Chicago, Illinois, United States
In the year 973 during the Islamic Golden Age, there was born in the city of Kath in Khwarezm (modern Uzbekistan) one of the greatest polymaths of all time. His complete name was Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni; the last name is derived from the Persian word birun (outside), as he was born in an outlying district of Kath. He was a Khwarezmian Iranian who lived near the Aral Sea in Khwarezm of the Afrighid Kingdom, but spent much of his productive life in Ghazni of the Ghaznavid Empire (modern Afghanistan) and died there. From an early age, Al-Biruni exhibited a voracious appetite for knowledge. His first teacher kindled his interest in natural sciences and had him collect plants, seeds, and fruit. His foster father introduced him to many other sciences. He acquired expertise in mathematics, physics, chemistry, anatomy, medicine and pharmacology, psychology, astronomy, geology, geography, anthropology, comparative sociology, philosophy, theology, and languages; beside Khwarezmian Persian, he was conversant in Arabic and Sanskrit, and knew Hebrew, Greek, and Syriac. He has been called the founder of Indology, the father of geodesy and of comparative religion, and the first anthropologist.
He read profusely, and by the age of twenty-seven, he had completed his book on the chronology of nations. He met the famous physician Avicenna and discussed and argued with him.
But he lived in an age of great political turmoil and warfare. In 1017, Khwarezm was conquered by Mahmud of Ghazna, who took Al-Biruni and many others to serve him at his court. Though in exile, this was a most productive time for Al-Biruni. For the next decade, he was totally absorbed in his studies of India, which he visited several times. He carried out studies in mathematics, astronomy, and literature. Later, supported by Mahmud’s successor Masud, he produced his great work on pharmacology. In this he referred to the works of numerous Arab, Persian, Greek, Syrian, and Indian authors. He quoted the biology works of Aristotle, Dioscorides, Galen, and many others. In his comprehensive book on pharmacy, he meticulously documented the medicinal properties and therapeutic effects of hundreds of substances, ranging from plants and minerals to animal-derived substances. It is said that he never stopped working and that when he died in 1048 at the age of 75, he had written more than 150 works on astronomy, literature, mathematics, philosophy, and history. He was famous for his scientific approach to the various subjects he studied and his objectivity, and he wrote most of his works in Arabic, the scientific language of the time.
Though not a physician, Al-Biruni recognized the importance of understanding the intricate workings of the human body. In his renowned work, The Anatomy of the Human Body, he described the animals he had dissected, providing accurate illustrations of organs, bones, and muscles. During his journeys, he observed medical practices in various regions, documented indigenous remedies, and shared his knowledge with local healers. He emphasized empirical observations, systematic classification, and the importance of cultural exchanges. His writings were translated and studied both in the Islamic world and later in Europe, and provided a template for interdisciplinary medical education.
In the Scholar Pavilion of the Vienna International Center stands the statue of AI-Biruni, along with those of Avicenna, AI-Razi (Rhazes), and Omar Khayyam.
DR. ASAD A. BAKIR is a retired internist and nephrologist, Fellow of the American College of Physicians and the American Society of Nephrology, and Professor of Medicine at the University of Illinois Medical School at Chicago (UIC).
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief