Revisionist Rewriting of 9th Century Arabic Enlightenment


The self-proclamation of a terrorist organization as new “Islamic State” and “caliphate” led by an individual who has changed his name to al-Baghdadi has not been met with general enthusiasm or sympathy in the Islamic world, not even in Salafi and Wahhabi circles in Saudi Arabia or Gulf Emirates. But has rather attracted wannabee terrorists, murderous criminals, general losers and even sexually frustrated potential rapists. The idea of a legitimate caliphate, which might in fact unify Muslims in a similar way as Catholic Christians are led by the Bishop of Rome, has direly been damaged and demonized again.

It is well-known, and not reasonably deniable, that the 8th and 9th century translation movement in Baghdad’s House of Wisdom, which had been commissioned by the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (d. 809) in the late 8th century and which culminated under his son al-Ma’mun (d. 833), has not only preserved older Greek and Indian scientific and philosophical texts but also sparked an unprecedented and unrivaled desire in the Islamic world for gaining deeper knowledge in literally all fields of science, medicine and philosophy.

It is usually held that Islam’s Golden Age, a time of great enlightenment more than six centuries before Europe’s Age of Reason, came to an end when Baghdad was sacked by the Mongolian Hulagu Khan in 1258, the last Abbasid Caliph al-Mus’tasim trampled to death and Baghdad’s grand library with countless documents, historical texts and books destroyed. But that may not be entirely true. In fact, science in the Islamic world continued to blossom, for example under the Mongolian Ilkhans in Maragha in Iran. Jim al-Khalili, in his nice book of 2010, Pathfinders – The Golden Age of Arabic Science [1], has suggested a, in his opinion, likely cause for the decline of Islamic science because of a general reluctance to embrace the printing press, which had been (re)invented in the mid-15th century in Germany by Johannes Gutenberg (but was actually invented in China four hundred years earlier).

“Muslims showed an intense aversion towards printing well into the seventeenth century. In the Islamic world, calligraphy was, and still is, far more than just an art form or an aesthetic style; it was a meansof cultural identity. Printing in moveable type meant that the flowing harmony of this beautiful tradition was being reduced to a mechanistic process, and it was strongly resisted.

But early European printers with an eye for business spotted the potential of an untapped market, and one of the very first books to be printed in Arabic, by the Paganinis of Venice in 1537, was the Qur’an itself. A few years ago I had the opportunity to study the sole surviving copy of this ambitious project. It was discovered in the 1980s by the Italian historian Angela Nuovo in the library of the Franciscan Friars of San Michele in Isola, Venice, and it would appear that very few, if any, native Arabic-speakers have had the opportunity to study it. I was very intrigued therefore to have a close look at it, particularly as it has long been surrounded by an aura of mystery.

On scanning through it, I quickly found several typographical errors. For instance, the Arabic word for ‘that’ is thālika. This appears in the text, incorrectly, with an ‘a’ sounding vowel instead of an ‘i’: a slanted dashed line above the ‘l’ rather than below it, changing the pronunciation to thālaka, which is meaningless. This seemingly trivial misspelling of a word in the Muslim holy book would have been regarded as sacrilegious, and it is no surprise that the Ottomans, who had been offered several hundred copies by the valiant Venetian printers, rejected them.

This failure of the trading Venetians to convince the Ottomans of the benefits of the printing press prevented it from spreading beyond Istanbul to the other parts of the Islamic world. When Arabic printing was finally introduced in Turkey in 1727, only geography, history and language books were printed: all religious books were specifically excluded from this authorization.” [2]

As most texts had been written in then lingua franca, i.e. Arabic, al-Khalili stresses the term “Arabic Science” (rather than “Islamic Science”) for the remarkable achievements which had been made during the period between the 8th and 14th centuries in the Islamic world.

In quite a contrast, a new book by S. Frederick Starr redirects the entire attention to Central Asia (notably including Iran) as the real origin of medieval Enlightenment [3] which rather happened despite the Arab conquest. Starr is the founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program which is affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm.

