Al-Biruni 973-1048 (Mathematics, Astronomy, Ethnographer)

The folowing is adapted from the excellent biographical  article by J J O’Connor and E F Robertson, “Abu Arrayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni,”  St. Andrew’s University website on Al-BiruniThe

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni was born in Khwarazm, a region in Central Asia. From an early age he studied mathematics under the famous astronomer and mathematician Abu Nasr Mansur. By the age of 17 he had mastered his studies and was able to computed the latitude of Kath by observing the maximum altitude of the sun.

Al-Biruni also worked out problems of cartography and on his own solutions to developing projections of a hemisphere onto a plane.  This strongly suggests his understanding of the round shape of the world as a globe shaped sphere.   At the end of the 10th century political upheavals were caused by the rise of the Buwayhid dynasty which overthrew the Samanid Emprie that ruled from their capital in Bukhara.  This same event also effected the career of Ibn Sina (Avicenna) who was living in Bukhara at that time. ch was rapidly rising in influence was the Ghaznavids whose capital was at Ghazna in Afghanistan, a kingdom which was to play a major role in al-Biruni’s life.   A second political dynasty, the Ghaznavid Dynasty was also on the rise as a power in Afghanistan and pressing into Northern India. Writing on the political nature of these events, al-Biruni wrote [1]:-

After I had barely settled down for a few years, I was permitted by the Lord of Time to go back home, but I was compelled to participate in worldly affairs, which excited the envy of fools, but which made the wise pity me.

These events forced him to travel and resettle in Northern India in search of patronage as a scientist and scholar. While there he wrote his famous work India (Al-Hind) as a book of ethnography, that describes the religious and social structure of India and its caste system as well as its geography.

The total number of works produced by al-Biruni during his lifetime is impressive.  Another of his impressive achievements is an estimate of the size of the earth and extensive writings on measurements, algebraic equations, geometry, trigonometry.  He demonstrated techniques to measure the earth using triangulation and estimated its size to be to be 6339.6 km, a value not obtained in the West until the 16th century.   His description of the the Milky Way is quoted here in the article from the link above.

… a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars.

Helpful Links from the University of Edinbrugh biography page:

Click on this link to see a list of the Glossary entries for this page

List of References (72 books/articles)

Some Quotations (3)

A Poster of Al-Biruni

See this mathematician on a timeline

Mathematicians born in the same country

Additional Material in MacTutor

  1. Al-Biruni and Coordinates of Cities
Honours awarded to Al-Biruni
(Click below for those honoured in this way)
Lunar features Crater Al-Biruni
Popular biographies list Number 70

Cross-references in MacTutor

  1. History Topics: Longitude and the Académie Royale
  2. History Topics: Arabic mathematics : forgotten brilliance?
  3. History Topics: Arabic numerals
  4. History Topics: Indian numerals
  5. History Topics: The history of cartography
  6. Chronology: 900 to 1100

Other Web sites

  1. Encyclopaedia Britannica
  2. Al-Biruni’s book on Gemstones




Figure: Illustration by al-Bīrūnī of different phases of the moon, from Kitab al-tafhim. Source: Seyyed Hossein Nasr,Islamic Science: An Illustrated Study, London: World of Islam Festival, 1976


Boilot, D.J., “al-Bīrūnī”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, Edited by: P. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, W.P. Heinrichs. Consulted online on 11 July 2016 <;