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AL-BERUNI ON INDIA – Revisiting Abu Rayhan al-Biruni and his Indica

This course is available to watch online

Delivered by: Professor Bruce Lawrence [Duke University,USA]

Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī (born 4/5 September 973 in Kath, Khwarezm, died 13 December 1048 in Ghazni) known as Alberonius in Latin and Al-Biruni in English, was a Persian-Khwarezmian Muslim scholar and polymath from the Khwarezm region.

Al-Biruni is regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era and was well versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences, and also distinguished himself as a historian, chronologist and linguist. He was conversant in Khwarezmian, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit, and also knew Greek, Hebrew and Syriac. He spent a large part of his life in Ghazni in modern-day Afghanistan, capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty which was based in what is now central-eastern Afghanistan. Bīrūnī was an important Muslim authority on the history of religion and study of comparative religion. He studied Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, and other religions.

In 1017 he traveled to the Indian subcontinent and became one of the most important interpreter of Indian science to the Islamic world. He is given the titles the “founder of Indology” and one of the “first anthropologist”. He was considered an impartial writer on custom and creeds of various nations, and was given the title al-Ustadh (“The Master”) for his remarkable description of early 11th-century India. He also made contributions to Earth sciences, and is regarded as the “father of geodesy” for his important contributions to that field, along with his significant contributions to geography.

Bīrūnī’s fame as an Indologist rests on his encyclopedic work on India called “Kitab al-Hind” (Kitab fi tahqiq ma li’l-Hind min maqala maqbula fi’l-‘aql aw mardhula) in which he explored nearly every aspect of Indian life, including religion within a rich cultural context, history, geography, geology, science, and mathematics.

And the other but earlier, is the translation from Sanskrit into Arabic of the yogasūtras of Patañjali, entitled Kitāb Bātanjal (The book of Patañjali) which looks at Hindu metaphysical speculation.

Al-Biruni was disgusted by scholars who failed to engage primary sources in their treatment of Hindu religion. He found existing sources on Hinduism to be both insufficient and dishonest. Guided by a sense of ethics and a desire to learn, he sought to explain the religious behavior of different groups. Al-Biruni divides Hindus into an educated and an uneducated class. He describes the educated as monotheistic, believing that God is one, eternal, and omnipotent and eschewing all forms of idol worship. He recognizes that uneducated Hindus worshipped a multiplicity of idols yet points out that even some Muslims (such as the Jabiriyya) have adopted anthropomorphic concepts of God. (Ataman, 2005)

He expresses his objective with simple eloquence: I shall not produce the arguments of our antagonists in order to refute such of them, as I believe to be in the wrong. 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, and I shall mention in connection with them similar theories of the Greeks in order to show the relationship existing between them.(E. C. Sachau’s translation of Alberuni’s India, 1910, Vol. 1, p. 7;1958, p. 5)

The course will look at following:

  • Al-Biruni: his life, work and worldview
  • Kitab al-Hind
  • Kitab Batanjal (Patanjali’s Yoga-sutras)
  • Q & A sessions

Professor Bruce Lawrence [Duke University,USA]

Bruce B. Lawrence is the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Humanities Professor of Religion at Duke University. A graduate of Fay School and Princeton University, with a Master of Divinity from Episcopal Divinity School (Cambridge), he earned his doctorate at Yale University in History of Religions. There he was trained to engage West Asia (aka the Middle East) and South Asia, with particular reference to the cultures and languages, the history and religious practices marked as Muslim. But he also concerns himself with the non-Muslim religious traditions of Asia, especially Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism, at the same time that he pursues the turbulent reconnections of Europe to Asia forged in colonial, then post-colonial encounters.

His early books explored the intellectual and social history of Asian Muslims. Shahrastani on the Indian Religions (1976) was followed by Notes from a Distant Flute (1978), The Rose and the Rock (1979) and Ibn Khaldun and Islamic Ideology (1984). Since the mid-1980s, he has been concerned with the interplay between religion and ideology. The test case of fundamentalism became the topic of his award-winning monograph, Defenders of God: The Fundamentalist Revolt against the Modern Age (1989/1995). A parallel but more limited enquiry informed his latest monograph, Shattering the Myth: Islam beyond Violence (1998/2000). It is the thorny issue of religious pluralism and diasporic communities that guide his monograph on Asian religions in America (Columbia University Press, November 2002). New Faiths/Old Fears concerns Asian religions in America, especially since 1965; it examines the challenge of their spiritual practices to North American norms and values. He has also written three collaborative works with colleagues from the Triangle area. The first, Beyond Turk and Hindu: Contesting Islamicate India, was edited with Professor David Gilmartin of North Carolina State University, and published by University Press of Florida in December 2000 (with an Indian edition in September 2002). The other was co-written with Professor Carl Ernst of the University of North Carolina. Sufi Martyrs to Love: The Chishti Brotherhood in South Asia and Beyond, was published from Palgrave Press, also in November 2002. Most recently, with his Duke colleague and spouse, Dr. Miriam Cooke of Asian and African Languages and Literatures, he has co-edited Muslim Networks from Hajj to Hip Hop, published in March 2005 from UNC Press in a series that he also co-edits, with Professor Ernst, on Islamic civilization and Muslim Networks.

And more – For a full list his publications, please click here. []

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