What Was Islamic Culture and What Happened to It?

What Was Islamic Culture and What Happened to It?
(Dr. S. Frederick Starr, December 14, 2016)

Transcript available below

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About the speaker

Dr. S. Frederick Starr is the author of Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, which chronicles a forgotten age of achievement, seeks to explain its rise, and explores the competing theories about the cause of its eventual demise. The book has been translated into 13 languages. He is the founding Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies Program, a joint transatlantic research center affiliated with the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University in Washington (where he is a Research Professor).

His research on the countries of Greater Central Asia, their history, development, internal dynamics, as well as on US policy towards the region has resulted in twenty-two books and 200 published articles. His most recent book is The Ferghana Valley: The Heart of Central Asia.

Dr. Starr is a frequent commentator on the affairs of the region, and the author of numerous articles in journals including Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The National Review, Far East Economic Review, and op-eds in various leading American and international newspapers. During the past decade he has returned repeatedly to the challenge of reopening continental-wide transport passing through Central Asia and Afghanistan, which he sees as a key to success in Afghanistan itself.

Dr. Starr was the founding Chairman of the Kennan Institute in Washington, and served as Vice President of Tulane University and President of the Aspen Institute and of Oberlin College (1983-94). He was closely involved in planning the University of Central Asia and the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy and is a trustee of the Nazarbayev University in Kazakhstan. He earned his PhD in History at Princeton, MA at King’s College, Cambridge, and his BA at Yale, and holds four honorary degrees.

For more on Azerbaijan, see Svante Cornell’s lecture on the Armenia-Azerbaijan Crisis.


Robert Reilly:

Well, now tonight, it is a tremendous pleasure to introduce our mystery guest who is a star. I don’t really want to read the conventional bio here since most of you received it in the email, but I will tell you that as you know, Socrates’ greatest achievement was knowing his own ignorance and I’ve always known I was an ignorant man, but I never understood the dimensions of my ignorance until I began reading Frederick Starr’s book, The Lost Enlightenment, Central Asia’s Golden Age from Arab Conquest to Tamarlane. This is a staggering book that has shown me how ignorant I am. It’s a treasure that I believe only a renaissance man could have written.

As he begins, several millennia BC in Asia, the book is enriched with his own experience of working as an archaeologist, his knowledge of mathematics, of astronomy, of all of these fields is astounding. That makes this the work of a renaissance man.

Well, I will say a couple of conventional things. The book’s been translated into thirteen languages, and that Dr. Starr is the founding Chairman of the Central Asia Caucasus Institute and Silk Road Studies program affiliated with the Paul Nitze School at SAIS at Johns Hopkins University and 22 books, 200 plus articles, etc. Past president of Oberlin College, and Vice President Tulane, President of the Aspen Institute, history PhD from Princeton and many other accomplishments.

I will say, on the renaissance side, I don’t want to take any more of his time, that he is also a world class jazz clarinetist and has written a major biography of Louis Moreau Gottschalk. Yes, you know, more than 400 pages, who was one of the great virtuoso pianists of the United States in the 19th century and a significant composer.

The last thing I’ll tell you is that he has a very large collection of forte pianos. Now, how that is all assimilated into the lecture tonight is one thing you’ll look forward to. It’s a privilege to have Dr. Starr here, addressing the subject of, “What was Islamic culture and what happened to it?” Please join me in welcoming him.

S. Frederick Starr:

That was much more than generous. Really, much, much more than generous. What I’m going to be speaking about this evening is really a lot of footnotes on Bob Reilly’s book and about the great division in Islam, but this story will take place about four or five hundred, several hundreds years after the split originated.

But, let me say something perfectly obvious and that is I am no expert in these things and what I’ve learned is exactly what you heard earlier you said about yourself and that is these are subjects which are frankly you know it has invited a lot of instant experts. And yet there are complicated matters and I can well imagine a counter thesis to everything I’m presenting tonight that some clever person who digs deeper than I did might come up with. In other words, I think we have to be modest about, I have to be modest about what we’re proposing here.

Now, let me say a word about where this book came from. I didn’t set out to write a 650 page book on Central Asia in the Middle Ages. On the contrary, I set out to read such a book, and I looked around to see. The reason I was looking for such a book is that by pure chance and good fortune I had probably for four or five years beginning in the mid-90s probably a better chance to travel the highways and byways of that whole region, including Afghanistan than anyone else.

I had an old Russian jeep called a wazik, which burned gas like a tank but could get up hills that an American jeep or let alone a land rover or a Toyota could not think of (especially if it went in reverse, by the way). With this I was actually being paid a salary to go to a lot of bizarre places that people do not go to. Along the way because of my early career in archaeological work I saw a lot of stuff, ruins of this city or that city.

Inevitably, as you would do, I asked what happened there? Who lived there? What went on? This was of great interest to me. It was an object of curiosity. I began associating people whose names I sort of remembered from high school history courses or college history. I started associating these people with specific places.

Then digging a little deeper I realized some of these people were certified geniuses and they had done absolutely astonishing things. And as you would have done I started asking myself well, why did this happen? Actually, I ended up asking myself three questions. The first was what did these people achieve in all of these various areas between about 800 and 1250 AD, something like that, 750, 1250? What did they achieve?

The second question that came up, again, it is exactly what you would have asked had you been plowing through the same material, why did it happen? Why did this all take place? And then the third question may be the most complicated and the most challenging is well, what happened to it? And these three questions revolved in my mind and that is when I started looking for that book. And the book did not exist, so I ended up writing it.

To repeat myself I present this with a degree of not false modesty but the genuine article. But I would like to say now, right at the beginning, is that the people I am speaking about were absolutely astounding. This really was more than just a golden age where some nice things were done. The Mughal Empire, the empires that succeeded the Mughal Empire, the Ottomans, the Safavids in Persia these were all Turkic, by the way, all three of them, interestingly.

They are all follow-ons, much later follow-ons. We see magnificent architecture, beautifully decorated books, but they did not read the books. To put it differently, they read them and chewed them over, but they did not add new books of comparable depth and vision as these classic works that they were copying in the sixteenth, and seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.

So you go to the great Persian capitals of Isfahan and so on of that later period sixteenth century or you go to Samarkand, where I was last week, or go to Istanbul or for that matter Agra or Delhi and you see astonishing buildings, but it is basically the same engineering that was worked out four or five hundred years before.

So I want to stress that we really are talking in this period, 750-1250 approximately, of an era that produced an out-sized number of geniuses. Let me just – by way of confirming this statement – let me just introduce you to three or four of them.

See the rest of his Westminster talk…