Welcome to the wasteland of Persian intellectual
February 16, 2005
Look at the full
moon, how it has disrupted our sleep,
It shines from the seventh
sky at our homeland in ruins
[Mah-e dorost ra bebin, cheguneh
beshkast khaab-e ma
charkh-e haftomin, bar vatan-e kharaab-e ma]
-- Mowlana Rumi, Book of Shams Tabrizi.
We, the people of Iran (Persia), have a beautiful history. We
have loved our history and its glories, and we surely love it far
more than we love our present predicament. We love our history
in more ways than one. Our history shows us a warm paradise to
seek shelter from the present. How could we not love those old
glories, massive books of epic poetry, those verses of profound
wisdom, love poems with their sensual descriptions of women's
But Iran's present day predicament is not as glorious.
In Iran today, drug addiction is rampant and inflation is out of
control; women are forced to walk the earth hidden under the veil.
There are even debates raging on how much of women's hair
can be seen in public; this is going on while European satellites
go to Mars.
Iran is ruled today by a theocracy which came to power
after the brutal dictatorship of the Shah; none of this seems to
matter for many of our intellectuals. Our patriotic intellectuals
seem to get excited over arcane topics: 'we need to ensure
that the Persian Gulf is not renamed to the Arabian Gulf, we need
to prove to the West that Persians are not Arabs, we need to use
fewer Arabic words in Persian', and so on. History has left
us its scars.
The obsession with the past is rampant among Iranians. Our love
for the past has been so great that many have chosen to ignore
all that our great writers of the past actually said. They have
chosen to boast about their greatness. A summary reading of all
vulgar patriotic writing will show that their point is to prove
the greatness of the Persian heritage, our real or imagined differences
with the Arabs. These writers are troubled about our history and
our present predicament.
Our Monarchists will have us believe that
Iranians are a monarchist people and that eventually we are supposed
to be ruled by the kings. They use the Shahnameh to justify their
claim, forgetting how Ferdowsi was humiliated by a monarch. There
are others who blame the Arabs and Islam for all that went wrong
in Persia's history. Our Muslim Fundamentalists claim that
Islam is the solution. All these groups agree that the Persians
are a great people with a glorious history and a not-so-great
present. The obsession with the past has led them astray into the
of adulating our great thinkers who are now dead.
It is not enough to take pride in the greatness of the past to
feel better. Hafez and Rumi's main goal in life was to search
for truth, not to prove how great they were. The only way to continue
their tradition is to break new grounds, not to regurgitate or
adulate them. You can only feel sorry for those who rely on their
past greatness. Persia produced great philosophers, astronomers,
mathematicians, chemists, medical scientists, architects, poets,
historians, and linguists.
Our history is full of distant stars
that are no longer with us. They wink at us, and make us nostalgic
about the way things used to be, but they are out of our reach.
History is an intimate friend, but it torments us. It makes us
happy, but it troubles us. It drowns us in sorrows. Who were
our great thinkers? Where did they all go, those intellectual giants
with their vast knowledge who fascinate us through the distorted
prism of the foggy past? Below I have listed our world-class
('bozorgan') to ask a few questions about the strange
time-line of our intellectual golden age.
Who were some of our great thinkers?
These were giants of intellect, in the same class as Da Vinci,
Mozart, Shakespeare, Marx, Dante, Einstein, and Aristotle. The
great thinkers of the Islamic Empire came from many different backgrounds.
A large number of them were Persians; others were Arabs, Turks,
Jews, or Spaniards. Except for Ferdowsi, and a few others, most
great thinkers of that period were educated in Baghdad and Damascus.
In the Islamic Arab Empire Baghdad was the center of culture and
intellect, Sorbonne and MIT combined; many stayed in Baghdad to
They mostly wrote in Arabic. Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), universally
recognized as the founder of sociology and philosophy of history,
was born in Tunisia to a Spanish family. Ibn-Khaldun developed
an analytical study of civilizations, and their rise and subsequent
decline. The great Persian Jewish historian Tabari (from Mazanderan)
taught Law in Baghdad, and wrote a monumental history of the
world. There were a large number of other thinkers: Ibn-Arabi,
Arab philosopher, Ibn-Battuta, the great world traveler and writer,
and Ibn-Haitham, the Egyptian physicist, the founder of optics.
Ibn-Sibovaih (b. Shiraz) wrote the first systematic study of
Arabic grammar. The Persian scholar, Ibn Sina (b. Bukhara, Uzbekistan),
was one of the greatest scholars of all time who wrote almost all
his works in Arabic; Ibn Sina engaged in research in a vast field
of knowledge from medicine, philosophy, mathematics, to physics,
and music and wrote more than 99 books.
