Friday, January 09, 2015

Intellectual effervesence in Central Asia

This book enlarges its readers' world and renders that world more complex -- and it is also a strangely defensive, none too well organized, repetitive volume that will likely frustrate many who encounter it. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr is an exhaustive catalog of historic intellectual glories in the "Stans" -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan et al., about which Westerners know very little, even after a couple decades of military adventurism in the region. Starr obliquely suggests as much in this huge volume.

Central Asia's Golden Age, in Starr's telling, lasted roughly from 700 to 1150CE. He argues that the region possessed particularities that should be more recognized.

Above all, Central Asia was a land of cities. ...

It was irrigation, and only irrigation, that made possible the rise of civilization on some of the otherwise barren land of Central Asia. In this sense it is fair to call Central Asia a "hydraulic civilization," one in which the main focus of social energies was on the construction and maintenance of complex systems for the conservation, distribution, and overall management of a scarce resource: water. Over time the stress on irrigation created highly disciplined social orders and strictly hierarchical political cultures -- which Wittfogel called despotisms. The governments assumed full responsibility for the large and complex irrigation systems, including the critically important task of mobilizing and managing the labor force that maintained them.

... Central Asia [formed] a civilization in its own right and not merely a crossroads for the cultures of others.

This was not just where merchants traveling between China met traders from more western empires in Persia and even the Mediterranean basin. It is important to Starr to emphasize that the cities of Central Asia possessed their own cultures, religiously and intellectually diverse, within which the rulers of cities often felt an obligation to fund original thinkers -- polymaths who explored mathematics, astronomy, calendars and engineering principles, not to mention writing poetry. These men (Starr notes they are all men though women were sometimes prominent merchants) also rigorously translated whatever books came their way into regional languages. It is through their translations of Hellenic Greek texts that the writings of Aristotle and Plato were preserved until they were passed back to Europe.

Into this land of city-states came Arab warriors whose zeal for conquest arose from the new revelation of Islam.

The Arab conquest of the late seventh century was a cataclysmic event in the history of Central Asia but by no means an unprecedented one. In fact, external powers had repeatedly conquered the regions city-states and subjected them to their rule. Among these invaders were some of the most powerful empires of the classical age and late antiquity. Yet none of them succeeded in fully controlling, let alone governing, the territory they had gained through force of arms. Their experience -- like that of more recent aspiring hegemonies in the region -- confirms the wisdom of Gibbon's remark that conquered territories are invariably a source not of strength but of weakness.

The reason for this is clear: in the course of their long and difficult history, Central Asians had mastered the art of managing their conquerors. These talents were to be brought into play after the Arab conquest as well.

... The flowering of Central Asian thought and culture that took place over the following three and a half centuries would never have happened without these revolutionary changes introduced from the Middle East.

... The fact that people of the region had absorbed several of the world's major religions prior to the advent of Islam shaped how they received the Islamic message and, later, how they dealt with the appearance of forgotten books by classical Greek authors. In every case the Central Asians began by compiling the holy writings of each new religion to which they were exposed, or the various treatises of the classical authors, editing them, and, in some cases, translating them into local languages. This practice gave them a deep knowledge of each body of thought and an independent perspective from which they could analyze the next incoming set of ideas. Through this process Central Asians became masters at adapting new religions and ideas to their lives, and not passively adopting them. Thanks to this, Central Asia shaped Buddhism and Islam almost as much as those world religions shaped Central Asians.

Each new religion brought its own language, whether the Old Persian of Zoroastrianism, Greek for the Hellenic pantheon, Sanskrit for Buddhism, or Syriac (Aramaic) for Christianity. Islam brought Arabic, which, more than any of the tongues that preceded it, became the chief language of intellectual discourse regionally and a vehicle for international communication. ... the Arabic language became a vehicle for the introduction of new ideas in Central Asia. When it ceased to fulfill this function [became soley the language of religious practice], the intellectual effervescence dissipated.

To outsiders, one of the paradoxes of Islamic intellectual history is that this region of "intellectual effervescence" was also where a rigidity of mind originated that eventually shut down imaginative exploration of the Quran and the Haddiths (stories of the Prophet first collected here). Starr traces this to backlash against Caliph Mamun's "rationalist inquisition" (831-848) which elevated science and reason over belief and spiritual experience. Mamun imprisoned those who would not go along. Two centuries later, the influential Islamic intellectual Abu Ḥamid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazali inveighed against speculative thinking and

succeeded in marginalizing the philosophers, cosmologists, epistemologists, mathematicians, and theoretical scientists. Henceforth they lived as if in a building with very low ceilings. ... as more and more aspects of life were brought within the embrace of Islamic law, a rigid legalism came to dominate the intellectual sphere, and innovation became a term of opprobrium. The fading of Central Asia's Age of Enlightenment can be neatly calibrated in terms of the number of open questions that remained and the willingness of the intellectuals to explore them.

Though this can seem a terrible disaster for human flourishing, I really appreciated that Starr repeatedly reminds us that such a conclusion may be more an artifact of our own place and time than a realistic description of Central Asian history. After all, when these battles were playing out, Europe was a backwater. Central Asian civilization thrived for over 400 years. Will the civilization we take for granted last so long? It is symptomatic of our own low ceilings if we neglect to ask.
A more accessible introduction to the history of this part of the world is Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted; more here, here, and here.


Rain Trueax said...

Just read how the House wants to block science where it comes to the EPA-- in short cannot listen to peer respected scientific views but can listen to industry spokesmen for making laws and seeing their impact. Same with changing how math no longer dominates the budget reports. We could easily go this route if Americans don't wake up.

Or maybe the problem is what i have feared-- it's who Americans are :(

Hattie said...

I have Destiny Disrupted on my Kindle. I will start reading it again after I get back from Cuba.
Thank you for this very good synopsis of the Starr book. I wish the reviews of books I read in the "real" magazines were as good as yours!

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