Monday, October 11, 2010

Museum lectures

So I forgot to mention that the Museum of Islamic Art has started their lecture series again. This time they're having a series of five lectures each focusing on a different "Great Arab Thinker". The first one was two weeks ago and was about a scholar from the 11th century named Abu Rayhan Biruni. Wiki entry here:

He was born in Uzbekistan but the lecturer noted he was likely of Persian descent. He wrote a ton of books on a wide variety of subjects including astronomy, geology, sociology, and so forth. Although not many of his works survive they were widely read by scholars in the Islamic world at the time and he was very influential in the works of later scholars.

One of his best-known works was a book about India where he listened and learned about why Hindus did not get along with outsiders and attempted to describe their culture and beliefs in an objective way, which was groundbreaking in its time. The professor giving the lecture focused a lot on this work and its picture of Indian society at the time. It is considered one of the first anthropological studies of another culture.

When it came time for the question-and-answer I asked whether his works had been widely distributed in the West during the Middle Ages. I asked because I had not heard of him before whereas many Islamic scholars of the time such as Avicenna, Geber, and Maimonides had numerous of their works translated into Latin and widely distributed throughout Europe. The professor replied that he was not well-known at the time although many later works by Islamic scholars are clearly influenced by him though work directly written by him did not generally reach Europe. The professor then noted that, surprisingly, it was not until around the 18th century that Europeans became interested in Biruni and his writings, more specifically British colonialists. Apparently the British were starting to have significant influence in India and did not know much about Indian culture. Attempts to find writings about Indian culture, in a language that the British scholars could translate, turned up Biruni’s extensive writings on India -- from there his book became widely read in Britain in the 19th century as a definitive work on India. This despite the fact that the book had been written over 800 years earlier.

Biruni is still widely regarded throughout Central Asia and other parts of the Islamic world. Statues, conferences dedicated to his work, and other tributes are found in many countries such as Iran and Pakistan.

One of the contentious issues that came up during the lecture was that the Museum of Islamic art was doing a series on "Great Arab Thinkers" but as one person in the audience pointed out Biruni was an Uzbek of Persian origin and thus was not an Arab (Persians are not, and have never been, Arabs. I suspect many Persians get a little miffed at being called Arabs by unknowing Westerners). The lecturer pointed out that, yes, Biruni was not born in Arabia, and was not of Arab ancestry, but the series considered him a great Arab thinker because all of his works were written in Arabic which was a scientific language of the day. The lecturer noted that Biruni would never have had Arabic as his main language, he would have spoken Uzbek at home and probably Persian when dealing with people from other regions, yet he wrote all of his scholarly works in Arabic. There was a bit of chat about whether this was an attempt for the Arab world to claim a Persian scholar but given that the lecturer was American I don't think it was his intent to downplay Biruni’s real heritage and somehow try to make him an Arab.

Anyway I enjoyed the lecture because while I have heard of many scholars and studied a couple of them, such as Jabir ibn Hayyan (Geber), I learned about a very prolific scholar from the Islamic Golden Age that I had never heard of before.

The next lecture is Wednesday night, I will be there.


Anonymous said...

I saw the advert for this event and thought about going, particularly because of the title. I couldn't go due to some other family engagement but I did mention to some friends the same thing that you're describing here. Being from the province of Khurasan, he'd be Persian but since he wrote in Arabic, he's been called an"Arab" thinker just as Avicenna and Razi, etc. were. In terms of ethnicity, they're as Arab as Copernicus is Latin.
In terms of scientific and artistic achievement and contribution, he's a great human being.
As for Persians or Iranians "not considering" themselves Arabs, there's nothing to "consider." Persians were a tribe among many of the Aryan nation that descended from northern Caucasia and settled in the Iranian Plateau around 5000 years ago. Arabs are Semites and hail from the Arabian peninsula.
In Iran Persians settled mostly in the central region (current province of Pars), Medes in the west around Hamedan, Parthians in the north, just south of the Caspian sea, etc.

Glen McKay said...

Thanks for the input. I knew Persians weren't Arabs but hadn't researched the history. Even the introduction of Arabic did not diminish their own language and culture.

Glen McKay said...

I've corrected the section on "Persians do not consider themselves Arabs" to make the language stronger.