Epistemic Reflections on Acquiring and Understanding the Legacy of Al-Biruni

The communication delves into the epistemic understanding of Al-Biruni's legacy, highlighting misconceptions about him. It emphasizes the influence of history, religion, and politics on narratives and advocates for an impartial study, urging a broader perspective on Al-Biruni.
Published in Philosophy & Religion
Epistemic Reflections on Acquiring and Understanding the Legacy of Al-Biruni

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I extend my apologies in advance for the extended comments and any potential shortcomings. Now, the initial inquiry is as follows: Does one believe that numerous scholars in the field of human sciences, encompassing history, religion, and geography, may have been dissuaded from pursuing a study on Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni due to the misconception that he was solely a scientist focused on numbers and celestial phenomena?

Initially, it’s essential to acknowledge that History falls within the field of Humanities. It’s noteworthy to recognize that historical narratives, often shaped by the perspective of the historian, are subject to various influencing factors. These may encompass elements such as the prevailing political climate, external pressures, or the dominant religious beliefs of the historian [or writer]. The language employed by a writer or historian can significantly impact the tone, commentary, or opinions presented in Historical Texts.

For instance, in Central Asia, various historians portrayed Amir Timur (Temurlane, 1336-1405) differently. Syrian historians labeled him as a “disbeliever” [kafir], citing examples from a particular war scenes of Amir Timur in Syria, etc. Conversely, Central Asian historians depicted Amir Timur as following the Quran, faithful to Islamic tradition [Sunni: Hanafi], and a “Just Ruler”. They supported this view by highlighting Amir Timur’s agreement with his contemporaries and his profound respect for Islamic scholars [‘ulama`].

So, I think, writers and/or historians should be well-acquainted, as their nature influences the conclusions drawn while writing a source. Historians with strong scientific credentials can provide reliable scientific conclusions, while those lacking scientific rigor may base their reports on unverified information, making their conclusions non-scientific.

Therefore, when reading a historical book or information, it is crucial to get to know the author first and foremost. It has been proven many times that European “Orientalists” often provided erroneous interpretations of Islamic scholars. To illustrate, consider the simile: “a jackal cannot become a peacock because it is painted in different colors, but it can still be recognized by its sound as a jackal.

Similarly, just as diverse interpretations exist about Amir Timur, one can find varying sources and texts about Great Scholar – Venerable Abu Rayhan Al-Biruni. For instance, even today, some “doctor of sciences” among post-Soviet Republics in Central Asia claim to be historians or writers, asserting that Venerable Al-Biruni was not a Muslim [?!]. As proof, last century’s “Orientalists” or today’s Google translation of Al-Biruni’s poem[s] into modern language are cited, commenting in the following tone: like Al-Biruni said in his poem that he is not a Muslim: He used name of Abu Lahab,[1] the polytheist [mushrik] uncle of Prophet Muhammad peace be upon him, as a metaphor to describe himself, so Al-Biruni is a disbeliever.

In reality, in that poem, Al-Biruni criticizes his own ego [Nafs] and using a metaphorical sense to avoid pride from various praises. Essentially, because people praised Al-Biruni, he conveyed in his poem [i.e., mentioned Abu Lahab’s name] saying like Dont praise me; I have such a bad ego, worse than Abu Lahab. Therefore, there exists a method of blaming in poetry where certain negative examples are used for similes and easy explanations [to others].

What I want to emphasize is that Venerable Al-Biruni was, indeed, an Encyclopedic Scholar [‘allama al-Qomusi] and Great Thinker. He achieved a great scholarly level not only in various sciences but also in Islamic Knowledge [Shariah]. To understand this, one can go into his early childhood and read his original books thoroughly. Al-Biruni, like other encyclopedic scholars [mostly from Central Asian region or Persian region], initially memorized the Holy Quran from a young age [mostly under 7 years old], gained a deep understanding of Islamic knowledge [Shariah], and eventually became a prominent scholar in various other sciences.

If we explore the histories of renowned Muslim scholars, we find a common pattern where they first master the complete memorization of the Holy Quran. After attaining proficiency in Islamic knowledge, they then delve into other fields of study. This suggests a metaphysical understanding that memorizing the Quran can serve as a key to unlocking knowledge in various sciences from a religious perspective. While this belief is personal [of mine], shared among Muslims, it remains a matter of individual opinion for those who may not share this belief.

The belief held is that memorizing the Quran bestows mental, spiritual, and physical grace and strength, providing a person with a certain “height”. However, one might question why individuals who have memorized the entire Quran are not as famous as Al-Biruni. The answer lies in the fact that unique abilities, a specific environment, mentors, PURPOSE, and other factors are essential for individuals to acquire knowledge and apply it effectively in practice. This journey toward wisdom requires deep love [muhabbat] and commitment to the pursuit of knowledge [‘ilm].

In this place, let me share some other opinions [of mine]. Throughout history, it’s evident that all peoples engage in philosophy to varying degrees. Those who don’t consciously philosophize often adopt the philosophies of others, knowingly or unknowingly.

Regrettably, philosophy, once an esteemed servant of theology, is now struggling to serve itself. Most religions no longer produce exemplary thinkers who can robustly defend their beliefs using time-tested philosophical tools. Consequently, many religious individuals no longer seek answers to fundamental questions about our world. At best, religion is seen as a form of “blind faith”, and at worst, it can lead to fanaticism, fostering hostility and even violence toward those outside one’s faith.

The revival of philosophy, particularly metaphysics, is crucial for rebuilding a genuine civilization rooted in true faith and concern for the common good, supported by reason.

Venerable Scholar Al-Biruni and scholars like him were Excellent Scholars in religious knowledge [Theology and Shariah]. Theology, seen as the only universal knowledge among religious sciences, encompasses separate fields like law [Canon], jurisprudence [Fiqh or School of Thought], Prophetic tradition [Sunnah], and interpretation [Tafsir]. The theologian contemplates the most general aspects of existence, laying the foundations for other religious sciences, including the Quran, Sunnah, and the truthfulness [pious believer] of the Messenger of God – Muhammad peace be upon him. Al-Biruni and similar scholars considered divine knowledge the highest form, believing that all other characteristics derive from it [this perspective aligns with the beliefs of Muslims].

Al-Biruni was, in fact, a metaphysical scientist, achieving success by approaching other sciences on this basis. Similarly, figures like Aristotle were metaphysicians. It’s worth noting that metaphysics traditionally followed the mastery of qualitative arts like grammar, logic, and rhetoric, as well as quantitative sciences like arithmetic, geometry, harmony, and astronomy—known as the Trivium and Quadrivium in the Latin West. Proficiency in these arts liberated the mind from erroneous thinking, preparing scholars for advanced fields like theology, law, and medicine. In both Muslim and Christian worlds, theology, with metaphysics at its core, held a prominent place as the grandest of sciences, studying beings from the formality of their existence and making metaphysics the most universal science.

As a result, No being or mode of being exists outside of the right causes and principles of metaphysics”. So, if we come back to Al-Biruni, then he was first of all a Muslim scholar, as I mentioned above. If we remember history, Philosophy has been a significant part of Islamic civilization since the first century of Islam. Muslims encountered peripatetic schools in North-Eastern Africa, and Persia, leading to early creedal disputes over the “logos” [a divine word or ‘kalimah’] with Christians. The Muslim intellectual tradition was greatly influenced by converts with prior philosophical training and Christian Arabs translating works of Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus into Arabic. Muslim scholars, eager for new knowledge, enjoyed these challenging ideas. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics became the basis for the religion’s ethical inquiry, while remaining rooted in Quranic and Prophetic teachings. The writings of Muslim scholars increasingly reflected the influence of Hellenistic rigor, which was viewed as a dangerous foreign innovation by traditionalists. However, the rapid dissemination of Greek thought among Muslims, especially after certain caliphs succumbed to philosophical appeal, accelerated the spread of Greek thought. In the early period of Islam's rapid spread, philosophy and metaphysics became subjects of great conversations among Muslim scholars, with Persian polymath Al-Biruni and/or Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna) being the most influential in introducing Hellenistic thought into the Muslim world.

So the [above] question was, do you believe that many scholars in the humanities were deterred from studying Al-Biruni because they were convinced that he was a scientist devoted only to numbers and stars? My answer is this again [additionally]: I expanded on the comments above to emphasize that Al-Biruni was, indeed, a Muslim scholar. To correctly explain or interpret his teachings and scientific knowledge, one needs to understand and recognize Islamic truths.

As previously noted, contemporary assertions challenge Al-Biruni’s Muslim identity. The reason behind such claims lies in the fact that those making these statements often do not identify as Muslims or hold a negative bias towards Islam and its traditions. It’s noteworthy that some individuals who outwardly profess to be Muslim may have been influenced by Orientalist narratives, purported discoveries, or even swayed by atheistic perspectives. In essence, it is my personal belief that there may be a disconnect or influence leading them to question Al-Biruni's Islamic affiliation. And so, I believe they may be influenced by atheistic or other beliefs.

To understand Al-Biruni accurately, I suggest that researchers approach the subject with SINCERITY and have a thorough knowledge of the Arabic language.

This is crucial because Al-Biruni primarily wrote in Arabic. Researchers should then consult at least two renowned Pious Sunni Muslim scholars for their insights on Al-Biruni. Why Pious Sunni Muslim scholars? Because Al-Biruni was a pious Sunni Muslim scholar. Just as you would consult an original English philologist for a perfect academic text in English, seeking the perspective of a Muslim Scholar about Al-Biruni is essential. Was Al-Biruni a great scientist? Therefore, pious Sunni Muslim scholars can provide the most accurate information about him, or it would be appropriate for them to do so.

