His Highness the Aga Khan: “…Central Asia, a thousand years ago, “led the world”…in cultural and intellectual development.”

“Students of world history remind us how Central Asia, a thousand years ago, “led the world” in trade and investment, in urban development, in cultural and intellectual achievement. This was the place that leading thinkers from around the known world would look to for leadership. What were the latest breakthroughs in astronomy or mathematics, in chemistry or medicine, in philosophy or music? This was the place to find out. This region is where algebra got its name, where the earth’s diameter was precisely calculated, where some of the world’s greatest poetry was penned.
His Highness the Aga Khan
October 19, 2016
Speech at AKDN

Central Asia covers a very broad area including Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Northern Areas of Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Xinjiang province of China and northeastern parts of Iran. Historically, Central Asia has exhibited ‘intellectual dynamism and cultural pluralism.’1 As a Silk Road highway, it has been a region where several religions including Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and others, encountered one another, making Central Asia one of the most pluralistic in the regions of the medieval world.

The main towns – Bukhara, Samarqand, Balkh, Merv, Nishapur, Khujand, Termez, Herat – became major cultural centres where scholars, poets, and artists gathered, as a result of the fertile soil that was created, enabling creative thought to flourish.

Central Asia’s intellectual dynamism gave birth to some of the most famous thinkers who made monumental contributions to global knowledge, including Abu Ali ibn Sina, Al-Biruni, Abu Ya’qub al-Sijistani, Al-Khwarizmi, Rudaki, among numerous others.

Muḥammad ibn Mūsā Khwārizmī (ca. 780-850)
Al-Khwarizmi is the famous algebraist who coined the Arabic phrase al-jabr wa al-muqabala (restoration and balancing), which is the origin of the term algebra. While ancient civilisation possessed the ability to solve linear problems, Al-Khwarizmi formulated one of the earliest systems of algorithms to solve ‘systematic procedure that produces—in a finite number of steps—the answer to a question or the solution of a problem.’The term al-jabr meaning ‘restoration’ referred to adding a number to both sides of the equation to consolidate or cancel terms.

Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya’ al-Razi (865-925)
Al-Razi was one of the greatest clinicians of the Middle Ages. Many of his medical works, translated into Latin, exercised a remarkable influence on the Latin West for many centuries. Known to the West as Rhazes, Al-Razi is regarded as Islamic medicine’s greatest clinician and its most important original thinker.

In his first major work, which was a ten-part treatise titled Al-Mansur’s Book of Health, he discussed general medical theories and definitions, diets and drugs and their effects on the human body, mother and child care, skin disease, oral hygiene, the effect of the environment on health, and dental anatomy. It was translated into Latin (Liber ad Almansorem) by Gerard of Cremona and became one of the most widely read medieval treatises in Europe. His book Comprehensive Book on Medicine was translated into Latin in 1279 under the title Continens Rasis.

Al-Razi’s “The Comprehensive Book on Medicine” translated into Latin. Image: World Digital Library

His treatise The Diseases of Children has led some historians to regard him as the father of pediatrics. In his famous work, A Treatise on the Smallpox and Measles, he gave the first accurate descriptions of smallpox and measles, prescribing appropriate treatments.

He was the first to emphasise the value of mutual trust and consultation among physicians in the treatment of patients, a rare practice at that time, but the doctor-patient relationship is still emphasised today.

In his prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer (d. ca.1400), a famous English poet of the Middle Ages, named the prominent physicians of the time, listing al-Razi (Razis), ‘a Doctour of Phisyk,’ as one of fifteen great sources of knowledge, along with Avicen (Ibn Sina) and Averrois (Ibn Rushd). (Chaucer, Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, in Great Books of the Western World, Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1988).

Abū Nasr al-Fārābi (ca. 870-950)
Born in Khurasan, al-Fārābi also known in the Western world as Alpharabius, was a philosopher and scientist. He was referred to in the Arab world as the “Second Teacher” (after Aristotle as the “First Teacher”) because of his extensive commentaries on Aristotle and his work in logic. He was the first Islamic philosopher to make a distinction between philosophy and religion, and gave precedence to reason over revelation as a source of truth. His concept of essence-existence became the basis of the metaphysics of Avicenna, which later influenced the Christian theology of Thomas Aquinas.

Al-Farabi was a music theorist and a performer, an ud player (credited with inventing the 5-string ud). Among his surviving writings on music are treatises on tuning, rhythm, and the philosophy of music as well as a monumental work, The Grand Book on Music.

Drawing of the musical instrument shahrud, from Al-Fārābī’s ‘The Grand Book on Music.’ Image: Wikipedia

Abu Rayhan Muhammd ibn Ahmad Al-Biruni (973-1048)
A mathematician, philosopher, historian, and astronomer, Al-Biruni produced some of the greatest works in  Islamic science such as his  masterpiece The Masu’udic Canon, and historical works such as The Chronology of Ancient Nations, which is devoted to a universal anthropological account of various cultures and which even records the lore of long-dead cultures or of other cultures that were about to disappear.  He was also the founder of the discipline of comparative religion as shown in his work India, written in 1051.

