The seventh Abbasid caliph, Abu Jafar Abdullah al-Mamun, who reigned from 813 to 833 AD, was a great patron of the arts, sciences and scholarship. He is renowned for greatly expanding the centre of intellectual learning and inquiry in Baghdad, known as the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma), originally founded by his father, Caliph Harun al-Rashid. Mamun sought out scholars and experts in every field of knowledge around the world and brought them to the House of Wisdom, enormously enriching its talent pool. During this time, a major effort was mounted to translate texts from Greek, Sanskrit and Persian into Arabic, which led to the preservation and transmission of knowledge dating back to antiquity.
One of the brightest Arab stars of this “Arab Renaissance” was Al-Kindi (801–873) of Kufa. Although renowned as a “philosopher of the Arabs,” he was equally well versed in science, mathematics and music. Another genius of the era was Al-Khwarizmi (780–850), a Persian scholar, considered the father of algebra. Although the House of Wisdom was populated by a galaxy of savants with diverse religious and ethnic identities, their collective contributions are credited to the Arab Golden Age. The luminosity of Baghdad did not last long and, with the diminution of the Caliphate supremacy, the centre of gravity of Islamic learning and research shifted eastward towards central Asia, loosely designated “Khurasan”.
Central Asian Islam evolved as a moderate version of the faith – as opposed to the austere Arab form
In recent years, some first-rate scholarly books by Western authors have explored and documented the contributions of the Muslims of Central Asia to science and learning in the Middle Ages. A recent valuable addition to this corpus is Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age, by S. Frederick Starr, founding chairman of Central Asia–Caucus Institute at Johns Hopkins University. In his 634-page book, Starr persuasively argues that much of the scholastic and eschatological work carried out at the peak of the Muslim Renaissance, from the ninth to the twelfth centuries, although presented in Arabic was, in fact, generated by non Arabs – mostly from Central Asia. They are associated with a magnificent civilization that witnessed the blossoming of art, culture and science for hundreds of years. The author narrates in an engaging style the scholastic history of Central Asia and the towering figures that made it.
As the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad weakened, other autonomous states emerged. The Tahirid dynasty (820–872), founded by Tahir ibn Husayn, with its capital in the city of Nishapur (now in northeast Iran), initially kept nominal allegiance to Baghdad. Starr portrays the grandeur of medieval Nishapur as it became a rival worthy of Baghdad in intellectual and scholarly pursuits. He notes that, “In terms of creature comforts, Nishapur could compete with any city on earth. A sophisticated irrigation system brought water by underground channels from the nearby hills. Excavations conducted in 1930s revealed a densely urban complex with grand palaces, noble mosques, and stately urban residences for the rich and endless quarters of two- and three-room dwellings for the public.”
Nishapur, one of the four centres of Islamic learning along with Merv, Balkh and Herat, was the site of the first Madras-e-Nizamia established in 1053. One of the celebrated figures born in Nishapur, Omar Khayyám (1048–1131), who is known to the West merely as a romantic poet, was in fact a superb mathematician, astronomer, philosopher and musician. Nishapur, the fabled city, was annihilated by the Mongol hordes of Genghis Khan in 1219, its 1.7 million people massacred and their skulls piled up high to form macabre pyramids.
Starr mentions only briefly the medieval city of Tus, where Caliph Harun al-Rashid fell ill and died in 809. The city’s preeminent son was the poet Hakim Abul-Qasim Ferdowsi (920–1040), creator of the masterpiece Shahnama, the “Book of 49 Persian Kings” – the longest epic poem written by one person.
Impoverished and with a family to support, Ferdowsi travelled from Tus to Ghazni to present his magnum opus (in which he had invested three decades) to Sultan Mahmud, hoping for a generous reward. The Sultan had a reputation for stinginess and declined to honour his earlier pledge to Ferdowsi to reward him with one gold piece for each verse he wrote. Dejected, bitter and penniless, the poet returned to Tus. Perhaps troubled by pangs of conscience, the Sultan sent Ferdowsi an elephant loaded with silver coins. The poet contemptuously gave this away to the poor. According to legend, Sultan Mahmud finally decided to redeem his promise and sent the promised gold pieces to the poet. Alas, as the elephants bearing the gold arrived, Ferdowsi was already dead, his funeral cortege leaving the city gates. Other scholars from Tus included Jabir ibn Hayyan, the influential vizier of the Seljuk kings, Nizam al Mulk, and the famed philosopher, jurist and mystic, Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali.
Starr discusses the long list of luminaries who left indelible imprints in the fields of Islamic jurisprudence, medicine, the arts, philosophy, astronomy and literature. Imam Muhammad al-Bukhari (810–870) was a Persian scholar who was born in Bukhara and died at age 60 in Samarkand, both in present-day Uzbekistan. His collection of Hadiths is considered by Sunnis to be the most authentic document after the Quran. He is reputed to have heard and memorized 70,000 Hadiths. Starr reminds us that five out of six compilers of the authentic books of Hadiths were Central Asians, not Arabs.
Among scholars from Central Asia, three are especially noteworthy: Abu Ali-Husayn Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Mohammad bin Zakariya al-Razi (Rhazes) and Abu al-Rayhan Muhammad al-Biruni. Born in Bukhara in the year 980, Ibn Sina was one of the world’s most original thinkers and polymaths. He is revered for his landmark treatise on the diagnosis and treatment of diseases, The Cannon of Medicine, which served as the fountainhead of medical knowledge in the West for centuries and continues to influence the practice of indigenous medicine (tib-e-Unani) in South Asia. Ibn Sina died in 1037 in Hamadan, Iran.
Al-Biruni (973–1048), born in Khwarzm in present-day Tajikistan, was a brilliant intellectual with expertise in a wide range of disciplines. In 1017, when Mahmud Ghaznavi took Rey, most scholars, including Al-Biruni, were relocated to Ghazni, the capital of the Ghaznavid dynasty. Al-Biruni’s great love was the study of India, its people and customs. He accompanied Sultan Mahmud on his invasions into India, spent several years studying Hindu customs and religion and authored the scholarly Kitab Ta’rikh al-Hind. He recorded his insightful observations with remarkable objectivity, free of religious prejudices or bigotry.
What brought Central Asia’s period of enlightenment to an end? Was it the Mongol invasions, opening up sea trade routes to Europe or was it intra-religious conflict? Starr dissects the various potential factors, but reaches no conclusion.
Lost Enlightenment is a treasure trove of information, painstakingly collected and scrupulously researched. The author convincingly articulates his thesis that Central Asian Islam evolved as a moderate, tolerant version of the faith – as opposed to the Arab version, which morphed into an austere and severe form. Lost Enlightenment, however, is not a book of historiography and its narrative does not adhere strictly to the historical sequence of events as they unfolded.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Starr urged the US government to put the spotlight on Central Asian countries to find a “peaceful and intellectually open version of Islam and to back those societies that are trying most successfully to advance today.” However, it needs to be emphasized that, although not plagued by militancy, these countries are ruled by repressive and ruthless regimes that have created a suffocating environment in which the free flow of ideas is not permitted – something essential for the fluorescence of science and advancement of knowledge.