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 do not 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 have 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 is 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 has 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 do not 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 will 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 am 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 [years], several hundred 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 have 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. There are a lot more, there are dozens. That is one of the astonishing things, the sheer depth of this current movement that I am talking about.


Take one of the early ones, al-Khwarizmi. Khwarizmi was from Khwarazm, which is in the western part of Uzbekistan and a little bit of Kazakhstan out near the Aral Sea, believe it or not. That place a thousand years ago was blossoming, and al-Khwarizmi came from there. He – for reasons that I will explain in a minute – ended up reinventing algebra. Greeks in Alexandria had really done the basic hauling and lifting on that, but he reinvented it, stated it in terms without a single formula, always just explaining it conceptually. He did such a good job of it that his book, which is called Algebra, was translated eventually into Latin, and he as a great wizard of mathematics, and astronomy, by the way, and several other fields, he got naming rights when it came to naming algorithms. The word algorithm is a corruption of his name, al-Khwarizmi.

So you ask, well, why did this guy do this? What was going on? Why should a guy living in the middle of nowhere, as you think of it today, why should someone come up with this? Well, we do not know because he left us very little information about himself. The general line is, hey, he went off to Baghdad, you know, forget it, he is not a Central Asian at all. He is really totally shaped and formed in the Arab world of Baghdad.

Not true.

He did not go there until he was fully mature, fully educated, and where he was formed, out in Khwarazm, was an area which was quite fertile thanks to very, very sophisticated irrigation systems, the most sophisticated in the world were in this region. I could go into detail as to how they did it, but we are talking about mile-long, underground channels, we are talking about ground level channels that are carefully covered so that no evaporation occurs, and so forth.

Incredible stuff.

But suppose you wanted to move this much water from this field across town to this field. You need to know approximately how much you need, so the kinds of calculations that were required to run a complex, irrigated oasis were exactly the sort of things that would get someone like al-Khwarizmi going. [There was a] very, very interesting relationship, in other words, between life on an irrigated oasis and the intellectual mood that fostered this development in mathematics.

Al Biruni

Now, he also was interested in astronomy. He measured the diameter of the Earth, and so on. That was a big fashion at the time. One of the other people who was extremely interested in that was a hero of mine, al Biruni. He is my candidate for the greatest thinker on the planet between the Greeks in classical Alexandria or Hellenistic Alexandria and the sixteenth century, maybe even the seventeenth century. No one came close to al Biruni.

Now, a word about this guy. He, too, came from out there, out there in western Uzbekistan. He lived his life there in what is now northern Turkmenistan, northern Turkmenistan. That is not a place where every tourist finds his way. And then, involuntarily, having had a brief diplomatic and political career along the way, he found himself basically kidnapped by a rising Central Asian ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, Ghazni in Afghanistan. He wanted an intellectual adornment of his court.

Mahmud was not a nice guy. A specialist in pilling and raping, he really destroyed northwest India, but he took Biruni down there and took good care of him for the rest of his life. But Biruni did three things that are absolutely remarkable. First, he invented world history. [He] simply invented it. He noticed, again, there are reasons, but he noticed that the various cultures, Arab, Jewish, Indian, Roman, whatever, Greek, all had their own calendar systems.

And he noticed that they all had their big events, but there was absolutely no way to correlate them, so there was no world history, there were only a lot of histories, so this guy, sitting in northern Turkmenistan, gathered all of these calendar systems, figured out exactly how they worked, not by simply comparing numbers but by asking, well, how did they calculate the movement of the sun, moon, and so forth. And having figured that out, he then figured out how to translate from one system to another.

And then having done that, he invented a machine. We can only imagine how it worked, but you put the date in on this side, indicate which calendar system you are talking about, push a button, crank it up, and out this side tells you the date in whatever other calendar system you want.

He invented world history.

Another source of his passion, this al Biruni, was measuring the globe, and he did a heck of a job down to about sixteen miles, very good at it. In fact, he improved on the work of another guy who was just a half a generation older than him who was also a Central Asian. He did his work in what is now Iran, but this other fellow, named Khojandi, was off by a good deal. In fact, he underestimated the size of the Earth very substantially.

