al-Biruni, Abu Rayhan Muhammad


al-Biruni, Abu Rayhan Muhammad
(362–440/973–1048)
   One of the greatest and most original scientists in the Islamic tradition, the Persian-born al-Biruni made vital and lasting contributions to the fields of astronomy, mathematics, geodesy, geography, mineralogy, pharmacology, history and chronology. He is accordingly known as ‘the Master’ (al-ustadh). His seminal study, The Book Confirming What Pertains to India, Whether Rational or Despicable (Kitab fi tahqiq ma li al-hind), written while accompanying the Ghaznawid sultan Mahmud during his military conquest of India, is considered by many to be the first great work of comparative religion and philosophy. It offers a serious, charitable examination of key religious and philosophical doctrines in classical Indian thought (including Samkhya, Yoga and Vedanta), set in dialogue with Greek and Islamic insights. Many of al- Biruni’s philosophical ideas are woven throughout his scientific works. His chief extant philosophical text is Questions and Answers (As’ila wa al-ajwiba), a record of his correspondence with Ibn Sina, which offers a powerful, multi-pronged critique of Aristotelian natural philosophy. Although al-Biruni’s metaphysical commitments sometimes align with the Islamic theologians in surprising ways (e.g. he rejects the eternity of the world in favor of its originatedness and opts for kalam atomism over Aristotelian hylomorphism), his natural philosophy is rooted primarily in his own scientific observations and inductions. This can be seen in his exchange with Ibn Sina about Aristotle’s inadequate model of the heavens, his dynamic, developmental model of the natural world (in which the possibilities inherent in the nature of things unfold gradually, becoming actualized) and his philosophy of history (which, based on geological evidence, inferred tremendous cataclysms in the past and posited a cyclical model of history, in which civilizations become increasingly corrupt and materialistic, until they are destroyed by a natural disaster and then renewed by a divinely sent prophet). Al-Biruni’s qualified admiration of his predecessor, the unpopular freethinker Abu Bakr al- Razi, is thus not entirely surprising, since despite their sharply differing opinions regarding religion, they shared a deep respect for empirical observation.
   See creation vs. eternity of the world; Ibn Sina; al-Razi, Abu Bakr; science
   Further reading: al-Biruni 2003–5; Nasr 1964/93; Nasr with Aminrazavi 1999

Islamic Philosophy. . 2007.

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