His works discussed the then debatable theory of the earth’s rotation on its axis and made accurate determination of longitudes and latitudes. He was the first to arrive at a simple formula for measuring the earth’s circumference in the year 1018; he was only 110 km out by comparison with modern measurements. He studied the astronomy of the stars, classified the celestial bodies by order of magnitude, and observed the stars’ apparent motions around the poles. His list included 1,029 stars. A lunar crater is named after Al- Biruni in recognition of his contribution to the field of astronomy.

Al-Biruni’s lunar eclipse. Wikipedia

In his last work, Pharmacology, Al-Biruni classified the physical features of plants, animals and minerals, and compiled an alphabetical list of medicinal herbs and their uses. Al-Biruni holds the distinction of being one of the greatest mathematicians and historians of humanity.

Ibn Sina (980 -1037)
Known in the West as Avicenna, Ibn Sina was the most influential of the philosopher-scientists of Islam. He wrote over 200 works some of which are of monumental proportions. Many are devoted to medicine, including the Canon of Medicine, the most famous single work in the history of medicine both in the Islamic world and in the West – a work that earned Ibn Sina the title of ‘Prince of Physicians’ in medieval Europe.

Canon of Medicine. Aga Khan Museum
Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine. Image: Aga Khan Museum

The Canon served as the medical textbook in the Muslim regions and was first translated into Latin in the twelfth century; it became the most used of all medieval references in the medical schools of Europe, until the end of the nineteenth century.

Rudaki (ca. 859-940/41)
Rudaki was a talented singer and musician, who served as a court poet to the Samanid ruler Nasr II (r. 914-943) in Bukhara and is widely regarded as the father of Persian poetry. Although about 100,000 couplets have been attributed to him, only about 1,000 have survived.

One of his most significant contributions to literature is his translation from Arabic to Persian of Kalilah was Dimnah, a collection of fables of Indian origin. Later retellings of these fables owe much to the lost translation of Rudaki.

“As the founder and innovator of a new poetic aesthetic, Rudaki has had a great impact on subsequent generations of Persian poets. Rudaki is credited with being the first poet to write in the rubāi form made familiar to English-language readers through Fitzgerald’s versions of Omar Khayyām; and much of the imagery we first encounter in Rudaki’s lines has remained central to Persian poetry.”3

Rudaki Museum
Rudaki Museum in Pendjikent, Tajikistan. Image: Wikipedia

Umar (Omar) Khayyam (1048-ca.1131)
Umar Khayyam, a mathematician, astronomer, and poet, was renowned during his time for his scientific achievements, but chiefly known to English-speaking readers through the translation of a collection of his robāʿīyāt (“quatrains”) in The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), by the English writer Edward FitzGerald. Umar Khayyam made remarkable contributions in the fields of mathematics and astronomy.

He wrote the algebra work, Treatise on Demonstration of Problems of Algebra, on which his mathematical reputation principally rests. In this treatise he gave a systematic discussion of the solution of cubic equations by means of intersecting conic sections.

Omar Khayyam
Quadrilateral of Omar Khayyam. Image: Encyclopaedia Britannica

As a result of his reputation in mathematics, he was also invited by the Seljuq sultan Malik-Shāh to reform the calendar. To accomplish this, an observatory was built there, and a new calendar, the Jalali calendar, was produced, which introduced the concept of leap years and accurately determined the vernal equinox and the beginning of the new year (Nowruz).

Umar Khayyam also produced fundamental critiques of Euclid’s theory of parallels which influenced the English mathematician John Wallis (1616–1703). A lunar crater is named after Umar Khayyam.

Ulugh Beg (1393 -1449) 
Ulugh Beg, a mathematician and an astronomer, whose school of astronomy founded in 1420 and an observatory established four years later, were famous throughout Central Asia and beyond. In its prime, the observatory consisted of a three-story cylindrical building constructed around three enormous astronomical instruments. The main instrument, a monumental meridian arc, now called the Fakhrī sextant, once measured 40 meters tall and was used by astronomers to measure the angle of elevation of celestial objects.

Ulugh Beg’s catalogue of the stars, Zij-i Sultani, the first comprehensive stellar catalogue since that of Ptolemy, set the standard for such works up to the seventeenth century. Published in 1437, it recorded the positions of over 990 stars. A lunar crater is named after Ulugh Beg.

1Sarfaroz Niyozov, Evolution of the Shi‘a Ismaili Tradition in Central Asia, The Institute of Ismaili Studies
2Al Khwarizmi, Encyclopaedia Britannica
3Persian poet enters English, Boston University
An Anthology of Philosophyin Persia: v. 1: From Zoroaster to Omar Khayyam, Edited by S. H. Nasr, Mehdi Aminrazavi
Atlas Obscura
Rick Thurmond, A History of Star Catalogues

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