How Turan invented Islam

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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.

downloadThe 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.

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