Lost Enlightenment brings alive the marches of Khorasan, Iran and Turan, the cities, libraries, taverns, ateliers, laboratories, observatories, markets and caravan-serais of Merv (once the biggest city in the world), Balkh, Baghdad and Bukhara as vividly in its pages as the warriors Rostam and Sohrab did in the hemistichs of the Shahnameh.
The fame is well deserved, for Central Asia in these 400-odd years produced some of the most towering intellects of all times, from the rationalist philosophers, free-thinkers and scientists Ibn Sina, Al Razi, Al Beruni and Omar Khayyam, who between them revived the disciplines of physics, astronomy, geography, medicine and philosophy on an unprecedented level, to poets like Rudaki, Ferdowsi, Rumi and Nizami who could speak of love, betrayal, a longing for the infinite, astonishment, bread, wine and death in terms that seem strangely contemporary today, even as they invoke a lost world.
The book opens with an account of what must be one of the most exciting exchanges in the intellectual history of the world. That this correspondence is all but unknown (except to specialist historians of science in Islam) is a testament to the incredible neglect of Central Asian and Islamicate history. In 999 (CE), a 28-year-old Al Beruni, sitting by the shores of the Aral Sea in Gurganj (in present day Turkmenistan), wrote a letter to the 18-year-old Ibn Sina, 250 miles aways in Bukhara (in Uzbekistan today), that inaugurated an exchange that lasted for two years. Starr correctly says, “It reads like a scholarly feud waged today on the internet”.
What were Al Beruni and Ibn Sina quarreling about? ‘Are there other solar systems among the stars, they asked, or are we alone in the universe? Six hundred years later, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for championing the plurality of words…but to these two men it seemed clear that we are not alone; unique, probable, but not alone. They also asked if the earth had been created whole or complete, or if it had evolved over time… this blunt affirmation of geological evolution was as heretical to the Muslim faith they both professed as it would have been to medieval Christianity. This bothered one of the young scientists but not the other, so the first — Ibn Sina — hastened to add the intricate corrective that would be more theologically acceptable. But at bottom both anticipated evolutionary geology and even key points of Darwinism by eight centuries.’
Ibn Sina and Al Beruni ended their correspondence in disagreement, and their intellectual paths apparently never crossed again. Each went on to be a star, though in separate orbits. Ibn Sina’s canon of medicine was a foundational text of diagnostics and Al Beruni’s India (written while in the reluctant service of the marauding Mahmud of Ghazni) was the most detailed and sensitive account of another culture that the world had known till then. Today, Ibn Sina’s legacy lives on in the “Unani” system of medicine that still serves millions of Indians, and Al Beruni remains perhaps the greatest and most sympathetic Muslim interpreter of Hindu and Buddhist civilisation to the Islamic world. Our debts to their exchange, to its liveliness and its discord, remain unpaid.
Al Beruni and Ibn Sina mediated an atmosphere of free thought that spanned the abstract philosophical speculation of Al Khwarizmi (from whom we get the word ‘algorithm’, as well as the introduction of the zero from India into world mathematical culture) and the humanism of Omar Khayyam. It spanned a spectrum that at its farthest ends included the materialism and radical atheism of Al Rawandi and Al Razi as well as the stern orthodoxy of Al Ghazali and the mystic ecstasy of Rumi... read more: