People should be more aware of Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, the great scientist from Khwarezm (south of the Aral Sea) who accompanied Mahmud of Ghazni on his conquest of India in the 1020s and wrote a comprehensive account of that country. “Biruni’s works cover essentially the whole of science at his time. Kennedy writes:”

… his bent was strongly towards the study of observable phenomena, in nature and in man. Within the sciences themselves he was attracted by those fields then susceptible of mathematical analysis.

But what is of immediate interest here is his linguistic accomplishment. Not only did he write many, many books in Arabic and Persian (neither of which was his native language), but on the trip to India he learned Sanskrit, not only translating sacred Hindu books into Arabic but translating Euclid’s Elements and some of his own works into Sanskrit! Now, that’s impressive.

I got onto the subject through this remarkable entry at Odd Things in Pitt’s Libraries:

The Exhaustive Treatise on Shadows by Abu al-Rayhân Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Bîrûnî: Translation & Commentary by E.S. Kennedy, published by the Institute for the History of Arabic Science, University of Aleppo (Syria), 1976.

from the preface: “Copy for photo-offset printing was turned out in Beirut simultaneously with the development of the Lebanese civil war. The concomitant difficulties provide a blanket excuse to cover the manifold shortcomings of the result (the bizarre format of this page, for example). Moreover, the milieu in some ways appropriately resembled that of the wars of Sultân Mahmud, and the vicissitudes under which al-Bîrûnî (973?-1048) brought forth the original of this work.”

Fourth floor, Hillman


  1. Thanks for the link. I confess that I’d never heard of Al-Biruni before finding that book.
    I wonder if it’s the only book published in Beirut in 1976 in Pitt’s library system.
    To anyone going to the link…scroll down to the book about lead. It’s the best, by which I mean longest, of the OTIPL entries.

  2. Khorezm was the homeland of another prominent Central Asian scientist and mathematician, Abu Abdullah (or Abu Djafar) Mohammed ibn Musah, known as al-Khorezmi. His “nickname” survives in English as the word “algorithm.”

  3. So is there a “Portable Al-Biruni” one should start with, or perhaps a “Marauding with Mahmud” travelogue? An 11th-century treatise on shadows probably wouldn’t grab me, but a book containing his impressions of India very well might.

  4. I’ve actually got a portable al-Biruni, a nice little pocket edition, but it’s in German (I picked it up at a library sale). In English, there are:
    India by al-Biruni
    Alberuni’s India (expensive)
    Chronology of Ancient Nations (out of print but available, along with other books of his, here)

  5. A more eccentric option would be Al-Biruni’s Arabic Version of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (or in an older translation here.

  6. David Marjanović says

    the Aral Sea

    Ah, those were the times…

  7. The Aral Desert.

  8. David Marjanović says

    Qızılqum, Qaraqum, Aralqum, as predicted 30 years ago.

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