Introducing Al Beruni

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At the height of the Arab civilization in the 11th century, a guy called Al Beruni came to India and wrote an account of the country that was so unique you would think this was written by a scholar in the 21st century. Al Beruni was one of a kind - likely a political prisoner of Mahmud of Ghazni - he was multi-lingual, a mathematician, a scientist and also a historian. Like many who dabbled in astronomy during that period he was also an astrologer, but don’t let that fool you.

Why is Al so relevant? (Yes, I am going to call him Al, don’t judge me!) If you live in India or did grow up in India like me, you may have heard how rich India was back in the day. There is always someone who gushes about how amazing and glorious the past was. Now, things are never black and white. Ancient India did, in fact, contribute a lot to the world - I am not going to go into the details here. Economically, however, India’s share of the world income is said to have dropped from 27% in 1700 (compared to Europe’s share of 23%) to 3% in 1950, according to the British economist, Angus Maddison. Well, what happened? Why did Indian civilization decline? This series on Al Beruni is an attempt to dig deeper into that.

The book Land of the Seven Rivers: A Brief History of India’s Geography claims that Indian civilization has been on the decline right from the 11th century - way before the Britsh or the Mughals arrived - and cites the work by Al Beruni as a reference. In the book Tarikh Al-Hind or “History of India”, he explores every aspect of Indian life in the first half of the 11th century (approx. 1030-1050 AD). In this series, I will attempt to read through a 100 year old translation of Tarikh Al Hind which is freely available on Columbia University’s portal.

On Bias

I must point out the different kinds of bias we will encounter during this journey. The first would be that of Al. As a foreigner belonging to an invading civilization, he may have had his own biases. His work is remarkable and the efforts he put into understanding Indian culture is astounding. But he did accompany Mahmud after or during numerous conquests of India. The second would be that of Edward Sachau, the guy who translated the text over a 100 years back. Being a European Orientalist from that era, he may have had his own prejudices. The third is my own. Although I am culturally an Indian Hindu, I am neither religious nor am I a nationalist. What I do want to know is - what happened? Why did India decline?

Open questions…

Join me if you are curious to find out what on earth was going in India in the 11th century. Here are some questions I hope to answer.

  • Was the average Indian well aware of other civilizations? Was he/she curious at all?
  • Why the heck was there no Indian counterpart to Al?
  • How were traders treated in society?
  • What were the common customs?
  • What scientific and mathematic concepts were popular? Trigonometry? Early forms of Calculus? Surgery?
  • How rigid was the caste system? Could people move up the layers of society easily?
  • What form of government existed in India?
  • Did Al Beruni ever visit Southern India during his travels? How diverse was India at that time?

I will try my very best not to take sides while reading and writing this series. I sincerely hope Al Beruni’s work will help in a better understanding of our culture, rather than furthering hate of any kind.