The Muslim Who Discovered America (continued)

A polymath profiling his peers. Fred Starr’s Johns Hopkins biography says “his research on the countries of Greater Central Asia, their history, development, internal dynamics, as well as on US policy towards the region has resulted in twenty-two books and 200 published articles.” And that’s not counting his works on Russia, architecture, New Orleans houses, and New Orleans food. Here, he pauses to enjoy the climate of ideas in Washington, DC.

A polymath profiling his peers. Fred Starr’s Johns Hopkins biography says “his research on the countries of Greater Central Asia, their history, development, internal dynamics, as well as on US policy towards the region has resulted in twenty-two books and 200 published articles.” And that’s not counting his works on Russia, architecture, New Orleans houses, and New Orleans food. Here, he pauses to enjoy the climate of ideas in Washington, DC.

Editor’s note: In clear, approachable English,  Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (Princeton University Press) introduces a galaxy of broad-gauged Central Asian researchers and writers who between 750 and 1150 were supported by enlightened rulers – and, the book argues in a lesson for our times, a cosmopolitan mix of mutually tolerant cultures. Their work has been influential ever since.

Excerpted from Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr. © 2013 by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.

In his Codex Biruni gathered together the conclusions from his research on Earth’s circumference…. He then set about fixing all known geographical locations onto this accurately sized terrestrial sphere….

When Biruni transferred these data onto his more precisely measured circumferential map of Earth, he noticed at once that the entire breadth of Eurasia from the westernmost tip of Africa to the easternmost shore of China spanned less than about two-fifths of the globe. This left three-fifths of Earth’s surface unaccounted for.

The most obvious way to account for this enormous gap was to invoke the explanation that all geographers from antiquity down to Biruni’s day had accepted, namely, that the Eurasian land mass was surrounded by a “World Ocean.” Alexander the Great, who had been personally tutored by Aristotle, had had this facile hypothesis in mind when he and his army emerged from the mountains of Afghanistan onto the western side of the Indus Valley. From this vantage point he fully expected to gaze out at the World Ocean. But instead he saw only more land.

Was more than three-fifths of Earth’s circumference really nothing but water? Biruni considered this possibility but rejected it on the grounds of both logic and observation. Why, he mused, would the forces and processes that had given rise to land on two-fifths of Earth’s belt not also have made themselves felt in the other three-fifths as well? Reasoning thus, Biruni concluded that somewhere in the vast expanses of ocean between Europe and Asia there must be one or more heretofore unknown land masses, or continents.

“Supposed regions do exist beyond the [known]
remaining regions of the world.”
_________________________— Biruni

Proceeding by logical steps, he then asked if these unknown continents were empty wildernesses or were instead inhabited by human beings. To this point he had relied on his research at Nandana [in India] on Earth’s circumference, on his voluminous data on the longitudes of the world’s cities and known geographical features, and on simple logic. To advance further he now turned to his data on longitudes. He noted that human beings inhabited a broad north-south band stretching from what is now Russia to southern India and the heart of Africa. Assuming that this band represented Earth’s habitable zone, he asked if the unknown continent or continents were situated only in latitudes lying north and south of this band.

In answering this, there were no further field observations to which he could turn, but he did have the tools of logic. Noting that the Eurasian land mass stretched roughly around Earth’s belt, and that it covered a broad north-south band, he hypothesized that this was the result of powerful processes that would surely have obtained elsewhere. Known evidence of Earth gave him no grounds for believing that the unknown continents would be squashed into the northernmost and southernmost latitudes. Reasoning by analogy to Eurasia, he concluded that these unknown land masses would have to be inhabitable, and in fact that they were inhabited. As he stated in the Codex Masudicus, “There is nothing to prohibit the existence of inhabited lands in the Eastern and Western parts. Neither extreme heat nor extreme cold stand in the way . . . it is therefore necessary that some supposed regions do exist beyond the [known] remaining regions of the world surrounded by water on all the sides.”

“The European explorers vindicated his bold proposals.”

Did Abu Rayhan Muhammad Biruni discover America in the first third of the eleventh century? In one sense, definitely not. He never laid eyes on the new continent or continents about which he wrote. By contrast, the Norsemen had actually touched land in North America shortly before ad 1000—briefly, to be sure, and without really understanding what they had found. Leif Ericson was so uninterested in the forested shore that he did not bother to return later, nor did any of those who heard oral reports of his travels or read about them in later Norse documents. Still, if “discovery” includes the groping and unreflective processes of Norse seafaring, then the prize that partisans of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, or unknown seafarers from Bristol in England have claimed for their heroes must definitely go to the Vikings.

But Biruni should also wear the crown of discovery, and the cumulative and analytic process by which he reached his conclusions is at least as deserving of honor as are the Norse traders, if not more so. His tools were not wooden boats powered by sail and muscular oarsmen but an adroit combination of carefully controlled observation, meticulously assembled quantitative data, and rigorous logic. Not for another half millennium did anyone else in Europe or Asia apply such rigorous analytic tools to global exploration.

Viking explorations were also cumulative, with a few bold adventurers using ad hoc reasoning to build on what they had heard about earlier travels. But Biruni went far beyond this, beginning with his assembling of all known human knowledge of the subject at the time. It drew on the wisdom of the ancient Greeks and Indians, and also on the work of medieval Arabs and fellow Central Asians. Moreover, Biruni devised absolutely new methods and technologies to generate his voluminous and precise data and then processed it with the latest tools of mathematics, trigonometry and spherical geometry, as well as the austere methods of classical logic. And he was careful to present his conclusions in the form of hypotheses, on the understanding that other researchers would test and refine his findings. This did not occur for another five hundred years, but in the end the European explorers confirmed his hypotheses and vindicated his bold proposals.

Click here for Fred’s op-ed hope that contemporary Muslim moderates can emerge from Central Asia.

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