capital of Bukhara and secured the patronage of the ante-penultimate Samanid amir, Manṣūr II b. Nūḥ II (387-89/997-99). He had previously been in correspondence with Ebn Sīnā there, and there is extant an important exchange of views between the two scholars (ed. S. Ḥ. Naṣr and M. Moḥaqqeq, Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī wa Ebn Sīnā, al-asʾela wa’l-ajweba, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973). He then went, apparently in 388/998, to the court of the Ziyarid amir of Ṭabarestān and Gorgān, Šams-al-Maʿālī Qābūs b. Vošmgīr (q.v.), and it was there that he wrote his first major work, al-Āṯār al-bāqīa ʿan al-qorūn al-ḵālīa on historical and scientific chronology (see vi, below), probably in about 390/1000, though he made later emendations to it. He clearly came to accept the accomplished fact of the definitive passing of the Afrighids and made his peace with the Maʾmunids, whose court in Gorgānj was becoming famed for its brilliance. He served the Ḵᵛārazmšāh Abu’l-ʿAbbās Maʾmūn b. Maʾmūn (399-407/1009-17) for seven years, according to the historian Abu’l-Fażl Bayhaqī (who utilized Bīrūnī’s history of his homeland, the Ketāb al-mosāmara fī aḵbār Ḵᵛārazm, see below, for his own Tārīḵ-e āl-e Saboktegīn), he acted as a nadīm or boon-companion and adviser to the Ḵᵛārazmšāh, being also used by the latter for delicate diplomatic missions.
A well-known anecdote of Neẓāmī ʿArūżī Samarqandī (Čahār maqāla, ed. Qazvīnī, pp. 118-19, rev. tr. E. G. Browne, London, 1921, pp. 86-97, cf. idem, Lit. Hist. Persia II, pp. 96-97) describes how Sultan Maḥmūd of Ghazna, jealous of the splendor of Maʾmūn b. Maʾmūn’s court circle, sent him an ultimatum demanding that all the leading scholars there be sent forthwith to Ghazna in order to adorn his own court. The story goes on to tell how the philosophers Ebn Sīnā and Abū Sahl ʿĪsā Masīḥī escaped to the west, the former eventually serving the Kakuyid ʿAlāʾ-al-Dawla Moḥammad in Isfahan till his death there, but Bīrūnī, the mathematician Abū Naṣr Jīlānī, and the physician Abu’l-Ḵayr Ḵammār went to Ghazna and entered Maḥmūd’s service. Bīrūnī then spent the remainder of his life, what must have been well over three decades, with the Ghaznavids Maḥmūd, Masʿūd, Mawdūd, and their successors, dying at some unknown date after 442/1050, perhaps during the sultanate of ʿAbd-al-Rašīd.
According to recent works by scholars in Tashkent, Bīrūnī died on 2 Rajab 440/11 December 1048 (Karimov, pp. 150-51; cf. Bulgakov); unfortunately, the details and the chronology of Bīrūnī’s life under the Ghaznavids are most obscure. He seems to have been generally famed as court astrologer there, and another anecdote of the Čahār maqāla (pp. 91-93, rev. tr. 65-67; cf. Browne, Lit. Hist. Persia II, pp. 97-98, which does not, however, seem credible) describes how his accurate astrological prognostications nevertheless led him into difficulties with the irascible sultan. It seems probable that Bīrūnī spent part at least of his twelve years or so under Maḥmūd in imbibing information about India, acquiring a knowledge of Sanskrit and contemporary Indian languages and of Hindu philosophy and science in those northwestern parts of India under Ghaznavid control and possibly accompanying Ghaznavid plunder raids into the northern Indian heartlands, although as Sachau pointed out (Alberuni’s India, London, 1888, repr. Delhi, 1964, preface, pp. ix, xi ff.), there is nothing to show that Bīrūnī enjoyed any sort of official patronage or favor under Maḥmūd. He did however utilize the information
gathered over these years for his major work on India, the Taḥqīq mā le’l-Hend, conventionally known in Western scholarship as his India, completed in 421/1030 just after Maḥmūd’s death (see viii, below). Shortly before this he had completed a concise work on mathematics and astronomy, the Ketāb al-tafhīm le-awāʾel ṣenāʿat al-tanjīm (see iii, below). At the opening of Sultan Masʿūd’s reign, Bīrūnī finished his al-Qānūn al-masʿūdī fi’l-hayʾa wa’l-nojumˊ on astronomy and science (421/1030). He must have been encouraged to carry on his scientific work and provided with the necessary facilities, for we have from the reign of Mawdūd b. Masʿūd (432-40/1041-1048 or 1049) his treatise on mineralogy, the Ketāb al-jamāher fī maʿrefat al-jawāher, and at the end of his life, when he states that he was over 80 (hence after 442/1050), he wrote his book on pharmacology and materia medica, the Ketāb al-ṣaydala fi’l-ṭebb (see v, below).
Bīrūnī was obviously a prolific author, who preferred to use Arabic, the scientific language of the Muslim world, for most of his works, rather than Persian, in which the creation of a technical and scientific vocabulary was only just taking rough shape during his time. In the introduction to his Ṣaydala, Bīrūnī inveighs against the use of Persian for scientific works, implying that such a usage was in fact taking place in his lifetime. One of his major works, the Tafhīm, exists in both Arabic and Persian versions, and it is unclear which came first. However, it was more common at this period to translate from Arabic into Persian than vice-versa, and G. Lazard is inclined to treat the Persian version as a very early translation of an Arabic original, whether made by Bīrūnī himself or not being unclear (La langue des plus anciens monuments de la prose persane, Paris, 1963, pp. 58-62).
In the bibliography of Rāzī’s works, Resāla fī fehrest Moḥammad ebn Zakarīyāʾ al-Rāzī, which Bīrūnī composed in 427/1036, Bīrūnī also inserted a fehrest of his own works to that date, computing them at 103 completed and 10 unfinished ones (in which last group were placed the al-Āṯār al-bāqīa and al-Qānūn al-masʿūdī). His total works amount, according to Boilot, to 180, ranging from large-scale treatises covering great expanses of knowledge to brief epistles on specific topics. Boilot has listed these in his “L’œuvre d’al-Bērūnī. Essai bibliographique,” in Mélanges de l’Institut dominicain d’études orientales du Caire 2, 1955, pp. 161-256, 3, 1956, pp. 391-96, following the earlier attempt of H. Suter, E. Wiedemann, and O. Rescher in “Beiträge zur Geschichte der Naturwissenschaften. LX. Ueber al Bîrûnî and seine Schriften,” Sb. der Physikalisch-Medizinischen Sozietät zu Erlangen 52-53, 1920-21, pp. 55-96.
For the early stages of Bīrūnī’s life and career see C. E. Bosworth, “The Khwārazmian Historical Background to Bīrūnī’s Life,” The Commemoration Volume of Biruni International Congress Tehran B: English and French Papers, Tehran, 1356 Š./1976, pp. 11-27.
The main primary sources are the biographies of Bīrūnī in ʿAlī b. Zayd Bayhaqī’s Tatemmat ṣewān al-ḥekma, ed. M. Šafīʿ, Lahore, 1935, pp. 62-64; Yāqūt, Eršād al-arīb VI, pp. 308-14; and Ebn Abī Oṣaybeʿa, ʿOyūn al-anbāʾ, ed. A. Müller, Königsberg, 1884, II, pp. 20-21.
The secondary literature on Bīrūnī is extensive. Standard works include Suter, Mathematiker, pp. 98-100; G. Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Baltimore, 1927, I, pp. 707-09; Brockelmann, GAL I2, pp. 626-27, Suppl. I, pp. 870-75; Sezgin, GAS III, index, V, pp. 375-83; E. S. Kennedy, “Al-Bīrūnī . . . , Abū Rayḥāṇ . . . Muḥammad b. Aḥmad,” in Dictionary of Scientific Biography, New York, 1970, II, pp. 148-58; İA II, pp. 635-47.
D. J. Boilot, “al-Bīrūnī,” in EI2, contains a detailed bibliography of secondary works. It is supplemented by the special sections on Bīrūnī in Pearson, Index Islamicus and its quinquennial supplements under philosophy and science: individual scientists and philosophers. Recent works of bibliographical interest include Ṣalāḥ-al-Dīn Monajjed, “Molāḥaẓāt ʿalā ṭabaʿāt moʾallafāt al-Bīrūnī,” in The Commemorative Volume of Biruni International Congress . . . A: Persian and Arabic Papers; A. S. Khan, A Bibliography of the Works of Abu’l-Rayḥān Bīrūnī (in Urdu), New Delhi, 1982 (Pers. tr. ʿA. Ḥabībī, Ketāb-šenāsī-e Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973); M. Mīnovī, “Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī,” in Barrasīhā-ī dar bāra-ye Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī be monāsabat-e hazāra-ye welādat-e ū, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973; S. Ḥ. Naṣr, Ketāb-šenāsī-e tawṣīfī-e Abū Rayḥān Bīrūnī, Eng. title, Al-Bīrūnī. An Annotated Bibliography, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973.
For question of dating, see P. Bulgakov, Life and Works of Bīrūnī, Tashkent, 1972; U. Karimov, tr., Ṣaydana, Tashkent, 1973.
(C. Edmund Bosworth)
Last Updated: February 1, 2010
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