Therefore, Columbus much later, half a millennium later, is meeting up with his investors, and the investors said, well, Christopher, you know this sounds like a great project and we are glad to put up the money for these three ships you talk about, but how long is it going to take you to get there? And Khojandi’s book had been translated into Latin so Columbus goes to that book and comes up with a figure, which projects that he will be there about three weeks faster than in fact he could possibly be to India, which explains why when Columbus arrived in the West Indies, he looked up and said, ‘Hello, Indians.’ Now, had Al Biruni’s book been translated, we might not be sitting here today because Columbus would never have gotten the loan. It would have been too risky an operation, too long a trip, and so forth, but it was not translated.

He then went on and took this work on the diameter of the Earth and refined it, using instruments that we could make. If there was a lumber shop near here, we could get three or four pieces of lumber and we could have the equipment going before the end of the evening. He used this simple equipment on the top of a hilltop in Pakistan, not far from Lahore, [which is] held by the Taliban today, by the way. I tried to get there last year and could not get up. They did not want us up there.

And [he] calculated. This is where he got the calculation down to sixteen miles, and having done so, he then did something further [that was] astonishing, and that is he built a globe. And another of his passions was locating latitude and longitude. The Ancient Greeks had done this. And he inherited several hundred of these locations from the Greeks, but whenever he encountered a traveler going anywhere, he would say, listen, now here is what you do, and then bring me back the data. So, he accumulated several hundred further latitudes and longitudes. For every one of these he put a pin on his globe, and then he looked up and said, wait a minute, all of the pins from the westernmost, somewhere in Ireland or western Africa to East Asia comprised only two-fifths of the globe.

‘What exists on the other three-fifths,’ he asked.

That is a puzzle. He said, now, we could follow Aristotle, who said everything is water. He said, but on the other hand, (and here is where he picked up Aristotelian logic) he said, we know that natural processes created the Eurasian landmass, but we do not have a hypothesis that would explain why those same processes did not prevail in the other three-fifths. Therefore, he concluded (the guy had never seen an ocean, by the way), that the same processes must have been extant there and that there are, therefore, one or more unknown to us, continents, out there. Now, he did not say there are, he said the only hypothesis that is acceptable is that.

He then goes a step further and says, well, okay, are these continents inhabited? And now he looks at the latitude, and he looks from the northernmost pin to the southernmost pin, and notices that from up there in northern Scandinavia or Russia down to middle of Africa or southern India, it is all inhabited zone in between. Therefore, he reasoned, if these unknown continents and uninhabited, they would have to be north of that, of the northernmost pin or south of the southernmost pin.

And here is back to logic. We do not have a hypothesis that would explain why natural forces created this belt of land in Eurasia around the middle of the sphere, and on the other two-thirds push all of the land north of the extreme north. We have no hypothesis that would explain why that would have happened. Therefore, he said, the only hypothesis that is acceptable (until we get further data) is that A, there are one or more unknown continents out there, and B, they are inhabitable.

He discovered America, not bad. This was exactly a thousand years ago. It was before 1066. I could go on about Biruni. He invented anthropology. [He wrote an] astonishing book on India. It was the first work of really comparative religion, in connecting with social stuff. He wanted to explain why Indian science was so good.

But let me raise a question: why was he messing around with India in the first place, Indian science?

Well, because he lived up in this nowhere place (nowhere to us, very central then). It was on one of the great trade routes that went to India. And therefore, Indian numerals, which we call Arabic numerals, they are not Arabic, they came first up to where Biruni [and] Al-Khwarizmi were from, and there they grasped their importance, wrote about it in Arabic, and hence, the Arabs picked it up and, ultimately, it became European. Indians did wonderful stuff. They invented negative numbers, which was only much later picked up in the West, so these people in Central Asia were the only people who were in touch with all of the great civilizations.

We hear today about the great Silk Road to China. Not that much went. It was often interrupted. The Chinese did not give or get that much from it, compared to India, [which got] much more. The great road to India was older, longer, carried much more goods, never interrupted. So, you have direct contact with China and India, and you have on the other side direct contact with Europe and the Middle East. They are the only ones with contact with everyone. They are the traders. The Chinese dump stuff at the border, and the Central Asians picked it up. Not being stupid, they opened the saddlebag, oh, what are they sending today?

