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This son of Central Asia was arguably the greatest explorer between the ancient world and the great age of European exploration. Two features of Biruni’s work warrant this conclusion. First, he achieved what he did through the systematic and rigorous application of reason and logic, unconstrained by religious or secular dogmas, folklore or anecdotes. He was a Muslim, but broke free of the culture-bound assumptions of Islam in a way that scientists in the Christian West struggled for several more centuries to achieve. He carried out his breathtaking intellectual explorations while living far from the sea in a landlocked region and without leaving his study except to carry out scientific measurements. While he was absolutely confident in his conclusions, his written presentation of them indicated the precise paths by which someone seeking to disprove him might proceed.
Who today can better the credo that this Central Asian polymath penned a thousand years ago?
… in an absolute sense, science is good in itself, apart from its [content of] knowledge; its lure is everlasting and unbroken … [The servant of science] should praise the assiduous [ones] whenever their efforts [arises from] delight [in science itself] rather than from [the hope of achieving] victory in argument.
Even today, Biruni’s modus operandi strikes one as astonishingly modern, a voice of calm and dispassionate scientific enquiry sounding forth from the depths of the irrational and superstitious medieval world.
Biruni accomplished all this while living and working in a region which many still regard as backward, a region immersed in superstition, fanaticism and violence. His birthplace in western Uzbekistan is close to the Aral Sea, where from the 1950s the Soviet Union created one of the most fearful ecological disasters of modern times. His achievements took place in a bleak zone on the northern border of Turkmenistan, far from the enormous gas fields that are today transforming that country into a Central Asian Kuwait. His research at Nandana, in what is now the West Punjab territory of Pakistan, put him within an hour of Jammu and Kashmir, the future scenes of a half century of armed struggle between Pakistan and India. As to Ghazni in Afghanistan, where he penned his renowned Codex Masudicus, simply to reach this town today is a dangerous task, requiring armoured vehicles and armed guards to traverse the heavily mined road from Kabul or Kandahar.
But one can do so nonetheless and can, amid the desolate remains of ancient Ghazni, ferret out the actual tomb of Biruni. Here in the very heart of Afghanistan lie the remains of the most modern explorer of the Middle Ages, a man who was open to the entire world and to all the knowledge it contains.
If and when Afghanistan gains a stable government and begins to develop, travellers and tourists will visit Ghazni, the scene of Biruni’s great work as a global explorer, and pay their respects at the tomb of one whose achievements match those of Columbus.
S. Frederick Starr is research professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University and a founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute.