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S. Frederick Starr: The Lost Enlightenment. Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Princeton/Oxford: “Princeton University Press”, 2013.—634 pp.

Iran and the Caucasus 20 (2016) 407-414
©Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, 2016 DOI: 10.1163/1573384X-20160310
Book Reviews
S. Frederick Starr: The Lost Enlightenment. Central Asia’s Golden Age from
the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane, Princeton/Oxford: “Princeton University
Press”, 2013.634 pp.
With his latest book Professor Starr has closed a prevailing gap found not
only within the interested public, but also amongst scholars researching
on specific aspects of Central Asian culture and history. He has therein
successfully unveiled fascinating images of a dynamically changing Cen-
tral Asia; one that was characterised by gradual, yet major changes to the
economic and social fabric, as well as the existing ethnic, cultural, and re-
ligious compositions. The author has managed to meticulously compile,
as evinced by the extensive bibliography, almost all available information
on the most interesting period of Central Asia. Hence, the true value of
the book is that it presents comprehensively collated data and sources,
amalgamated in chronological order, about the history, culture, material
life and sciences in mediaeval Central Asia, pre- and post-Islamisation.
Furthermore, the author’s reasoning for the rise and decline of Central
Asia’s Enlightenment is nothing short of impeccably convincing. Finally,
based on the author’s arguments, one may come to appreciate the value
of mediaeval Central Asia as a model for the modern world. The area was
bourgeoning in terms of material wealth and culture, while its centres of
knowledge and sciencethough interconnectedwere marked by a sig-
nificant political decentralisation, as well as an ethnically quite diverse
The author defines Central Asia as the geographical area consisting of
five former Soviet republics: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turk-
menistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as large parts of Afghanistan, northern
Pakistan, the Chinese province of Xinjiang, and the Iranian region of
Khorasan. He does not, however, examine this vast area in detail, but fo-
cuses on the culture and history of the key city-settlements in Central
Asia. This effort appropriately presents Central Asia as a chain of inter-
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connected urban areas (with a rural hinterland), which existed in the
form of various political unions and alliances throughout the centuries.
Starr describes the inhabitants of this expansive area, in particular the
intellectual class who wrote in Arabic and/or Persian, as being Central
Asians of primarily Iranic and Turkic origin. Thereafter, he presents evi-
dence of the indigenous and distinctive cultural heritage, as well as socio-
economic life, in Central Asia, which was constantly enriched by external
cultural influxes, mainly from Iran, China, and India. In other words, the
peoples of the area, to whom the author allocates a distinctive “Central
Asian identity”, created a unique “Central Asian civilization”, one that ex-
isted and functioned in a variety of decentralised political and economic
configurations for long periods of time.
Building on this, one of the leitmotivs of the book accentuates the
Central Asian culture and intellectual achievements, as well as their re-
sulting influence on the worldcontrary to the widely perceived domina-
tion by Arab and Iranian civilisations. Hence, at the beginning of the
book, in the section dedicated to the Abbasid Era and Baghdad, the au-
thor, in commenting on the literature dealing with the “golden age of
‘Arab’ learning”, notes that these studies “rarely, if ever, disaggregate their
subject in such way as to distinguish the specifically Central Asian contri-
bution” (p.126). He concedes that the Abbasids and the ruling class in
Baghdad were, indeed, Arabs by ethnicity. However, he rightly empha-
sises that their power base was in the Eastin Central Asia, and that the
Arab culture felt a powerful wind from the East. Finally, the author con-
cludes that “a significant number of those brilliant ‘Arab’ scientists were
not Arabs at all, but Central Asians who choose to write in Arabic”, and
that “Central Asians under the caliphate dominated the intellectual class
but also the army and much of the economy” (p. 128).
As convincing as the author’s arguments are, one, however, should not
forget that the philosophers, scientists, and academics in Central Asia, as
well as all of their achievements, after the Arab conquest and the gradual
Islamisation, constituted an integral part of the cultural and scientific
domain of the Islamic World in general, and the Arabic, Iranian and Tur-
kic spheres in particular.
Starr convincingly points out that neither the beginning, nor the end
of the Central Asian Enlightenment can be precisely fixed in time, and in-
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stead sets it between 750 and 1150. In 750, the Arab conquest of Central
Asia was completed, and the Abbasids, with a strong force from Merv (to-
day’s Mary in Turkmenistan), overthrew the Umayyad Caliphate.1 In other
words, the second half of the 8th and the beginning of the 9th century are
marked by a shift of power in the Islamic world, from the Arab heartlands
to the eastern realms of the caliphate, including Central Asia, which was
largely the result of the rise of the Iranian sociocultural components
within the Islamic world. Therefore, the choice of the year 750 as the be-
ginning of the period of enlightenment in Central Asia is quite convinc-
ing. So too is the choice of the year 1150 as marking the qualitative and
quantitative decline of scientific, as well as philosophical undertakings
within the region. Such decline can be definitively observed from the mid-
12th century onwards, albeit the area was still economically flourishing
and even experienced a revival under the Timurids, after the end of the
Mongol conquest and occupation.
During this period, Central Asia was, indeed, as the author terms it, the
intellectual “Center of the World”. In this context, Starr not only provides
a complete list of all these prodigies and their achievements, enhancing
the world’s knowledge in a vast number of fields (like astronomy, geogra-
phy, geology, history, mathematics, medicine, optics, philosophy, physics,
and even anthropology); but he also points out that masterminds like Ibn
Sina and Biruni were not working in isolation. They were, indeed, at the
forefront of academic thought, but did not achieve this alone. There ex-
isted “a large, competent, and interconnected community of scientists
and thinkers” (p. 2) who accelerated the intellectual advance by chal-
lenging and supporting each other, and served as “the great link between
antiquity and the modern world” (p. 4).
After the introduction of the stage, the time, and the actors Frederick
Starr poses three major questions that the bookwhile chronologically
addressing the different stages of the Central Asian Enlightenment (from
pre-Islamic times to the Timurids)attempts to bring closer to their re-
spective ultimate answers: “First, what did Central Asian scientists, phi-
1 In this context, the author gives 819 as the year for the “installation” of Caliph Al-
Ma’mun. However, the latter ruled as caliph from 813 until his death in 833, and retook
Baghdad from his adversaries in 819.
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losophers, and other thinkers achieve during these centuries? Second,
why did this happen? And third, what became of this fecund and tumul-
tuous movement of ideas?” (p. 21).
In order to answer this first question the author collects and intro-
duces, in chronological order, the most important scientific, philosophi-
cal, theological, and technological achievements in Central Asia and by
Central Asians. He also touches upon pre- and post-Enlightenment
achievements. In this context, he repeatedly stresses that for centuries
Central Asia played a distinctive role, with regard to global trade and the
exchange of ideas, by connecting the North and South, as well as the East
and West. Being at the centre of these exchanges, Central Asia, on the one
hand absorbed, and on the other hand contributed to all aspects of global
development. In other words, Central Asia was the recipient of ideas,
know-how, and technologies; but also had major input in the global mate-
rial and cultural life of the known world.
These achievements in, and contributions to, science and philosophy
can be considered the main catalysts for scientific development in all cor-
ners of the known world, and in particular mediaeval Europe. The author
identifies the House of Wisdom in Baghdad as one of the major outlets of
Central Asian learning and wisdom. He convincingly concludes that the
majority of scientists, philosophers, and inventors that had congregated
there for centuries actually originated from different parts of Central Asia.