One shipment early along was something that was a sort of smooth stuff that made out of mulberry leaves and bamboo. And the Central Asians looked at it and said, they want to write on this? It was terrible material. They reinvented it. We talk about Japanese and Chinese reinventing things. They reinvented it, it became paper, and in its reinvented form they used cotton, which they grew on their irrigated oases. And all of the best paper in any West European or Middle Eastern or Indian archive came from Central Asia, the early stuff.

Now, so, you have trade, you have location, location, location that sets these people off radically from anyone else, and they utilized the trade. They became very rich from it. The richest, biggest cities in the world were in Central Asia a thousand years ago. The single biggest city was in what is now Turkmenistan, Merv, and it takes an hour-and-a-half to get around it in a jeep. Balk in Afghanistan, northern Afghanistan near Mazar-e Sharif, again, it will take at least an hour-and-a-half to get around the outer walls with a jeep. Those are not the outer walls, there is still a further wall. In some cities it would be 125 miles around their radius, so we are talking about big centers, rich centers, running currencies that were used as far as [Europe]. Archaeologists find them in Scandinavia, they find them in Sri Lanka, so they are running international currencies. They are rich, they are in touch with everyone, building fantastic cities, and of course, this gives rise to this effervescence that I am talking about.

Now, who were these people? I think we have to acknowledge they were polymaths. They were interested in everything. They were in a very yeasty place with all of these stimuli. There was no specialization. So, you get a guy like Avicenna, Ibn Sina: medicine. He wrote about geology. He wrote about astronomy. They all did, and they were prolific. Most of them wrote hundreds of what we would call short articles and notices or dozens, and dozens, and dozens of books, of which, by the way, never more than about 15% to 20% have survived.

Biruni is less than that, and of the works of his that have survived, only a handful have been edited in modern editions because Medieval Arabic is astonishingly abstruse even for a good modern Arabist. And of those, even fewer have been translated into French, German, English or Russian, so everything I am talking about is based on just a sliver of what actually was, and, obviously, there is no reason to think that the books that survive are the most important. They may be, but we know some of the other biggies are simply lost or have not turned up. They were polymaths, they were interested in everything.

Omar Khayyám: we all know the Rubáiyát and so on, the wonderful Fitzgerald paraphrase, it is not really a translation. Khayyám was a splendid mathematician. He virtually invented cubic equations. He was a huge innovator in geometry and algebra, brought the two together, actually. In all sorts of areas, he was a tremendous innovator, but he also fiddled with astronomy, so everyone was all over the map. You wonder, well, what is going on? Why is this happening? Who are these people?

Well, first there was patronage. It was considered a classy thing to do if you were a ruler, even a nasty one, to have around you in your court, not just jesters and clowns, but some serious eggheads to impress people or maybe to engage with, but there was a pretty decent level of patronage. There were libraries. Ibn Sina, Avicenna, was a tremendous egotist and he wrote his first autobiography when he was under thirty, I believe. That says something about him, does it not? Avicenna, though, records a detailed description.

As a teenager he had worked in the field of medicine, and the ruler in Bukhara was ill and seemed to be dying. Finally, the court doctors called in Ibn Sina, and said can you help? They were desperate to ask this kid to come in. He cured him, so the ruler asked him, what can I do for you? He said open your library. And he left in his autobiography a description of the library. He also described the book market in Bukhara. This would not have been atypical. Merv, I mentioned the large city in Turkmenistan, we know had a number of huge libraries so good that people would regularly come from the Middle East and spend a year or two there on sort of research jaunts. There was an infrastructure, in other words, that was sympathetic to this.

But more than that, it was a yeasty environment in which coming up with crazy ideas or ideas that were unconventional was considered desirable, normal, and beneficial, so you had everyone in on the game. Many, maybe most of the people I am speaking about, were Muslims, nominally at least, and some rather more devout. There were also among them Zoroastrians. Omar Khayyám’s teacher was a Zoroastrian who had been a student of Avicenna.

There were Christians. They did not read Classical Greek, these people out in Central Asia. They read it in Arabic translations that were done by exactly the Syrian Arabs who have been in our news so tragically in the last couple of years. Exactly Syrian Christians did most of the work of translation that these people picked up out there and ran with.

There were Jews among them, including some of the most eloquently freethinking folks in the entire region. It was a very diverse and, in its way, fundamentally tolerant society and an intellectual society, and this created amazing paradoxes. Avicenna, we know about because of his great Canon of Medicine. The Canon of Medicine is a great book. He did a lot of research, but he also borrowed a mass of stuff from a guy named Razi, who actually lived in what is now Iran. By the way, he was truly a Central Asian figure because his own training, Razi’s own training, was in Central Asia, and all of his students were Central Asian.

But Razi made the mistake of writing a huge, huge, multi, multi-volume work on medicine, which no one [would have time to read]. I mean a copyist would [spend] a lifetime [copying it]. [A lifetime] would go by waiting for the book [to be available]. Come on, give me my copy. It would never come. Avicenna produces a short Canon of Medicine in one big fat volume and that goes as far east as India and west as Europe, and it becomes the canon of medicine.

Razi was an absolute freethinker, absolutely so. He was a skeptic’s skeptic, and he wrote about this. So, one of his essays, you read it, and you know the guy, you recognize him, you have met him. He says, well, now, let us talk about prophets, and he lists a whole string of them (Zoroastrian, everyone). And he says, well, you know it is strange they do not agree. He said, well, now, if everyone is bringing us the word of God, and if these prophets do not agree with each other, fundamentally disagree with each other on points A, B, and C, and he spells them out, he said something is wrong. And, basically it is as profound an attack on the very idea of prophecy as one could imagine anywhere. And this was just one of a whole series of very, very skeptical writings that Razi produced, and he was one of many who produced such things.

It was yeasty. It was tolerant, tolerant to the point that Razi was a big fish in his field and if you go Tehran today, there is the Razi hospital. This is a remarkable society that existed, that gave rise to this and to these dozens and dozens of people I am not even mentioning, who were part of the achievements.

What happened? What happened to it all?

You know it stopped at a certain point. It was not eternal. Now, one argument, which I want to present at the very beginning [and] which I think carries a great deal of weight, is, look, it lasted five hundred years. That is more than the time between Elizabeth I and today. Do you need to explain what happened to it? Maybe you should stand back in respect and awe, and say that was a pretty good run.

On the other hand, it did come apart, and it came apart quite decisively, and it did not happen because of the Mongols, a very important point. It did not happen (if you want to go a little later) because of Vasco da Gama, either. Da Gama was figuring out how to reconfigure rudders and sails so you could get around the south of Africa. The reason he was doing that, and others were doing that, is that by then, the late fifteenth century, the rulers in much of Central Asia were charging high tariffs and were not able to guarantee security for trade, so people said to heck with that, we will go find another route. It was not da Gama [and] it was not the Mongols. Actually, trade continued after the Mongols, but the intellectual bloom ended with a couple of noble exceptions, [and it] ended well before the Mongols.

So, the question, then, is why did it end in the end of the eleventh century? What happened? What was going on? And that is really the point of conjunction between my inquiries, and the interests and concerns of this group here this evening. Let me go back to Omar Khayyám. He was from the western tip of Central Asia, which is the very easternmost provinces of Iran, Khorasan, meaning sunrise. Khorasan is also the name of one of the, I think, ISIS groups if I am not mistaken. It is the easternmost part of Iran, much of western Afghanistan, and much of Turkmenistan. That is the historic Khorasan, and the capital is a place called Nishapur, which was, by the way, excavated by the Metropolitan Museum back in the ’30s. [There is] not much to see there today.

But Khayyám was educated there, and he went off to Baghdad, which had been taken over [by] the Abbasid Dynasty, that came in around 750, taken over by Central Asians. The big money in Baghdad, especially money for patronizing science, learning, poetry was Central Asian, especially a family that came from Balkh in Afghanistan. This family had run for centuries a huge Buddhist monastery there, and then when the Arabs came through, pillaging and raping, they said, well, you know, we better sign up with these people. Otherwise, we are dead. They did. They moved their fortune to Baghdad, and there they continued. By the way, medicine was one of their big interests, and they continued as great patrons. Baghdad was not some great center of Arab culture as much as it was a center of Central Asian culture in eighth, ninth, [and] tenth centuries, and that is why people like Khayyám were there.

And one of the young people who went there – because after the Seljuks arose, the Seljuk Turks – they had been another one of these nomadic Turkic people that conquered. They conquered the caliphate and set up shop. One of the people who went to take advantage of these new opportunities was named Ghazali. This was a very bright, young guy, also from Khorasan, interested in everything, read everything, studied with everyone, and he was singled out very early as the rising talent. And the Seljuk ruler, working through his vizier (who was another guy from Khorasan, so it is a little mafia, really), named Nizam al-Mulk, got Ghazali, hired him, and said, look, we have a problem.

There were at this time two caliphates. You had two great centers of Islam, political centers, not just theological centers. You had the Seljuks, Turks, and then you had the Fatimids in Cairo in Egypt, and the Fatimids, as you know, were Shia, and the Seljuks were, of course, Sunni.

Nizam al-Mulk gets this very bright young guy, coming up, and says we want you to set up a series of schools that are going to teach real, correct thinking, orthodoxy. And you are going to run the system, and you are going to head the biggest one, which is going to be right here in town. He did, Ghazali did this. I think of him as the young assistant professor who is given tenure at a very tender age and, basically, lets everyone around him know that he is a genius. He must have been a tremendous lecturer. There is evidence that his lectures were attended by four or five hundred people.

But he was a panderer. He pandered to the worst instincts of his students, and basically said, gentlemen (there were no ladies), you can save yourselves a lot of effort by forgetting the scientific thinkers. The rationalists, he said, are delusional, this is not the way to deal with reality. And he singled out people, he named names, as we would say. H named names with Avicenna and all of the people I am talking about. He basically said that these people are deluded, and you are deceiving yourself if you think rationalism, reason, is a path to truth. It is not. He said it is useful for certain low-level things, but not for the real stuff. Of course, gee, now, I do not have to take that math course. It was a [terrible] move, but he had the full power of the state behind him in this attack on reason.

I have to say, in doing this he was getting into the heart of a serious theological controversy that had grown up, and I am not going to go into now, but Bob knows it inside and out, between the so-called Ash’arites and the Mu’tazilites. Basically, for a couple generations, the caliphate was under the control of the rationalists. One in particular is worth mentioning, Mamun, the caliph who actually carried out a kind of purge of the opposition, of the traditionalists. He really did it in a brutal way, in a cocksure way, that created a polarization that you could say the effects of which still exist today.

Be that as it may, unquestionably, Ghazali took one side of that controversy against the rationalists, against the champions of reason, against the champions of logic (I mean serious logic in the sense of Aristotle and all) and against science. The point here is not that he attacked as effectively as he did, and wrote a book about it, the point is that at this particular moment, you had two armed forces, confronting each other within the Muslim world over exactly these issues. And you have every word that he uttered had the full backing of the entire Sunni state, mega-state, so we are not just dealing with the realm of ideas. Never had power and thought been so intimately interwoven as in this early Seljuk period, and the thought in this case was epitomized by Ghazali.

But Ghazali alone would never have been as effective as his work eventually was had he not had behind him the full power of the Seljuk state. Now, this all sounds great. The only trouble is both his vizier, his prime minister, and the Seljuk ruler died within a year or two of each other. One was murdered, the other was poisoned (part of this big fight we were talking about). Suddenly, poor Ghazali lost his cover, his roof, his patronage. And he then went off and adopted a Sufi woolen robe, went off to Mecca and so on, and wrote wonderful books about faith, which, by the way, Thomas Aquinas revered, and which many Jewish thinkers of the Middle Ages also examined and read with great interest and sympathy, so there is another side of Ghazali, too.

Now, why do I mention this? Because this momentous set to between Cairo and Baghdad, and by ‘Baghdad’ I mean the whole inheritance of Central Asian culture. This exacerbated a schism that had been formed earlier, but it gave it an intensity and heated it up to a white-hot temperature that ended up radiating throughout the Muslim world. And the winners in this conflict were very clear where they stood.

Without going into the details of Ash’arite theology, basically, their message was that truth is based on authority, and that we are fortunate to have in the Quran and in the sayings of the Prophet, a compendium of wisdom that provides answers to all of life’s questions. And that what one needs is a competent ulema, competent mullahs who know where to look to get the answers to life’s questions. This is not a matter of interpretation, of speculation, this is a matter of reverting to the one, incontrovertible body of truth on which all decisions of life can be based.

The other side, the Shia side, did not disagree so fundamentally on all of that, but held simply a place in that formula for interpretation. That yes, this is all true. We value these sacred texts, but the reality is that life moves on and there are circumstances that are not easily understood and, therefore, we need authoritative interpretation. But frankly, we are getting into the fine print at this point.

After this great set to that occurred between the Sunni and Shia, Baghdad and Cairo, after this there was really not much room for movement. The walls came in, and anyone who ventured out beyond the narrow borders that Ghazali established was doing so at his own risk. There were those who did so. I could cite them. I go into all of the later ones in my book, but together, the later ones do not match up by any means to the people of the great age.

So, what do we conclude from all of this?

First of all, the main, greatest effervescence in the Islamic world, intellectual effervescence, occurred in Central Asia, more than in the Arab world. It is a very important statement because if this is true, it should cause us to view the Central Asians in [an] entirely different light than we do, and [it] might also perhaps soften down the endless romanticism about this lost golden age of Arab culture. If you write a book in Japanese, it does not make you a Japanese. And if they wrote books in Arabic, it did not make them Arabs.

The intellectual center was off to the east for the reasons that I described. Much more so – I do not mean to diminish the achievements of some wonderful Arab scientists who were extant, but in their number and depth they do not compare with what was happening further east among these Turkic and Persianate, not Iranian but Persianate, various Persian peoples. Al-Khwarizmi, for example, spoke Khwarizmi. His native language was Khwarizmi, it is lost. He talks about how the Arab conquest destroyed whole libraries of books in this Persianate language. This was the center out there, not further west.

A second point I would make is that this ended, it really did end, because of religious controversies within the faith. The Crusades were a minor sideshow to what I was talking about, this intra-faith confrontation. And then, finally, I think that one of the heritages of this was to leave the ulema, the mullahs and so on and the theologians, basically in complete control over the reading of texts and assignment of this text or that text as the key to the solution of this or that of life’s problems. And this has been pretty much intact to the present day.

You have several books out there, and there are wonderful minds at work on this question, [but] how do you evolve out of this situation? Hats off to the many people in the Muslim world who are attacking this complex issue from both sides, it has to be said. I am impressed that young scholars in Iran are translating Lost Enlightenment and presenting it there. It is going to be presented, published very shortly by a very authoritative religious institution there.

There is yeasty stuff going on. There is debate going on there. There is debate in the Sunni world. And you have many opportunities to hear about this and to engage with some of these people who are most impressive. The question is can they prevail against such a weight of tradition? Basically, it is almost a thousand years after the time that the glue set. That is an open question. I do not want to appear to preclude evolution and change, but when you have a system, which traces all right action back to authority in text, it is very hard to change part of it without upsetting the entirety.

That is the great challenge. Who knows how it will turn out?

My modest conclusion from all of this is that at least during these five hundred years, people who were pious Muslims and some not very pious Muslims, some skeptics and atheists, as well as Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, they did something together, which is as noble an achievement as human beings have accomplished anywhere, and whatever we think about the present, that, it seems to me, is worth noting and maybe it is worth also noting that the heirs of this, that the core of the faith that we are talking about, may not be the Middle East. It may be out there.

Al Bukhari, who codified the sayings of Muhammad, he is from Bukhara. That is his name. The sayings, second holiest text of Islam, five of the eight authoritative collections were done by Central Asians, not by anyone else. Five of the eight, think of it.

Sufism, where did it come from? The mystical, very interesting, complex [branch of Islam is] Central Asian, essentially. Yes, it traces to Basra and so on, but the real movements that shaped Sufism all the way down to India come from Central Asia, so, you know, these people really do have a full claim to being as much the center of the faith as anyone, maybe more. We do not treat them that way. We treat them as ex-Soviets who do not get it in most respects. That is not what reality suggests. And I think there are implications to this story, which may be if were a little more deliberate in ferreting them out, we would end up with more effective policies, but let me end with that. I have gone on long.


Audience member:

You talk about, basically, the Sunni thought in Islam and mention just briefly Shiite thought. Does the Shiite part of Islam also have a big, great culture that is right up there?

S. Frederick Starr:

Absolutely, absolutely, and let it be said that the Samanids, [was] this very impressive state that was created around what is today Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, northern Afghanistan. The Samanid Dynasty about a thousand years ago was, I would say, semi-Shia. They ended up suppressing a lot of Ismaili Shias, but they, themselves, were always tempted in this direction. Avicenna quite clearly was, he was raised in a Shia family, an Ismaili Shia family, and even though he himself never joined them, he did move, essentially, after he had been chased out of Khorasan, he moved essentially among Shia courts. So, yes, it is there.

However, with those two exceptions, it never was the dominant voice. Sir?

Audience member:

Professor Starr, how do you explain that line of Iranians, Persians, and peoples farther east, accepting Islam, but intensely disliking Arabs?

S. Frederick Starr:

Well, yes, this is an invitation to political incorrectness. I devote a whole chapter to the Arab conquest. It was not easy. We have the picture of mounted Arab warriors, spreading easily across North Africa and crossing into France until they encountered Mr. Martel. Nothing like this occurred in Central Asia. They fought like hell, and it went on, and it went on, and it went on, and the Arabs would regroup. They divided among themselves, fought mercilessly among themselves, and finally resorted to bribery. There was basically a paid to pray deal. You show up at the mosque and you get a certain cash payment. It was a very difficult conquest, and finally, they just wore them down and made deals after they realized that they were up against serious [opposition].

But having down so, and this is why the story is so intriguing, having done this, having made the deals, having nominally (and not many people left) taken control of the area and partly Islamized it, these were not fully Muslim societies probably until the end of the story that I am covering. But having done this, they then discovered the next day that these people have minds of their own, so you have in Baghdad, which had been set up already, it had been under the previous regimen, [but], basically, it was taken over by the Central Asians. This was the Abbasid revolution. It came from Khorasan and Central Asia. And as I mentioned, this is where all of the muscle came from, so I think you are talking about ancient, deeply rooted civilizations in Central Asia. I could take you within thirty hours, I could have you standing at the stage of a Greek theater in northern Afghanistan (a big Greek theater, not just a little one, a big Greek theater). I could show you great Buddhist centers.

Why were the Central Asians so involved with collecting the sayings of Muhammad and editing them? Because they had done the same with Buddhism. Buddhist texts came up from India and Pakistan. It was the Central Asians who edited them, and if they found a passage they did not particularly like, they would, you know, redraft it a little bit and improve it. They were the ones as editors and translators who translated all this stuff into Chinese, and sent it off to China and Korea, and so forth. This was not done by Chinese translators. This was done by Central Asians.

This was a rich, deep tradition. For such people as this, these Arabs seem like a bunch of yahoos, and they were not [yahoos], we know much more. Their culture was very interesting and complex in many ways. But, for example, Al-Khwarizmi, is absolutely blunt about the destruction, the cultural destruction wrought by the Arabs. I mentioned the libraries they destroyed.

Bamiyan, the Buddhas, it is a very interesting problem. These were destroyed initially not by Taliban but by the Arab conquests, and interestingly, the Afghan government today is seriously interested in restoring them not to the status pre-Taliban, but the status pre-Arab conquest as an act of stating that we are a multi-religious [people], we are a tolerant society. Now, will that happen of not? I do not know, but you can imagine how this story would leave the residue of ill-will against Arabs. That said, relations between the Gulf and Central Asia, all Central Asian countries, are quite active today. If you go to Kabul, you will see three new institutions. There is the new American University, which we funded with some USAID funding, but has done nothing to put on a permanent basis. It is a disgrace. Then downtown you see two other universities rising, one Sunni, one Shia, one Saudi, I think, or Kuwaiti, and the other, Iranian. They are a presence and this continues.

