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▣ My Essay     Ryan's Warehouse 2018.03.22. 21:30 (2018.03.22. 12:35)

Al-Bīrūnī: From Stars to Sediments

By Ryan Berry

November 27, 2015
Abū al-Rayhān Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Bīrūnī, commonly referred to as Al-Bīrūnī, lived from 973 to 1048, he was born in Persia but throughout his life he was able to travel a vast portion of the Middle East (Alkhateeb, 2013). Al-Bīrūnī was one of the most accomplished Islamic scholars of his time, accredited with advances in fields ranging from astronomy to cultural studies. This paper will focus on some of his geological works, the importance of his contributions to geology, and the circumstances that led to said contributions.
Al-Bīrūnī is respected in many fields for his accomplishments. When Al-Bīrūnī was only young he started his career working under a famous astronomer in Kath named Abu Nasr Mansur who became his mentor (Robertson, 1999). Thru this mentorship Al-Bīrūnī started to make complex astrological observations. According to scholars at the University of St Andrews UK, “in 990 …he computed the latitude of Kath by observing the maximum altitude of the sun.” (Robertson, 1999). This was the first of Al-Bīrūnī’s observations that would prove relevant to his geology studies. By calculating latitudes and coordinates using astronomy he was able to compare positions of geological samples later in his life.
Al-Bīrūnī lived in a politically unrest Middle East, his Mentor Abu Nasr Mansur was a prince of the regions ruling family. In 995 the ruling family was overthrown, Al-Bīrūnī became a refugee during this time, traveling the Middle East and making geographical calculations similar to those he had made in Kath. When he finally returned to his native land he became sponsored by Mahmud, who had conquered Kath through military might in 1017 (Robertson, 1999). Regardless of whether this sponsorship was friendly or forced, it was through Mahmud’s funding and military campaigns into India that Al-Bīrūnī made some of his greatest geological advances.
Al-Bīrūnī’s early observations in astronomy revolved heavily around global positioning. This led to a natural transition into geography and cartography. These two fields where the inspiration behind surveys in India that led to great geological discoveries. In his publication, India, he observed many aspects of the region. First from a cultural and linguistic perspective, and later from a geographical perspective. His study took him to the Ganges River where he began observing sediments. His observations linked sediment size to current strength in the river (Aber, 2015). These observations where the beginning of what is now commonplace teachings, linking current strengths with sedimentary characteristics such as maturity, sorting and grain size.
While working on this study Al-Bīrūnī discovered fossils of sea snails in limestone from the mountainous parts of India. From this discovery he developed the hypothesis that India had once been covered by an ocean, and that the mountains had slowly moved over millions of years (Alkhateeb, 2013). His earl understanding that land masses moved is one of the earliest links of modern plate tectonics.
Al-Bīrūnī’s other major contribution to geology was his compiling of data on known minerals, rocks and gems in his publication on gemstones. According to James S. Abber of Emporia State University, “He designed a method for weighing water displaced by specimens to arrive at numerical values,” (Aber, 2015). This was important because it allowed Al-Bīrūnī to calculate the density of samples with such precision that it was not matched by western scholars until the 18th century (Alkhateeb, 2013). This study on gemstones served as an important reference for future geologists for hundreds of years.
Al-Bīrūnī lived in a complicated time period, with wars political conflicts that often influenced his studies, however he was able to make amazing accomplishments from a young age in a wide variety of fields. His contributions to geology, though not complicated by today’s standards, served as inspiration and a reference point for future geologists. His theory of moving land masses still stands today as plate tectonics and his observations about currents and sediments have since developed into an important part of understanding origins of soils and sedimentary rocks. Al-Bīrūnī is remembered as one of the great scholars of his day and his work influenced many.

Aber, J. S. (2015). Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, HIstory of Geology. Retrieved from Emporia State University : http://academic.emporia.edu/aberjame/histgeol/biruni/biruni.htm
Alkhateeb, F. (2013, April 2). AL-BIRUNI: A MASTER OF SCHOLARSHIP. Retrieved from Lost Islamic History : http://lostislamichistory.com/al-biruni/
Robertson, J. J. (1999, November ). Abu Arrayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad al-Biruni. Retrieved from University of St Andrews : http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Biographies/Al-Biruni.html
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