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Much of the mythology of the pre-Islamic Persia involves the tension and conflict between Iran and Turan. In modern parlance “Turan” has become synonymous with Central Asia and the Turk, but in its original meaning it involved two groups of Iranian peoples who were distinctly geographically situated. The eruption of the Turkic tribes can be dated to approximately the middle of the first millennium A.D., so they post-date the mythological era of the Iranian peoples, though they coincide with the arrival of Islam to Central Asia. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane is really the chronicle of the last 500 years of the cultural efflorescence of classical Turan, the ancestors of the people we today term Tajik, as well as nearly extinct groups such as the Sodgians. Though there are numerous ‘call-backs’ to the pre-Islamic era, as well as the requisite scene setting chapters, the heart of the matter occurs during Islam’s Golden Age, in particular of the Abbasid Caliphate. The last few centuries, from the rise of more self-consciously Turkic political actors to the period of Timur, get’s short shrift, and the story is tidied up rather quickly.

k10064Lost Enlightenment is also unapologetically a history of intellectuals. Social, cultural, and diplomatic events serve as background furniture. They’re noted in passing and alluded to, but ultimately they are not the center of the story. They’re for intellectuals to be situated within. The key fact which serves as the cause for a book like this is many are not aware that an enormous disproportionate number of the intellectuals of the Golden Age of Islam were ethnically Iranian and from Central Asia. I say ethnically Iranian, because it is not quite accurate to state they were Persian, because the Iranian languages and ethnic groups differ considerably. Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī was a native of Khwarezm, the Iranian language of which was close to Sogdian, and therefore closer to modern Ossetian. The author observes that because intellectuals from Islam’s Golden Age habitually wrote in Arabic most moderns assume they must be Arabs (perhaps more accurately, the names “look Arabic”, unless they are unrecognizable transliterations). But this is an error of the same class as presuming that because Western scholars utilized Latin as a lingua franca until recently they must have been Latins. A quick perusal of Wikipedia’s entry on the philosophy and science of the Islamic Golden Age will disabuse you of this notion. Though the central focus of Lost Enlightenment is on Iranians from Turan, it is important to remember that many individuals of note don’t quite fall into this exact category but exhibit affinities which might surprise. Though the figure behind the most widespread school of Islamic law, abu Hanifa, is well known to have had his ancestry among the Persians of what is today Afghanistan, ibn Hanbal, founder of the austere Hanbali school (arguably the ancestor of the Wahhabi and Salafi movements) was descended from Khorasani Arabs. In other words, even many of the Arabs had eastern affinities.

41OxoLpuNyL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ To understand why, you need to realize that to a rough approximation the shift between the Umayyad Caliphate to the Abbasid involved a orientation of the Islamic world away from the Mediterranean world and toward Central Asia, Turan. This is summarized by the reality that the capital shifted from Damascus in Syria to Baghdad in Iraq, but this small distance does not do justice to the shift in mentality. The Abbasids were brought to power by armies and social movements with roots in Khorasan and further north and east. It was in a sense a revenge of the mawalis, non-Arab converts to Islam who were marginalized as second class citizens under the Umayyads. Traditional Muslims sometimes refer to the Umayyads as the “Arab Kingdom” because of the ethnic nature of their polity (evidenced by the fact that there were instances where Arab Christians were privileged over non-Arab Muslim converts). Though the Abbasids were an Arab Caliphate, their ruling culture was much more ethno-linguistically cosmopolitan. Over time the dynasty began to rely more and more upon Turks from Central Asia to man their armies, while the domain of culture and politics was heavily inflected by Iranians and Arabicized Iranians. For a period the caliph al-Ma’mun relocated the locus of the Caliphate to Merv, in modern day Turkmenistan. It is not surprise that al-Ma’mun’s mother was a Persian from Khorasan.

download The culturally Turanian color of the Abbasid world is critical because I think it is plausible to argue that Islam as we understand it emerged during the Abbasid period. On the face of it this sounds strange. Islam as a religion obviously dates to the time of Muhammad, in the early 7th century. Salafi purists would purge all that came after the mid-7th century, the period of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” (i.e., the pre-dynastic period). But to say Islam was formed in this period is like saying Buddhism dates to the time of the Buddha, in the middle of the first millennium B.C., or that Christianity dates to the time of Jesus down to the writing of the Synoptic Gospels a few decades later. No matter what religionists may aver religions evolve organically through time, and some of their most seminal aspects develop considerably later. Among Christians this is acknowledged by the repeated attempts to recreate “Primitive Christianity,” that is, the Church before it became co-opted by Roman Imperial culture. But even before the conversion of Constantine Christianity had transformed into a gentile religion with Jewish roots, rather than a Jewish sect. The institutional superstructure of the Christian Church and its theological basis were totally transformed by the immersion of sectarian Judaism in the Greek and Roman world (one could say that this is true of both Christianity and modern Judaism!).

In modern Sunni Islam (~90 percent of Muslims) in comparison to Christianity theology plays a relatively minor role in relation to law, shariah. One of the primary bases of shariah are the hadith, the sayings of the prophet. It so happens that the two most respected collections of these sayings for Sunni Muslims were authored by Persians from Khorasan. The author of Lost Enlightenment chalks up the prominence of Turan in the compilation of hadith to the pre-Islamic cultural and religious norms, in particular on the prominent Buddhist tradition of translation and collection. Though never explicit the argument seems to be that this region so essential in the development of Islam as we know it remained religiously plural, with Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Christians, and pagans prominent for centuries, and this cultural background could not but help shape the beliefs and practices of local Muslims, many of them converts. But the connections are often not made concrete, but are more suggestive. For example the connection between Buddhist viharas and the later madrasas. Because the Buddhists of Turan have no modern day cultural descendants it can be quite difficult to comprehend just how prominent this religion was during this period, but it is well known that under the early Abbasids the influential Barmakid family were relativley recently converted Buddhist functionaries. Rather than the specifics though I think the fixation in Lost Enlightenment on the non-Muslim milieu that persisted in Turan down to ~1000 A.D. is to emphasize that during Sunni Islam’s formative period the religious culture looked east as much as it did to the west, that is, the world of India. The connections between the Near East, Central Asia, and India, are ancient, going back to records of Indian merchant communities settled in Sumeria. It does not take a leap of imagination to wonder if Sufi mysticism may have been influenced by Indian practices and beliefs (some early Sufi mystics do report Indian, or perhaps more accurately Turanian Buddhist, mentors). And there are curious currents in the other direction, “Greek medicine” as transmitted by Central Asians is still practiced in India.

Islamic civilization beginning with Muhammad is at its foundation “West” facing. Muhammad engaged the ideas and thoughts of Christians and Jews, and his foreign travels took him to the margins of Syria. The details of prayer positions among contemporary Muslims reportedly derive from the practice of Syrian monks. The eastern fringe of the Islamic world at its founding was that of the magians, the Zoroastrians, who were also clear influences. But if you accept the proposition that much, most, of Islamic civilization dates to the Abbasids, then your understanding of West and East must shift. Here the West is the world of Persia-verging-upon-Mesopotamia, Iran, and the East is India, and to a lesser extent China. The center is Turan. This is a somewhat tendentious position, but I do think it is defensible, should make us reconsider the genealogy of Islamic culture and civilization.

But one of aspects of Lost Enlightenment that I found irritating is prefigured by the title, and that is the Whiggish attempt to shoehorn Turanian civilization into the stream of ascending scientific and mechanical complexity of the West. I do think it is interesting that Turanians contributed overwhelmingly in the domains of medicine an the natural sciences, and far less to what we might term the humanities. The author argues rather aggressively that this is due to the fact that the environment of Central Asia requires city-scale hydraulic civilization, putting a premium upon the mechanical sciences. I am moderately skeptical of environmentally deterministic arguments, but they are reasonable. What is harder to excuse is harping upon the same thesis so often, as well as showing your own philosophical preferences so clearly. The author, like myself, is biased toward those scholars with a peripatetic method in regards to the natural sciences. Though making the case for Turan’s role in the formation of Islamic orthodoxy, he is not positively inclined toward the anti-scientific legalist orientation ascendant after ~1000 A.D. Neither am I, nor are most Western readers of this work. If al-Biruni is the hero, then al-Ghazali, a Persian from Khorasan, is the villain. This sort of normative typology is not befitting a scholarly work of this level.

Finally, we have to address the fact that today Turan is not what it once was. The prominence in intellectual endeavors indicates a demographic robustness which is hard to see in modern day Central Asia. The short answer seems to be the Mongols. The author argues that the Mongols were particularly destructive in Central Asia, both in the areas of straightforward genocide and destruction of the material basis of Turanian urban society in the form of hydraulic engineering. It seems clear that this period also saw the shift from a mostly Iranian speaking populace, to a Turkic one, as the Turks, long recently dominant politically, became handmaids to the Mongols. Though Lost Enlightenment gives some space to early Turkic attempts at ethnic assertion (apparently they were segregated in Baghdad in the early years), it is a very secondary aspect. But it may be that ultimately Turanian civilization always had a sell-by date, because the geographic parameters for dense civilization in Central Asia are fragile and marginal. Situated at the center of Eurasia, and forcing its populace to engage in ingenious engineering to simply survive, Turan was bound to be a creative force. But its explosion may inevitably have been ephemeral.

 
• Category: History • Tags: Islam 
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  1. Kamran says:

    I wonder why visual arts and sculpture never developed at all anywhere in the islamic world. I mean except palaces, mosques, and buildings of course. Obviously statues were never incorporated into mosques, but there is no single stand-alone sculpture, not even a small one. Islam had contact with Greece, but never developed sculpture? On a scriptural basis, it’s obvious why, regarding the prohibition, but you yourself said that scripture only explains so much.

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    • Replies: @Epaminondas
    This ban on the representation of the human form has obviously been broken in modern times, as witness the many statues of Saddam Hussein that were to be found all over Iraq. Other Muslim nations, like Turkey and Syria, also display statues of modern leaders. So something has changed.
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  2. not just greeks, but indians. from what little i’ve read hellenistic influence was actually not trivial among the early umayyads, who took over regions only recently under byzantine rule. but the umayyad legacy was to a large extent erased by the abbasids and their norms. one issue re: central asia is the utilization of mud brick rather than stone. so sculptures would decay. the buddha statues in east asia are actually indo-greek influenced via central asia. but this does seem a case where the islamic norm against culture had an effect. but to my knowledge realistic stone sculpture has been uneven as an across societies.

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  3. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this book by Beckwith here before, but it tells approximately the same story, with an emphasis on the Buddhist influence on Islamic philosophy, and later on the Islamic influence on Christian scholasticism and finally, on European science.

    It’s an odd book because Beckwith is both extraordinarily learned and extraordinarily cranky, and he makes enormous claims which I do not think can be justified. It’s still worth reading for someone interested in the era, though I don’t think that it should be anyone’s sole source.

    http://press.princeton.edu/titles/9871.html

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  4. Visual arts and sculpture are embodied in physical objects which can be destroyed for good and all, so no matter how much slippage there was from orthodoxy among Muslims regarding these, whenever a fundamentalist group came through all memory would be erased.

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  5. thanks for the rec john. just bought the kindle version of that book. so starr agrees with beckwith that the religious educational system of muslims basically has a central asian/buddhistic model as its basis. i don’t know enough of alternative theses to get a sense of how likely this is. it’s plausible, but what are other scholastic models in the west? there were various ‘schools’ and ‘academies’ in the greek east and in sassanian persia, but they seem more oriented toward ‘finished’ scholars, rather than for novices.