Audience member:

I just wanted to clarify something you said, that you are saying all of these [people] came from Central Asia or the majority of them did at that time? I am thinking of [several people].

S. Frederick Starr:

Sure, they were there, they were there.

Audience member:

Did they also have a connection to Central Asia?

S. Frederick Starr:

No, no. Haytham, for example, the inventor of optics, for example, was genuinely an Arab scholar. I note these people, but my argument is – and it is not an argument, I think the evidence is overwhelming, that the greatest figures of this golden age came from the east.

Audience member:

Professor, you mentioned Israeli very important in understanding. I was born in Baghdad. And he was one of the best Islamic thinkers, but I think some of the arguments that people like you, who have a deep understanding of Islam, could be very much utilized to present extremist Islamism, and resolve major conflicts. I will give you one example. The Isra Surah of Muhammad was taken over by God at night from Masjid al Haram Mecca to Al-Masjid-al-Aqsa in Al Quds, which is Jerusalem is the basis of the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict. I have talked to many Muslim scholars even in Najaf, [and] they tell me secretly this surah might have been inserted by the Amoites to extend their control of Jerusalem. The other argument, the Mullahs in Iran, do not represent, Velâyat-e Faqih example, Shiism, by all means. Any Shia scholar, even in Najaf, will tell you, Velâyat-e Faqih does not exist in Shiism. Why does the West not use these deep, profound arguments? I mean if we can prove this argument on the table, that the Jerusalem issue was inserted into Islam, it is artificial, I think the Mullahs in Iran and many of the people fighting Israel would go out of business.

S. Frederick Starr:

Or go out of their minds, but let me present a very different approach, not as an alternative, but one that is actually being pursued. There was recently a meeting of the Organization of Islamic States (OIC) that was held in Uzbekistan, and the Uzbeks to their great credit and very conscious of everything I have been speaking about tonight, I should say, very conscious of this, proposed to the OIS that the next year, not just year, but they should focus not on what they have been focusing on, but on science and learning. Why are we not doing that? If you have never read the essays of [Abdul Salam]? I think when he got it, he was the only Muslim Nobel Prize winner in science, Abdul Salam from Pakistan. I believe I am not slandering by saying he was the only one at that time. [He was a] very interesting writer. He goes into all of this. He basically says, look, the matter is learning.

Long before Islam, a Chinese shows up in (I think) Samarkand, then-called Afrasiyab in the sixth century. And he writes when he goes back home, you cannot believe these people. He said a five-year old kid is already learning mathematics and then they are learning accounting, and so on and so on. He had never seen anything like this.

Now, this proposal that the government of Uzbekistan made to the Organization of Islamic States, that they shape up and really do science, not just technology but scientific thinking, seems to me to be something that we can be comfortable with, and that is bound to open up windows and inspire people to move in all sorts of directions that do not necessarily correspond to the kind of narrow orthodoxy I was speaking about. Maybe that is an alternative that is worth exploring, too. Can we confront them on the theological side? No, I mean individuals can, but I do not think that is a job for our government to do. Sir?

Audience member:

Yes, the names come down from the centuries and they may not be the same one. Is the Ghazali that you speak of the same one who comes down to us as a reputation like Khayyám, as a poet? Because there is a Ghazali.

S. Frederick Starr:

No. Well, he in the second part of his life became a very different guy, and his writings, as I mentioned, on faith are ecstatic and may well be what you have in mind. Thank you.

Robert R. Reilly:

I will take the privilege of asking the last question. Is one of the thirteen languages that your book has been translated into Arabic?

S. Frederick Starr:

It is now fifteen, and no.

Robert R. Reilly:

I think we can understand why.

S. Frederick Starr:

Well, let me just say, you know, there is this new library in Alexandria, and we have had some correspondence with them. There were people there who were very keen to translate and publish the book. I do not know if the general economic crisis in Egypt has led to this or if some darker forces caused it to happen, but the project is not moving forward right now. I am not giving up.

Robert R. Reilly:

Great. Well, thank you all for coming.