A further question that emerges is as follows: Do you hold the belief that a contemporary, systematic exploration of these facets of Biruni has the potential to reshape the perception of the author, portraying him as a figure of universal knowledge with a more humanistic orientation rather than being confined solely to his role as a mathematician, or is Biruni predestined to be perceived primarily as a scientist within the scientific domain?

The answer to this lies in recognizing that Al-Biruni, as mentioned earlier, was an encyclopedic scholar. I believe it is incorrect to pigeonhole him into any specific field of study. While it might seem unusual to attribute a humanist image to a scholar, I believe that to properly assess his contributions, one must acknowledge his vast scientific breadth. As for the second part of the question, Will Al-Biruni's fate remain a scientist in the field of science? — this question is flawed [I think]. Al-Biruni’s comprehensive scholarship transcends many singular disciplines [I believe]. Rather, the pertinent question is whether his scientific legacy can be integrated or applied to contemporary fields of study.

So, apologies if this is repetitive, as a Muslim, I affirm that Al-Biruni was a Muslim scholar [May Allah be pleased with him], and his scientific pursuits were aligned with the Purposes of Islam… [you can read either these books: Being Muslim: A Practical Guide[2] or The Jurisprudence of Reality – Fiqh Al-Waqi’[3]].

Studying Al-Biruni’s scientific heritage is relevant for any specialist aiming to utilize and apply it in their respective fields to address modern trends, problems, or theories. For instance, if you’re a historian [not specifically you, I meant any one], Al-Biruni’s historical works offer invaluable insights [e.g., “The Remaining Signs of Past Centuries - Kitab al-Athar al-baqiyah”]. You can seek solutions to contemporary issues within your field by drawing from his scientific legacy. Hence, I do believe that discussing “the fate of Al-Biruni” is not an appropriate characterization.

Usually, nations today may attempt to claim ancient geniuses or famous individuals as their heroes by emphasizing their geographical connection, making that genius “their own”. For example, [Venerable Shaykh] Ibn Sina’s [Avicenna] birthplace is now ‘located’ in the Republic of Tajikistan [established in 1924 by USSR]. The Tajik nation refers to Ibn Sino as “theirs”, while the Uzbeks may consider him as “their scholar” and so forth. Similarly, if certain sciences within [Venerable Shaykh] Al-Biruni’s scientific heritage offer knowledge applicable today, it doesn’t negate the fact that Al-Biruni was a scientist in certain fields [only]. Therefore, it is not accurate to assert that Al-Biruni’s destiny is limited to being a scientist in a specific field.

As mentioned earlier, some scholars in the Humanities, such as history, religion, and geography, have refrained from studying Al-Biruni because they believed he was exclusively focused on numbers and stars. If scholars in these fields choose not to study Al-Biruni based on the perception of him as a scientist solely devoted to numbers and stars, it remains their personal choice [or their ‘problem’].

My final thoughts are that when we explore the scientific heritage of Muslim encyclopedic scholars, impartiality is crucial as we incorporate segments of their knowledge into our research. It is advisable to thoroughly understand the scholar in question.

If one is seeking insights from the scientific legacy of scholars from the Islamic Renaissance (Golden Age) pertaining to a specific modern discipline, I recommend initiating the exploration with the study of History. A comprehensive understanding of these scholars is crucial, and I particularly advocate delving into the works of [Venerable Shaykh] Imam Ghazali (QS). [4] This foundational knowledge will significantly facilitate the application of the scientific heritage of Islamic scholars across diverse fields.

For those proficient in Arabic, consulting the original sources is advisable, accompanied by the prerequisite of seeking guidance from a renowned and pious Sunni scholar. In the event that the information is available in another language, I encourage familiarity with the works of [Venerable Shaykh] Imam Ghazali (QS) through English. [5] In such cases, it proves beneficial to explore the scholarly contributions of a reputable English-language scholar, such as the Venerable Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (May God bless him), [6] or to directly engage with the Shaykh physically, perhaps by visiting him [after getting permission and appointment at Zaytuna College, California, Berkeley, US]. [7]


[1] Abd al-Uzza ibn Abd al-Muttalib, c., 549–624 CE, was Prophet Muhammad's [peace be upon him] half paternal uncle. He was one of the Meccan Qurayshi leaders who opposed The Prophet and was condemned in “Surah Al-Masad [Quran, 111]”.

[2] https://store.almaqasid.org/products/being-muslim

[3] The Jurisprudence of Reality (Fiqh Al-Wāqiʿ) in Contemporary Islamic Thought: A Comparative Study of the Discourse of Yūsuf Al-Qaraḍāwī (D. 2022), Nāṣir Al-ʿumar (B.1952), And Abdullah Bin Bayyah (B.1935).

[4] https://youtu.be/PoRRoqVXeGw?si=0NSBzQpXJmZwoRmC

[5] https://deenstream.vhx.tv/the-book-of-knowledge-shaykh-hamza-yusuf

[6] https://zaytuna.edu/faculty-details/Hamza-Yusuf

[7] https://zaytuna.edu/contact

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