Redescobrindo as raízes da ciência na Ásia Central

segunda-feira, dezembro 28, 2009

Durante o mestrado em História da Ciência, PUC, São Paulo, em 2008, eu tive a oportunidade de participar de um seminário onde alguns aspectos sobre conhecimentos científicos foram abordados na Ásia Central há quase dois milênios atrás. Foram fascinantes revelações sobre conhecimentos científicos que o artigo de S. Frederick Starr esclareceram ainda mais.


Rediscovering Central Asia
by S. Frederick Starr

It was once the “land of a thousand cities” and home to some of the world’s most renowned scientists, poets, and philosophers. Today it is seen mostly as a harsh backwater. To imagine Central Asia’s future, we must journey into its remarkable past.

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.

Today, this is hard to imagine. This vast region of irrigated deserts, mountains, and steppes between China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and the Caspian Sea is easily dismissed as a peripheral zone, the “backyard” of one or another great power. In impoverished Afghanistan, traditionally considered the heart of Central Asia, U.S. forces are fighting a backward- looking and ignorant Taliban. The main news in America from the rest of Central Asia is that the Pentagon is looking for bases there from which to provision the Afghan campaign. In China, the region is seen chiefly as a semi- colonial source of oil, natural gas, gold, aluminum, copper, and uranium. The Russian narrative, meanwhile, dwells on Moscow’s geopolitical competition there with the West and, increasingly, China. By and large, most people abroad ignore the land of Ibn Sina and al-Biruni, dismissing it as an inconvenient territory to be crossed while getting somewhere else.

Given the dismal plight of these lands in the modern era, who can be surprised at this? Beginning a century and a half ago, Russia colonized much of the region, while Britain turned Afghanistan into a buffer to protect its Indian colonies from Russia. China eventually absorbed a big chunk to the east, now known as Xinjiang, the “New Territory.” Ancient traditions of learning had long since died out, and while the Soviets revived literacy, they suppressed free thought in both the secular and religious spheres. A new day for the region began with the creation of five independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and with the establishment of a new and more modern government in Afghan istan after 9/11.

Eighteen years on, all of the new states have preserved their sovereignty and Afghanistan is clinging to life. But several of the region’s countries remain destitute, and even the most successful ones are riddled with corruption and still dependent on authoritarian forms of rule. As William Faulkner reminded us in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 1950, there is a big difference between surviving and prevailing. Is the best hope of these lands merely to work their way back up to zero? Or can they possibly reclaim some of the luster of their glorious past, and ­prevail?

And glorious it was. It is hard to know where to begin in enumerating the intellectual achievements of Central Asians a millennium ago. In mathematics, it was Central Asians who first accepted irrational numbers, identified the different forms of cubic equations, invented trigonometry, and adapted and disseminated the decimal system and Hindu numerals (called “Arabic” numbers in the West). In astronomy, they estimated the earth’s diameter to a degree of precision unmatched until recent centuries and built several of the largest observatories before modern times, using them to prepare remarkably precise astronomical tables.

In chemistry, Central Asians were the first to reverse reactions, to use crystallization as a means of purification, and to measure specific gravity and use it to group elements in a manner anticipating Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of 1871. They compiled and added to ancient medical knowledge, hugely broadened pharmacology, and passed it all to the West and to India. And in technology, they invented windmills and hydraulic machinery for lifting water that subsequently spread westward to the Middle East and Europe and eastward to China.

But wasn’t this the great age of Arab science and learning centered at the Caliphate in Baghdad? True enough. There were brilliant Arab scientists such as the polymath and founder of ophthalmology Ibn al- Haytham (ca. 965–1040). But as the Leipzig scholar Heinrich Suter first showed a century ago, many, if not most, of those “Arab” scientists were in fact either Persian or Turkic and hailed originally from Central Asia. This is true of the mathematician and astronomer Mukhammad ibn Musa al- Khorezmi (ca. AD 780–850), who was from the same Khorezm region of the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border area as al- Biruni, hence “al-Khorezmi.” Algorithms, one of his many discoveries, still bear his name in distorted form, while our term “algebra” comes directly from the title of his celebrated book on mathematics. Similarly, Abu Nasr al- Farabi (ca. AD 872–961), known in the West as Alfarabius, whose innovative analyses of the ethics of Aristotle surpassed all those of Western thinkers except Thomas Aquinas, was a Turk from what is now Kazakhstan, not an Arab.

The extraordinarily important role of Central Asian intellectuals in Baghdad is less surprising when one bears in mind that the Abbassid Caliphate was actually founded by Central Asians. True, the caliphs themselves were Arabs who had settled in the East, but in the process they had “gone native” and embraced the Persian and Turkic world in which they found themselves. One caliph, al- Ma’mun, refused for years after his appointment in AD 818 to leave Central Asia, ruling the Muslim world instead from the splendid oasis city of Merv in what is now Turkmenistan. When he eventually moved to Baghdad he brought with him, along with his Turkic soldiers, the more open and ecumenical values of Central Asia, with their blend of influences from the Persian and Turkic cultures.

The movement from Central Asia to the Middle East recalls the ancient brain drain from the centers of Greek learning to Rome. The difference is that even as some Central Asian scientists and scholars were moving to Baghdad, Arab intellectuals were also being attracted to the great centers in Central Asia. In a kind of reverse brain drain, the extraordinarily enlightened city of Gurganj (where al-Biruni lived), in what is now Turkmenistan, became a magnet for Arab scientists, as did the well- financed and opulent court at Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan. Nor did all Central Asians who had been lured to Baghdad choose to stay there.

What territories should we include in this “Central Asia” that produced such a flowering of genius? Certainly all of the five “stans” that gained independence in 1991: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. No less central to this flowering of the intellect were the great cities of what is now Afghanistan: Balkh, Herat, and others. Add also modern Iran’s northeastern province of Khorasan, whose capital city, Nishapur, produced long ranks of innovators during those bounteous years. The boundaries of this “zone of genius” also extend across what is now the western border of China to embrace the ancient city of Kashgar and several other great centers that have always fallen within the cultural orbit of Central Asia.

It is one thing to draw a circle on the map, but quite another to explain why this region, call it Greater Central Asia, should have produced such a cultural flowering. Booming cities provided the setting for cultural life. A traveling Arab marveled at what he called the “land of a thousand cities” in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The ruins of mighty Balkh, once the capital of this region, still spread for miles and miles across the plain west of modern Mazar– i-­Sharif in Afghanistan. In its heyday Balkh was larger than Paris, Rome, Beijing, or Delhi. Like all the great regional centers, it had running water, baths, and majestic palaces—and solidly built homes of sun-dried brick for non-palace dwellers.

It was also richer, thanks to continental trade. Merchants from Balkh and other Central Asian commercial centers journeyed to the Middle East, Europe, China, and deep into India. Traders from those lands brought goods to the sprawling commercial entrepôts in Greater Central Asia. Since slavery thrived throughout the Muslim world and beyond, the bazaars also included large slave markets. Gold, silver, and bronze currency from these thriving hubs of commerce traveled all the way to Gotland in Sweden and to Korea and Sri Lanka.

Central Asia lay at the junction of all the routes connecting the great cultures of the Eurasian landmass. This network of routes, today often called the “Silk Road,” in its heyday transported a huge variety of goods in every direction. Glass blowing spread from the Middle East to China via Central Asia, while papermaking and sericulture (the production of silk) went from China westward. But the Central Asians were not passive transmitters. For half a millennium, Middle Easterners and Europeans esteemed Samarqand paper as the best anywhere, while the treasures of more than one medieval cathedral in Europe consist of silk manufactured in the Fergana Valley of what is now mainly Uzbekistan.

Traders also carried religions. Greek settlers in the wake of Alexander the Great (356–23 BC) brought the cults of Athena, Hercules, and Aphrodite to their new cities in Afghanistan. Then Buddhism found fertile soil across the region, and spread from there to China, Japan, and Korea. Along the way, Buddhist artists picked up from immigrant Greeks the idea of depicting the Buddha in sculpture. About the same time, Jewish communities were formed, Syrian Christian bishoprics established, and Manichean communities founded across the region. In a stratum beneath all these religions lay the region’s core faith, Zoroastrianism, with its emphasis on the struggle of good and evil, redemption, and heaven and hell. Zoroaster, who probably lived in the sixth or seventh century BC, came from the region of Balkh, but his religion spread westward, eventually to Babylon, where Jews encountered it and fell under its influence. From Judaism its concepts spread first to Christianity and then to Islam.

So when Islam arrived with the Arab armies in the late seventh century, it encountered a population that was expert in what we might today call comparative religion and philosophical analysis. Many Central Asians converted, but others did not, at least not until after the period of cultural effervescence had passed. Muslim or not, they were expert codifiers, and one of them, Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (AD 810–70), brought together and analyzed the hadiths (sayings) of Muhammad, the compilation becoming re garded as Islam’s second most holy book after the Qur’an. Secular ideas also wafted back and forth across the region. The astronomer al-Khorezmi wrote a book comparing the utility of Indian numerals (and the concept of zero) with all other contenders, while others mined Indian geometry, astronomy, and even calendar systems for good ideas. Earlier Central Asians had tested various alphabets, including ones from Syria and India. Several local languages opted for an alphabet deriving from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. It is hard to imagine a more intellectually open region anywhere.

What distinguished Central Asians from both the Arabs and the Chinese is that they were polyglots. They considered it normal to live amid a bewildering profusion of languages and alphabets, and managed somehow to master whichever ones they needed at the time. Thus, when the Arab armies arrived bearing a new religion, it was natural that at least some officials and intellectuals would learn the Arabs’ strange language to see what it offered. Traders soon thereafter began arriving with writings newly translated from classical Greek. Often the work of Christian Arabs, these translations suddenly opened challenging new ideas in philosophy and science to Central Asians. In due course, they were to master and even go beyond their ancient Greek mentors.

Read more here/Leia mais aqui.


S. Frederick Starr is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He was the founding chairman of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute and president of Oberlin College and the Aspen Institute. He began his career doing archaeological work in Turkey and teaching intellectual history at Princeton and has picked up those threads in the present article, which is based on a book he is writing.