The Wonder that was KHORASAN Part 4

Baghdad Library
  • Part IV of this series will trace the seeds of rational thought in the early Islamic history and study their contrasting effect on Arab and Persian societies. This article tells that if you wish to grow and prosper have an open mind, be willing to listen to other points of view and have a healthy debate. Can always end by saying, ‘We agree to disagree’.  

Part 2 can be read here

Excerpts from Part 3

It is a telling fact of the Persians’ love for their culture that they did not Arabise their names. In this aspect, they remain an exception amongst the races conquered by the Arabs. The Arabs, on the other hand, have stuck to names found in Scripture or from their pagan era.

The national dress throughout many Arab societies is similar, and is not adopted in the Persianised societies of Turkey, Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Arabs detest creating statues whereas the Persians have no taboo against them (including one of Iqbal in Mashhad, whose Persian poetry they love).

Some ancient reliefs in Persia show women rulers holding court. Persians depicted women in paintings and on utensils. 

Persians continue to celebrate pre-Islamic, Zoroastrian-origin cultural events including Nowruz (New Year), Chaharshanbe Suri (Festival of Fire), Sizdah Bedar (Nature Day), Mehregan (Yazata Mithra day/Autumn Festival), Sadeh (honouring Fire), Tirgan (Mid-Summer Festival) and Yalda (Longest Night Festival). Arabs have preferred a “clean break” from their pagan past.

Prior to the arrival of Arabs in 636 AD, Khorasan had been under diverse cultural influences. From 30 to 375 AD large parts of eastern Khorasan were under either the syncretic Kushan or the Kushano-Sassanid empire with its capitals at Bagram (Kabul), Peshawar, Taxila and Mathura (UP, India)

Part 4 begins

The previous three parts of this series of articles examined the socio-political environment of the early Islamic empire. This final part will discuss the development of rational and critical thinking in the Islamic society.

According to the Bible (Genesis 3), “We have to eat bread in the sweat of our face …. because we had become as one of Him.” The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the heavens to the earth was a change that was necessitated by the discovery made by the couple. When an inquisitive mind is let loose in his or her environment, the outcome falls somewhere between the best hopes and the worst fears of the Powers That Be.

A society that holds the sword of blasphemy over youthful curiosity cannot hope to promote scientific interrogation. It is a veritable truth that freedom of thought is the precursor to evolution in science and technology. Progress in science invariably harbours social changes. Resistance to change retards progress. The freedom to think, or research, is based on the anticipation that the outcome may differ from the established truths. Such an outcome demands changes even though they may not be to the liking of those who are the beneficiaries of the existing system.

The processes of innovation, mutation, transformation and differentiation are essential for growth and development of a society. Social and scientific progress are not possible without accepting the necessity, indeed inevitability, of change. Only the dead don’t change. An oppression free social environment is essential for promotion of science and literature. A society that hounds and persecutes proponents of change shall remain barren.

The early Arab empires and the Khorasanis (and the Spanish Muslims) adopted these two opposing approaches to freedom of thought and, consequently, took different trajectories in their development. The path chosen by the Arab rulers led them to a deep freezer from where they have not recovered till our time, whereas the Khorasanis were led on their way to produce the glowing golden age of Islam.

In Islamic history, the seeds of rational thought and free will, two exponents of an open society, were sown early by the Persian and Arab thinkers during the reign of Marwan in the Ummayad Caliphate. Its proponents, however, paid a heavy price for their liberal thoughts. The doctrine of free-will in Islam came from a Persian named Sinbuya Asvari. Mabad al-Juhni (Arab origin d. 699 AD) was the first known proponent of the basic concepts of Islamic rationalism. He was followed by Ghaylan (Probably of Coptic origin), al-Ja’d ibn Dirham (from Greater Khorasan) and Jahm ibn Safwan (from Tirmidh in Uzbekistan). They believed in and preached ‘denial of fate’, signifying that nothing is predestined or pre-determined. They preached that every person is free to exercise choice in his actions and bear its consequences. Another concept they believed in was the ‘Createdness of the Scripture’, an idea that had far reaching implications. These ideas were perceived to be against Islamic dogma and had dangerous consequences for the Umayyad Caliphate, who were marginally religious but preferred the notion that they were preordained to rule. They wanted to stop these disruptive doctrinarian debates.

