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Alberuni on Pre-Islamic India’s Science

Alberuni on Pre-Islamic India’s Science, Math, and Architecture
by Vinod Kumar

When one travels around India today, one sees mainly Muslims’ imposing mosques, tombs and forts. On the pre-Islamic architectural skills of the Hindus let us again go back to Alberuni, who wrote when India had not been invaded by the Muslims other than Sindh, as Mahmud had caused damage only to some parts of India. Alberuni (AD 973 – 1048), a Muslim scholar, mathematician and master of Greek and Hindu system astrology, wrote twenty books. In his seminal work, “Indica” (c. 1030 AD) he wrote:

“In every place to which some particular holiness is ascribed, the Hindus construct ponds intended for the ablutions. In this they have attained a very high degree of art, so that our people (the Muslims), when they see them, wonder at them, and are unable to describe them, much less to construct anything like them. They build them of great stones of enormous bulk, joined to each other by sharp and strong cramp-irons, in the form of steps (or terraces) like so many ledges; and these terraces run all around the pond, reaching to a height of more than a man’s stature. On the surface of the stones between two terraces they construct staircases rising like pinnacles. Thus the first step or terraces are like roads (leading up and down). If ever so many people descend to the pond whilst others ascend, they do not meet each other, and the road is never blocked, because there are so many terraces, and the ascending person can always turn aside to another terrace than on which the descending people go. Bu this arrangement all troublesome thronging is avoided.”

On the plunder by the invading Muslims, he wrote:

“The Sultan next directed his attacks against the sacred city of Mathura. The city was surrounded by a massive stone wall, in which were two lofty gates opening on to the river. There were magnificent temples all over the city and the largest of them all stood in the center of it. The Sultan was very much struck by its grandeur. In his estimate it cost not less than 100,000,000 red dinars, and even the most skillful of masons must have taken 200 years to complete it. Among the large number of idols in the temples, five were made of pure gold, the eyes of one of them were laid with two rubies worth 100,000 dinars, and another had a sapphire of a very heavy weight. All these five idols yielded gold weighing 98,300 mishkals. The idols made of silver numbered 200……. He seized all the gold and silver idols and ordered his soldiers to burn all the temples to the ground. The idols in them were deliberately broken into pieces. The city was pillaged for 20 days, and a large number of buildings were reduced to ashes.”

This description of the temple by the court historian of its destroyer shows its grandeur and superior architecture. It is not without reason that Timur carried with him tens of thousands of Hindu artisans — why? To build magnificent monuments in Samarkand like the ones he had seen in India.

On Literature, Edward Sachau, scholar of Arabic and translator of Alberuni’s ‘Indica’, wrote in his introduction:

“The foundations of Arabic literature was laid between AD 750 and 850. It is only the tradition relating to their religion and prophet and poetry that is peculiar to the Arabs; everything else is of foreign descent. The development of a large literature, with numerous ramifications, is chiefly the work of foreigners, carried out with foreign materials, as in Rome the origines of the national literature mostly point to the Greek sources. Greece, Persia, and India were taxed to help the sterility of the Arab mind….. What India has contributed reached Baghdad by two different roads. Part has come directly in translations from the Sanskrit, part has travelled through Eran, having originally been translated from Sanskrit (Pali ? Prakrit ?) into Persian, and farther from Persian into Arabic. In this way, e.g. the fables of Kalila and Dimna have been communicated to the Arabs, and book on medicine, probably the famous Caraka.”

On the Arab knowledge of astronomy, Sachau writes:

“As Sindh was under the actual rule of Khalif Mansur (AD 753 – 774), there came embassies from that part of India to Baghdad, and among them scholars, who brought along with them two books, the Brahamsiddhanta to Brahamgupta (Sirhind), and his Khandkhdyaka (Arkanda). With the help of these pandits, Alfazari, perhaps also Yakub ibn Tarik, translated them. Both works have been largely used, and have exercised a great influence. It was on this occasion that the Arabs first became acquainted with a scientific system of astronomy. They learned from Brahamgupta earlier than from Ptolemy.”

Sachau writes:

“Another influx of Hindu learning took place under Harun, AD 786 – 808. The ministerial family Barmak, then at the zenith of their power, had come with the ruling dynasty from Balkh, where an ancestor of theirs had been an official in the Buddhistic temple Naubehar, i.e. nava vihara = the new temple (or monastery). The name Barmak is said to be of Indian descent, meaning paramaka i.e. the superior (abbot of the vihara) …….. Induced by family traditions, they sent scholars to India, there to study medicine and pharmacology. Besides, they engaged Hindu scholars to come to Baghdad, made them the chief physicians of their hospitals, and ordered them to translate from Sanskrit into Arabic books on medicine, pharmacology, toxicology, philosophy, astrology, and other subjects. Still in later centuries Muslim scholars sometimes travelled for the same purposes as the emissaries of the Barmak, e.g. Almuwakkuf not long before Alberuni’s time….. Many Arab authors took up the subjects communicated to them by the Hindus and worked them out in original compositions (which today would be called ‘plagiarism’ — comments mine), commentaries and extracts. A favourite subject of theirs was Indian mathematics, the knowledge of which became far spread by the publications of Alkindi and many others.”

