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Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review: Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr

These are the nations of Central Asia: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Iran and Afghanistan.
Book Review:
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
by S. Frederick Starr
Published October 13th, 2013.
Princeton University Press, First Edition
(BUY IT)

  You can't seriously be interested in the category of "world news" without realizing that "the Middle East" is one of the most consistently popular subjects within the world news rubric.  As I write this right now, I would imagine that the number one subject in world news right now is the current Gaza Strip conflict between Israel and Hamas and that the number three subject is the expansion of ISIS across northern Syria and Iraq.  Then you've probably got the Syrian civil war in the top 10, and also Afghanistan and then Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan are all top 20 countries of interest for various reasons.
The ruins at Balkh


  The "Middle East" typically includes the areas of Arabia, Northern Africa/Egypt, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Iran.  This definition of the Middle East excludes Afghanistan, Pakistan and all the countries of former Soviet Union: Kazakhstan, Kirghistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.   In fact, these nations together with (arguably) Iran and Pakistan comprise a separate subject, "Central Asia."  Because the present day states in Central Asia proper are so obscure, interest in the history of this region is weak.

  That is a shame, because as S. Frederick Starr comprehensively demonstrates in his magisterial treatment of the history of this region in Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, the Central Asian enlightenment between 800-1300 A.D. is one of the Golden Ages of world civilization, on a par with the European Renaissance (thought preceding it) or the Graeco-Roman phosphorescence of the "Ancient World."

   Lost Enlightenment exists to right a number of misunderstandings about Central Asia.  Primary among those misunderstandings it the frequent characterization by Western scholars that Central Asian scientists that wrote in Arabic were in fact Arab.  Thus, what we have historically referred to as scientific/artistic achievements of the Arab/Muslim Middle Ages were often neither Arab NOR Muslim in origination, simply written down in Arabic.

  The second major misunderstanding about Central Asia that Starr confronts is the idea that the only interesting subject to modern scholars about the Central Asian civilization of the early middle ages is it's "decline and fall."  This is a subject that is very much en vogue in the currents of "popular history."  The primary exponent of this thesis is Jared Diamond.

  To a lesser degree, Starr also explains in authoritative fashions the relationship between language and ethnicity in Central Asia during this period.  The Golden Age of Central Asia typically starts after the Arab conquest only because everything could be written down in Arabic, and because classic Greek works were translated into Arabic.  Crucial to understanding the history of Central Asia is understanding that the civilization PRE Arabic conquest was vital, being mostly Oases centered city-states run by different Iranic speaking native of the region.  The two places that figure most prominently in this pre-Conquest narrative are Balkh (located in the far north of Afghanistan) and Samarkand (southern Uzbekistan.)   These cities were the center of larger Iranic speaking ethnic/religious groups.  The most well know of these are the Sogdians, who were centered around Samarkand.

  Although conquered by the Arabs (more or less) in the 6th century, they had pre-existing relationships with India, and at the time of conquest there were Buddhists, Zoroastrians, Manichean, Christians and Jews.   Generally speaking, the Buddhists and Manicheans were treated harshly, Zoroastrians, Christians and Jews held on for centuries, much as they did in other parts of the Islamic empire outside the Arab heartland.

  After the Arab Conquest of Central Asia, Turkic speaking tribes play a long running roll, starting as barbaric nomads and ending up as conquerors with hybrid Turkic-Persianate Sunni and Shia Muslims ruling over the entire Middle East and most of India via the Ottomans, Savarids and Mughals.   The role of actual Arabs in Central Asia after the conquest is analogous to the role that the Roman Empire played in Northern Europe: the people there aren't "Roman" in any way, but their development has been dramatically impacted by the Roman presence.

  Other then literally explaining these very basic and true facts about a little-known region of the world, Starr sets out to explain the constituent elements of the Central Asian Golden Age by drawing biographies of the leading exponents and detailing their accomplishments in general-reader level detail. It isn't "pop history" but Starr leans towards making good footnotes and sparing the reader debates interesting only to academics in the field.

  He also gingerly moves towards a conclusion about the "decline and fall" that is careful to avoid easy generalizations and takes into the account the utter lack of familiarity that most writers have about the actual facts and arguments of this period.  This "decline and fall" links directly to the larger subject of "the Middle East" since it implicates the entire Arabic writing intellectual world and mirrors the actual debate about the "closing of the Arab mind" that happened in the thirteenth and fourteenth century.
Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111):  responsible for the phenomenon of "the closing of the Islamic mind."
   This "closing of the Arab mind" issue is probably the most controversial in the non-popular field of Middle Eastern history, but you can't really discuss that subject without implicating Central Asia, because all of the non closed minds were non-Arabs who were raised in Central Asia not speaking Arabic.  I felt like Starr kind of buried the lede here.  Ultimately, the most responsible part in the Authors mind is the writing of Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058-1111) who emerges as a kind of Central Asian Middle Ages equivalent of a Rush Limbaugh in the mid 1990s.   He attacked scientific/rational/philosophical thought in a classic text called The Incoherence of Philosophers.  His argument was essentially adopted wholesale by the Sunni Muslim academic teaching apparatus, and his followers essentially ended debate after a few generations of struggles.

  To this day the ideas of al-Ghazali remain unquestioned  and it is quite easy to trace from al-Ghazali directly to al-Queda and it's affiliated groups and ideology.    Starr also gently opines on the vexatious question of the failure of the Middle East to Modernize in the way of the West.  Here he firmly lays blame at the foot of the Turkic/Persian influenced Empires of the early modern Period.  These "gunpowder" Empires were essentially castes of Turkic speaking Calvary officers under the influence of Perisan-ate court culture who were quick on subjects like equipping an entire army with guns and artillery, but weak on adopting the printing press and subject to the restrictive Sunni Muslim ideology about rational thought and science.

  Starr does not dwell at all on the depressing present of any of these nations.   You can see the history of the region of the actual names of the countries.  Tajikistan means "Persians" and they speak an Iranic language.  Turkmenistan is Turks speaking Turkish, and the Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyistan represent different Turkic speaking tribes who arrived at different times in the area from the North and East.

  In conclusion, Lost Enlightenment is a must read for anyone with a deeper than average interest in world news, let alone an active interest in world history.  To my knowledge, this is the first comprehensive history of this time and place, and it is a welcome addition to any well compiled reading library in the subject area of World History or World News, for that matter.

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