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  6. ohwilleke says: • Website

    I have to confess that it is hard to imagine the Turan era well enough to make sense of it.

    I long for some sort of historical fiction to give it life and context and to motivate reading the more guarded non-fiction treatment, a bit like the manga series “Red River” does for the Hittite period, or numerous historical fiction accounts from the Greco-Roman era to the present in Europe.

    Obvious, historical fiction couldn’t be taken as accurate historically in all respects, but it is hard to get a feel for parts of that story that would have been to obvious to mention in writing for the participants, and seems easy to miss the obvious.

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  7. I am confused by these two sentences: “If al-Biruni is the hero, then al-Ghazali, a Persian from Khorasan, is the villain. This sort of normative typology is not befitting a scholarly work of this level.”

    Do I take it correctly that you essentially agree with the assertion, but also think that it is unseemly to state it overtly?

    In my view, al-Biruni is a hero, one of the greatest scholars on all time — perhaps the greatest. The legacy of al-Ghazali, on the other hand, was disastrous, especially in regard to his book The Incoherence of Philosophy. Ibn Rushd (Averroes) responded with the Incoherence of the Incoherence, but unfortunately it had little impact in in the Muslim world.

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  8. Do I take it correctly that you essentially agree with the assertion, but also think that it is unseemly to state it overtly?

    yes. i think the nazis are evil. but if i read a book about the rise of national socialism that harped on it it would be annoying. i like my scholarship with at least a nod at epoche.

    and yes, i would say that razi and biruni were definitely the ones who i identified with. as for ghazali, i am do dislike him, but that’s relatively a common sentiment among people of my background.

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  9. Danny says:

    The short answer seems to be the Mongols

    I should think the damage the Mongols had done would have been temporary were it not for the development of oceanic navigation from the 15th century onwards. Turan had had an extremely favorable location up till then, between China, India & the Middle East and could support prosperous caravan cities; after the development of oceanic travel, not so much, it was inevitable that the cities would dwindle, along with the civilization they created.

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  10. Central Asia has a fascinating history that starts as a region dominated by white scythian, sarmatian or iranian related tribes influenced by Persian, Indian and Greek culture, becomes a Buddhist empire only to finally be transformed into a region dominated by mongoloid (asian?) people speaking turkish and practicing Islam. Central Asia and the east european pontic steppe are the regions of Eurasia that have seen the most drastic demographic changes.

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  11. Kamran says:

    Hi pseudo.

    I don’t think I would use the loaded term “white” to describe the ancient indo-european inhabitants of central asia. How many midwesterners would think a tajik man in their town was white?

    Also, even the indo-europeans who expanded into europe from somewhere in russia, despite probably looking very recognizably white, probably had a culture that was fundamentally alien to today’s christian or post-christian europeans and their descendants.

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    • Replies: @Pseudonymic Handle
    Hi credible.
    My point is that people like the tajiks are now a minority in a turkish dominated Central Asia when they used to be a majority or even the only inhabitants.
    And why would the opinions of a midwesterner define what a white is? The US census defines the people of North Africa, Middle East and Caucasus as white while public opinion and especially north europeans, like midwesterners, generally limit white to themselves and at most to all europeans. Genetically europeans and middle easterners are distinct but related branches of a racial group that is traditionally called white or caucasian.
  12. #12, my understanding is that the marginalization by oceanic trade is a bit exaggerated. but you are probably right that mono-causal reliance on mongol destruction is probably too pat. need to think about this more.

    #14, good point. i think perhaps the term ‘west eurasian’ is more accurate. the ‘tajik’ genetic element looks to be more west asian than european. at least last i checked.

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  13. On the Beckwith: he really has three theses: 1.) that Buddhist philosophy and culture influenced C. Asian Muslim philosophy and culture, 2,) that Muslim philosophy influenced W. European scholasticism, and 3.) that a certain idea transmitted from Buddhist philosophy through Muslim philosophy to scholasticism was the starting point of the scientific revolution.

    #2 is a truism. No one doubts it. #1. is an interesting idea and in my opinion a valid one. Beckwith does a very good job with it. #3 strikes me as impossibly far fetched. YMMV.

    Beckwith is also unnecessarily polemical pretty often, so while I recommend reading this book, it’s with serious reservations.

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    • Replies: @pseudoerasmus
    "On the Beckwith: he really has three theses: 1.) that Buddhist philosophy and culture influenced C. Asian Muslim philosophy and culture, 2,) that Muslim philosophy influenced W. European scholasticism, and 3.) that a certain idea transmitted from Buddhist philosophy through Muslim philosophy to scholasticism was the starting point of the scientific revolution. #2 is a truism. No one doubts it. #1. is an interesting idea and in my opinion a valid one. Beckwith does a very good job with it. #3 strikes me as impossibly far fetched"

    I have not yet read this Starr but re Beckwith I'd say your calling #3 "far-fetched" seems like an understatement. Far-fetched is not only the idea that Buddhism imparted that crucial element to Europe via Islam ; but also the idea that Central Asian Islamic civilisation had already developed a full-fledged scientific culture. In fact the whole book requires, as the logical point of departure, the incredible revaluation of the European Middle Ages that has taken place in the last 15 years or so. The fashionable view that mediaeval scholasticism was the wellspring of the scientific revolution is a revisionism of the older view that the entire 17th century was a violent rejection of and clean break with Aristotelian scholasticism. That was exaggerated (especially because it overfocused on the philosophical superstars), but really, the embrace of the "continuity" thesis in the history of European science is becoming too much now. Of course it's not just in history of science, you see it in economic history as well.

