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Alberuni's India

A glimpse into India's ancient past

Al-Biruni was an Iranian scholar and polymath from Khwarezm, a region which encompasses modern-day western Uzbekistan, and northern Turkmenistan. He was regarded as one of the greatest scholars of the medieval Islamic era deing well travelled and well versed in physics, mathematics, astronomy, and natural sciences, and he also distinguished himself as a historian, chronologist and linguist.

Alberuni writes that prior to Muslim conquest, India was one of the world’s top civilizations with significant achievements in science, mathematics, literature, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, architecture and so on to its credit. The Persianized Abbasid caliphs, inspired by the pre-Islamic Persian pursuit of knowledge, sent scholars and merchants to India to collect documents and texts on science, mathematics, medicine and philosophy.

An Indian scholar brought two seminal mathematical works to Baghdad in 770. One was the Brahmasiddhanta (known to Arabs as Sindhind) of the great seventh-century Indian mathematician, Brahmagupta. It contained early ideas of algebra. In the ninth century, famous Muslim mathematician and astronomer Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi combined the Indian work with Greek geometry also originating in India to found the mathematical system of algebra. Khwarizmi became known as the father of algebra. The term algorithm (or algorism), the technique of performing arithmetic calculations developed by al-Khwarizmi using Indian numerals, is the latinized version of his name. The second manuscript contained the revolutionary system of denoting number, including the concept of zero, unknown elsewhere. Muslim scholars used to call this Indian numbering system, “Indian (Hindi) numerals”; the Europeans later gave it the name, “Arabic numerals”. Although Muslims made significant contributions in these achievements, they often, in an act of self- gratification, claim all the credit for these plagiarized developments.

Bernard Lewis explains in his book What Went Wrong? the Moslem Empire inherited "the knowledge and skills of the ancient Middle east, of Greece and of Persia, it added to them new and important innovations from outside, such as the manufacture of paper from China and decimal positional numbering from India." The decimal numbers were thus transmitted to the West, where they are still mistakenly known as "Arabic" numbers, honoring not their inventors but their transmitters.

Alberuni (d. 1050) has recorded many of these ancient Indian achievements in his famous work, Indica, published in 1050. Arabic scholar Edward Sachau translated this book in 1880 and published under the title of Alberuni’s India (1910). Alberuni summarizes Indian achievement in mathematics as follows:

“They do not use the letter of their alphabet for numerical notation, as we use the Arabic letters in the order of Hebrew alphabet… 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 eighteenth order for religious reasons, the mathematicians being assisted by the grammarians with all kinds of etymologies.”

Sachau adds that there was another influx of Hindu learning into the Arab world during the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 786–808). The famous ministerial family of Barmak from Balkh, who had outwardly converted to Islam but never abandoned their ancestral crypto-Buddhist tradition after generations,

"…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 traveled for the same purposes as the emissaries of the Barmak, e.g. Almuwaffuk, not long before Alberuni’s time…"

Moreover, the Arabs also translated Indian works on many other subjects, including on snakes, poison, veterinary art, logic and philosophy, ethics, politics, and science of war.'‘Many Arab authors took up the subjects communicated to them by the Hindus and worked them out in original compositions, commentaries and extracts. A favorite subject of theirs was Indian mathematics, the knowledge of which became far spread by the publications of Alkindi and many others"

~ Excerpts from Alberuni’s Indica (d.1050) translated by Arabic scholar Edward Sachau in his publication "Alberuni’s India" 1910. And various other sources.

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