Friday, September 12, 2014

Book Review: Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane' by S Frederick Starr
Review by Philip Bowring
Frederick Starr, an American academic has done the region, and global knowledge, a huge service by bringing to life and to the light for a general audience the age when central Asia was the intellectual capital of the world, generating ideas which were to prove seminal for others, particularly in the west.
The region’s population may have been relatively small and scattered but ideas travelled fast along the silk and other roads which connected its centers and linked it to an Arab world stretching from Baghdad to Cordoba, now in southern Spain. For half a millennium, from around 750 to 1250, this region was a fount of scientific and cultural progress, of free thinking and ethnic tolerance whether under rule by Arab, Persian or Turk. Its greatness was undermined by Genghis Khan and obliterated by Timur (Tamerlane).
The book begins with reference to a remarkable correspondence between two individuals living respectively in today’s Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, speculating on the existence of worlds beyond our own and whether the universe was created whole or was in the process of evolution. Although the correspondents were Muslims, their thinking was at heart heretical, anticipating evolutionary geology and even Darwinian theory.
One was Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, who lived near the Aral sea and the other Abu Ali al-Husayn ibn Sina from Bukhara. The latter, whose interests covered medicine and pharmacology as well as philosophy, went on to write the Canon of Medicine. This great work by a man known in the west as Avicenna, was translated into Latin and became the basis for the scientific study of medicine in the west and also had huge influence in India.

Read Alberuni's Tarikh Al-Hind (circa 1030 CE)
Starr sees this Enlightenment as stemming from the interactions which followed the overthrow in 750 of the Damascus-based Ummayad caliphate by the Abbasids, who came to power through the help of Khorasan, the state encompassing northeast Iran and northern Afghanistan. The Abbasids established their capital at Baghdad but much of the flowering of civilization under them came from a central Asia which retained much of earlier Persian culture and of Greek influence dating back to Alexander the Great’s establishment of a Greek kingdom based on Balkh in northern Afghanistan.
Buddhist, Manichean and Zoroastrian ideas were both part of older traditions, as was the Nestorian Christianity which flourished in Persia before Islam, and in Sogdiana, whose territory stretched well into what is now China, whose merchants dominated the silk route from China and whose Persian-related language was long the trade language of the region.
The writings of Aristotle were a starting point for the debates between intellectuals of who al-Biruni and ibn Sina were just two of many, most of whose writings have been lost or not been translated from old Arabic and Persian into other languages. But among those that survived was the work of mathematicians and astronomer al-Khwarazmi who gave his name to the algorithm and his method to algebra, and Farghani from the now much troubled Ferghana valley in Uzbekistan.
Farghani wrote the definitive work on the astrolabe – precursor of the sextant –and source for Geoffrey Chaucer’s English work Treatise on an Astrolabe written almost 500 years later. Farghani quite accurately calculated the circumference of the earth. This was used by Christopher Columbus when he set sail from Europe to reach China but ended up in the Americas – he used Roman miles not Arab miles in his calculations based on Farghani.
These intellectuals travelled widely as well as corresponding. But now they tend to be seen as representing Muslim Arab civilization at its peak of progress and are often assumed to have been Arabs from the Middle East or North Africa. But in reality most during the flowering f ideas under the Ummayads were originally from central Asia and wrote as much in Persian as Arabic.
Their heartland was the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand and Merv, with economies built both on trade and irrigated agriculture using the Amu Darya River, which rises in the Pamirs, and Syr Darya which flows from the Tien Shan Mountains on the border of China and Kyrgyzstan. Their world extended not just westwards to Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba but eastward across the mountains to Kashgar and to the Turkic lands now mostly part of China’s troubled Xinjiang region.
Starr recounts both the stupendous intellectual and artistic achievements of the peoples of the region, the sometimes turbulent political history of wise men and cultured marauders and the varying roles of Arabs, Persians, Turks, Turkic groups and Mongols. In short it is a fine book on a subject which deserves to be far better known and the peoples of Central Asia acknowledged for their contribution to human development...
'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..' : Shuddhabrata Sengupta
http://www.business-standard.com/article/specials/enlightenment-lost-and-found-114091101108_1.html
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, 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 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: