How Biruni find and describe India

In the name of God, the munificent, compassionate and merciful

The question of this paper is:

How the Persian scholar and scientist, Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Biruni, who was born in 973 EC in the Khiva (now modern Uzbekistan) and died in 1048 in Ghazna (now modern Afghanistan), find and describes India during his staying there and research about?


Thanks to God who offer humanity some great men who cost their priceless life to finding truth in this world. Before writing this article that obliges me to read about Biruni, if somebody asks me, who was Abu Rayhan Biruni (or as English writers know him as Alberuni)? When I hear his name, I have just remember the story that we had read in Persian literature book (primary school); when the man who was on his last legs time (1048 CE), faced with a meeting with one of his scientist friend who came to visit him at that situation; and the old sick man ask him a scientific question as usual; but he face with this answer that, in this disaster time is it suitable to speak such a matters?! And the patient replied, is it good to know and then die; or dying unaware and ignorant?!! Yes this was the last moment of a great scholar man who spent all his life for caching knowledge. Biruni was a unique person in this regard.

Biruni as Persian Muslim researcher studied Hindu’s thought, life and community, by presenting in their territories and by taking direct accesses to Hindu Intellectuals, books and customs. In this position Biruni ’s work is unique. So with having this character, Biruni’ s book after about ten centuries stay as a first hand source book for Indologist and as reliable source is referencing by researchers.             

 Apart from military aspects or politic affairs, Sultan Mahmud Ghazni (971 -1030 CE) movement to expansion his territories in subcontinent area can be considered as turning point in the history of Iranian scientist’s direct relation with this people and sciences. It was a pretty good custom among Ghaznavid empires and other Eastern Iranian Muslim kingdom dynasties at that time, which had an eye to science families and so they invite well known Intellectuals, scientists, poets, historian and literatures… to their courts. The tradition that was not practical in some Arabic Muslim sultanate like: “the court of the Khalif of the house of Omayyad on Damascus does not seem to have been a home for literature. Except for the practical necessities, they had no desire for the civilization of Greece, Egypt, or Persia, their thoughts being engrossed by war and politics and the amassing of wealth.”[Page xxvii] sultan Mahmud was especial case in this regards even by force, he bring them to his court; and about Biruni also some evidence show that he was as prisoner of Mahmud when he brought him to Ghazna from Khwarizm; and latter on in 1022 CE to north of India during Mahmud’s attack there. So as it is clear when Mahmud was going to capture India, invite variety of these kinds of people to accompany him in his war; Biruni was one of them, that Biruni used this opportunity to study about India to name himself as one of the first Indologist and he wrote a book that nowadays considers as first Indologist book in the world. Although maybe Biruni forced to accompany Mahmud but Biruni relation with other sultans from other kingdom dynasties, before coming to Mahmud court is a fact and his another book “الاثار الباقیه عن القرون الخالیه” that is writing before this India tripe, is offered to Shams-ul-Maalli the Ziyarid dynasty’s sultan… so he has no problem to work with kings internally. But on the other hand staying with royal family also brings some limit for scientists. His numerous books are more than 100 and he worked on Astronomy, Mathematic, Geography, optic, religion, philosophy…  

Accompanying with the Mahmud in this wars, give 13 years opportunity (1017-1030 CE) to Biruni to learn Sanskrit (the holy and scientific language of Indian Hindus) and later on having direct contact with Hindu prominent as well as other people in India and finally have a research on Indian society, their life style, sciences, religion, and philosophy... The result of this effort was a 700 pages book that named تحقیق ماللهند من مقولة مقبولة فی العقل أو مرذولة (A book in research about what Hindu believe and which of them is accepted and which of them deny able, rationally and based on logic) During this era Biruni “both at Ghazna and in India, was not his own master, but had to obey a higher will; and lastly, that he was not a man in authority.”[Page XV] but the character of this book is not like other books that Biruni and other scientists offer to Sultan; Biruni in this case “spent his leisure in the study of India; and that he had no official inducement for this study, nor any hope of royal reward.”[Page Xvi] he actually takes a mirror toward Hindus sources to describe themselves (intellectuals and books) as they were “He presents a picture of Indian civilization as painted by the Hindus themselves.”[Page xxiv] Biruni references to Hindu books and their prominent people; at the same time he consider a kind of freedom and right for himself to accept or not accept something “He does not blindly accept the traditions of former ages; he wants to understand and to criticize them.”[Page xxv] he was aware of hollow space knowledge among Iranian about Indian sciences; although they were located on the just a political attached borders side by side; but Biruni reach to this point that Muslim readers "are not acquainted with the Hindu methods of astrology, and have never had an opportunity of studying an Indian book" [page xxvi]. Although the two Aryan long history brothers were very close geographically, racially and culturally, but they don’t know each other at the same time and Biruni by his unique techniques went to make a channel between the two, to solve this problem at that time. It’s a noticeable fact about Biruni work, that his works on India started during wars, so getting excellent relation with the aboriginal people who affected by an outsider’s war is more difficult than other point in time. “When Alberuni entered India; times were not favorable for opening friendly relations with native scholars.” [Page xliii]

Biruni also had felt a kind of threat from hardliners in his Muslim front and the Hindus; so he describes his goal to bringing Hindu thought in his 80 chaptered book, which covers most of Hindu area under discussion, as follow: “I have written this book on the doctrines of the Hindus, never making any unfounded imputations against those, our religious antagonists, and at the same time not considering it inconsistent with my duties as a Muslim to quote their own words at full length when I thought they would contribute to elucidate a subject. If the contents of these quotations happen to be utterly heathenish, and the followers of the truth, i.e. the Muslims, find them objectionable, we can only say that such is the belief of the Hindus, and that they themselves are best qualified to defend it. My book is nothing but a simple historic record of facts. I shall place before the reader the theories of the Hindus exactly as they are, in order to show the relationship existing between them.”[Page 7]

He used subjective observation as method in science, the way that later on is used by European scholar as their scientific method. In this method scientific observation is the main rule. And as neutral observer collect the data. His studies were a comparative study between Iranian, Indian, Arab and Greeks or in some case Muslim, Christian, Jews and now Hindus; so he was aware of scientific theories among them.

It seems that when Mahmud’s warrior blindly fighting with their enemies, and they were not well enough aware to their cultural and religion characters of their enemies; at the same time, Biruni try the best to light on opponent’s thought for them, he bring the knowledge on surface that was covered to the warriors; about the similarity in God’s conception and difference in lifestyle.    

Abu Rayhan in his book speaks of a kind of misunderstanding and arrogance among Hindus as he mention that was one of the reasons that Hindu religion was more unknown than others in the world at that time said: “We can only say, folly is an illness for which there is no medicine, and the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no kings like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self-conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course. from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khorasan and Persis, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar. If they travelled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is.”[Page 22-23]; and maybe because of these nature a kind of absentness of them is visible in the rest of their territories borders like Iran or Arabia during Islamic time for instance. And if some other nation’s scholar like Biruni didn’t went there, the information about them was much less than now and if colonizer didn’t work on Hindu ancient thought even they himself was not be well aware of their Hindu notable legacy.