Regarding mathematics, Alberuni wrote:

“The Hindus do not use the letters of their alphabet for numerical notation, as we use Arabic letters in the order of the Hebrew alphabet. As in different parts of India the letters have different shapes, the numerical signs, too, which are called ‘anka’, differ. The numerical signs which we use are derived from the finest forms of the Hindu signs……. The Arabs, too, stop with the thousand, which is certainly the most correct and the most natural thing to do. …. Those, however, who go beyond the thousand in their numeral system are the Hindus, at least in their arithmetical technical terms, which have been either freely invented or derived according to certain etymologies, whilst in others both methods are blended together. They extend the names of the orders of numbers until the 18th order for religious reasons, the mathematicians being assisted by the grammarians with all kinds of etymologies.”

To compare Hindu and Islamic science, consider what is written about astronomy in the Koran:

“The sun is not allowed to overtake the moon, nor does the night outpace the day. Each in its orbit runs.” (36:40)


“We have ordained phases for the moon, which daily wanes and in the end appears like a bent and withered twig.” (36:39)

The Prophet completed this explanation (from Sahih Al-Bukhari, Vol. IV, Hadis 421, pp. 283) as follows:

“Narrated Abu Dhar: The Prophet asked me at the sunset, “Do you know where the sun goes at the (at the time of sunset)?” I replied, “Allah and His Prophet know better.” He said, “It goes (i.e. travels) till it prostrates itself underneath the Throne, and takes the permission to rise again, and it is permitted and then (a time will come when) it will be about to prostrate itself but its prostration will not be accepted, and it will ask permission to go on its course, but it will not be permitted, but it will be ordered to return whence it has come and so it will rise in the west. And this is the interpretation of the Statement of Allah.
And the sun
Runs its fixed course
For a term (decreed)
That is
The Decree of (Allah)
The Exalted in Might,
The All-knowing.” (36:38)

Islam thinks the following of the sun and the moon:

“They move like the handmill” (Sahih al Bukhari vol. 4, pp. 282).

And about the stars, quoting Sahih Al – Bukhari, Vol. 4, p. 282:

“(About the) Stars, Abu Qatada mentioning Allah’s Statement —
‘And We have
Adorned the nearest heaven
With lamps,” (67:5)

And Allah said:

“The creation of these stars is for three purposes, i.e. as decorations on the sky, as missiles to hit the devils, and as signs to guide travelers. So, if anybody tries to find a different interpretation, he is mistaken and just wastes his efforts, and troubles himself with what is beyond his limited knowledge (e.g. To send a man over the stars or moon etc. is just wasting on money and energy).”

After the Koran, the traditions of the Prophet as recorded in Sahih Al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim is the next most important source of divine knowledge:

“And it has been unanimously agreed that Imam Bukhari’s work is the most authentic of all other works in Hadith literature put together. The authenticity of Al-Bukhari’s work is such that the religious scholars of Islam said concerning him: “The most authentic book after the Book of Allah (i.e. Al-Quran) is Sahih-Al-Bukhari.”

To compare this to the Hindu views on Astronomy, one may refer to Alberuni’s quotes from astronomer Brahamgupta:

“Several circumstances, however, compel us to attribute globular shape to both the earth and the heaven, viz. the fact that the stars rise and set in different places at different times, so that, e.g. a man in Yamakoti observes one identical start rising above the western horizon, whilst a man in Rum at the same time observes it rising above the eastern horizon. Another argument to the same effect is this, that a man on Meru observes one identical star above the horizon in the zenith of Lanka, the country of demons, whilst a man in Lanka at the same time observes it above his head. Besides all astronomical observations are not correct unless we assume the globular shape of heaven and earth. Therefore we must declare that heaven is a globe, and the observation of these characteristics of the world would not be correct unless in reality it were a globe. Now it is evident that all other theories about the world are futile.”

And continues:

“Varahmira explains it further: “Mountains, seas, rivers, trees, cities, men, and angels, all are around the globe of the earth. And if Yamakoti and Rum are opposite to each other, one could not say that the one is low in relation to the other, since low does not exist…. Every one speaks of himself, ‘I am above and the others are below,’ whilst all of them are around the globe like the blossoms springing on the branches of a Kadamba-tree. They encircle it on all the sides, but each individual blossom has the same position as the other, neither one hanging downward nor then other standing upright.” He emphasized: “For the earth attracts that which is upon her, for it is the below towards all directions, and heaven is the above towards all directions.”
“The followers of Aryabhata maintain that the earth is moving and the heaven resting. People have tried to refute them by saying that, if such were the case, stones would and trees would fall from the earth. Brahamgupta does not agree with them, and says that that would not necessarily follow from their theory, apparently because he thought that all heavy things are attracted towards the center of the earth….. Besides, all scholars agree on this head, as Varahmira, Aryabhata, Deva, Srishena, Vishnucandra, and Brahman. If the earth were not round, it would not be girded with the latitude of the different places on earth, day and night would not be different in winter and summer, and the conditions of the planets and their rotations would be quite different from what they are.”