The Invention of World History

Written by Sam

For the greater part of history, diverse people groups, societies and religious gatherings have lived by their very own logbooks. At that point, in the eleventh century, a Persian researcher endeavored to make a solitary, widespread timetable for all humankind.


The Invention of World History


Today, it is underestimated that ‘World History’ exists. Muslims, Jews and Chinese each have their own date-books and praise their own New Year’s Day. Be that as it may, for most functional issues, including government, business and science, the world utilizes a solitary regular timetable. On account of this, it is conceivable to promptly interpret dates from the Chinese date-book, or from the Roman, Greek or Mayan, into the equivalent ordered framework that underlies the narratives of, say, Vietnam or Australia.

This single worldwide timetable empowers us to put occasions wherever on a solitary course of events. Without it, worldly examinations crosswise over societies and customs would be unthinkable. It is no misrepresentation to state that this normal comprehension of time and our regular schedule framework are the keys to world history.

It was not generally the situation. Most nations, societies or religious gatherings have lived by their own schedules. Each assigned its very own beginning stage for chronicled time, be it the Creation, Adam and Eve or some later occasion, for example, the scriptural Flood. Notwithstanding when they recognized a typical point in time, as did the two Greeks and Persians with the introduction of Alexander the Great, they varied about when that occasion occurred.

The antiquated Greeks spearheaded the deliberate investigation of history and, even today, Herodotus (c.484-425 BC) emerges for his omnivorous interest about different people groups and societies. All through his Histories he amuses his perusers with exotica gathered from his broad voyages and enquiries. He clarifies how each culture saves and ensures its very own history. He reports reverently on how the Egyptians kept up arrangements of their rulers going back 341 ages. His suggestion is that all traditions and conventions are relative. However for two reasons the progressive Herodotus, whom Cicero called ‘the Father of History’, held back before asking how one may facilitate or coordinate the Egyptian and Greek frameworks of time and history, or those of some other people groups.

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For all his enthusiasm for various people groups and societies, Herodotus composed for a Greek crowd. The structure of his Histories permitted adequate space for deviations that would educate or entertain his perusers, however varying ideas of time were not among them. Herodotus and different Greeks of the Classical age were interested about the bigger world, in any case their subject was Greece and they stayed substance to see the world through their very own date-book. The equivalent could be said for alternate people groups of the old world. Every wa so submerged in the particularities of its own way of life that it could never have jumped out at them to enquire into how different people groups may see authentic time. Herodotus had come nearer to seeing the requirement for a world history than anybody before him.

Other antiquated masterminds came similar to Herodotus, however no further. The Roman student of history Polybius (200-118 BC) wrote what he called a Universal History, grasping a significant part of the Middle East, yet he ignored contrasting ideas of history and time. Rather he shoehorned all dates into the four-year units of the Olympiads. This made his dates clear to Romans and Greeks yet incomprehensible to every other person. So also, the Jewish student of history Josephus (AD 37-100) took as his subject the collaboration of Jews and Romans, two people groups with uniquely extraordinary understandings of time. Having himself deserted to the Roman side, he utilized Roman sequence all through his The Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews and wanted to correspond that framework with the schedule of the Jews.

This, at that point, was the circumstance in the year 1000, when a generally obscure Central Asian researcher from Kath in the furthest west of present day Uzbekistan faced the issue of history and time. Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni (973-1039) was an impossible figure to take up so obscure an undertaking. Only 29 years of age, he had composed about six papers on cosmology and geodesics. He was likewise associated with a disdainful trade in Bukhara with the youthful Ibn Sina, who later picked up popularity for his Canon of Medicine. In any case, Biruni was an outsider to history and had never considered the numerous remote societies that had built up their own frameworks of time. More terrible, he had lost quite a long while escaping a flood of common distress that cleared the area. Luckily for him, a banished ruler from Gorgan close to the Caspian Sea had possessed the capacity to recover his honored position and welcomed the promising youthful researcher to come and enhance his court. At the point when that ruler, Qabus, asked Biruni to give a clarification ‘with respect to the periods utilized by various countries, and in regards to the distinctions of their foundations, i.e., … of the months and years on which they are based’, Biruni was not in a situation to state no.

Biruni before long amassed religious and verifiable writings of the antiquated Egyptians, Persians, Greeks and Romans and afterward accumulated data on Muslims, Christians and Jews. His record of the Jewish timetable and celebrations foreseen those of the Jewish savant Maimonides by over a century. He additionally amassed proof on the estimation of time and history from lesser-known people groups and factions from Central Asia, including his own Khwarazmians, a Persianate people with its own date-book framework. In his exploration he approached his insight into dialects, including Persian, Arabic and Hebrew, and in addition his local Khwarazmian. For other people, he depended on interpretations or local sources.


In a decision that made his book as inaccessible to the general reader as it is valuable to specialists, Biruni included an overwhelming mass of detail on all known histories and calendar systems. The only ones excluded were those of India and China, about which he confessed he lacked sufficient written data. So thorough was Biruni that his Chronology of Ancient Peoples remains the sole source for much invaluable data on peoples as diverse as pre-Muslim Arabs, followers of various ‘false prophets’ and even Persians and Jews.

Biruni could have made it easier for his reader had he presented everything from just one perspective: his own. But this was not his way. Unlike Herodotus, who in the end adhered to a Greek perspective, or Persian writers who applied their own cultural measure to everyone else, Biruni began with the assumption that all cultures were equal. A relativist’s relativist, he surpassed all who preceded him in the breadth of his perspective. Who but Biruni would make a point of telling readers that he interviewed heretics?

It is not surprising, given his background. Khwarezm today is all but unknown. Yet 1,000 years ago it was a land of irrigated oases and thriving cities, which had grown rich on direct trade with India, the Middle East and China. Biruni’s home town of Kath was populated by Muslims, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews, as well as traders from every part of Eurasia, including Hindus from the Indus Valley. It is unlikely that any part of the Eurasian land mass at the time spawned more people who accepted pluralism as a fact than Central Asia in general and Khwarezm in particular.

Had Biruni made only this affirmation, it is doubtful we would remember his Chronology today. But he did not and for an important reason. Qabus had made clear that he wanted a single, simple system of time, so that henceforth he would not have to consult multiple books. He also wanted one that could be applied to business and commerce, as well as national history and lore. For his part, Biruni was glad to acknowledge that different peoples view time differently, but he insisted that there exists an objective basis for evaluating each system, namely the precise duration of a day, month and year as measured by science. An astronomer and mathematician, Biruni meticulously presented the best scientific evidence on the length of the main units of time and recalculated every date recorded in every system in terms of his new, autonomous measure.

Bewildering mess

No sooner did he launch into this monumental project than he found himself in a bewildering mess. ‘Every nation has its own [system of] eras’, he wrote, and none coincide. The confusion begins, he demonstrated, with the failure of some peoples –notably the Arabs – to understand that the only precise way to measure a day is when the sun is at the meridian: at noon or midnight. Errors in measuring a day in different cultures create months and then years of differing length. The result is a hopeless muddle.

Biruni seethed at the sheer incompetence he encountered on this crucial point. He then turned to the manner in which different peoples date the beginning of historic time and his anger turns to apoplexy. ‘Everything’, he thunders, ‘the knowledge of which is connected with the beginning of creation and with the history of bygone generations, is mixed up with falsification and myths.’ How can different peoples date creation as 3,000, 8,000 or 12,000 years ago? Even the Jews and Christians are at odds, with both of them following systems of time that are ‘obscurity itself’.

Contemplated learning

Looking for the reason for such babble, Biruni focuses to the relatively all inclusive refusal to put together information with respect to reason. It isn’t only the delirium of the stargazer, ‘who is so glad for his creativity’, yet of the considerable number of people groups and societies of the world. The main ones to get away from Biruni’s fury are the Greeks, whom he portrays as ‘profoundly pervaded with, thus sharp in geometry and stargazing, and they cling so entirely to coherent contentions that they are a long way from having plan of action to the hypotheses of the individuals who determine the premise of their insight from perfect motivation’.

Biruni pushed his inquiry to its obvious end result. A central contrast among contending timetable frameworks is the manner in which they account – or neglect to account – for the way that a galactic year is 365 days and six hours in length. To expect some other length – to bomb, for instance, to include that additional quarter of multi day – causes all banquets and occasions to relocate in time continuously as the year progressed. This is the reason the pre-Muslim Arabs’ period of fasting was settled in the timetable, while Ramadan currently moves consistently. The two issues can be redressed by adding to the timetable of 365 days an additional day each fourth year, or ‘jump year’.


Called ‘intercalation’, this basic procedure turned into a litmus test by which Biruni estimated the scholarly reality everything being equal. He adulated the Egyptians, Greeks, Chaldeans and Syrians for the exactness of their intercalations, which came down to seconds. He was less liberal towards the Jews and Nestorian Christians, despite the fact that their frameworks of intercalation were generally replicated. He noticed that so as to settle their market dates and occasions, the pre-Muslim Arabs had embraced from the Jews their crude arrangement of intercalation. Muhammad dismissed this, saying ‘Intercalation is just an expansion of unfaithfulness, by which the unbelievers lead individuals off track’. With amazing gruffness, Biruni made known his view that it was essentially a slip-up for the Prophet Muhammad to have rejected the change of the year to reflect galactic reality. Deliberately holing up behind the expressions of another creator, Biruni inferred that this choice by Muhammad, in view of the Quran itself, ‘did much mischief to the general population’. Some later changes were made, however they neglected to address the center issue. ‘It is shocking’, he exploded, ‘that our lords, the group of the Prophet, tuned in to such conventions.’

Headings of supplication

This was nevertheless one of Biruni’s endeavors onto to a great degree touchy ground. In another aside, he thinks about the Islamic custom of tending to supplications to the area of Mecca, named the Kibla. Subsequent to taking note of that Muslims had at first appealed to Jerusalem, he tersely seen that Manicheans supplicate towards the North Pole and Harranians toward the South Pole. In this manner outfitted, Biruni offered his determination by positively citing a Manichean who contended that ‘a man who goes to God does not require any Kibla whatsoever’.

After these redirections, Biruni came back to his focal assignment. He realized that business exchange requires a typical arrangement of dating occasions and that all communications among people groups require a typical framework with which to figure the progression of time. Moving from portrayal to solution, he set down strides by which the wreckage made by religion and national legends could be redressed, or if nothing else mitigated. His technique was to make a methods for changing over dates starting with one framework then onto the next. Biruni displayed it as a substantial roundabout diagram or graph, which he named a ‘chessboard’, demonstrating the periods, dates and interims as indicated by each culture. Any individual who was ‘beyond what a fledgling in arithmetic’s could control the chessboard in order to make an interpretation of starting with one framework then onto the next. The technique, he gloated, would be valuable to the two students of history and space experts.

Biruni was as fretful as he was hyperactive. Barely had he completed his task than he surged back to his local Khwarezm so as to gauge further shrouds and look for financing for much greater undertakings.

We don’t know whether Biruni figured out how to keep a duplicate of his Chronology and the adding machine for all mankind’s history. The firsts without a doubt stayed with Qabus. There is no motivation to surmise that it increased wide scattering, even in the Islamic world. On the off chance that a duplicate achieved the West before the nineteenth century, it stayed obscure to grant and untranslated. Until a Leipzig researcher named Edward Sachau found a duplicate and made an interpretation of it into English in 1879, Biruni’s Chronology was to a great extent overlooked. Today, three marginally varying duplicates are known, one in Istanbul, one in Leiden and a third, lavishly outlined, in the library of Edinburgh University. Endeavors are in progress in both Britain and Uzbekistan to consolidate each of the three of every an advanced version.

Before the presence of Biruni’s Chronology there had been no all inclusive history. Nor might it be able to have been composed, on the grounds that there existed no bound together framework for estimating time that stretched out crosswise over religions and civilisations. Biruni’s was the primary worldwide logbook framework and henceforth the basic device for the development of an incorporated worldwide history.

By establishing his idea of mankind’s history on the strong atmosphere of stargazing and reason, Biruni gave all people groups of the world a basic strategy for settling dates on a solitary logbook framework. Not until the point when late decades have scholars connected the idea of a general history to which Biruni’s Chronology of Ancient Nations opened the way.

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The Cambridge researcher C.P. Snow conveyed his observed Rede address on ‘The Two Cultures’ in 1959. His investigate of current learning pointed out what he saw as the breakdown of correspondence among science and the humanities. Disregarding a few ages of students of history looking to ground their work all the more determinedly on logical technique, the break holds on.

Abu Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni, composing a thousand years back, issued similar cri de coeur. However, in contrast to Snow, this 29-year-old mastermind from Central Asia not just censured the aggregate nonappearance of sane and logical idea in history and the sociologies, yet accomplished more than anybody before him to address this exclusion. Alongside Pythagoras, he trusted that ‘Things are numbers’. In applying this proverb, he opened the path to an idea of general history that had before been inconceivable and joined the ‘Two Cultures’ in a way that still merits our adoration.

S. Frederick Starr is Research Professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. This article was first distributed in the July 2017 issue of History Today.


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