Abu-Hanifa Ahmad Dinawari

The 1,100th Anniversary of a World-Class Kurdish Scholar

By Prof. M. R. Izady

The year 1996 marks the 1,100th anniversary of the passing of one of the greatest Kurdish and Islamic minds of all times, Abu-Hanifa Ahmad Dinawari.

Among the founders of the Islamic sciences as we know them today, he was born in Dinawar circa AD 820 as Abu Hanifa Ahmad son of Dawud son of Wanand. He studied astronomy, mathematics and mechanics in Isfahan, Persia and philology and poetry in Kufa and Basra, Iraq. He died on July 24, 896 at Dinawar.

At the time, cosmopolitan Dinawar served as the metropolis of southern Kurdistan, thanks to her location on the primary east-west international commercial artery, the Silk Road. It was thus home to an array of first-rate scholars and thinkers such as Abu-Hanifa. A cursory glance through modern encyclopedias or pre-modern Islamic biographical dictionaries plainly demonstrate this wealth of intellectuals native to Dinawar.

Although the specifics of his personal life, including his birth date remain foggy, a clue to Abu-Hanifa's early family history can be found in the name of his grandfather, Wanand. This is an Iranic Kurdish name, and clearly non-Muslim. It implies that despite the wealth of his writings on the Islamic thought and topics, Abu-Hanifa was only a second generation Muslim convert. This was rather common at the time, as people were gradually converting to the new religion of Islam as it entered its third century of existence. His other compatriots such as the theologian, Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Mihran Dinawari, and the grammarian Abu-Ali Ahmad ibn Jafar ibn Badh Dinawari, and the oneirocritic Abu-Sa'id ibn Nasr ibn Yakov Dinawari, were similarly and obviously second generation Muslim converts. What is uncommon, is Abu-Hanifa's respect for his own native people and value for their historical and cultural contribution.

Abu-Hanifa-the man and the phenomenon-owe much to the intellectual currents that existed in those golden early centuries of Islamic civilization. World-class thinkers, scientists, authors, composers, architects, and the like were naturally commonplace at this time when the pride of states and state grandees were in founding universities, libraries, observatories, hospitals and laboratories, and not in warfare and politicking. The meticulousness, scientific precision and reliability which mark Abu-Hanifa's works and his discipline of thought is however precisely the hallmark of the early generations of Islamic scientists and authors hailing from the Iranic lands, a phenomenon much commented on by the great Spanish Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun in his Muqqadima.

Like many of his contemporaries, Abu-Hanifa is a world-class mind belonging thus to all ages and peoples, and not to a particular group or time. But Kurd he was, and judging by his surviving works, he looked at the world from the point of view of a Kurd. It is therefore no surprise that among the list of his compositions one finds the first-known work on Kurds' ancestry, the Ansâb al-Akrâd.

The characteristic that most strikes any reader of Abu-Hanifa's writings is the vastness of his knowledge. His works are marked by that aspect of a polymath whose extensive multidisciplinary knowledge surfaces ubiquitously in every work and on every subject about which he writes. Driven by a hyperactive analytical mind, Abu Hanifa has difficulty limiting himself to a single field or topic when explaining an entity or a phenomenon. His quest to demonstrate the interrelation of all fields of knowledge come to the fore at every turn. Thus Abu-Hanifa is as much a first-rate mathematician, astronomer, metallurgist and industrial engineer as he is a botanist, zoologist, historian, geographer, philologist, literary critic and ethnographer. His six large volumes of Kitâb al-nabât , "Book of Flora," for example, is not just a primary resource on plants and their morphological categorization, soil morphology and hydrology, but also constitute the most complete medieval philological treatise on the plant names and their occurrence in the poetic literature. As a good measure, the book also contains valuable commentaries on metallurgy and the mechanics of the blast furnaces!

A selected list of Abu-Hanifa Dinawari's writings includes, on pure sciences:


Kitâb al-jabr wa'l-muqâbila ("Book of Algebra"), Kitâb al-nabât ("Book of Flora"), Kitâb al-kusuf ("Book of Solar Eclipses"), Kitâb al-radd alâ rasad al-Isfahâni ("Refutation of al-Isfahani's Astronomical Observations"), Kitâb al-hisâb ("Book of Calculus"), Bahth fi hisâb al-Hind ("Analysis of Indian Calculous"), Kitâb al-jam' wa'l-tafriq ("Book of Arithmetics"), Kitab al-qibla wa'l-ziwal ("Book of Astral Orientations"), Kitâb al-anwâ' ("Book of Weather"), and Islâh al-mantiq ("Improvement upon Logic").

On social sciences and humanities there are:

Akhbâr al-tiwâl ("General History"), Kitâb al-kabir ("Grand Book" in history of sciences), Kitâb al-fisâha ("Book of Rhetorics"), Kitâb al-buldân ("Book of Geography"), Kitâb al-shi'r wa'l-shu'arâ ("Book of Poetry and Poets"), and Ansâb al-Akrâd ("Ancestry of the Kurds").


Lists of other lost works of Abu-Hanifa are found in the works of others who subsequently used his writings as reference or simply plagiarized them. The great historian and ethnographer, Mas'udi, informs us that Ibn Qutayba Dinawari, for example, had copied verbatim Abu-Hanifa's Book of Astral Orientations into a work of his own. That many generations of scientists and authors copied portions of Abu-Hanifa's works has inadvertently assured the survival of numerous fragments of what otherwise would have been lost. Nevertheless, and sadly, only his General History survives in its entirety.

In one of these subsequent works, Suwar al-kawâkib, after commenting on the high rank of Abu-Hanifa as an astronomer, the pre-eminent Persian astronomer and the discoverer of the Andromeda galaxy, Abdul-Rahmân Sufi Shirâzi relates that he personally saw Abu-Hanifa's observatory at Dinawar, fifty years after his death, in AD 946. Abu-Hanifa's aging students, he states, were still operating its facilities at the time. It continued operation for another two centuries ending with the Mongol sack of Dinawar. Commenting on Abu-Hanifa's Book of Weather, which apparently he came upon for the first time in the author's private library on the site of the observatory, Sufi described it as the most complete work of its kind.

The most important quality of Abu-Hanifa to attract subsequent generations of researchers was his precision. "It may be that this disposition was connected," writes B. Lewin, the author of Abu-Hanifa's biography for the 2nd edition of the Encyclopaedia of Islam, "also with his mathematical genius attested by works of his in the field of the exact sciences, which were cultivated by the scholars of Iranic origin like himself."

There is far more known of the works of Abu-Hanifa than himself, and what we know of him is mostly inferred from between the lines of his writings. His sentiments regarding his native roots can be glimpsed when in his Book of Flora, he becomes the first-known author to use Kurdish terms for Kurdistan's indigenous plants in his text, which was otherwise in accordance with the international standards of the time, written in Arabic.

While there is a universal praise for Abu-Hanifa's scientific works in the pre-modern Islamic texts, his writings and views on history raised much controversy and active antagonism. In his General History, he becomes the first historian of Islamic times to write history from the point of view and interest of the Iranic peoples of whom Kurds constitute the second largest branch. The Prophet Muhammad is thus mentioned in the marginal notes on the reign of the Sasanian king Chosroes I Anoshervan in General History. Arabs and Islam appear there only when they invade Kurdistan and other Iranic lands. His diligent recording and emphasis on the Iranic and Kurdish mythology and legends contrast markedly with the cursory treatment of the Arab and Islamic phenomenon that was the staple of the writers at the time.

Not swimming mindlessly with the historiographical currents of his time and produce a rehash of what has been written and what was being written to bolster the standing of young Islam and the Arabs, Abu-Hanifa was treading unsafe territories. As an ethical scholar he held true to his own people by collecting and preserving in General History their legends, folklore and history. His "tendency in promoting Iranic views" as Lewin phrases it, was politically incorrect, insomuch as is the resurrection of the Kurdish history and cultural legacy today.

As a scholar of exact sciences, Abu-Hanifa must have despaired over the existing standard historical views that contradicted known historical facts. He must not have realized that there is a fundamental difference between disciplines such as algebra and history: the former an exercise in accuracy, the latter in subterfuge. What is wanted is a history bolstering the position of the dominant people at any given time-a history as it should have been and not as it was. Abu-Hanifa who built observatories to chart the exact position of stars and movements of the planets could not compose a history that contradicted the available and authentic records, no matter against whose cherished fantasy it ran. Far from attacking any group of people, his records showed the true course. This was not how history was expected to be written, and Abu-Hanifa's scientific approach to history had to be aborted.

Branded as a sha'ubiyya, "nationalist," his works of history were shunned by his and subsequent generations of Arabo-Islamic historians. Thus, his General History "in spite of its literary and scholarly qualities," writes Lewin, "never met with great approval and popularity in the Arab speaking world [because] history is seen [by Abu-Hanifa] from an Iranian point of view" Let us not forget that meanwhile, fawning over and aggrandizing the Arab share of history was not considered a sha'ubiyya -nationalist act at the time; this derogation was reserved only for others claiming theirs own heritage.

This is the situation that is mirrored today when attempts are made to collect and write on the Kurdish historical and cultural legacy. The authors who do so are dismissed as "nationalists" and their work as nationalist fantasies. Abu-Hanifa would not notice the difference in the reaction of the establishment were he writing his General History today-more than 1,100 years later!

Noting the disapproval with which Abu-Hanifa's iconoclastic historical views were received in his own age, it is paradoxical that of all of his works only the General History (Akhbâr al-tiwâl) has survived in its entirety to the present. Perhaps it was the originality of his historiography that intrigued the collectors to commission numerous copies, unwittingly assuring its survival. Perhaps it was the historians who kept copies to benefit from it in private while bashing it in public. Or perhaps it was due to Abu-Hanifa's compatriots, pleased to see a non-cliche work on history that treated them fairly and with the importance they merited. The preservation of General History, therefore, many have been achieved not by accident.