Biruni describe Hindu feeling of self inferiority against Greeks like this: “One of their scholars, Varahamihira, in a passage where he calls on the people to honors the Brahmans, says: "the Greeks, though impure, must be honored, since they were trained in sciences, and therein do extremely well others. What, then, are we to say of a Brahman, if he combines with his purity the height of science?" In former times, the Hindus used to acknowledge that the progress of science due to the Greeks is much more important than that which is due to themselves. But from this passage of Varahamihira alone you see what a self-lauding man he is, whilst he gives himself airs as doing justice to others.”[Page 23] Bruin’s closed method to collecting scientific data was in this way that at first he was as neutral pupil in the Hindu class (books and scholars) and when he became strong then started to have discussion on the scientific matters latter on; Biruni describes this situation like this in his book: “At first I stood to their astronomers in the relation of a pupil to his master, being a stranger among them and not acquainted with their peculiar national and traditional methods of science. On having made some progress, I began to show them the elements on which this science rests, to point out to them some rules of logical deduction and the scientific methods of all mathematics, and then they flocked together round me from all parts, wondering, and most eager to learn from me, asking me at the same time from what Hindu master I had learnt those things, whilst in reality I showed them what they were worth, and thought myself a great deal superior to them, disdaining to be put on a level with them. They almost thought me to be a sorcerer, and when speaking of me to their leading men in their native tongue, they spoke of me as the sea or as the water which is so acid that vinegar in comparison is sweet.”[Page 23-24]

Biruni find the necessity of dialogue among nations (Civilizations) in the best manner at that time (about 1000 years before ex-Iranian president Mr. Mohammad Khatami’ mentioning dialogue among civilization) and he suggest it to the world through this massage that: “I like to confront the theories of the one nation with those of the other simply on account of their close relationship, not in order to correct them.”[Page 24]

Conclusion of Biruni about Hindu concept of their God; was an end to the mind who think Hindus are Idolaters: “He is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by freewill, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, preserving; one who in his sovereignty is unique, beyond all likeness and unlikeness, and that he does not resemble anything nor anything resemble him.” [Page 27] so the definition of Hindu God is the same as the Muslim God and both are one in this regard; just with two name.

The tradition of eating among different caste as hold in common place in India as Biruni reports is: “Each of the four castes, when eating together, must form a group for themselves, one group not being allowed to comprise two men of different castes. If, further, in the group of the Brahmana there are two men who live at enmity with each other, and the seat of the one is by the side of the other, they make a barrier between the two seats by placing a board between them, or by spreading a piece of dress, or in some other way; and if there is only a line drawn between them, they are considered as separated. Since it is forbidden to eat the remains of a meal, every single man must have his own food for himself.” [Page 102]

Where Hindu religious laws come from in Hinduism? “Religious law and its single precepts derive their origin from Rishi s, their sages, and the pillars of their religion and not from the prophet.” [Page 106]

The repeat of Moses (Pease be upon him) Miracle in Hindu literature: “Brahman had a son called Narada, who had no other desire but that of seeing the Lord. It was his custom, when he walked about, to hold a stick. If he threw it down, it became a serpent, and he was able to do miracles with it. He never went without it. One day being engrossed in meditation on the object of his hopes, he saw a fire from afar. He went towards it, and then a voice spoke to him out of the fire: "What you demand and wish is impossible. You cannot see me save thus." When he looked in that direction, he saw a fiery appearance in something like human shape. Henceforward it has been the custom to erect idols of certain shapes.”[Page 116]

Biruni and Hindu Idols: “The Hindus honors their idols on account of those who erected them, not on account of the material of which they are made. He (Rama) ordered that servants and priests to minister to the idols should be nominated from different classes of the people.”[Page 116]

 Biruni first speak of human approach to visualize subject as rational thought and way and then said; “IT is well known that the popular mind leans towards sensible world” then he bring an example in Islamic world and said; “a picture of the Prophet were made, or of Mecca and the Ka'ba, and were shown to an uneducated man or woman. Their joy in looking at the thing would bring them to kiss the picture, to rub their cheeks against it, and to roll themselves in the dust before it, as if they were seeing not the picture, but the original, and were in this way, as if they were present in the holy places, performing.”[Page 111] then he point to Hindu’s philosophy of Idols making and it goal: “Such idols are erected only for uneducated low-class people of little understanding; that the Hindus never made an idol of any supernatural being, much less of Gods.”[Page 121]

Biruni report on hire cut tradition among Hindus: “They do not cut any of the hair of the body. Originally they went naked in consequence of the heat, and by not cutting the hair of the head they intended to prevent sunstroke.”[Page 179]

Eating tradition among Hindu in 11th century based on Biruni report: “The Hindus eat singly, one by one, on a tablecloth of dung. They do not make use of the remainder of a meal, and the plates from which they have eaten are thrown away if they are earthen. They have red teeth in consequence of chewing areca-nuts with betel-leaves and chalk. They drink wine before having eaten anything, and then they take their meal. They sip the stall of cows, but they do not eat their meat. In washing they begin with the feet, and then wash the face. They wash themselves before cohabit with their wives. On festive days they besmear their bodies with dung- instead of perfumes. The men wear articles of female dress; they use cosmetics, wear earrings, arm-rings, golden seal-rings on the ring-finger as well as on the toes of the feet.”[Page 180-181]

Men as axes in Hindu society: “When a child is born people show particular attention to the man, not to the woman.”[Page 181]Their tradition of entering in their home: “They do not ask permission to enter a house, but when they leave it they ask permission to do so. In their meetings they sit cross-legged.”[Page 181] One of the Hindu writing traditions: “They write the title of a book at the end of it, not at the beginning.” Handing over things by Hindu is like this: “If one of them hands over a thing to another, he expects that it should be thrown to him as we throw a thing to the dogs.”[Page 182] it is one of the difference with Iranian traditions and Indian. Another difference is described by Biruni in like this: “I must not reproach the Hindus only with their heathen practices. They cohabited with menstruating and pregnant women; several men agreed to cohabit with the same woman in the same period of menstruation; they ate unclean and dead animals. Islam has abolished all those things among the Arabs, as it has also abolished them in those parts of India the people of which have become Mohammadan. Thanks are un to God!”[Page 185-6] sweat wise stories are mentioned in Biruni book a lot; it is one example: “Once a sage was asked why scholars always flock to the doors of the rich, whilst the rich are not inclined to call at the doors of scholars; "The scholars" he answered, "are well aware of the use of money, but the rich are ignorant of the nobility of science.”[Page 188] Biruni describe Kashmir area like this as he had description on so many areas like this: “Kashmir lies on a plateau surrounded by high inaccessible mountains. The south and east of the country belong to the Hindus, the west to various kings, the Bolar-Shah and the Shugnan-Shah, and the more remote parts up to the frontiers of Badhakhshan, to the Wakhan- Shah. The north and part of the east of the country belong to the Turks of Khoten and Tibet. The distance from the peak of Bhoteshar to Kashmir through Tibet amounts to nearly 300 farsakh. The inhabitants of Kashmir are pedestrians; they have neither riding animals nor elephants. The noble among them ride in palankins called katt, carried on the shoulders of men. They are particularly anxious about the natural strength of their country and therefore take always much care to keep a strong hold upon the entrances and roads leading into it. In consequence it is very difficult to have any commerce with them. In former times they used to allow one or two foreigners to enter their country, particularly Jews, but at present they do not allow any Hindu whom they do not know personally to enter, much less other people. The best known entrance to Kashmir is from the town Babrahan, half way between the rivers Sindh and Jailam. Thence, leaving the ravine, you enter the plain, and reach in two more days Addishtan, the capital of Kashmir, passing on the road the village Ushkara, which lies on both sides of the valley, in the same manner as Baramula. The city of Kashmir covers a space of four farsakh, being built along both banks of the river Jailam, which are connected with each other by bridges and ferry-boats. The Jailam rises in the mountains Haramakot, where also the Ganges raises, cold, impenetrable regions where the snow never melts nor disappears. Behind them there is Mahdcin, i.e. Great China.”[Page 188] Biruni during staying there even paid attention to climate of the region and for instance he spook of different degree of rainfall in India and how much is falling there: “India has the tropical rains in summer, which is called Varshakala.”[Page 211] he fall in love with capacity of Indian language and said: “The language of the Hindus is extremely rich in nouns, both original and derivative, so that in some instances they call one thing by a multitude of different names. So I have heard them saying that they have a thousand names all meaning sun ; and, no doubt, each planet has quite as many, or nearly as many names, since they could not do with less (for the purposes of versification). The names of the week-days are the best known the names of the planets connected with the word “Bara”, of the week. Which follows after the planet's name, as in Persian the word “shambih” follows after the number of the week- day (dushambih, sihshambih, &c.). And thus they go on counting, beginning anew with Sunday, Monday, &c.”[Page 213] Biruni when is speaking of high position of astronomy in Hindu thought and deep religious aspect of it among them; have this example for it: “The Vishnu-Dharma says: " If a man reads this and knows it accurately, God pardons to him the sins of that day, and fourteen years will be added to his life, the length of which has been fixed before-hand." Then he adds “How simple those people are! Among us there are scholars who know between 1020 to 1030 stars. Should those men breathe and receive life from God only on account of their knowledge of stars? All the stars revolve, whatever may be the position of the pole with regard to them. If I had found a Hindu able to point out to me with his finger the single stars, I should have been able to identify them with the star-figures known among Greeks and Arabs, or with stars in the neighborhood in case they did not belong to any of these figures.”[Page 242] then Biruni speaking of selfishness among Hindu due to their believe in religious book said: “IN the book of the Rishi Bhuvanakosa we read that the inhabitable world stretches from Himavant (the northern mountains) towards the south, and is called Bharata-varsha, so called from a man, Bharata, who ruled over them and provided for them. All civilization must of necessity be south of these mountains. His words, that the inhabitants are subject to reward and punishment, indicate that there are other people not subject to it. These beings he must either raise from the degree of man to that of angels, who, in consequence of the simplicity of the elements they are composed of and of the purity of their nature, never disobey a divine order, being always willing to worship; or he must degrade them to the degree of irrational animals. According to him, therefore, there are no human beings outside. The Bharata-varsha is not India alone, as Hindus think, according to whom their country is the world and their race the only race of mankind; for India is not traversed by an ocean separating one khanda from the other. Further, they do not identify these khanda with the dripas, for the author says that on those seas people pass from one shore to the other. Further, it follows from his statement that all the inhabitants of the earth and the Hindus are subject to reward and punishment, that they are one great religious community.”[Page 294-5]