    It's almost like a paradoxical conspiracy between Eurocentrists who have a stake in saying "Europe was always great" and those multiculturalists who find in the reappraisal of the European Middle Ages a convenient way to work Islamic and Asian contributions into the development of European science.
  14. Phronimo says:

    This book ‘the Enlightenment….’ is not really very enlightened. It tells us a lot of things we already know, gives us nothing new, and doesn’t understand the actual creative element in Islamic culture that resulted from the interaction of the drive of Transoxanian thinkers, scholars and theologians with the thought of the Arab linguistic tradition. The fact that it is a caricature is evidenced by the outdated view of al-Ghazali, with was a view invented by Orientalist bigots Ernest Renan and Solomon Munk in the 19th century and perpetuated by the seriously politicised and biased work of Bernard Lewis (of neo-con fame) and Ann Lambton (a figure active in the downfall of Mossadeg in 1953). The basic problem here is understanding the Islamic neo-Platonic philosophers as ‘rationalists’, imagining they are akin to Leibniz or something, and treating Ghazali’s scepticism of their metaphysical realism and their emanationist (Plotinian) religious philosophy as some kind of loss to the intellectual world (although obviously all thought is part of our heritage). Ghazali’s work, although Ghazali himself is Khorasanian, is influenced by the ‘linguistic turn’ of the Kufan linguists like ibn Ginni, that rejected Greek metaphysics. His subjectivist ethics never flourished because it was overtaken by the ‘natural law’ philosophical theology of the most important figure to influence modern Islam, Abu Mansur Maturidi, a Transoxanian himself, influenced by Arab Murji’i thought, whose own influence grew with the expansion of the Turks, after the Mongols completely wiped out the region and sacked Baghdad in 1258. This is a coffee table book that can nicely be put on top of say a large Thames & Hudson edition of Monet’s paintings and some kind of tome on evolution, full of pictures of dinosaurs. I don’t know what you’d do with the Kindle edition.

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  15. @Kamran
    @Pseudonymic Handle

    Hi pseudo.

    I don't think I would use the loaded term "white" to describe the ancient indo-european inhabitants of central asia. How many midwesterners would think a tajik man in their town was white?

    Also, even the indo-europeans who expanded into europe from somewhere in russia, despite probably looking very recognizably white, probably had a culture that was fundamentally alien to today's christian or post-christian europeans and their descendants.

    Hi credible.
    My point is that people like the tajiks are now a minority in a turkish dominated Central Asia when they used to be a majority or even the only inhabitants.
    And why would the opinions of a midwesterner define what a white is? The US census defines the people of North Africa, Middle East and Caucasus as white while public opinion and especially north europeans, like midwesterners, generally limit white to themselves and at most to all europeans. Genetically europeans and middle easterners are distinct but related branches of a racial group that is traditionally called white or caucasian.

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    • Replies: @pseudoerasmus
    But Iranian and Turkic peoples have been very closely intertwined. Sometimes you can't tease apart their histories -- not just in Central Asia but also in Iran itself. Several imperial dynasties in Iran have been Turkic. The last Shah was not a Turk but many Iranians joke he was a Rashti -- from the Caspian region where there has long been a Turco-Iranian interaction. Some disproportionate share of ayatollahs are Azeris or other Turcophones. In Central Asia the Turkic khanates and their courts spoke Persian, much as the Ottoman elites did. Well before the Islamisation of the region, some Turkic groups (like Uighurs) had at one point used Sogdian as their cultural language. Racially speaking, Tajiks in Tajikistan clearly have some Mongoloid admixture, just as Uzbeks in Uzbekistan clearly have more western Eurasian features than, say, Kazaks or Turkmen (of Turkmenistan).

    Besides, Persian is equally intrusive. What I find just as interesting as the Turcisation of Central Asia is the apparent Persianisation of it. Before the Islamic conquest, several Iranic languages, including Middle Persian, had competed for cultural attention in southern Central Asia. Sogdian has left behind not only texts of half a dozen religions, but also letters (famously discovered by the Anglo-Hungarian Aurel Stein), commercial documents, coins, etc. It was a substantial culture. The closely related Khwarezmian survived until around the time of the Mongol conquest, and it was thought socially important enough that someone produced an Arabic-Persian-Khwarezmian dictionary. Even Scythian, which people think of the jabber of maurauding tribes, produced Buddhist texts in the form of Khotanese using the Brahmi script.

    Then, a major effect of Islam in southern Central Asia was the eventual extinction of all the prior cultural languages of Greater Iran and the secure establishment of a "high" version of a language originally spoken across from the present-day Qatar. Before Islam, despite the Sassanids, you can't say (Middle) Persian had been the undisputed cultural lingua franca of Central Asia. It did convey Zoroastrianiasm and Manicheanism, but it was not totally dominant. But somehow Islamisation enabled New Persian to be just that. And more, since the story of Islam in Turkey and India is so Persian-mediated.

    Apart from religious literature there just isn't much text in pre-Islamic Persian. In Empires of the Silk Road Beckwith put it pretty bluntly :

    It is often stated that there are so few books in Middle Persian or in any Persian literary language before New Persian because the Arabs destroyed the “great library of Ctesiphon.” In fact, so few books in early Persian have survived because the Persians simply wrote few books, at least in Persian, before they adopted Islam and got the habit of writing from the Arabs. When the Arab Empire began dissolving in the early ninth century, a highly Arabicized literary language, New Persian, developed. The Persians thenceforth wrote copiously, like the Arabs. The story seems to have arisen to explain the paucity of books in Middle Persian by contrast with the great number in Arabic and, eventually, New Persian. This myth belongs on the dustheap of history along with the one that claims the Arabs destroyed the great library of Alexandria, which actually had disappeared centuries before the Arab conquest.