For rejecting the socio-historical views of his time, views which suppressed his people's immense contributions in the past, Abu-Hanifa paid dearly. In no standard Islamic biographical work is his name entered under the rubric "historian." Ibn Nadim thus writes in al-Fihrist, his biographical work on the authors: "His name was Ahmad son of Dawud, a native of Dinawar. He studied with the scholars of Basra and Kufa. He added much to what he obtained. He was proficient in many fields of sciences, such as grammar, lexicography, trigonometry, arithmetics and Indian sciences (i.e., natural sciences). He was trustworthy and his work reliable. Upon his Book of Flora the scientists have marveled. Among his other books are " Ibn Nadim makes no mention of Abu Hanifa's contribution to history, even though he celebrates his scientific genius, trustworthiness and precision.

Others were not so charitable. Abu Hanifa's biography is completely dropped from the most prestigious Islamic biographical dictionary, the monumental eight-volume Wafiyat al-a'ayan, written by none else than Ibn Khallikân-a fellow Kurd from Arbil! Ibn Khallikân mentions Abu-Hanifa only when relating the sources that others had used in composing their own scientific works.

The steps taken by so prestigious a scientist as Abu-Hanifa to right the wrongs that were rampant in the first two centuries of Muslim historiography, were followed by the authors of other nationalities whose history and legacy had been allowed to fall by the wayside. In the century following Abu-Hanifa's pioneering General History, Iranic peoples undertook to resurrect and popularize their own similarly neglected and berated past. The Shâhnâma and Marzbânnâma written respectively in Persian and Tabari/Mazandarani mark not only the vigorous emergence of non-Arab, non-Islamic histories, but also the renaissance of those languages. In doing so they replace not just pro-Arabian historiography, but Arabic language itself as the medium of historiography in the non-Arab territories. Abu-Hanifa's challenge in the middle of the 9th century of the existing biased historiography succeeded in unraveling it by the 11th century.

It is a paradox to compare the dogged enthusiasm by which Abu-Hanifa asserted his Kurdishness 1,100 years ago with the indifference of his modern compatriots to claim his legacy and celebrate his contributions to the world of science and culture. A thinker who did not sacrifice truth to convenience, Abu-Hanifa's ethics should be a yardstick by which to measure the integrity of all authors and scholars, past and present. He should be a model and a point of pride to modern Kurds who put pen to the paper to write of their own historical and cultural legacy.

After the destruction by the Mongols in the 13th century and the Timurids in the 14th, Dinawar slowly decayed into a mass of ruins. Today the birthplace of Abu-Hanifa is marked by the village of Shirkhân that sits quietly on the middle of the vast fields of fallen masonry, broken arches and cemeteries. It serves now as a rich quarry of loot for the international art smugglers. Sadly, for except the small district of Kandula to the northwest corner of the Dinawar plain, the old Gurâni dialect of Kurdish which most probably served Abu-Hanifa as his mother tongue has been also replaced by the Sorâni and Kalhuri dialects of Kurmânji Kurdish. But Abu-Hanifa's seminal contributions and legacy which survive in his works transcends him above the ruins and adverse changes, rendering him a mind for all times and place.

Let us rejoice in the 1,100th anniversary of Abu-Hanifa Ahmad Dinawari's life of achievements-a "Renaissance man" and a native son of Kurdistan whose immense contributions make him a true citizen of the world citizen.

 Source: M.R. Izady, “The 1,100 Anniversary of Abu-Hanifa Dinawari,” Kurdish Life, Number 17, winter 1996

Abu-Hanifa Ahmad Dinawari's works

Mathematics and Natural Sciences

  1. Kitâb al-jabr wa'l-muqâbila ("Book of Algebra")
  2. Kitâb al-nabât ("Book of Plants")
  3. Kitâb al-kusuf ("Book of Solar Eclipses")
  4. Kitâb al-radd alâ rasad al-Isfahâni ("Refutation of al-Isfahani's Astronomical Observations")
  5. Kitâb al-hisâb ("Book of Arithmetics")
  6. Bahth fi hisâb al-Hind ("Analysis of Indian Arithmetics")
  7. Kitâb al-jam' wa'l-tafriq ("Book of Arithmetics")
  8. Kitab al-qibla wa'l-ziwal ("Book of Astral Orientations")
  9. Kitâb al-anwâ' ("Book of Weather")
  10. Islâh al-mantiq ("Improvement upon Logic")

Social Sciences and Humanities

  1. Akhbâr al-tiwâl ("General History")
  2. Kitâb al-kabir ("Grand Book" in history of sciences)
  3. Kitâb al-fisâha ("Book of Rhetorics")
  4. Kitâb al-buldân ("Book of Geography")
  5. Kitâb al-shi'r wa'l-shu'arâ ("Book of Poetry and Poets")
  6. Ansâb al-Akrâd ("Ancestry of the Kurds")