Abu Rayhan Muhammad ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni liked school. No, he loved school. The challenge to read and recite, to count and to calculate was fun, but the real sport was to contest the ideas of others, to engage their motives and call into question their goals. A Muslim, he was also a Persian. And the Persian gene – some would call it ‘genius’ – was to argue, to debate, to advance through active exchange with the ideas of thoughtful others. Not everyone in his community was born thoughtful. Some never went to school. Some went to school and only memorised or repeated what others told them. He only did battle with equals, but he never ceased to find even his equals lacking.

Biruni was privileged to have a private tutor from a very early age. Born in 973, in the outskirts of Khwarizm (hence the name Al-Biruni, the outsider, or suburban), he may have lost one or both parents when he was very young. As a result, his academic tutor, Abu Nasr al-Mansur, also became his familial mentor. He made certain that Biruni learned all the basics of scientific inquiry in Arabic, and literary inquiry mostly in Persian. Abu Nasr also made it possible for his young protégé to undertake experiments on his own.

Biruni was impatient. A devout Muslim, he was also a sceptic about all received forms of knowledge. He was restless to know what the Author of the universe meant by the array of systems within the great system called the cosmos. He learned about distances, and loved geography. He excelled in mathematics, and delved into physics. He examined rocks and found their study, known as mineralogy, a constant fascination. He wondered about the nature of the earth and its component elements, their size, shapes and subfields, anticipating geodesy. Thinking about medicine, he explored the use, or misuse, of plants and their extracts for cures; he excelled in pharmacology. But above all, he looked to the stars, to their relationships, their movements, their influences, and so he delved deeply into astronomy.

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