Of course, Baghdad, then the biggest city of the world with half a million or more inhabitants, the center of the newest and most dominant faith with a, well, fair and utterly comprehensible jurisdiction (sharia) and reliable law enforcement, must have attracted all kinds of people from the far, the more so literate ones as it was home of the largest library so far. These included early on members of the famous family of the Barmakids who originally came from mainly Buddhist Balkh. In particular al-Ma’mun assembled Central Asian thinkers and scientist in Baghdad who he had probably met when residing as Governor of Khurasan in Merv. Since Islam was young, of course they consisted also of Buddhists, Christians, Manichaeans, even Jews. Cosmopolitan Abbasid Baghdad was indeed irresistable, très chic.

Starr’s attempt to see al-Mansur’s Round City, a new foundation on the banks of the river Tigris near the old and abandoned Sassanian capital Ctesiphon, as mere imitation of Erk Kala, the 2500-yr-old citadel at Merv from where the Abbasid Revolution started, is more than circumstantial. He portrays early Baghdad’s key caliphs al-Mansur, al-Rashid and al-Ma’mun as utterly hedonistic and mainly wicked and gruesome [4], just disregarding their spiritual role in a still new faith.

Starr holds that many of the most eminent (wandering) scholars of Islam’s Golden Age soon left the buzzing city again. And he questions, for example, that Khurasani polymath Khwarizmi (b. 780 CE) has lived and worked long in the City of Peace.

“When did Khwarazmi leave Khurasan for Baghdad? The question is critical to Khwarazmi’s identity as a thinker. There is no evidence that he arrived in Iraq before 819, the year Mamun finally decided to move his court from Merv to the caliphate’s capital. The fact that Khwarazmi dedicated both of his most famous works to Mamun indicates a close link between that caliph and the great mathematician-astronomer. Khwarazmi was twenty-nine years [sic] old in the year Mamuns caravan of administrators, scientists, and intellectuals departed Merv for Baghdad.” [5]

Well, probably rather thirty-nine years. As fact of the matter, he accomplished many of his works actually in Baghdad.

“One further solid fact on Khwarazmi’s life bears mentioning. In 841 Caliph Wathiq sent him on an expedition to the Khazars, the Turkic people who had converted to Judaism and established a steppe kingdom in what is now southern Ukraine [sic]. The Arabs had fought wars against the Khazars and now feared a third. Almost nothing of the expedition’s purpose or results survives. But the fact that the caliph considered the Khwarazm native to be ipso facto an expertt on a people with whom the Khwarazmians had maintained close commercial relations provides yet another piece of evidence that the great mathematician and scientist had remained in his own homeland long enough not only to be educated there but to gain broad experience as a mature adult.”

Circular reasoning like that goes on and on. As do imprecisions which may easily be checked. At the largest extension of the empire, Khazars ruled the vast area extending from the Volga-Don steppes to the Crimea and the northern Caucasus. But what does Khwarizmi’s origin in the vast Khwarezm oasis (a respective  empire did develop not before the 12th century) actually say about the indisputable intellectual revolution of science and culture under caliphs al-Rashid, al-Ma’mun, even al-Mutasim (r. 833-842) and al-Wathiq (r. 842-847)?

Numerous repeat misspellings, e.g. Manicheans, Fatamids, cast doubt of Starr’s historical expertise outside that of Central Asia, which he extends to western Khurasan and even Sistan. Regions are described using contemporary state names, e.g., Afghanistan (most of which belonged historically to greater Khurasan), or Iraq, Iran rather than Jibal for Persian Iraq. Late eminent scholar and Islamic art historian Oleg Grabar is embarrassingly referred to as Igor (a post-impressionist Russian painter). Starr extensively writes about Nishapour and Tus (not exactly Central Asian cities) and their impressive numbers of celebrities in science and poetry but claims that these two cities were just 15 miles apart, in reality 70 km as the crow flies. Apart from describing Central Asian geniuses as frontrunners in science,  Starr doesn’t have a deeper understanding of what polymaths of Islamic Golden Age had actually achieved. He claims that al-Biruni (d. 1048) from Kath in Khwarezm had “discovered” the Americas after having calculated Earth’s circumference [6]. Well, Biruni suggested an additional continent which makes quite a difference. After his precise estimate of Earths circumference. His method is described much more perspicuous in al-Khalili’s book [7], in particular Biruni’s reference to earlier attempts by al-Ma’mun’s astronomer Sanad: “Here’s another method for the determination of the circumference of the Earth. It doesn’t require walking in deserts.”