    The only major eastern Iranic language to survive is Pashto, not exactly a great cultural language. Others are mostly smallish languages like Ossetian (mentioned by Razib) as well as a whole bunch of micro-languages stranded in refugia in the Pamirs, including Yaghnobi, thought to be a lineal descendant of Sogdian. Otherwise, the non-Pashto parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan are Persian-speaking.

  16. @Kamran
    I wonder why visual arts and sculpture never developed at all anywhere in the islamic world. I mean except palaces, mosques, and buildings of course. Obviously statues were never incorporated into mosques, but there is no single stand-alone sculpture, not even a small one. Islam had contact with Greece, but never developed sculpture? On a scriptural basis, it's obvious why, regarding the prohibition, but you yourself said that scripture only explains so much.

    This ban on the representation of the human form has obviously been broken in modern times, as witness the many statues of Saddam Hussein that were to be found all over Iraq. Other Muslim nations, like Turkey and Syria, also display statues of modern leaders. So something has changed.

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  17. #18, could you recommend a scholarly work in english on al-ghazali from a secular perspective? thanks.

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    • Replies: @Phronimo
    Of course.The best all-round book on Ghazali to date is Frank Griffel's Ghazali's Philosophical Theology
    see
    http://www.amazon.com/Al-Ghazalis-Philosophical-Theology-Frank-Griffel/dp/019977370X
    best regards
  18. This book is fairly introductory but almost everyone needs an introduction to this topic. I’d agree that it’s a bit unfair to al-Ghazzali, but that’s because the point of view is rationalist. (My quick check also tells me that ibn Arabi was left out entirely). For the same reason, most histories of W. philosophy either ignore Meister Eckhardt et al or else treat them perfunctorily. al Ghazzali is a skeptic / mystic, not a category of philosopher which most contemporary philosophers usually value highly (with “Tao of Physics” exceptions).

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  19. Phronimo says:
    @Razib Khan
    #18, could you recommend a scholarly work in english on al-ghazali from a secular perspective? thanks.

    Of course.The best all-round book on Ghazali to date is Frank Griffel’s Ghazali’s Philosophical Theology
    see

    http://www.amazon.com/Al-Ghazalis-Philosophical-Theology-Frank-Griffel/dp/019977370X

    best regards

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    • Replies: @Sean
    Graham Harman: "The impossibility of individual things making contact was first noted not by the French Cartesians, but by the Ash‘arite school of Islamic theology in early medieval Iraq. For al-Ash‘ari and his followers, the omnipotence of God goes so far that other entities are deprived not just of the power of creation, but of any causal power at all. To use their favorite example, fire does not burn cotton—it is merely the occasion for God to burn the cotton. The same holds for all causal relations, not just those between mind and body. This notion was attacked even within Islam, with the critique of Averroës being the most famous. But it is supported by a particular passage in the Qur’an, and makes a good fit with the profound sense of fate and the almighty will of God that is generally even stronger in Islam than in Christianity. While similar passages can be found in the Bible in I and II Corinthians, it took hundreds of years for the occasionalist spirit to flourish in Europe—until the seventeenth century, when relations became problematic for philosophy as never before.

    This began, of course, in France. But it was perhaps foreshadowed in the 1590’s in the late Scholastic writings of Francisco Suárez. On the surface, Suárez opposes all occasionalism, which he openly attacks decades before it even appears in Europe. While it is obvious that Suárez is thoroughly schooled in various figures of Islamic philosophy—Averroës, Avicenna, Avicebron—he seems unaware of the Ash‘arite occasionalists of Iraq. For Suárez says only that

    there was an old position which asserted that created things do nothing but instead that God effects all things in their presence, whereas action is attributed to fire, water, and so on because of the appearances and because God has resolved, as it were, to produce such effects only in the presence of such things. This opinion is mentioned by Averroës… by Albertus Magnus… and by St. Thomas Aquinas… though there is no particular author whom they cite on its behalf.[1]

    Suárez then digs up a few minor passages from European authors that seem to point in an occasionalist direction, which he would never have done if he were familiar with The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Averroës, where al-Ghazali of Baghdad is specifically attacked for occasionalist views. This scarcity of references is not so important, since Suárez attacks the anonymous occasionalists anyway. Yet a bit of the occasionalist DNA can be found even in Suárez’s own writings. After all, one of his most famous teachings is the incommunicability of individuals. He rejects the idea that form stamped in matter, materia signata, is the source of individuation. The work of individuation belongs to form alone; each thing is a highly specific modal compound. But this means that no form can shift from one material to another and still remain what it was: forms are untranslatable, immobilized in place, incommunicable. Hence Suárez must place especial emphasis on the old Scholastic principle that things affect one another through accidents, not through some impossible direct contact between substantial forms. While the occasionalists see God as the glue of the world, and Hume and Kant grant this honor to the habits or categories of the human mind, Suárez gives it to the accidents of individual substances. And this is closer to the true solution than when God or the human mind take all the glory."

  20. […] some trusted sources on the issues of the day, but I find most of it boring. The history of the Khorasani Arabs seems interesting, but I have no interest in why we may or may not be bombing them. My default […]

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  21. @John Emerson
    On the Beckwith: he really has three theses: 1.) that Buddhist philosophy and culture influenced C. Asian Muslim philosophy and culture, 2,) that Muslim philosophy influenced W. European scholasticism, and 3.) that a certain idea transmitted from Buddhist philosophy through Muslim philosophy to scholasticism was the starting point of the scientific revolution.


    #2 is a truism. No one doubts it. #1. is an interesting idea and in my opinion a valid one. Beckwith does a very good job with it. #3 strikes me as impossibly far fetched. YMMV.

    Beckwith is also unnecessarily polemical pretty often, so while I recommend reading this book, it's with serious reservations.

