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Rediscovering Central Asia

January 15, 2010

S. Frederick Starr in The Wilson Quarterly:

In AD 998, two young men living nearly 200 miles apart, in present- day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, entered into a correspondence. With verbal jousting that would not sound out of place in a 21st- century laboratory, they debated 18 questions, several of which resonate strongly even today.

Are there other solar systems out among the stars, they asked, or are we alone in the universe? In Europe, this question was to remain open for another 500 years, but to these two men it seemed clear that we are not alone. They also asked if the earth had been created whole and complete, or if it had evolved over time. Time, they agreed, is a continuum with no beginning or end. In other words, they rejected creationism and anticipated evolutionary geology and even Darwinism by nearly a millennium. This was all as heretical to the Muslim faith they professed as it was to medieval Christianity.

Few exchanges in the history of science have so boldly leapt into the future as this one, which occurred a thousand years ago in a region now regarded as a backwater. We know of it because a few copies of it survived in manuscript and were published almost a millennium later. Twenty- six-year-old Abu al- Rayhan al-Biruni, or al-Biruni (973–1048), hailed from near the Aral Sea and went on to distinguish himself in geography, mathematics, trigonometry, comparative religion, astronomy, physics, geology, psychology, mineralogy, and pharmacology. His counterpart, Abu Ali Sina, or Ibn Sina (ca. 980–1037), was from the stately city of Bukhara, the great seat of learning in what is now Uzbekistan. He made his mark in medicine, philosophy, physics, chemistry, astronomy, theology, clinical pharmacology, physiology, ethics, and even music. When eventually Ibn Sina’s great Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin, it triggered the start of modern medicine in the West. Together, the two are regarded as among the greatest scientific minds between antiquity and the Renaissance.

Most today know these argumentative geniuses, if at all, as Arabs. This is understandable, since both wrote in Arabic (as well as Persian). But just as a Japanese writing in English is not an Englishman, a Central Asian writing in Arabic is not an Arab. In fact, both men were part of a huge constellation of ethnically Persian or Turkic geniuses in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geology, linguistics, political science, poetry, architecture, and practical tech nology— all of whom were from what today we call Central Asia. Between 800 and 1100 this pleiad of Central Asian scientists, artists, and thinkers made their region the intellectual epicenter of the world. Their influence was felt from East Asia and India to Europe and the Middle East. [More]

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