At the beginning of the period of Enlightenment, Abu Sulayman al-Si-
jistani, “one of those human magnets without whom intellectual progress
is impossible” (p. 161), was gathering outstanding minds to ensure scien-
tific, philosophical, and technological advancement. For instance, an as-
sembly of scientists, the Banu Musa (Brothers of Musa) from Merv,
formed a part of the House of Wisdom, and became renowned for their
ground-breaking research into the fields of geometry, astronomy, and me-
chanics. Such achievements immensely impacted the development of the
European technical and scientific mind during the Middle Ages. As the
author stresses, the Book of Ingenious Devices, produced by a member of
Banu Musa, contains the description of some one hundred mechanical
toys and automations. “This astonishing document bears comparison with
Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketchbooks for the bold and intricate devices it de-
scribes” (p. 146). Another example of a Central Asian who worked in
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Baghdad is the grandly gifted scientist Abu Abdallah Muhammad al-
Khwarazmi, who “systematized and named algebra, in the process offer-
ing an accessible method that actually defined algebra for half a millen-
nium” (p. 167).
Turning away from the cultural centre of Baghdad, the author points
out the Central Asian origins of countless inventions, as well as scientific
and philosophical works that became the base for the development of Eu-
ropean science and culture. All these achievements originated from dia-
logue between scientists and philosophers, and were built upon the ac-
complishments of previous generations. For instance, the medical work
of Ibn Sina (still well known in the modern world under his Latinised
name Avicenna) had, as the author highlights, “important predecessors
that shaped its form and its contents” (p. 285). In this context, Starr refers
to regional medical centres in Merv, Nishabur, Balkh, Samarkand, and
Bukhara. There the best doctors were known to practice, and medical re-
search was at its apogee. Ibn Sina’s masterpiece, The Canon of Medicine
(acknowledged as the peak of Islamic medicine), was unwaveringly es-
tablished as the most important text for the teaching and practice of
medicine, throughout the Eastern World, within a generation. In fact, af-
ter the appearance of a Latin translation around 1180, universities across
Europe adopted it as their basic medical text.
Something as magnificent as the period of enlightenment was not a
reoccurring event within the region; it was seen neither before 750 nor af-
ter the middle of the 12th century. Thus, the author consequently asks the
question, “why did this happen?”, but comes to the conclusion that, even
after examining the cultural and intellectual developments in Central
Asia through several centuries, “clear answers are elusive” (p. 517). How-
ever, this seems to be a humble understatement. Starr has, in the course
of his book, pinpointed a number of convincing reasons, or rather pre-
conditions, for the sudden intellectual and cultural blooming of Central
Asia. Throughout the book he carries out detailed research on a multitude
of conditions that paved the way for the outburst of enormous intellectual
energy during the period of Enlightenment. It discloses several historical
developments that created uniquely favourable conditions for the estab-
lishment of several ethno-cultural and economically diverse multidimen-
sional regional networks in Central Asia. These interconnected networks
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served as a cradle for human science, and created a social stratum that
was, theoretically and practically, predisposed to adopting the results de-
livered by science, technology, as well as philosophy; and furthered the
knowledge-for-development processes.
The author emphasises the general importance of a wealthy society
and, of even more significance, its roots: trade, which generated intercul-
tural exchanges, as well as agriculture based on irrigation, which required
technical and mathematical skills that could be easily applied to other
fields of science. Furthermore, he mentions the traditional role of the
ruler within the Iranian culture, who, already during Zoroastrian and
Buddhist times, was expected “to foster the life of the mind and the arts”
(p. 518)a trait adopted and continued by the Islamic sovereigns. When
elaborating on the role of religion as a prerequisite for the Central Asian
Enlightenment, Starr draws attention to both: a liberal and less strictured
Islam, as well as the acceptance of, and exchange with, other religions like
Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism. This remained the prevailing
custom in the region until the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Muslims,
and their respective ideologies, led to a more restrictive and fundamen-
talist Islam, as well as a stringent and conservative sociocultural environ-
ment. This religious paroxysm destroyed the great and flourishing period
of tolerance. Finally, the author stresses the importance of Arabic and
Persian as linguae francae, as well as the intensive and interactive re-
search into the humanities and sciences, as the main catalyst for the Cen-
tral Asian Enlightenment. During the latter process, which involved
scores of scientists and philosophers “reading each other’s work, many
key issues were identified, analysed and handed on to successor genera-
tions for further analysis and resolution” (p. 520).