    “On the Beckwith: he really has three theses: 1.) that Buddhist philosophy and culture influenced C. Asian Muslim philosophy and culture, 2,) that Muslim philosophy influenced W. European scholasticism, and 3.) that a certain idea transmitted from Buddhist philosophy through Muslim philosophy to scholasticism was the starting point of the scientific revolution. #2 is a truism. No one doubts it. #1. is an interesting idea and in my opinion a valid one. Beckwith does a very good job with it. #3 strikes me as impossibly far fetched”

    I have not yet read this Starr but re Beckwith I’d say your calling #3 “far-fetched” seems like an understatement. Far-fetched is not only the idea that Buddhism imparted that crucial element to Europe via Islam ; but also the idea that Central Asian Islamic civilisation had already developed a full-fledged scientific culture. In fact the whole book requires, as the logical point of departure, the incredible revaluation of the European Middle Ages that has taken place in the last 15 years or so. The fashionable view that mediaeval scholasticism was the wellspring of the scientific revolution is a revisionism of the older view that the entire 17th century was a violent rejection of and clean break with Aristotelian scholasticism. That was exaggerated (especially because it overfocused on the philosophical superstars), but really, the embrace of the “continuity” thesis in the history of European science is becoming too much now. Of course it’s not just in history of science, you see it in economic history as well.

    It’s almost like a paradoxical conspiracy between Eurocentrists who have a stake in saying “Europe was always great” and those multiculturalists who find in the reappraisal of the European Middle Ages a convenient way to work Islamic and Asian contributions into the development of European science.

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  22. @Pseudonymic Handle
    Hi credible.
    My point is that people like the tajiks are now a minority in a turkish dominated Central Asia when they used to be a majority or even the only inhabitants.
    And why would the opinions of a midwesterner define what a white is? The US census defines the people of North Africa, Middle East and Caucasus as white while public opinion and especially north europeans, like midwesterners, generally limit white to themselves and at most to all europeans. Genetically europeans and middle easterners are distinct but related branches of a racial group that is traditionally called white or caucasian.

    But Iranian and Turkic peoples have been very closely intertwined. Sometimes you can’t tease apart their histories — not just in Central Asia but also in Iran itself. Several imperial dynasties in Iran have been Turkic. The last Shah was not a Turk but many Iranians joke he was a Rashti — from the Caspian region where there has long been a Turco-Iranian interaction. Some disproportionate share of ayatollahs are Azeris or other Turcophones. In Central Asia the Turkic khanates and their courts spoke Persian, much as the Ottoman elites did. Well before the Islamisation of the region, some Turkic groups (like Uighurs) had at one point used Sogdian as their cultural language. Racially speaking, Tajiks in Tajikistan clearly have some Mongoloid admixture, just as Uzbeks in Uzbekistan clearly have more western Eurasian features than, say, Kazaks or Turkmen (of Turkmenistan).

    Besides, Persian is equally intrusive. What I find just as interesting as the Turcisation of Central Asia is the apparent Persianisation of it. Before the Islamic conquest, several Iranic languages, including Middle Persian, had competed for cultural attention in southern Central Asia. Sogdian has left behind not only texts of half a dozen religions, but also letters (famously discovered by the Anglo-Hungarian Aurel Stein), commercial documents, coins, etc. It was a substantial culture. The closely related Khwarezmian survived until around the time of the Mongol conquest, and it was thought socially important enough that someone produced an Arabic-Persian-Khwarezmian dictionary. Even Scythian, which people think of the jabber of maurauding tribes, produced Buddhist texts in the form of Khotanese using the Brahmi script.

    Then, a major effect of Islam in southern Central Asia was the eventual extinction of all the prior cultural languages of Greater Iran and the secure establishment of a “high” version of a language originally spoken across from the present-day Qatar. Before Islam, despite the Sassanids, you can’t say (Middle) Persian had been the undisputed cultural lingua franca of Central Asia. It did convey Zoroastrianiasm and Manicheanism, but it was not totally dominant. But somehow Islamisation enabled New Persian to be just that. And more, since the story of Islam in Turkey and India is so Persian-mediated.

    Apart from religious literature there just isn’t much text in pre-Islamic Persian. In Empires of the Silk Road Beckwith put it pretty bluntly :

    It is often stated that there are so few books in Middle Persian or in any Persian literary language before New Persian because the Arabs destroyed the “great library of Ctesiphon.” In fact, so few books in early Persian have survived because the Persians simply wrote few books, at least in Persian, before they adopted Islam and got the habit of writing from the Arabs. When the Arab Empire began dissolving in the early ninth century, a highly Arabicized literary language, New Persian, developed. The Persians thenceforth wrote copiously, like the Arabs. The story seems to have arisen to explain the paucity of books in Middle Persian by contrast with the great number in Arabic and, eventually, New Persian. This myth belongs on the dustheap of history along with the one that claims the Arabs destroyed the great library of Alexandria, which actually had disappeared centuries before the Arab conquest.

    The only major eastern Iranic language to survive is Pashto, not exactly a great cultural language. Others are mostly smallish languages like Ossetian (mentioned by Razib) as well as a whole bunch of micro-languages stranded in refugia in the Pamirs, including Yaghnobi, thought to be a lineal descendant of Sogdian. Otherwise, the non-Pashto parts of Afghanistan and Tajikistan are Persian-speaking.

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  23. Errata : “…Central Asian Islamic civilisation had already developed a full-fledged scientific culture”

    that should be “.. [possessed all the necessary precursors of ] a full-fledged scientific culture”…and the two big ones for Beckwith are the college system and the recursive method.

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  24. Bill P says:

    Thanks for the informative article — it was a pleasure to read.

    It does not take a leap of imagination to wonder if Sufi mysticism may have been influenced by Indian practices and beliefs (some early Sufi mystics do report Indian, or perhaps more accurately Turanian Buddhist, mentors). And there are curious currents in the other direction, “Greek medicine” as transmitted by Central Asians is still practiced in India.

    So would the Greco-Bactrians be considered “Turanian?” I know that their Greek-trained sculptors spread their classical style of Buddhist art throughout Asia, their influence reaching even as far as Japan. The sophistication of their work is something that really made an impression on me when I visited Central Asia myself and saw some of it firsthand.

    Wouldn’t surprise me at all to learn that this culture’s descendants had a considerable impact on Islam.

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  25. It’s interesting that the racial, as opposed to a religious, focus on Turanianism is actually making something of a comeback in some quarters. Pan-Turanianism has an interesting intellectual history in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the rise of the right-wing Jobbik party in Hungary is giving it a new lease on life in that country. (Jobbik wants to seriously reorient the university system in Hungary to promote the

    Combine that with some Turkish intellectuals’ attempts to transform pan-Turkic thought into a larger pan-Turanian framework (as an alternative to Islamism?), and even some new interest in pan-Turanism in Finland and Japan, and we could see some interesting ideological movements emerging as the 21st century goes on.

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  26. I really enjoyed reading this review. It was in-depth but still accessible for someone who is not an expert on the region. I may check this book out at some point.

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  27. Marks says:

    The current Turanist movement in Hungary seems to be mostly aligning itself with Russia and ideologically Jobbik is close to Alexander Dugin’s Eurasianism – which seems to be just old Great Russian imperialism in a new internationally palatable guise. If there are significant movements with Turanist ideology in Finland or Japan, I’ve not heard of them.

    http://www.jobbik.com/g%C3%A1bor_vona_had_lecture_lomonosov_university_russia

    http://anton-shekhovtsov.blogspot.com/2013/12/european-extreme-right-and-russian.html

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  28. Sean says:
    @Phronimo
    Of course.The best all-round book on Ghazali to date is Frank Griffel's Ghazali's Philosophical Theology
    see
    http://www.amazon.com/Al-Ghazalis-Philosophical-Theology-Frank-Griffel/dp/019977370X
    best regards

    Graham Harman: “The impossibility of individual things making contact was first noted not by the French Cartesians, but by the Ash‘arite school of Islamic theology in early medieval Iraq. For al-Ash‘ari and his followers, the omnipotence of God goes so far that other entities are deprived not just of the power of creation, but of any causal power at all. To use their favorite example, fire does not burn cotton—it is merely the occasion for God to burn the cotton. The same holds for all causal relations, not just those between mind and body. This notion was attacked even within Islam, with the critique of Averroës being the most famous. But it is supported by a particular passage in the Qur’an, and makes a good fit with the profound sense of fate and the almighty will of God that is generally even stronger in Islam than in Christianity. While similar passages can be found in the Bible in I and II Corinthians, it took hundreds of years for the occasionalist spirit to flourish in Europe—until the seventeenth century, when relations became problematic for philosophy as never before.

    This began, of course, in France. But it was perhaps foreshadowed in the 1590’s in the late Scholastic writings of Francisco Suárez. On the surface, Suárez opposes all occasionalism, which he openly attacks decades before it even appears in Europe. While it is obvious that Suárez is thoroughly schooled in various figures of Islamic philosophy—Averroës, Avicenna, Avicebron—he seems unaware of the Ash‘arite occasionalists of Iraq. For Suárez says only that

    there was an old position which asserted that created things do nothing but instead that God effects all things in their presence, whereas action is attributed to fire, water, and so on because of the appearances and because God has resolved, as it were, to produce such effects only in the presence of such things. This opinion is mentioned by Averroës… by Albertus Magnus… and by St. Thomas Aquinas… though there is no particular author whom they cite on its behalf.[1]

    Suárez then digs up a few minor passages from European authors that seem to point in an occasionalist direction, which he would never have done if he were familiar with The Incoherence of the Incoherence by Averroës, where al-Ghazali of Baghdad is specifically attacked for occasionalist views. This scarcity of references is not so important, since Suárez attacks the anonymous occasionalists anyway. Yet a bit of the occasionalist DNA can be found even in Suárez’s own writings. After all, one of his most famous teachings is the incommunicability of individuals. He rejects the idea that form stamped in matter, materia signata, is the source of individuation. The work of individuation belongs to form alone; each thing is a highly specific modal compound. But this means that no form can shift from one material to another and still remain what it was: forms are untranslatable, immobilized in place, incommunicable. Hence Suárez must place especial emphasis on the old Scholastic principle that things affect one another through accidents, not through some impossible direct contact between substantial forms. While the occasionalists see God as the glue of the world, and Hume and Kant grant this honor to the habits or categories of the human mind, Suárez gives it to the accidents of individual substances. And this is closer to the true solution than when God or the human mind take all the glory.”

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  29. Some of the Buddhist Abhidharmists and Madhyamika philosophers also argued occasionalism, I think. Some ideas show up eventually whenever you thin about certain topics long enough.

    Can’t go much beyond this, it’s been so long since I’ve read any of that.

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  30. What you do not mention, but should, is that a great deal of the “Islamic” golden age under the Abbasids was not Muslim or Arab at all, but rather a late flowering of antique, pre-Islamic and pre-Christian learning, the heritage of the Hellenized near east.

    Consider, for example, the Harranians (Sabians). These were a “pocket of Syrian heathens” living in northwestern Mesopotamia, “who obstinately retained their old Babylonian religion” (as J.R. Partington described them). In about 830 A.D., the caliph Al-Mamoun (the son of the famous Haroun al-Raschid, who figures so prominently in the “Arabian Nights”), passing through Harran, noticed these peculiar people, and, questioning them about their religion, found they were neither Muslims, nor Christians, nor Jews. He told them that if, upon his return, they had not become Muslims, he would put them to the sword.

    They consulted an Islamic lawyer, who, for a large fee, instructed them to tell the caliph that they were Sabians, who are mentioned thrice in the Koran and counted among the “peoples of the book” who might be tolerated by Muslims on the payment of the jizya. For their scriptures, they chose the Corpus Hermeticum, a pastiche of Neoplatonic and Gnostic philosophy that was attributed to remote antiquity but was in fact more recent, and was influenced by Alexandrian Judaism and early Christianity.

    A disproportionate number of the intelligentsia of the Abbasid period were such Harranians or Sabians, including Thebit ben Corath and Geber. The caliphs drew upon Sabians and Jews for advisors. J.R. Partington’s “History of Chemistry” (vol. I) andTobias Churton’s “The Golden Builders” each devote a chapter to the men of Harran.

    It is important to bear in mind that the eastern end of the Mediterranean littoral, including Egypt, the Levant, Asia Minor, and points further to the east as far as the Alexandrian and Roman empires extended at their maximum extents, incorporated the “cradles of civilisation” and the richest parts of the Roman empire as it went into its final decline. The peoples of these places were refined and sophisticated well before Islam appeared. By contrast, western Europe was a backwater, a relative wilderness, populated by bumpkins like the Gauls who had been subdued by Julius Caesar, and barbarians like the Germans, who had wrought such execution on the Roman legions in the Teutoberg forest.

    What is relevant about the two halves of the old Roman empire is what they became. The Abbasid “golden age” almost entirely reflected living off of the cultural capital that Muslims plundered from the best parts of classical antiquity; how much more might they have had, if they had not burnt what was left of the library of Alexandria to heat their bath water! And when the classical patrimony had all been squandered, the Muslim world sank into a backwardness and squalor from which only the sale of petroleum (discovered in those lands by European peoples) has partly relieved it.

    Western Christendom, taking the fag end of what was left by Rome, developed the arts and the sciences, discovered the New World, and achieved the highest standard of living known to recorded history.

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  31. What you do not mention, but should, is that a great deal of the “Islamic” golden age under the Abbasids was not Muslim or Arab at all, but rather a late flowering of antique, pre-Islamic and pre-Christian learning, the heritage of the Hellenized near east.

    i’ve forgotten more history than you know. really. e.g.

    http://www.unz.com/gnxp/how-the-sabians-saved-civilization

    so you don’t need to offer my your assessment. it’s inferior to mine, where we agree or disagree.

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  32. Anonymous says: • Disclaimer

    There are a couple of positions that you take that bother me more than a little, though I also have some sympathy with them. The first is that a scholarly work should not take a normative position, or should at least do so minimally. My thinking is that this aspect of academia comes from Plato, who eschewed drama and the dramatic for reasons of his own, but in so doing misses the basic significance of the death of his teacher: the fact that it was a scapegoat murder. This is partly an intellectual preference that saw philosophy in competition with drama, but it also has to do with the fact that Plato was complicit in Socrates’ murder (fleeing and then later refusing to indict the community for what it had done). For these reasons the breakthrough that had occurred somewhat earlier in the Judaic world and recounted in 2nd Isaiah remained out of reach for the Greeks. It took them another 400 years to catch the caboose of that train, and the West in general was thus relegated to the caboose… just barely hanging on by the skin of Shakespeare and Cervantes’ teeth.

    The other thing that bothers me is the sociological determination of “religion” rather than the anthropological one. I feel as if it’s legitimate for me to express this uneasiness since I’m technically a sociologist with a specialization in culture and “values.” But the idea that religions are formed by vague social forces as they mature, simply seems wrongheaded. It is true that the critical element of Christianity received short shrift, but understanding that this waywardness is illegitimate is critical to understanding the human condition, and societies are bit players in that drama.

    But those nitpicks aside, what is it that is so irksome about Islam? Why has it been such a trouble-maker? A Muslim friend of mine from Jordan once told me that, as a toddler, he had a precocious reputation for mathematical facility. He was very proud of himself until he met a woman with 11 toes. Suddenly he he had lost the knack for numbers and seeing his look of panic the woman told him that, indeed, he had counted correctly and that she had an odd (prime) number of toes. Sometimes Islam seems like that, to me.

    Islam came into being during that great upheaval, as first paganism tried to reassert itself and then other competitors to Christianity arose that were similarly pro-sacral (centered on the concept of myth and sacred violence), or were non-sacral in ways that omitted and anthropological grounding (such as Manichaeism). There were a great many dualistic faiths that attempted to meet this longing to return to the sacrificial by defining an “us” and a “them,” but Islam was the most successful of these. It accomplished this, in part, by creating a hybrid of religion and ideology. Islam’s division of the world into members of the Ummah versus the Kufar of the House of War could not have been more different from the Judaic and Christian core, that Sandhor Goodhart calls “the prophetic reading.” (“If you keep doing this, that will happen.”)

    What you have with Islam is an odd kind of impersonation of Judaism and Christianity that is 2/3rds ideological, and deliberately oriented *toward* the sacrificial, but only behind a political veil. It’s going to be tough to find any kind of reconciliation between the West and Islam given that the West is misinformed about it’s own origins and the origins of Islam were deliberately expunged. In fact, it would be something of a miracle not unlike the reconciliation between a Christ who is or is not the Son of God in spite of being immaculately conceived and sinless. At any rate I have my doubts that the Hadith was inspired by ideas from India as much as by two critical factors: 1. Envy of the Judaic habit of validating texts by virtue of a string of eyewitnesses; and 2. The need to protect non-Arab converts (including Samaritans and Jews) from the excesses of a totalitarian Caliphate. The Caliph could not legislate by edict if the Prophet always had the last word.

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