Biruni in his book as social-researcher had a look on so many social phenomenon like marriage among Hindus and he considers it as a matter of every society and a common human matter; that its customs take root in ritual and religious believes.    


Biruni was a royal-official scientist; who was at the service of a warrior king by force, but he used this provided opportunity the best to improve his knowledge about Indian sciences and believes and gathered some information about Indian at that time, which helped his Ghaznavid side to know them and have better approach toward their opponents, by doing a scientific work. He shine a light on Indian people believes, thought and life to make them known better; and he showed to the humanity that at first you have to know others, and then challenge would be suitable. And for knowing “others”, you should put your believes aside and then as neutral observer you have to have a scientific work in this regard.


The source of this article is ALBERUNI’S INDIA by Dr. EDWARD C. SACHAU- LONDON KEGAN PAUL, TRENCH, TRUJBNBR & CO. Ltd - DRYDEN HOUSE, GERRARD STREET, W. – published in 1910

Picture in this Article:

Biruni consider as international Muslim scholar and so some countries publish post stamps regarding to this great man and this article bring some of them as it come in the pages:

Page 3: Pakistan           Page 4: Turkey           Page 5: Algeria          Page 6: Iran        Page 7: Syria       Page 8: Russia            Page 9:  Afghanistan              Page 10: Guinea Bissau              Page 11: Egypt  



How Biruni find and describe India

A research on Biruni views  in his book

تحقیق ماللهند من مقولة مقبولة فی العقل أو مرذولة

 2- December - 2013

 A paper for “Iranian legacy in India” class


Dr. Aziz Mehdi


Seyed Mostafa Mostafavi

M.A Student in Indian subcontinent studies

 World Studies Faculty – University of Tehran

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