The wonder that was Khorasan

The poet Ferdowsi

Parvez Mahmood 

The wonder that was Khorasan – I

The Scholars’ Pavilion in Vienna

A graceful marble monument stands in the central Memorial Plaza of the Vienna International Centre. The monument, named the “Scholars’ Pavilion”, was donated by the Islamic Republic of Iran in June 2009 to the United Nations Office and other International Organizations in Vienna as a token of the idea that knowledge is the heritage of all humanity. This elegant sculpture, made of stone and fibre stone, is in the form of the ancient Persian architectural feature of a square char’taaqi – four arches. Each arch is adorned with life-sized statues of Omar Khayyam, Al-Biruni, Muhammad al-Razi and Ibn-Sina – four jewels of Islamic scientific achievements.

These scientists of Persian heritage belonged to an era that is known to us as the ‘Islamic Golden Age’. The flowering of sciences in this age occurred in an area called Greater Khorasan that extended from Central Asia (Sogdia) and Afghanistan to northern Iran, round the southern Caspian Sea (Tabaristan) to the lands east of the Tigris (Khuzestan). This area is now included in present-day Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Turkmenistan. In the early Islamic usage however, all Arab-occupied lands east of Persian Iraq (starting from Esfahan and Hamadan) were loosely referred to as Khorasan.

13th century Western depiction of the master of medicine – Al-Razi, known in Europe as ‘Rhazes’

Khorasan was a centre of Islamic scholarship for five hundred years, from the 8th century AD to the late 12th century AD, when it was complete destroyed by the invading Mongols. A few pockets of excellence lingered on till the end of the 14th century when it became completely barren. The majority of well-known Islamic achievements in science, literature and philosophy are attributed to scholars from Khorasan, with some contributions from Muslim Spain.

If the Iranian government were to honour all leading scholars of that era, they would need many more char’taaqi pavilions. Recognition of Khurasani science cannot be complete if the achievements of, to name a few, Al-Khwarizmi (inventor of Algebra and the Algorithm), Nasiruddin Tusi (creator of trigonometry and the Tusi couple), Abu Wafa (astronomy and mathematics), Abu Nasri Mansur (mathematics), Abu Mahmud Khojandi (mathematics and astronomy), Abu Zayd Balkhi (the earliest psychologist and geographer) and Masud al-Kashi (discoverer of the Law of Cosines) are not reflected. The list of great poets and Islamic jurists from this cultured land is even longer – as are their literary achievements.

The poet Ferdowsi

A student of the history of the era naturally wonders as to why all the luminaries of the era have names with suffixes like Razi (from Ray), Balkhi (from Balkh), Khwarizmi (from Khwarizm), al-Birunei (from Beirun), Tabari (from Tabaristan), Tusi (from Tus), Nishapuri (from Nishapur), Bokhari (from Bokhara), Shirazi (from Shiraz), Al-Sufi (Shiraz) etc but nobody seems to have comparative fame from the traditional Islamicate centres of Damascus, Cairo, Hejaz, etc. Going through the list of scientists and philosophers from Khorasan, it appears that each town and habitation in this land in that age produced some eminent scholar(s). We, therefore, need to understand the impulses that gave rise to this kind of scholarship in one geographical area of a very large empire.

Though Persia had a well-established culture before the advent of Islam, its excellence in sciences came only after its occupation by the early Muslim Arab armies. After an extended spring of five hundred years of achievements in mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, medicine, philosophy, geography, history, theology and mechanics, this land encountered a long barren autumn, devoid of any further flowering of scholarship. Equally significant is the fact that west of the Tigris river, all the way to Syria, Egypt and Morocco, we do not witness a similar phenomenon, except in the far western corner of Muslim Spain. We will try to unravel this question by conducting a comparative survey of the conditions that emerged in Khorasan in the wake of spread of Islam.

Scholarship and scientific enquiry flourished amongst intellectuals during the Islamic Golden Age of Khorasan

When the Muslims overran Syria and Egypt, these nations had successively been under Persian, Greek, Roman and Byzantine rule for about a millennium since their conquest, first by the Persian Artexerxes III in the middle of 4th century BC and then by Alexander the Great some twenty years later. The glory of ancient Egypt had been erased from the public consciousness and lay hidden in the ample Theban ruins or under the pyramids.

The people were, therefore, either impervious to a change of their masters. The early Muslims were a disciplined law-abiding community and not excessively rapacious, as is ascertained by their recorded interactions with the conquered people; though they would subsequently give in to worldly charms. The people in these occupied lands were impressed by their simple living and strict adherence to a lofty code of life. They, therefore, converted to Islam without much effort and adapted to the Arab social way of life.

Syrians spoke Aramaic that belongs to the Semitic group of languages. Arabic, too, is a Semitic language, hence the people of Syria, Iraq and Palestine found lesser difficulty in accepting and converting to Arabic. The Egyptians spoke Coptic that was related to ancient Egyptian languages and dialects. The Copts followed a form of Christianity with a Church their own but they were completely overwhelmed and became Arabised; religiously, socially and linguistically. Though the Coptic Church survives as a minority religion in Egypt, the Coptic language has gradually phased out.

This did not happen in Persia. Historian Bernard Lewis writes in Iran in Historythat the Egyptians Arabised very rapidly and completely. However, this transformation did not take place in Persia. Iran was Islamised but not Arabised. Iran re-emerged as a separate, different and distinctive element within Islam, eventually adding a new element even to Islam itself.

Persians did not transform because, except for a century of Greek rule, they had not been occupied by any foreign power. They were distinctly proud of their civilisation and way of life. They continue to be so.

Persia had a rich history dating back to 550 BC, when the Achaemenid Empire was founded by Cyrus the Great. The permanent boundaries of all Persian empires – Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanid – included the whole of modern Iran, eastern Iraq, Bahrain and the Eastern Arabian peninsula. It is the same area where the Shia branch of Muslims are in a majority in our time. The early Muslim armies rose from small and isolated communities from the few oases lying in peninsular Arabia, the deserted ‘uninteresting’ no-man’s land south of the Roman and Sassanid empires. These two empires had fought off each other for the previous one millennium in an unending series of wars; as Greco-Achaemenid wars, Roman-Parthian, and, finally, as Byzantine-Sassanid wars. The Sassanid Empire was finally disbanded by the Muslim Arab forces in the mid-7th century. Incidentally, capitals of Seleucid, Parthia/Sassanid and Abbasid empire, namely Seleucia, Ctesiphon and Baghdad were nearly co-located on the banks of the Tigris river.

Modern Iranians regard the ancient Persian empires as their national heritage. The battle of al-Qadisia, the first major battle between Muslim Arabs and the Sassanid Empire that led to the establishment of Muslim rule in Achaemenid Iraq, was fought over four days between the 16th and 19th of November in 636 AD. (Incidentally, I write these lines on the 17th of November 2018, on the 1,382nd anniversary of this great Arab Muslim victory.)

The Iranians have never celebrated this anniversary, though in 1971 they celebrated the 2,500th anniversary of the founding of the Achaemenid Empire by Cyrus the Great with great pomp and style. After being Islamised, they mourn the tragedies of Islam, on the 10th Muharram (Battle of Karbala) and the 21st of Ramadan (Martyrdom of Imam Ali RA), but not its triumphs. I note this, not in a religious context, but as being relevant to the answer that we seek regarding Khorasan’s past greatness in the fields of science.

After the simultaneous conquest of Byzantine (Syria and Egypt) and Sassanid (Persia and Central Asia) empires by Muslim armies, the official business of the Caliphate was initially carried out in the Syriac and Persian languages respectively. Arabs had no tradition of literacy and they never had much inclination to keep books or records. They depended on oral traditions. In the initial period of Islam, it is said that there were just four persons in Medina who could read and write. During the reign of Umayyad Caliph Abdul Malik, when the Arabs had been living in conquered lands for at least two generations, the official language was finally changed to Arabic throughout the caliphate because literacy rates had improved.

Though the ethos of Khorasan remained Persian in character, it was Arabic, the language of the conquerors, that became the official language for the next three hundred years, and hence of Persian science and literature. The Greek classics were translated, during the reigns of Caliphs Harun and Mamun to Arabic, and not Persian. However, the Persians did not forget their language. Finally, Ferdowsi from Tus, who lived between 940 and 1020 AD during the Ghaznavi rule, restored the glory of the Persian language and heritage by writing the Shahnameh – meaning story of the Kings – in ‘pure Persian’. The modern Persian language is, more or less, the language of Ferdowsi. Every Persian boy and girl knows a bit of the Shahnamehby heart, just as they know a bit of the Quran by heart. This preservation of language has ensured the retention of the Persian heritage. It also manifests that Persians accepted the religion from Arabia but not its culture. Under the force of Arab occupation, Persians adopted a modified version of Semitic alphabets. This script continues to be used today.

By our standards, the Sassanid Empire was a progressive, tolerant regime where Zoroastrians, Jews and Buddhists lived in peace and harmony; a few incidents of communal violence notwithstanding. The state religion of the empire was Zoroastrianism, which is an ancient religion still alive today in a few pockets in Iran, India and Pakistan. It is a well developed humanist religion with written scriptures and sound philosophical ideas. It is a monotheistic faith with belief in dual forces of good and evil. The key philosophical difference between Zoroastrianism and Islam is that in the later evil is a rebellion against the will of God while in the former, the forces of good and evil are operative in the world as independent forces vying against each other.

The Sassanid era also saw the development of the syncretic Manichaean religion in the early 3rd century AD that incorporated elements of Christianity, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism. This religion radiated up to China via Transoxiana and stayed alive for a thousand years. The Persians also had, as will be discussed in detail in part II of this article, a well developed tradition of arts and crafts. Persia was a civilised and highly cultured society that was abruptly overwhelmed by a far superior military force, irrupting from a land regarded by Persians as barbarian.

Persian society had a well developed tradition of education during the Sassanid dynasty. One of the centres of learning in higher education was at Gundeshapur, in the Khuzestan province of Iran. It was founded by King Shahpur I between 240 and 270 AD and had a hospital. Greek philosophers and scientists taught at this institution and translated Greek and Syriac texts into Pahlavi. Indian texts on astronomy, astrology, mathematics and medicine and Chinese texts on herbal medicine and religion were translated in to Pahlavi, the old version of Persian language. Jewish and Christian physicians ran the Gundeshapur medical university cum hospital for decades. The family of Hunain b. Ishaq, the most famous Jewish physician of the early Islamic period, had served at Gundeshapur. He is credited with the best translations of Hippocratic and Galenic texts into Arabic during the reign of caliph al-Mutazid. Cyril Elgood mentions in his A Medical History of Persiathat “To a very large extent, the credit for the whole hospital system must be given to Persia.”

The hospital at Gundeshapur is certainly the earliest model for the Islamic hospitals, all called Bimaristan – which is a Persian word. Caliph Walid bin Abdul-Malik (705-715 AD) established the first Muslim fully staffed Bimaristan in Damascus that treated the blind, lepers and other disabled people. The first true Islamic hospital was built during the reign of Caliph Harun al-Rashid. The Caliph invited the son of chief physician, Jabril ibn Bukhtishu, a Nestorian Christian, to head the new Baghdad Bimaristan. It quickly achieved fame and led to the development of other hospitals in Baghdad. Bimaristans were later established by the Mughals too in the sub-continent. The fame of Gundeshapur, and the royal prestige and patronage attached to this facility, inspired the creation of other such institutions across the empire.

It is said that Gundeshapur was destroyed as a city and its educational centres closed under the invasions of early Muslims. If this is true, then it may have been a consequence of the mayhem that followed the fierce Arab-Persian battles of al-Qadisiya, Jalula and Nahavand. Certainly Caliphs Harun and Mamun established their Bayt-ul-Hikmah in imitation of this school at Gundeshapur.  

Parvez Mahmood can be reached at parvezmahmood53@gmail.com. He lives in Islamabad, Pakistan and writes on historical and social issues