Tuesday 18 June 2019

Great Muslim Philosopher Al Beruni Was World’s First Anthropologist

Al Beruni’s methodology is rigorous. As Sachau writes in his preface, “it is the method of our author not to speak himself, but to let the Hindus speak… He presents a picture of Indian civilization as painted by the Hindus themselves.” Al Beruni leans heavily on primary Hindu sources, learning Sanskrit for this purpose, writing, “I do not spare either trouble or money in collecting Sanskrit books from places where I supposed they were likely to be found.”

He was perhaps the first Muslim to study the Puranas, the Hindu classical texts. In addition, secondary sources — translations by Arab and Persian scholars — are consulted. He travels extensively in India and associates with Hindus, especially Brahmins and yogis. He emphasizes “hearsay does not equal eye witness.” The anthropologist’s task is to “simply relate without criticizing,” and Al Beruni strictly avoided making value judgments of other people’s customs and cultures.

He is as unsparing to Arabs (when commenting on their pre-Islamic customs) as he is of certain traits of Hindus such as their “haughtiness.” Terming Hindus “haughty” may seem like a value judgment but Al Beruni observed that Hindus saw their land, their customs, their food etc. as the best in the world. The xenophobic pride of the Hindus was to become an essential part of their cultural defense system against the repeated onslaught of Muslims during and after Mahmud of Ghazni’s reign.

Al Beruni throws a wide net for comparative purposes referring to Jews, Christians, Parsis and the ancient Greeks for whom he has undisguised admiration. And his sympathy for universal mysticism is reflected in the comparison he makes between Sufi, Hindu and Christian mystics.

Al Beruni’s dispassionate commentary measures up to the highest contemporary scientific standards in the social sciences. As the Australian scholar Arthur Jeffery wrote of Al Beruni, “It is rare until modern times to find so fair and unprejudiced a statement of the views of other religions, so earnest an attempt to study them in the best sources, and such care to find a method which for this branch of study would be both rigorous and just.” “Above all,” the Pakistani scholar Hakeem Mohammed Saeed wrote in his Al Biruni: Commemorative Volume, “he had an open, universal mind and a keen desire to drink deep from the Fountain of Truth, whatever its source.”

Al Beruni is the embodiment of the Quranic injunction to seek knowledge, or ilm, and the Prophet (pbuh) had exhorted Muslims to acquire knowledge even if it meant going as far as China. While referring to the Holy Quran to back his statements — his faith in Islam is strong as is his relief to be born a Muslim — he reflects on the essential oneness of man. Al Beruni’s God is the creator of all things and all peoples. Islam has neither hindered the scholar’s enterprise nor has his Muslimness been compromised. When Al Beruni wrote, Islam was on the ascendant in world affairs. Yet neither condescension nor contempt mar his work.

The recognition of Al Beruni as the first major anthropologist of Islam thus opens both theoretical and methodological doors for Muslim social scientists. Almost a thousand years before European Indianists such as Louis Dumont and Adrian Mayer, Al Beruni had exhaustively examined, and suggested a methodology for the study of, caste and kinship in India.


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