BĪRŪNĪ, ABŪ RAYḤĀN
viii. History of Religions
Bīrūnī is one of the most important Muslim authorities on the history of religion. In this article some of his remarks on pre-Islamic Iranian religions, on Christianity and Judaism, and on Muslim sects will be discussed (for Indian religions, see viii, below).
There is some uncertainty about Bīrūnī’s own religious position within Islam. In Ketāb al-āṯār al-bāqīa ʿan al-qorūn al-ḵālīa (Book of vestiges from past centuries), which belongs to the first period of his scholarly career, many passages reveal profound sympathy for Shiʿism. Aside from repeated conventional blessings on ʿAlī and on the family of the Prophet in general, this sympathy is especially apparent in his accounts of the celebrations of ʿāšūrāʾ and ḡadīr ḵomm (Āṯār, pp. 329, 334; the latter section is truncated in the printed edition). In another passage (p. 67) Bīrūnī invokes the protection of God specifically for the Zaydī Shiʿites, though his disparaging remarks about Nāṣer ʿOtrūš (p. 224) show that he did not support this claimant to the Zaydī imamate. In his account of Muslim chronology (Garbers, pp. 59-68), however, Bīrūnī counts as “caliphs” Abū Bakr, ʿOmar, ʿOṯmān, ʿAlī, and Ḥasan; the Omayyads are designated only as “kings,” the ʿAbbasids as “imams.” These designations are in clear contradiction to the Shiʿite insistence that the caliphate/imamate belonged exclusively to ʿAlī and his descendants. It appears that Bīrūnī, like quite a few other scholars of the 4th/10th century, combined an intense attachment to ʿAlī and the ahl al-bayt (members and descendants of Moḥammad’s own family) with recognition of the first three caliphs and, in part, of the ʿAbbasids as well, this attitude was particularly clear among some of the Muʿtazilites of the period, for example, Ebn ʿAbbād. In Bīrūnī’s later works, written after his forced removal to Ḡazna (408/1017; see i, above), Shiʿite sympathies are less apparent, which is not surprising in view of the strict Sunnism of the Ghaznavid rulers. For example, the full account of Muslim observances given in Āṯār (pp. 328-35, supplemented by Fück, text VI) can be compared with the abridged version in al-Qānūn al-masʿūdī fi’l-hayʾa wa’l-nojūm (Masʿūdic canon on astronomy; I, pp. 255-57). Nonetheless, Bīrūnī continues to speak of the family of the Prophet with the greatest respect and to present the Shiʿite and Sunnite positions fairly side by side. In a discussion of Muslim prayer times (Ẓelāl, p. 162), for example, he quotes in succession the opinions of ʿOmar and of Jaʿfar al-Ṣādeq. He also defends the Muʿtazilites against a slanderous misrepresentation of their doctrines (Hend, p. 3). In a curious passage in the Ketāb al-jamāher fī maʿrefat al-jawāher (Book of the sum of knowledge about precious stones, p. 215) he mentions that the Shiʿites used white stones in their signet rings, the Sunnites black ones. “For my part,” Bīrūnī continues, “I used to combine the two stones in a double ring as a way of outwitting both factions.” This passage certainly reflects the author’s distaste for factional squabbling; it is also possible, however, that here Bīrūnī is feigning sectarian indifference in order to disarm criticism of the impassioned pro-Shiʿite writings of his youth.
Bīrūnī’s approach to other religions must be viewed against the background of his own Muslim convictions. He displays remarkable fairness and open-mindedness toward other faiths without, however, any trace of syncretism or religious relativism. He is as unequivocal in rejecting beliefs unacceptable to Muslims as he is in condemning unfair criticism of other faiths. A typical example is his assessment of reports by Muslim authors about a celebration during which the Nestorian Christians supposedly engage in promiscuous orgies: He rejects them as “defamations.” “May god protect us,” he continues, “from slandering anyone, whether friend or foe, and especially the sect of the Christians. For, although their doctrines are bad, their way of life is the highest pinnacle of chastity and integrity and kindliness toward everyone” (Tafhīm, p. 179; see also de Blois, 1984, pp. 85-86). (The Persian translator of Tafhīm, ed. Homāʾī, p. 251, has misread tajrīḥāt ʿalayhem, “defamations of them,” as taḵrījāt ʿalayhem and has translated it as bar īšān bīrūn āmadand, which makes no sense in the context; contrary to what has often been claimed, it is thus clear that the Persian version of Tafhīm cannot be the work of Bīrūnī himself.)
Bīrūnī’s works contain frequent references to Zoroastrianism. Much of his information on this subject, as on Persian secular history and chronology, was derived from the writings of Ḥamza Eṣfahānī, whom Bīrūnī often cites by name; much, however, seems to have come from other sources as well. His account of the life of Zoroaster (Fück, pp. 75-79) is largely devoted to a discussion of the eschatological expectations that Zoroastrian and Muslim sects attached to the 1,500th anniversary of the appearance of the Iranian prophet. Particularly valuable is his detailed description of the Zoroastrian feasts (Āṯār, pp. 215-33; Fück, text IV; Khalidov, texts II and III), which contains much information on Zoroastrian beliefs, as well as on popular Persian superstitions of the author’s own day. On the other hand, his accounts of the celebrations of the Sogdians (Āṯār, pp. 233-35) and of his own compatriots, the Khwarezmians (pp. 235-38), contribute little to our knowledge of their religions. Bīrūnī himself notes (p. 235) that the Khwarezmian Zoroastrians of his day were few in number and largely ignorant of their own religious principles.
Although Bīrūnī has no sympathy for the doctrines of the Manicheans, he displays an astonishing degree of interest in the writings of Mānī. He quotes verbatim an important passage from Mānī’s Šābuhragān (Āṯār, p. 207), which strongly resembles that in Turfan fragment M 5794 (cf. Boyce, p. 29). He uses the same book to correct the chronology of the Arsacid kings (p. 118), going out of his way to emphasize Mānī’s reliability: “Mānī is one of those who teach that the telling of lies is forbidden; besides he had no need to falsify history.” In another passage (Fehrest, pp. 3-4) Bīrūnī reports that he had looked for Mānīs’ Book of Mysteries for more than forty years before discovering it in Ḵᵛārazm.
Bīrūnī is familiar with the names of Bar Dayṣān and Marcion but has little of substance to say about them (Āṯār, p. 207). He also gives a brief account of Mazdak (p. 209; Fück, pp. 79-80).
Bīrūnī evidently had Arabic translations of the Old and New Testaments, as well as of other Jewish and Christian writings, at his disposal. He devotes much space in Āṯār to a description and critique of the Jewish calendar, concerning which he is apparently the oldest surviving source of any substance. In his description of the celebrations of the Melkite (Greek Orthodox) Christians (pp. 288-302) he gives valuable bits of information about the Christians of eastern Iran, apparently supplied by Christian informants. After a briefer account of the holy days of the Nestorians (pp. 309-15) he apologizes for not also informing his readers about the rites of the Jacobites, which he omits because “we have not succeeded in finding anyone who belonged to their sect or knew their principles” (p. 315). Bīrūnī dismisses unreliable reports on Christian beliefs with the observation that “there is nothing of this in the Gospel” (p. 301), yet in another passage he himself erroneously attributes a curious version of the story of Jacob and Esau to “the Torah” (Khalidov, p. 156). As a Muslim Bīrūnī cannot accept the Christian concept of the Trinity, yet, in a remarkable passage (Hend, p. 18), he goes a long way toward exonerating the Christians by showing, through various biblical quotations, that the Jewish and Christian scriptures use the words “father” and “son” in a metaphorical, as well as a literal, sense.
The open-mindedness which the author displays in his treatment of non-Muslim religions is less apparent when he turns to Muslim “heresies.” His principal contribution to Muslim heresiography was evidently the lost early work, Aḵbār al-mobayyeża wa’l-qarāmeṭa (History of the Mobayyeża and the Qarmatians), to which he refers in Āṯār, in his rather lurid accounts of Moqannaʿ (p. 211) and the “Qarmatians” of Bahrain (pp. 213-14). This work, which was clearly of a polemical nature, seems to have been used, or rather plagiarized, by Baḡdādī in his book al-Farq bayn al-feraq (cf. Madelung, p. 79 n. 2). In Āṯār Bīrūnī also gives brief and rather unsubstantial accounts of Mosaylema (pp. 209-10), Beh-Āfarīd (pp. 210-11), Ḥallāj (pp. 211-12), and Moḥammad Šalmaḡānī (Fück, pp. 80-81).
Whereas in Āṯār the author’s approach to religious history is essentially descriptive, in his late work, Ketāb taḥqīq mā le’l-Hend men maqūla maqbūla fi’l-ʿaql aw marḏūla (Book of detailed description of the doctrines of the Indians, whether rationally acceptable or unacceptable), he makes a number of excursions into the field of comparative religion. In several passages (e.g., pp. 4, 16, 43) the author compares the beliefs of the Hindus with those of the Greek philosophers and the Muslim Sufis. As he does not show any particular sympathy for Sufism, it is likely that these comparisons are intended to cast doubt on its orthodoxy. Elsewhere (pp. 23, 27) he draws attention to parallels between Indian and Manichean teachings and concludes that Mānī borrowed his beliefs—notably the doctrine of metempsychosis—from the Indians. In another passage (p. 82) he compares the Indian holy syllable ōm with the Muslim basmala and the ineffable name of god in Judaism. Finally, Bīrūnī correctly observes (p. 44) that the word dēv/dēva is used by Hindus to designate the “angels” (as a monotheist he is reluctant to speak of “gods”) but by the Persians to refer to “demons.” Like Masʿūdī and other Muslim authors, Bīrūnī labors under the illusion that the Iranians, before the time of Zoroaster, had followed the Buddhist religion (šamanīya, for Mid. Ind. ṣamaṇa-, Skt. śramaṇa- “ascetic”; see Hend, p. 10; cf. Āṯār, p. 204, where the pre-Zoroastrian Persians are said to have been followers of Būḏāsaf/Bodhisattva), and he thus concludes that Zoroaster changed the meaning of the word dēv in order to distance himself from the Buddhists. If the term “Buddhists” is replaced by “followers of the old Indo-Iranian religion,” however, Bīrūnī’s analysis is very close to that of modern students of Zoroastrianism.
Works by Bīrūnī: Āṯār; tr. Sachau. J. Fück, “Sechs Ergänzungen zu Sachaus Ausgabe von al-Bīrūnīs "Chronologie orientalischer Völker",” in Documenta Islamica Inedita, Berlin, 1952, pp. 69-98; K. Garbers, “Eine Ergänzung zu Sachaus Ausgabe von al-Bīrūnī’s "Chronologie orientalischer Völker",” in Documenta Islamica Inedita, Berlin, 1952, pp. 45-68; A. B. Khalidov, “Dopolneniya k tekstu "Khronologii" al-Bīrūnī po Leningradskoĭ i Stambul’skoĭ rukopisyam,” Palestinskiĭ sbornik 4/67, 1959, pp. 147-71.
Resāla fī fehrest kotob Moḥammad b. Zakarīyāʾ al-Rāzī, ed. P. Kraus, Paris, 1936; tr. J. Ruska, “Al-Bīrūnī als Quelle für das Leben und die Schriften al-Rāzī’s,” Isis 5, 1922, pp. 26-50; ed. with Pers. tr. M. Moḥaqqeq, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973.
E. Sachau, ed. Ketāb taḥqīq mā le’l-Hend men maqūla maqbūla fi’l-ʿaql aw marḏūla, London, 1887; rev. ed., Hyderabad, 1958; tr. Sachau, Alberuni’s India, London, 2 vols., London, 1888-1910.
Ketāb al-jamāher fī maʿrefat at-jawāher, ed. F. Krenkow, Hyderabad, 1936.
Al-qānūn al-masʿūdī fi’l-hayʾa wa’l-nojūm, ed. S. H. Baranī, 3 vols., Hyderabad, 1954-56.
Ketāb al-tafhīm le-awāʾel ṣenāʿat al-tanjīm, ed. R. R. Wright, London, 1934 (Arabic); ed.
J. Homāʾī, Tehran, 1318 Š./1939, rev. ed., Tehran, 1353 Š./1975 (Persian).
Ketāb fī efrād al-maqāl fī amr al-ẓelāl (Rasāʾel al-Bīrūnī 2), Hyderabad, 1948.
Other: F. de Blois, “Laylat al-māšūš: Marginalia to al-Bayrūnī, Abū Nuwās and Other Authors,” Journal of Semitic Studies 29, 1984, pp. 81-96.
M. Boyce, A Reader in Manichaean Middle Persian and Parthian, Leiden, 1975.
A. Jeffery, “al-Bīrūnī’s Contribution to Comparative Religion,” in Al-Bīrūnī Commemoration Volume, Calcutta, n.d., pp. 125-60.
W. Madelung, “Fatimiden und Baḥrainqarmaṭen,” Der Islam 34, 1959, pp. 34-88.
G. Messina, “al-Biruni sugli inizi del cristianesimo a Merv,” in Al-Bīrūnī Commemoration Volume, Calcutta, n.d., pp. 221-31.
(François de Blois)
(François de Blois)
Originally Published: January 1, 2000
Last Updated: January 1, 2000
This article is available in print.
Vol. IV, Fasc. 3, pp. 283-285