Central Asia has a remarkably wealthy and deep intellectual tradition in the sciences, mathematics, and religious thinking. In this book, Frederick Starr recounts the period between 800 and 1100 when Central Asia led the world in trade and economic development, the size and sophistication of its cities, the refinement of its arts, and, above all, in the advancement of knowledge in many fields. Jax Jacobsen finds that this book closes a gap in current research regarding these academic triumphs and is essential for understanding the cultures of modern-day Central Asian states.
Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. S. Frederick Starr. Princeton University Press. October 2013.
Central Asia is an often overlooked but vitally important geopolitical space, in which the countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are located. Newly independent, following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, these countries have incited only a passing interest in the international arena, because of their remoteness, inaccessibility, and struggling economies.
Also important to remember is that these nations were created not from the ground up, but by the empires that oversaw the region. Josef Stalin saw fit to divvy the area into five distinct ‘Stans’ (Russian for ‘land’) because he feared a pan-Eurasian revolt. Central Asia, especially in the period of 800 to 1100 on which S. Frederick Starr focuses in this book, was more of a thoroughfare of cultures than an area easily amenable to the blocking off of states. The storied Silk Road leading from Europe to China ran straight through this region, and could be tagged as one of the earliest instances of globalization, with cultures freely interacting with each other driven by economic gain.
Even today, the nations are torn between Russia and China, which are openly competing for dominance in the region. The U.S., especially after the start of the war of Afghanistan, may have toyed with winning hearts and minds there but has lately appeared to reduce its desire for influence in the region. India and Turkey, too, seem distinctly interested in cultivating economic partnerships with Central Asian states, and have initiated a stronger diplomatic push there in recent months.
Central Asia’s relationship with the Arab invasion in the early 800s, and its adoption of Islam, has always been poorly understood by specialists covering the region (as I once was), and Starr’s book outlines how both were introduced to the region in greatly researched detail. His accounts of the repeated attempts of the Arab empire, based in Baghdad, to conquer the region were met with a mix of intrigue and apathy, with the occasional brilliant ruse (Starr tells of a time when the Arab rulers decreed that pious Muslims would be exempt from taxes; whole cities in Central Asia then declared themselves to be newly converted. The government in Baghdad then decided to require proof of circumcision). This anecdote, among others, explains well why Arab rulers opted for a light-handed control of the region, rather than insisting on the complete submersion of Central Asians.
One of the strengths of the book lies on the meticulous research conducted by Starr, and his willingness to share these salacious tidbits with his readers. Ongoing political struggles of ancient struggles can be a bit tedious, but his inclusion of stories like the above bring a sense of vividness and understanding to the events, as well as a level of personalization to a distant and remote history. Starr’s in-depth profiles of scholars who spent a great amount of time in the region – which include Ibn Sina, known to the West as Avicenna, and Muhammad al-Bukhari, one of the compilers of the second sacred text of Muslims, the Hadiths (narrations of Prophetic traditions) – only contribute to the reader’s understanding of the constantly changing times in which these scholars lived and the many cultures with which they were able to interact.
The accomplishments of these scholars-which include the development of spherical geometry and quadratic equations – is often overlooked in Western educational systems, which are too comfortable in crediting intellectual advancement to ancient Greece and renaissance Europe, without acknowledging the essential contributions by Muslim scholars. By emphasizing the headway made by Central Asians between 800 and 1100, Starr reveals the indisputable bridge between the thinkers of ancient Greece and early modern Europe took place in inner Asia during this time period. Moreover, the successes of these polymaths were rarely attributed to Central Asia, as most texts in this period were written in the Arabic language, leading later scholars to assume that these thinkers were Arabs.
One of the less satisfying aspects of the book is the question of identity. “Central Asia,” even to this day, is difficult to define; it commonly refers to the five ‘Stans outlined above, but occasionally the region is expanded to include Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the far reaches of western China, notably the restive province of Xinjiang. Starr also considers northern Iran to be part of the region. A millennium ago, the area was much more difficult to delineate into a set region – so can scholars cited in the book, whose personal histories are often muddled with the passage of time, be labelled definitively as Central Asian. However, Starr does a masterful job in describing the intellectual vivacity of Merv, now located in isolated Turkmenistan, and Bukhara, in equally repressed Uzbekistan – no matter the actual ethnicity of the students and academics in those locales.
Beyond establishing Central Asia’s intellectual history, Starr provides a much deeper understanding to observers of the region of modern-day states. By outlining how Central Asian academics successfully challenged the dominance of the Arabic language in the public sphere, and showing how the use of Persian grew and eventually rivalled Arabic in this time period, it is now possible to understand why Arabic remains a less frequently used language. On the religious front, Starr details how Central Asians evolved from one of the “chief bearers of Islam and arbiters of things Islamic” to critics of Muslim literalists who rejected this approach in favour of a more mystic interpretation, Sufism, which characterizes the form of faith many contemporary Central Asians now follow.
Jax Jacobsen is a journalist, currently covering the Canadian and African mining sectors for SNL Financial. Prior to this, she served as Managing Editor for web-based news service Central Asia Newswire, covering daily economic and political news emerging from the region. She holds a masters in International Journalism from City University London and completed a masters at McGill University in political science, focusing on the crackdown of religious splinter groups in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. Jax tweets @jaxjacobsen. Read more reviews by Jax.