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al-Biruni On Hinduism (1030)

By:
al-Biruni
Document type:
Nonfiction Book/Scholarly Work

    al-Biruni On Hinduism (1030)

    Commentary

    Among the most well-read and well-traveled Muslim scholars of his time was Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad, known as al-Biruni (The Outsider). Born in present day-Uzbekistan, al-Biruni is credited with writing 141 books on science, mathematics, and philosophy (of which only twenty-two have survived), and apparently knew a variety of languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Sanskrit. The Sultan Mahmud took al-Biruni along as a prisoner on his Indian campaign, but al-Biruni eventually won his freedom and even enjoyed the Sultan’s patronage. During this trip, al-Biruni compiled a study of Indian society, based on interviews and translations of Sanskrit texts. While al-Biruni maintains his belief in the superiority of Islam over Hinduism—as evidenced in this excerpt below—he concludes that educated Indians are essentially monotheists, and therefore are worthy of the status of dhimmi. In other words, al-Biruni argued for the rights of Hindus within the context of an Islamic government.

    The . . . Hindus entirely differ from us in every respect, many a subject appearing intricate and obscure which would be perfectly clear if there were more connection between us. The barriers which separate Muslims and Hindus rest on different causes.

    First, they differ from us in everything which other nations have in common. And here we first mention the language, although the difference of language also exists between other nations. If you want to conquer this difficulty (i.e. to learn Sanskrit), you will not find it easy, because the language is of an enormous range, both in words and inflections, sometimes like the Arabic calling one and the same thing by various names . . . and using one and the same word for a variety of subjects. . . . For nobody could distinguish between the various meanings of a word unless he understands the context in which it occurs and its relation to the following and the preceding parts of the sentence. The Hindus, like other people, boast of this enormous range of their language, whilst in reality it is a defect.

    Secondly, they totally differ from us in religion, as we believe in nothing in which they believe, and vice versa. On the whole, there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves; at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy. On the contrary, all their fanaticism is directed against those who do not belong to them—against all foreigners. They call them mleecha, i.e. impure and forbid having any connection with them, be it by intermarriage or any other kind of relationship, or by sitting, eating, and drinking with them, because thereby, they think, they would be polluted. They consider as impure anything which touches the fire and the water of a foreigner; and no household can exist without these two elements. Besides, they never desire that a thing which once was polluted should be purified. . . . They are not allowed to receive anybody who does not belong to them, even if he wished it, or was inclined to their religion. This, too, renders any connection with them quite impossible, and constitutes the widest gulf between us and them.

    In the third place, in all manners and usages they differ from us to such a degree as to frighten their children with us, with our dress, and our ways and customs, and as to declare us to be devil’s breed, and our doings as the very opposite of all that is good and proper. By the by, we must confess, in order to be just, that a similar depreciation of foreigners not only prevails among us and the Hindus, but is common to all nations toward each other.

    [T]he repugnance of the Hindus against foreigners increased more and more when the Muslims began to make their inroads into their country . . . leaving to the people their ancient belief, except in the case of those who wanted to become Muslims. All these events planted a deeply rooted hatred in their hearts.

    Now in the following times no Muslim conqueror passed beyond the frontier of Kabul and the river Sindh until the days of the Turks when . . . the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions. . . . Their scattered remains cherish, of course, the most inveterate aversion toward all Muslims. This is the reason, too, why Hindu sciences have retired far away from those parts of the country conquered by us, and have fled to places which our hand cannot reach, to Kashmir, Benares, and other places. And there the antagonism between them and all foreigners receives more and more nourishment both from political and religious sources.

    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 what 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 of science whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khurasan and Persia, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar. If they traveled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is.

    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.

    The belief of educated and uneducated people differs in every nation; for the former strive to conceive abstract ideas and to define general principles, whilst the latter do not pass beyond the apprehension of the senses, and are content with derived rules, without caring for details, especially in questions of religion and law, regarding which opinions and interests are divided.

    The [educated] Hindus believe with regard to God that he is one, eternal, without beginning and end, acting by free will, almighty, all-wise, living, giving life, ruling, preserving; one who in his sovereignty is unique, beyond all likeness and un-likeness, and that he does not resemble anything nor does anything resemble him. . . . [T]hose who march on the path to liberation, or those who study philosophy and theology, and who desire abstract truth . . . are entirely free from worshipping anything but God alone, and would never dream of worshipping an image manufactured to represent him.

    Edward G. Sachau. Alberuni’s India: An Account of the Religion, Philosophy, Literature, Geography, Chronology, Astronomy, Customs, Laws, and Astrology of India about A.D. 1030 (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1888).

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