Not only when Starr describes the 9th and 10th centuries Samanid dynasty one gets the impression that Central Asians’ resistance to Islam, in particular Abbasid and later Bukharan (due to al-Bukhari’s collection of ahadith) Sunni Islam, comprised the main cause for perseverance of all kinds of poetry, philosophy, and science. The life of Ibn Sina (d. 1037), one of many exceptional polymaths of the time, is described as that of a typical Samanid citizen. He lived, according to Starr, the first 32 years in Central Asia and “then spent the rest of his life in constant flight from city to city in western Persia”[8]. While it is held that Ibn Sina’s quasi hometime Bukhara in fact rivaled Baghdad as intellectual and cultural center under Samanid rule, how does it fit when Starr describes the city [9]?

“Even though there were a few broad, paved streets, Bukhara, in the tenth century as today [sic], was a warren of winding lanes and alley. And not a very clean one. Nearly every medieval writer who visited the city commented on the filth and smell that prevailed beyond the zone of official buildings.”

That almost certainly applied to any medieval city, be it in the East or West, I suppose. The second part of Starr’s book is not so much about Central Asian polymaths but the violent history of short-lived dynasties constantly threatened by brutal Turks’ oppression. But this is what Central Asians are. Starr seems to make the point that Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians, Manichaeans, or Ismailis and Sufis who peacefully lived in and inhabited the poorly defined, by western historians, region had first been threatened by muslims from the West and then recently converted Turks. Apparently culture and civilization prevailed [10].

“Even in his own day writers worried that Mahmud’s [of Ghazni, d. 1030] reign mark the beginning of a downward spiral for the region’s civilization. Anyone speculating on this possibility soon comes up against the inconvenient fact that Mahmud, even as he pursued his savage wars of conquest, also patronized some of the greatest minds of his age notably Biruni and Ferdowsi. He constructed monuments of architecture that overwhelmed their beholders, and he lent his support to a phalanx of writers, including several whose Persian poetry still delights and enchants readers.

The reason we find this a conundrum ist that it challenges our modern assumption that learning and the arts arise naturally from just political and social orders and, conversely, that bad politics somehow poisons the life of the mind and spirit. The easy way out is to argue that culture under the Ghazni kings flourished in spite of their leadership and not because of it. But as we shall see, this misses an essential truth concerning Mahmud of Ghazni, namely, that he was in some respects a true cultural heir of the Samanid and Khurasan monarchs, even as he obliterated much what they created.”

It is heavily disputed that Mahmud supported, in any way, Ferdowsi’s poem, who died in 1020. As mentioned earlier in Starr’s book, Mahmud had coerced al-Biruni to accompany him on his conquest of India. He had ordered Ibn Sina to his court as well but failed. Starr’s reasoning here is again circular.

Starr’s book describes the history of medieval Central Asia until the Mongolian and Timur’s onslaught. In particular the former appears as if hardly anybody had survived. That polymath Nasir al-Din al-Tusi rose again to considerable power and fame under Chengis Khan’s grandson Hülegü Khan in Maragha, according to Starr a follower of the Ismaili heresy which Hülegü had smashed in 1256, must come as a surprise if one follows Starr’s narrative of the allegedly so cruel Ilkhan. As so many polymaths’ achievements, his Tusi-couple (see below) is cursorily described by Starr without deeper understanding.



[1] Al-Khalili J. Pathfinders –  The Golden Age of Arabic Science. Allen Lane, London: 2010.

[2] ibid., p. 234f. This is, of course, pure speculation. That the center of enlightenment eventually moved from the Islamic world to Renaissance southern and central Europe and ultimately North America may have additional reasons which certainly includes gradual emancipation from religion in the West.

[3] Starr SF. Lost Enlightenment – Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton University Press, Princeton: 2013.

[4] This reminded me of a heavily biased Shi’ite characterization of al-Ma’mun in a hagiography of their contemporary eighth Imam, Ali al-Ridha, which I had received from a group of Kuwaitis who were on a pilgrimage to his shrine in the city of Mashhad in Iran in 2006/07 and who had invited me to join.

[5] Starr, p. 174.

[6] ibid. p. 375f.

[7] Al-Khalili, p. 184.

[8] One should note here that the last 12 years of his life Ibn Sina had settled in Isfahan and was in the service of the Kakuyid emir Ala al-Dawla.

[9] Starr, p. 236.

[10] ibid., 336.

21 December 2014 @ 4:45 pm.

Last modified December 21, 2014.

This entry was posted in Book Review, Islam and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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