All the above mentioned persons, who were nascent agents of free thinking, were tortured and executed; smothering the Arab society in its cradle. Its contribution to the Golden Age of Islam draws a nought. After Imam Hanbal, the Arabs failed to produce even the hardliners. The seedlings of rational thought failed to germinate in Arab lands. Resultantly, the entire Arab nation failed to produce even four significant scientists to populate a single “char’taqi” (refer part I of this series of articles). The same seeds found conducive environment in the socially tolerant regions of Greater Khorasan, where the Umayyads never got a firm foothold to impede freedom of thought, and where the Persian and Persianized Turkic dynasties patronised a rich illuminating culture.

The concept of free will as against pre-determinism found ready followers in the Persian minds who refused to accept that it was their fate to be subjugated by the tyrannical Ummayad governors. The followers of free will and freedom of thought flourished in lands where the Arab hold was inconclusive. Khorasanis were used to living in a tolerant society where people from several faiths and ethnicity existed peacefully. Luckily for Islam, there came a succession of Persianized Abbasid caliphs, including Harun, Mamun, al-Mu’tasim and Wathiq who, like the Florentine House of Medici half a millennium later, patronised scholarship, arts and the concept of free will. They aided in creating an environment in Baghdad and Basra where enlightened multi-religious discourse could take place in peace and harmony. Al-Mutawakkil, who became caliph after Wathiq, was ultraorthodox and put a break on this cultural movement in Baghdad. However, by this time, the Caliphate had lost whatever writ it had over Khorasan, where autonomous dynasties of Persian origin had gained de facto power, allowing the unchecked advancement of sciences. Soon, the actual control of the Caliphate itself would pass to ruling dynasties from the Khorasani lands.

It goes to their credit that Khorasani and Turkic dynasties, all of them recent converts to Islam from Zoroastrian, Buddhism and pagan religions, were broader in their outlook towards religion and were tolerant of new ideas. Some of the concepts they entertained were too radical even for our time. In his book Humanism in the Renaissance of Islam: ‘The Cultural Revival During the Buyid Agehistorian Joel L Kraemer has described a humanist culture in the 10th century Baghdad and Basra, with multiple libraries, bookshops and open discourse; exactly the kind of environment that promotes scholarship. Turkish Seljuks contributed a great deal in promoting education. They introduced a madrassa system that is still cherished by the orthodox Islamists. In his fascinating book titled Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate, Guy Le Strange describes a great educational institution established in 1234 AD by, and named after, al-Mustansir, the penultimate Abbasid Caliph. This institution survived the Mongol sack of the city in 1258. Passing through the area a century later in 1327, ibn Batuta described the magnificence of this College. It has now been restored as the multi-disciplined Mustansiriyah universty.

Nationalism, synonymous with the name of the Mutazilla, has remained under harsh judgment from theological circles throughout the Islamic history. This article offers no comments on its validity or otherwise. However, if a society has to make any meaningful progress in the life of its subjects, the right of every individual to offer considered personnel views on a subject and to indulge in unbiased research without steering it to preconceived results should be respected. Science, politics and religion should remain separate. To tie one with the domain of the other is misleading. In a moment of befuddled intuition, Allama Iqbal wrote that “separating religion and politics leaves behind nothing but tyranny.” This perception doesn’t stand up to empirical evidence. History teaches us an exactly opposite lesson.

Denial of free thinking not only robbed the Arabs of excellence in science and philosophy but also of the intellectual strength to interpret the religion that their ancestors had spread across much of western Asia and northern Africa. Along with the mastery over science, the command over religious matters also passed over to Khorasanis. Al-Ghazali and Ibn-Taymiyyah are the two archconservatives of Islamic theology, who are much favoured among the Arab nations. The former hailed from Tus in Khorasan and the later -the spiritual forerunner of Wahabis- from Harran in upper Mesopotamia.

The major Hadith gatherers, al-Bukhari (Bukhara, 810-870), Muslim (Nishapur, 815-875) and al-Tirmidhi (Termez, 824-892), and even the minor gatherers like ibn Khuzaymah (Nishapur, 837-923), were all contemporaries from Khurasan proper. Most of the later interpreters of Quran came from Khurasan. Imam Abu-Hanifah (Kufa, 699-767) has the largest following in the Muslim world. His father was a Persian who had migrated to Kufa from Kabul. Mahmood Ghaznavi and Shahbuddin Ghauri, the Khurasani raiders of Hindustan, were followed in their wake by Khurasani preachers who found rich following in the Indus and Gangetic plains, and who continue to be cherished in these lands. We in the Subcontinent still cannot get away from under the shadow of Amir Khusrau, an Indian born genius of a Khorasani migrant.

It is beyond the scope of this article to list the achievement of the polymaths from Khorasan in the Muslim Golden Age. However a look at the Google-generated list of moon craters and minor planets named after some of these Muslims by the International Astronomical Union, will give an idea about the breath of scientific activity generated during that era in that land.

Some of these luminaries like al-Razi and Tabari had to face criticism and persecution in Baghdad for enunciating their ideas. Tabari was repeatedly pelted with stones and (by several accounts including one by Kraemer) had to be buried in secret at night to avoid the wrath of the conservative Hanbali fanatics. In the earlier era, as has been mentioned above, they would have been executed. In the tolerant Khorasan, however, proponents of such ideas faced no persecution. Even in our times, such free thinking invites a combination of derision, threats and fatwas.

On the authority of several medieval Muslim historians, Kraemer describes scenes of anarchy in Baghdad that are reminiscent of our society in general and the Arab society in particular. Hanbali conservatives would break into homes, smash musical instruments, interrogate couples on the streets, thwart singing and accuse others of infidelity. When the Caliphs used force to prevent their lawless behaviour, they would become violent. When the government tried to appease them, they would demand more religious restrictions.

However, Basra and Baghdad lay on the boundary between Arab and Persian lands, and were alternately conducive or detrimental for scholarship. West of this line, in the Arab lands, the people failed to develop an appetite for scholarly work. East of this line however, in Turko-Persian lands, the sciences flourished till their flame was extinguished by the Mongol carnage. Whatever members survived, were scattered by the hard line policies of religiously bigot Safavid dynasty. The Muslim world thus entered its dark ages.

We learn from the history of medieval Khorasan that indulgent rulers and inspired societies together produce progress in arts and sciences. Sadly, in Pakistan and in most of the Muslim world, we do not have this environment that existed in Khorasan during Abbasid reign. We are mired in obscurantism. Science and arts are viewed through the lens of personnel beliefs. We have even included religious chapters in school science books that the students are not allowed to examine objectively; overlooking the fact that something that cannot be re-evaluated is not science. How can science flourish in this coercive environment?

We live in a new dark age. In recent times, we have seen videos distributed by Taliban/IS of children putting live bullets through people they have kidnapped. We have seen images of Taliban playing football with the severed heads of their captives. Our streets become violent on the call of a cleric. A stray sentence is sufficient to destroy the life of a person. Three illiterate and bone-tired farm worker women, squabbling over a petty issue in an isolated cotton field, can cause quite a bit of pain to a whole nation of 220 million people. It cannot get darker than that. There is hardly any hope for advancement of science, literature and philosophy in our society – unless we perhaps find some of that spirit of Khorasan?


Author retired as a Group Captain from PAF and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on historical and social issues

Article was first published here eSamskriti has obtained permission from author to publish this article.

Also read

1 Precarious State of Muslim Nations by respected Talat Masood

2 The Cousin cultures of India and Iran

3 Pictures of Cultural Documentation in Central Asia  

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