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Lost Enlightenment , by S. Frederick Starr

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane - S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr (b. 1940), a longtime expert on Central Asia and former president of Oberlin College, enthusiastically and compellingly relates the economic, geographic and intellectual history (with brief forays into the political and social history) of a region of the earth about which I am shamefully ignorant. A great blankness between the demise of the Greek kingdom of Bactria (a remnant of Alexander's brief empire) in the 2nd century BCE and the Great Game of the 19th century, excepting some information about the Silk Road and the Buddhist center of Dunhuang, was what I knew about Central Asia, though some of the names of the great cities like Samarkand and Bukhara floated romantically and vaguely through my mind. That is going to change, and this book gives the reader a great leg up.


With a primary focus on the period 750 - 1150 CE, after the Arab invasion, which he calls Central Asia's Golden Age, Starr freely goes back a few thousand years in order to establish context (which I personally always want to know), and another vast expanse of the struggle, joy, pain, accomplishment and loss of humankind is opened up. Nothing new in that, but there are novelties in the ways that the simultaneously adaptable and stubbornly pig-headed human being reacts to the rather different physical and human surroundings unique to Central Asia. In fact, because these huge cities (the most populous of their time) were centered at oases in an otherwise dry environment, technical knowledge and competence in science, engineering and business were crucial to their very existence. This led to authoritarian control (in order to be able to amass the huge amount of resources and man power necessary to construct and maintain the enormous and enormously complicated irrigation systems over centuries of time) but also to a technocratic, mercantile culture not at all unfamiliar to us. Indeed, as Starr writes,


[O]ne might say that Central Asia was ... a place where many people were concerned with what the Greek thinkers called tekhne, or "the way things are made or the manner in which a goal is attained." Today it has become fashionable to be dismissive of this quality,(*) on the grounds that it has become the only concern of many modern men and women. But ... this was scarcely the case in Central Asia fifteen hundred years ago.


And then there is the literary, philosophic, religious and scientific culture, something which is extremely vulnerable to loss but which can last longer than any edifice of stone and which can touch and move human beings at a far remove in time and space...


That is the focus of the rest of the book, where Starr discusses the accomplishments of some of the most important thinkers and creators of the Golden Age after setting the stage of the rich pre-Islamic culture of a Central Asia at the crossroads of the cultures of India, China, the Middle East and Greece, mixing and interacting with the autochthonous culture (e.g. Zoroastrianism is native to Central Asia(**)). The Central Asians were open to all ideas, and their thinkers analyzed, debated and synthesized the foreign ideas into new forms, at least until the Arab invasion. And as long as there have been records, they appear to have been great compilers and codifiers, commentators and translators. Unfortunately, the records are far from complete because the Arabs in their zeal burnt hundreds if not thousands of pre-Islamic libraries throughout Central Asia. Happily, their reach did not extend into what is now western China, so not all was lost.


The writings of the Golden Age fared rather better, since the infidels had already been swept away, though, for example, 90% of Rudaki's poetry has been lost by other causes.(***)


Among the leading figures of this Golden Age Starr discusses is Abū Naṣr Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad Fārābī (c. 972 - c. 951), who interests me greatly. He was a natural philosopher trained in Aristotelean thought who further extended the "First Teacher's" work to the point that he became known as the "Second Teacher." One argues whether he was of Persian or of Turkic descent (that he was born and raised in Central Asia is agreed upon by all contending parties), but he lived most of his life in Baghdad and wrote in Arabic. He was well informed about the work of many classical Greek philosophers and developed a logic incorporating elements of Aristotelean and Stoic logic, as well as a philosophy which broke with both Aristotle and Plato.


Farabi's philosophy was dominant in the Arabic world until the even more interesting Avicenna (Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥusayn ibn ʿAbd Allāh ibn Al-Hasan ibn Ali ibn Sīnā: c. 980 - 1037) worked out a replacement strongly influenced by Farabi's thought. Ibn Sīnā (as Starr refers to him) was born in Bukhara of Persian descent, wrote in Arabic and New Persian, and was an even greater polymath than Farabi. His book on medicine became required reading in medieval Europe, but his contributions are manifold. 


An even more dominant figure was Ghazali (Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazālī: c. 1058 - 1111), born in Khorasan, the northeast corner of the current Iran, of Persian descent. If I may be permitted to oversimplify, where Farabi and Avicenna were open to non-Islamic ideas and engaged in the nonideological study of nature, Ghazali used his intelligence and philosophical skills to kill the budding Hellenic-Islamic philosophy permanently and to see to it that iniquitous logic was left behind in favor of the mysticism of the Sufis. He was also, dangerously for his opponents, a superlative theologian and jurist. He saw to it that no one was left standing. He is now regarded as a Mujaddid, or renewer of the faith. I rest my case. The book's title is motivated by the consequences of Ghazali's activities; Starr calls Ghazali The Dark Genius. Let Ghazali speak for himself.


The majority of men, I maintain, are dominated by a high opinion of their own skill and accomplishments, especially the perfection of their intellects for distinguishing true from false and sure guidance from misleading suggestions. It is therefore necessary, I maintain, to shut the gate, so as to keep the general public from reading the books of the misguided as fas as possible...on account of the danger and deception in them. Just as the poor swimmer must be kept from the slippery banks, so must mankind be kept from reading these books; just as the boy must be kept from touching the snake, so must the ears be kept from receiving such utterances.


Thanks, Dad, but we've heard this before...


Nobody dared make a peep until Averroes (ʾAbū l-Walīd Muḥammad bin ʾAḥmad bin Rušd: 1126-1198), safe at the other end of the Islamic world in Spain and Morocco, ventured a rebuttal in favor of logic and reason. It wasn't well received in the Islamic world, but he did find a sympathetic audience when it was translated into Latin...


As in China, many of the scholars Starr writes about were also leading literary figures, usually poets. Among the stars of the Golden Age firmament who are known primarily as poets is Omar Khayyám (Ghiyāth ad-Dīn Abu'l-Fatḥ ʿUmar ibn Ibrāhīm al-Khayyām Nīshāpūrī: 1048 - 1131), born in Nishapur, educated in Samarkand and professionally active in Bukhara. Though everyone has heard of his poetry, he was also a leading mathematician, coming up with a geometrical method to solve cubic algebraic equations, to mention just one advance.


These are but four of dozens of other figures discussed in some detail in Lost Enlightenment. As is clear already, this is an extremely rich book treating the history and high culture of the inhabitants of a region most of us know little about but which is affecting all of our lives. Need I say more?


(*) Ridiculous complaint valid only in what is left of the ivory tower; what is actually fashionable today is to be dismissive of any quality other than tekhne, except celebrity and wealth.


(**) In the words of the authority Mary Boyce, "the first to teach the doctrines of an individual judgment, Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body, the general Last Judgment, and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body." The experts are still arguing about when Zoroaster lived - the dates range from the 6th century BCE all the way back to the 11th century BCE!  


(***) In the past few days I read some rather infelicitous translations into English and German of the extant poetry of Abu Abdollah Jafar ibn Mohammad Rudaki (c. 880 - c. 941), who, as I understand it, is viewed as the first literary star of the New Persian language written with the Arabic script, which replaced Middle Persian (Pahlavi). ("New" is relative - the language is the Persian (Farsi) spoken in Iran now, but supposedly it hasn't changed much at all in the last thousand years. That is hard for me to credit, but so says Starr.)