Although there are a number of causes for the end of this prodigious
period (as discussed and favoured by different scholars), Starr convinc-
ingly advocates his own theory.
First, he examines different possible causes for the decline suggested
by a number of researchers. He concludes that reasons, such as the Mon-
gol invasion in the 13th century (favoured by most scholars), the opening
of new sea routes to and from Europe, that rendered the Silk Road obso-
lete in the 15th century, and climate change in the 16th century, had, in-
deed, had devastating consequences for the Central Asian population and
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economy. However, these events arose at least one century after the in-
tellectual waning had commenced; in other words, the decline of liberal
thinking and the religious curtailing of all subjects, save theology and law,
had already begun in the mid-12th century.
Frederick Starr’s hypothesis follows E. Renan, V. Bartold, and J. Saun-
ders, and points to the conflict between Sunni and Shiʿa as the main cause
for the end of the Central Asian Enlightenment. Over wide swaths of his
book Starr elaborates on this conflict, which culminated in the late 11th
century, and comes to the conclusion that the decline of science and
philosophy was a by-product and, moreover, the logical consequence of
this religious and political struggle. “The Sunni-Shiite split became so
charged with conflict that anyone dealing with ideaswhether a scien-
tist, historian, astrologer, metaphysician, or poetwas forced to run the
gauntlet(p. 531) as soon as he and his ideas were presumed to support
the other side.
The author doubts whether the rise of a tradition-bound orthodoxy on
both sides was an inevitable process, and instead suggests that two de-
termined men, Abu Ali Hasan ibn Ali Tusi, better known by his honorific
title Nizam al-Mulk, and Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali, were in-
strumental in bringing this process to its culmination. Nizam Al-Mulk was
the most powerful vizier of the young Seljuk Empire. He was determined
to install orthodox Sunni beliefs, as well as the restrictive Shafiʿi School of
Islamic Law, throughout the empire in order to stabilise the Seljuk realms.
In this context he was incensed by the Shiites, in particular the ultra-ra-
tionalist Ismailis. Al-Ghazali was his protégé, a man of outstanding intel-
lect well trained in philosophy, whom the author calls “the dark genius”
(p. 532). He strove to purge science from the influence of ancient Greek
philosophers, whom he considered heathens. Furthermore, he was ob-
sessed with subduing Aristotle’s logic and philosophy to religion in gen-
eral, and to revealed matters of faith in particular. Starr depicts this with
one of al-Ghazali’s own paradigms: “Clearly they claimed, fire causes cot-
ton to burn. To say that events a and b occur sequentially is not to say that
a causes b. The best that can be said is that b follows a. God may con-
stantly intervene to join them, but we know from miracles that God can
also intervene to produce quite different outcomes” (p. 417). In other
words, al-Ghazali established “a clear hierarchy, in which the rational in-
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tellect was reduced to a subordinate status from which it was neither able
nor allowed to challenge knowledge gained through mystical intuition
and tradition” (p. 534), as well as the “truth” revealed by the Qur’an or the
Hadiths. His vindication of the orthodox conception of faith “provided a
solid rationale for shifting more and more of life’s decisions from the
realm of reason to the realm of law, the evermore prescriptive Shariʿa” (p.
421). This process, which startedas convincingly expounded by the au-
thorwith al-Ghazali succeeding “in marginalizing the philosophers,
cosmologists, epistemologists, mathematicians, and theoretical scientists”
(p. 534), lasted for centuries. The movement’s suppressive effects
stemmed from focus on a restrictive interpretation of the Qur’an, the
Hadiths, and Islamic Law; as well as the fear that any perceived deviation
from revealed truths would subsequently lead to stigmatisation as a here-
tic or apostate. This attitude consequently resulted in a Muslim society
(still prevailing in countries like Afghanistan) mainly, if not exclusively,
interested in a narrow interpretation of the Qur’an and Shariʿa Law.
Peter Nicolaus
Former UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Kabul,
Salzburg/Washington, D.C.
Dimitri Manjavidze
UN Assistance Mission for Iraq, Erbil
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