How scholars in the Middle East developed anthropology more than 1000 years ago

Anthropology emerged in a relatively high scientific level in the wider Middle East before it existed as a discipline in the West. Therefore, the label of colonialism often coupled to its emergence must be removed.

This is the main point of an article by Hassen Chaabani in the recent issue of the International Journal of Modern Anthropology.

Although the beginning of the development of anthropology as a discipline is originated in colonial encounter between Western people and colonized peoples and, therefore, coupled to its use in favor of extremist ideologies such as racism, this must not diminish the scientific value of anthropology, he writes.

You won't find many anthropology departments at universities in the Middle East, and its reputation might not be the best. So therefore this article mind be a timely reminder that anthropology has not been a dubious invention by the West. Chaabani sees "the prestige and hegemony of some editors and publishers in some powerful countries" as "one of the factors that could inhibit the development of a real global anthropology".

Hassen Chaabani, who is is president of the Tunisian Anthropological Association, draws our attention to two scholars: Abu Rayhan al- Biruni, a Persian scholar (973-1048) and Ibn Khaldoun, a Tunisian scholar (1332-1406).

Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, he writes, "is considered as one of the greatest scientists not only of the 11th century but of all times". He is most commonly known as a mathematician, astrologer, and historian. But he has also been an anthropologist:

He founded the science of anthropology before anthropology existed as a discipline, and therefore he is considered as the first anthropologist. He was an impartial writer on custom and creeds of various nations and was the first Muslim scholar to study Indian populations and their traditions. In addition he wrote detailed comparative studies on the anthropology of religions and cultures in the Middle East, Mediterranean and especially South Asia. (…)

Living during the high period of Islamic cultural and scientific achievements, Al-Biruni placed a focus on modern anthropological interests including caste, the class system, rites and customs, cultural practice, and women’s issues (Akbar, 2009). Through this modern practice, Al-Biruni used the concepts of cross cultural comparison, inter-cultural dialogue and phenomenological observation which have become commonplace within anthropology today (Ataman K., 2005).

Biruni's tradition of comparative cross-cultural study continued in the "Muslim world" through to Ibn Khaldoun’s work in the 14th century, Chaabani writes:

Some of his books cover the history of mankind up to his time and others cover the history of Berber peoples, natives of North Africa, which remain invaluable to present day historians, as they are based on Ibn Khaldūn's personal knowledge of the Berbers. In fact, he presented a deep anthropological study of Berbers before anthropology existed as a discipline.

Chaabani also writes that the general idea of biological evolution was advanced more than 1,000 years before Darwin by the Iraqi thinker Amr ibn Bahr Al Jahis (800-868) in his book "Book of Animals".

> > read the whole article (pdf)

Who was the first anthropologist? Really al-Biruni? A tricky question. Others might point to Classical Greece and Classical Rome, see more in Wikipedia: History of Anthropology (where al-Biruni is mentoned as well). The main point as I see it is that anthropology was developed in many parts of the world, and not only in the so-called West.


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