The Kitabul’ Hind-a Medieval Reality Check

It is often instructive, for people as well as races, to listen to what others have to say about them. In the absence of such a reality check, one is apt to be swayed by one’s own exaggerated notions of one’s own self. Precisely such a check was provided to the Hindu society, in the eleventh century, by an Iranian Muslim scholar, Al-Biruni, who was perhaps a hostage at the court of Mahmud of Ghazani. Now Mahmud needs no introduction as he had successfully raided India several times; killing, plundering, enslaving and desecrating all that was dear to Hindus.

Al-Biruni was a prolific writer, for it is mentioned that the weight of his books exceeded a camel’s load! Among the many books that he wrote, Kitabu’l Hind stands unparalleled in the range of topics that it examined concerning the Hindus. How and why did he get interested in their lives is not known, but he was deeply interested in mathematics and astronomy, subjects on which there was considerable Hindu literature. He must have had access to such literature and also contact with learned pundits who may have similarly been held hostage at Ghazani. Whatever may have been his motivation for studying Hindu society, his work provides a deep insight into those distant times.

His book digs deep into Hindu religion, science, literature, philosophy, social organization, geography, astronomy, life, customs, festivals etc. There is hardly a subject which he left untouched. His work was perhaps the first major exposition of Hindu thought and life by an Islamic scholar and it sheds great light on the then Hindu society which then was facing a challenge to its very existence from Muslim invaders. Though Islam came to India in the eighth century from the Arabian Peninsula, it was then limited to certain areas in Sindh only. Mahmud of Ghazani was the first to systematically exploit the fissures in the Hindu society and launch a sustained attack on Hindu kingdoms all over the north and the west.

Al-Biruni was aware of the deep differences between the Hindu and Islamic way of life. He observed that Hindus were so different in all aspects of their language, religion, manners, usages and customs from Muslims ‘as to frighten their children with us.’ Their aversion against Muslims increased with the conquest by Mahmud by whose exploits ‘the Hindus became like atoms of dust scattered in all directions.’ He thought that ‘the Hindus believe that there is no country but theirs, no nation like theirs, no king like theirs, no religion like theirs, no science like theirs. They are haughty, foolishly vain, self- conceited, and stolid. They are by nature niggardly in communicating that which they know, and they take the greatest possible care to withhold it from men of another caste among their own people, still much more, of course, from any foreigner. According to their belief, there is no other country on earth but theirs, no other race of man but theirs, and no created beings besides them have any knowledge or science whatsoever. Their haughtiness is such that, if you tell them of any science or scholar in Khurasan and Persis, they will think you to be both an ignoramus and a liar.’ He however acknowledged that ‘If they traveled and mixed with other nations, they would soon change their mind, for their ancestors were not as narrow-minded as the present generation is …’

Though his views on Hindus need to be examined in the overall context of his work, there is no gainsaying the fact that eleventh century Hindu society was moribund, stagnant and inward looking for a variety of reasons. It had lost the glory that it once had and it seemed to want to wish away the foreigners by erecting mental walls against them. If only they had taken Al-Biruni’s seriously, their history might have been different!

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7 Responses to “The Kitabul’ Hind-a Medieval Reality Check”

  1. Needs continuation.

  2. Nice read…thats what we called Dark Ages….

  3. Thanks for visiting. Your link is all Italian for me!

  4. Tahzeeb Ahmad Says:

    when this book was written (kitab-ul-hind or tahqiq-e-hind) and to whom it was dedicated.

  5. Chirag Aidasani Says:

    I beg to differ !
    Firstly mahmud ghazni’s territory wasn’t much into India. It was limited to the north west. So its impossible for him to speak about the entire country as even then India was highly diverse !

    You claim Indian society was moribund and what not at that time but your claim is questionable. Lets assume that time from around 1000 A.D.
    The Cholas were thriving in the south at that time. Philosophy, architecture, commerce etc was at peak during their time [ See the thanjavur temples etc ].
    Harshavardhana was a great king that time in the North .
    Even after ghazni, we had the rajputs under chauhans who had a flourishing empire and defeated ghazni the first time, by the virtue of strength, not mental walls as pointed by you. The second battle with ghazni though was unfortunate for him and India eventually. Even when I say this, ghori had faced several defeats before chauhan like by Solanki’s.
    And let’s not forget Arabs. Ever wondered why they were limited to just Singh ? They did try to conquer the rest of the country but were defeated by the combined forces of Gurajara-Pratihara & Chaulakya forces. [Read Battle of Rajasthan]. So to say Indians were not fighters would be incorrect.

    Thirdly, Indians, especially the Malabar people traded extensively via coastal routes with a variety of cultures including Arabs and Chinese. Recently, Tamil coins from polachi were found in Egypt. Also before Islamic invasions, we had contact with Central Asians, Persians, Greeks, Chinese, South east Asians etc. So it’s highly improbable that we as a culture thought that we are the ‘only’ race on earth. Even around 1000 A.D Tamils were trading extensively with S.E Asians & Chinese [ Some people believe Tamils traders spread Hinduism in S.E Asia. Bali is still Hindu predominantly]. Even now Sanskrit has a high place in various S.E Asian countries. Indonesia though a Muslim country has managed to hold the Indian inspired culture like the epics Mahabharata & Ramayana. Fun fact – their nationsl airline is named Garuda after the Sanskritic mythical creature.
    And not to mention Buddhist links. That’s a huge topic so just mentioning it.

    So do I disregard everything about Al-Biruni and his observations about India ?

    In fact it is a good book on India but not free from biases, inaccuracies & condescension.

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