Sebokht and al-Biruni on universal science and parochialism

Claims of the universal truth of science existed among ancient intellectuals who recognized learning in cultures spanning from Egypt to Greece to India.  For example, Severus Sebokht of Nisibis was a seventh-century bishop living in a monastery at Qenneshren, Syria.  He was well-versed in Greek literature, yet also aware of the more ancient sciences of the Egyptians and the Babylonians.  In addition, Sebokht described the Hindus as having “subtle discoveries in this science of astronomy, discoveries that are more ingenious than those of the Greeks and the Babylonians.”  He also noted that the Hindus did computations by means of nine signs.  Those signs (augmented with the sign for zero) are now known as Arabic numerals and used worldwide.  Sebokht wrote:

If those who believe, because they speak Greek, that they have reached the limits of science should know these things, they would be convinced that there are also others who know something.  I don’t say this to disparage Greek science, but to show that science is universal. [1]

In the eleventh century, al-Biruni, writing about India, presented a similar complaint:

According to their {the Hindus’} 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. [2]

The truth of science is universal.  So too is the truth of parochial human nature.

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[1]  Ms., Syriac, No. 346, Bibliotheque Nationale de Paris, trans. into French, Nau (1910) p. 250.  Ginsburg (1917) p. 368 provides most of the translation from Nau’s French into English, and biographical background on Sebokht.  Sebokht also wrote to his Greek scientific correspondent:

As an ignorant Syrian, I send you these minor questions for those who believe that all scientific knowledge is found in Greek; I beg you to answer me all these questions, so that when those I have spoken about have answered me, I will give thanks to God, who provides wisdom and science, and also thanks to your wise explanation and brotherly solicitude, by means of which I will have learned these and other similar things.

Nau (1910) p. 252, my translation from Nau’s French.  Sebokht here is richly sarcastic.

[2] Al-Biruni, Indica, trans. Sachau (1910), vol. 1, p. 23.


Ginsburg, Jekuthial. 1917. “New light on our numerals.” Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. 23 (8): 366-370.

Nau, Francois. 1910. “La cosmographie au VIIe siècle chez les Syriens.” Revue de l’Orient chrétien 15 (18): 225–254.

Sachau, Eduard. 1910. Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Bīrūnī. Alberuni’s India. An account of the religion, philosophy, literature, geography, chronology, astronomy, customs, laws and astrology of India about A.D. 1030. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co.

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