Avicenna, mirror of contemporary Central Asia

If you ever have the good fortune of encountering a group of Central Asian elders sitting around drinking their chai and engaging in political debate, you’ll experience how the conversation will inevitably turn to the troubles of today and the glories of yesterday. They’ll reminisce about the great civilizations of the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks, especially the scientific thinkers. Among these luminaries, Ibn Sina, a.k.a., Avicenna, will shine the brightest. The elders, sitting around their slowly cooling cups, will ask that most predictable, if fundamental, question: why can’t things go back to the way they were? Where are…

Image of Ibn Sina, a.k.a. Avicenna, from a medieval manuscript entitled, "Subtleties of Truth," from 1271.

Image of Ibn Sina, a.k.a. Avicenna, from a medieval manuscript entitled, "Subtleties of Truth," from 1271.

If you ever have the good fortune of encountering a group of Central Asian elders sitting around drinking their chai and engaging in political debate, you’ll experience how the conversation will inevitably turn to the troubles of today and the glories of yesterday. They’ll reminisce about the great civilizations of the Arabs, the Persians, and the Turks, especially the scientific thinkers. Among these luminaries, Ibn Sina, a.k.a., Avicenna, will shine the brightest.

The elders, sitting around their slowly cooling cups, will ask that most predictable, if fundamental, question: why can’t things go back to the way they were? Where are the Avicennas of today?

My great uncle, a renowned cardiologist, had the answer. When I was a boy, he used to lecture me about the “true” origin of Avicenna and how I should be proud of my Turkmen roots. He was angry by the “Farsification” of Central Asian Turkic scholars and poets, particularly Avicenna, leading many people today to believe they were “Iranian”. If there are no Avicennas today, that’s because we’re so busy fighting over and propagandizing the Avicennas of yesterday.

The other day, while researching Avicenna online, I was reminded of my great uncle’s lectures. I stumbled upon various discussion forums and websites consumed with the debate over the true ethnicity of Avicenna. Well, what they called “debate” was really just intellectual hooliganism and asinine slandering. But there was a key subtext in their “arguments” that kept re-emerging: the guidelines used by the League of Nations to delineate the international borders of the contemporary world.

Biography reflects history: he was born outside Bukhara, in present-day Uzbekistan. His father was either of Persian or Turkic lineage. The genealogical record is unclear, but he was originally from Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan. His mother was probably Persian. His father and brother were Ismailis. Scholars believe the heterodoxy of his family was a key reason he kept jumping from shah to shah, city to city, fleeing war after war.

Throughout his life, Avicenna lived in several spots within present-day Turkmenistan, Turkmen Sahra, and Afghanistan, including Gurganj, Gorgan, and Samangan, respectively. His poetry is filled with the lamentations of a permanent refugee. His autobiography concludes with these lines:

“And great once I became, no more would Egypt have me, And when my value rose, no one would care to buy me.”

Speaking of which, Avicenna purposefully filled his autobiography with misinformation. To quote David Reisman of the University of Illinois,

“The investigation of the historical context, broadly apprehended, in which Avicenna lived and worked is certainly fraught with some dangers. While it was once thought that scholars of Avicenna were blessed with not only the master’s autobiography, but also a biography by his disciple al-Juizjani, careful study of these texts highlights the importance of taking into account the rhetorical (or crassly put, the propagandistic) nature of medieval genres of writing.”

This is why the legacy and legend of Avicenna are vied for today. He transcended today’s artificial and often arbitrary international borders. Present-day Iranians, Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Afghans all see a piece of themselves in him because his fractured life mirrors their fractured geopolitical existence.

And indeed, biography predicts history. To the question of why there are no more Avicennas today, I would revise my great uncle’s answer: it’s not only because we’re so busy fighting over the Avicennas of yesterday, but also because, just like our ancestors, we’re actually afraid of new Avicennas.

Today, conformity is strictly enforced. Everyone must have the right background or viewpoint. Yet, true luminaries like Avicenna are outliers. And so, like the Avicennas of yesterday, there are many intellectuals from today who have lived as refugees of one sort or another, chased away because they were either of the wrong ethnicity, creed, or opinion.

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3 comments Show discussion Hide discussion
  • The question is that why you are excluding Tajiks from the list of Avicenna’s inheritors? Should Tajiks who say Avicenna’s father Abdulloh and mother Sitora both were Tajiks from Afshana think of a pan-Turkist conspiracy here? If there any book or poetry written by Avicenna by any Turkic language?

    • @Kabir, All good points. Fortunately the lineage of Ibn Sina’s father is indeed unclear. Frankly speaking, I also don’t think lineage matters as much as, say, the geographic locations where he made the bulk of his contributions. What is clear are his contributions in themselves, in scientific methodology, metaphysics, as well as Arab and Persian linguistics, etc. Perhaps the answer to your question will be more lucid in the next article in this series.

  • Dear Timoor,
    Can you supply a source and location of the Ibn Sina picture, that you have shown? What and by whom is the manuscript: Subtleties of truth?
    Where is the manuscript located?
    Thanks
    Hans-Reinhard

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