Al-Bīrūnī, in full Abū al-Rayḥān Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī (born Sept. 4, 973ce, Khwārezm, Khorāsān [now in Uzbekistan]—died c. 1052, Ghazna [now Ghaznī, Afg.), Muslim astronomer, mathematician, ethnographist, anthropologist, historian, and geographer. Al-Bīrūnī lived during a period of unusual political turmoil in the eastern Islamic world. He served more than six different princes, all of whom were known for their bellicose activities and a good number of whom met their ends in violent deaths. Nevertheless, he managed to become the most original polymath the Islamic world had ever known.
His book on Indian culture is by far the most important of his encyclopaedic works. Its expressive title,Taḥqīq mā li-l-hind min maqūlah maqbūlah fī al-ʿaql aw mardhūlah (“Verifying All That the Indians Recount, the Reasonable and the Unreasonable”), says it all; it includes all the lore that al-Bīrūnī could gather about India and its science, religion, literature, and customs.
Like most works from medieval Islamic authors al-Bīrūnī uses the preface to delve into topics far removed from the core subject, but which nevertheless can be found to have some connection with the main theme (e.g. in his book of gems al-Bīrūnī pens a detailed description of the social need for an economic system, gems, after all, are a store of wealth). In the preface of this work al-Bīrūnī presents a clear and lucid explanation of the nature of historical reports (or for that matter any report), and the many reasons a reporter may chose to slant his report away from truth.
Note: The text being used here is the 1910 English Translation by Dr. Edward C. Sachau published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & co. found here
And so al-Bīrūnī begins
The tradition regarding an event which in itself does not contradict either logical or physical laws will invariably depend for its character as true or false upon the character of the reporters, who are influenced by the divergency (sic) of interests and all kinds of animosities and antipathies between the various nations
Al-Bīrūnī then details five primary reasons why an individual reporting an event would chose to show a bias.
- To further a personal interest, by:
- lauding one’s family or nation, or
- attacking an opposing family or nation
- Lying about a class of people, due to:
- Being under an obligation to them, or
- Being in disagreement with them
- Lying due to being afraid to tell the truth
- One who is a natural lier, being unable to tell the truth due to his character
- One who in ignorance follows the lies of others
In modern times study of such topics as media integrity and historiography (the study of how history is reported) have shed light on innate human biases. As a result importance is now laid on pointing out instances of historical inaccuracies, lack of journalistic integrity and just plain propaganda and its effect on an unassuming population. In hallmark cases we often see governments or institutions ‘brainwashing’ the public in order to achieve a desirable outcome. With the birth of social media, the increased ease of communication and the ability of various viewpoints to share the same platform, public awareness of instances of manipulation is ever increasing. However, as public knowledge is increasing so to are the efforts at hiding biases and so Al-Bīrūnī’s words are a great reminder for us to continue to, as he puts it, “to distinguish different classes of reporters”
As a Muslim a “tradition” to Al-Bīrūnī may have had deeper meaning than it may initially suggest to a reader. Al-Bīrūnī was a polymath, educated in a number of disciplines. However, like every educated Muslim of the period his initial education would have been a religious one, in the Qurʾān and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. And in the formative years of Islamic scholarship, there was no clear consensus among Islamic Scholars of the authenticity of all the reports of the Prophets saying, like there was with the contents of the Qurʾān.
These sayings, in Islamic terminology are known as a hadith, which loosely translated means “an item of news, a tale, a story or a report”. A synonym for hadith is khabar, or news report or information. However, where hadith only refers to sayings or actions or attributes of the Prophet, a khabar can be any information whether related to the Prophet, or not e.g. information related to one of his companions but which ultimately sheds some light for the Islamic Scholar to use in deriving laws for the religion. Collectively all the hadith and the khabar, of which hadith is a part, constitute “the traditions” i.e. the entire scope of historical information which brings forward the knowledge required to develop Islam as a functioning way of life. (ar-Rahawān)
By the time Al-Bīrūnī was authoring his works, Islamic Scholarship had already developed a detailed classification system for the entire corpus of sayings and traditions through such Hadith scholars as al-Bukhari and Muslim. These scholars and others spent lifetimes developing systems for ensuring the accuracy of much of the historical evidence of the Prophets life and those of his companions being disseminated during the scholars’ lifetimes. Al-Bīrūnī would have no doubt have been educated in the discipline of hadith scholarship and his understanding of this field of Islamic Science would have no doubt shaped his view toward the common “traditions” of his time, i.e. the stories of people, places and events.
The media has become the primary source of information in the lives of the vast majority of the world population. However the media is not without its own biases. Looking at the wikipedia entry for Media Bias we find five common biases found in media reports
- Advertising bias, when stories are selected or slanted to please advertisers.
- Corporate bias, when stories are selected or slanted to please corporate owners of media.
- Mainstream bias, a tendency to report what everyone else is reporting, and to avoid stories that will offend anyone.
- Sensationalism, bias in favor of the exceptional over the ordinary, giving the impression that rare events, such as airplane crashes, are more common than common events, such as automobile crashes.
- Concision bias, a tendency to report views that can be summarized succinctly, crowding out more unconventional views that take time to explain.
“al-Biruni”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2016. Web. 06 Feb. 2016 <http://www.britannica.com/biography/al-Biruni>.
Rahawān, Muhammad Saeed Mitwally. The Science of Hadith Terminology and Classification = ʻIlm Muṣṭalaḥ Al-ḥadīth. Riyadh: IIPH, 2012.
Sachau, Edward C., Dr., comp. Albaruni’s India. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1910. Internet Archive. University of California Libraries. Web. 06 Feb. 2016 <https://archive.org/details/alberunisindiaac01biru>