Abu’l-Raihan al-Biruni was a Persian polymath born in 973 AD. His contributions to mathematics, geography, astronomy, and physics are most well known. During his travels in India, he not only taught Greek science, but in exchange he became acquainted with Indian science. This made him a strong promoter of this science in the Islamic world.
At the court of sultan Mas’ud, al-Biruni wrote an important work on minerals and gemstones, called the Kitab al-jamahir fi ma’rifat al jawahir (The book of the multitude of knowledge of precious stones) [1, 2, 3]. In this lapidary, al-Biruni gives a detailed description of the colors of many minerals and gemstones. Color is used as a clear way to identify minerals and gemstones. He discusses extensively the slight color differences between minerals originating from different mines or having different degrees of purity, relating them to the effect this may have on their financial value.
The Kitab al-jamahir does not contain a separate chapter on color itself or on color ordering. But taken together, the many descriptions of color variations that appear in this book while discussing different types of minerals and gemstones do form a large body of scientific knowledge on color. Two centuries after al-Biruni, another Persian scientist by the name of al-Tusi would indeed collect many of al-Biruni’s findings and formulate an impressive color ordering scheme by combining them with other sources .
An example of this part of al-Biruni’s scientific legacy is found in his description of different types of rubies. According to al-Biruni, the colors of rubies range from sky blue, via lapis lazuli and indigo-blue, to kohl black. Almost exactly the same color series is found in the grand color scheme of al-Tusi, with only the color turquoise having been added. In a similar way, not only many color words in al-Tusi’s grand color scheme already occur in al-Biruni’s work, but the latter also provided several partial color orderings.
Another interesting aspect of al-Biruni’s description of color is that he is one of the first to verbally describe one of the color dimensions. After having described the color series from sky blue, via lapis lazuli and indigo-blue, to kohl black, al-Biruni characterizes this gradual color change by the word shab’a (p. 72 in Ref. ) (Vol. 2, p. 42 in Ref. ). Originally this word is used for describing the feeling one has after a copious meal, and it is best translated as saturation. In classical Arabic literature and in modern Arabic, the same word became the common word for color saturation (p. 701 in Ref. ). Although the color sequence mentioned above shows that the colors in this series do not change only with respect to color saturation in the modern definition of this word, al-Biruni’s text is one of the first to relate this term to color .
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