Zakarya Razi, the great
chemist and physician whose books were translated and studied
in Europe, was one of the main founders of chemistry along with
Arab alchemist, Jabir Ibn Hayyan. The great scholar, Abu Raihan
Biruni (b. Birun, Uzbekistan), was the first to correctly calculate
the radius of the Earth to be about 6,340 km. Farabi (b. Farab,
Uzbekistan), one of the greatest scholars of all time, wrote
117 books in mathematics, philosophy, and music.
How "Islamic" were our great thinkers?
great thinkers continued the intellectual heritage of the Greek
philosophers who were mostly atheists. They also lived under
the liberal rule of Islam. Our great thinkers threaded a delicate
path between reason and faith, between the Greek philosophers (Aristotle
and Plato) on one hand and the Koran on the other hand. Some of
our thinkers were deeply faithful to Islam. Some were more skeptical.
For Ibn Sina, "the prophets had revealed higher truths, myths,
fables, symbols, and allegories, meant for the masses (al-awam)".
According to Ibn Sina, the philosophers (al-ulama) had the right
and the duty to go beyond the sacred text, to explore the truths
with their own reason. Ibn Sina did not believe in a day of resurrection
(qyamat). Farabi did not believe in the immortality of the soul.
Many of our great thinkers believed in a god at one with the
world, not a god outside the world. Omar Khayyam and many others
persecuted by the Islamic clergy, just as Mazdak had been persecuted
by the Zaratostrian clergy under the Sassanid.
What did our great thinkers think of music?
Muhammad Ghazzali, one of the greatest scholars in the history
of Islamic thought, wrote: "There is no entry into the heart
except through the ante-chamber of the ears. Musical tones, measured
and pleasant, bring forth what is in the heart and make evident
its beauties and defects. Whenever the soul of music and singing
reaches the heart, then there stirs in the heart that which preponderates
in it". Ibn Sina and Farabi wrote volumes on music. Farabi
invented many musical instruments. They had views more advanced
than the dominant views in Iran today. The Persian music of their
time was probably far closer to the music of the Sassanid period
and therefore in all likelihood richer than today's classical
Persian music, of mourning.
Was Rumi from Iran or Turkey?
For those obsessed with our past the exact national origin of
our great thinkers matters. Where was Mozart from? Wolfgang Amadeus
Mozart (1756-1791), the great musical composer, was born in Salzburg,
part of the Holy Roman Empire (in present-day Austria). He traveled
in Europe and lived in Prague. In 1781, he settled in Vienna, where
he died in 1791. Can we say Mozart was Austrian? At the time of
Mozart there was no Austria. By the same token, at the time of
Rumi there were no nations called Persia, Iran, Afghanistan, or
Turkey, although there was certainly a Persian people, and a Turkish
people. So there is no exact answer to the question.
Persian poet, Jalaluddin Mowlavi Rumi, was born in the Seljuk
Empire in Balkh (today, Afghanistan), studied in Baghad, and died
(today, Turkey). Today many pop singers in Iran use Rumi's
poetry as lyrics and are perfectly understood in Iran, Afghanistan,
and Tajikstan (Tajik is the central Asian Turkish word for Persian).
We are honored if the people of Turkey, a people who share so
much of our history think of Rumi as their own.
As for the regime of
Turkey claiming Rumi as its own, there is something ridiculous
about a regime that has killed or jailed hundreds of poets and
writers to take pride in a Persian poet who lived long ago. It
is good to ask what happened to Turkey's intellectuals of
20th Century, Aziz Nasin, the satirical writer, Nazim Hikmat, the
poet, Ahmad Kaya, the great singer and song writer, or Yilmaz Guney,
the film director. Iran's record is no better; Shamlu, Bozorg
Alavi, Soltan-pur, and many others were jailed, exiled, or murdered
under the Shah or the current rule. If Rumi had been alive in Iran
or Turkey today, he would have been jailed or killed. Repressive
regimes love their intellectuals, dead.
What would Rumi have said on the topic of his own origin?
Here is what Rumi said on the topic: "If the Turk, the
Roman, and the Arab are in love; they all know the same language,
the beautiful tune of Rabab" (Rumi, poem 304, Book of
What was the first Persian Empire?
The first Persian Empire was founded by the Achemenid (Hakhamaneshi)
dynasty in 648 BC (2653 years ago). In 539 BC, Cyrus (Kurosh) turned
Persia into a large Middle Eastern empire, by launching attacks
upon the more advanced civilization of Babylon (today's Iraq).
With that war Syria and Phoenicia (today's Lebanon) fell
under Persian control. Within a few years the Persian Empire had
become a major military and political power dominating the Middle
In 512 the Persian king, Darius (Dariush), invaded Anatolia,
and crossed the Bosphorus to occupy the Greek mainland. The Achemenid
Persian Empire was one of the largest and most powerful empires
in the world. Darius took the advanced postal and administrative
systems of the Assyrians and expanded it. In 330 BC, the Persian
Empire of the Achemenid was brought down by the Greek Armies
of Alexander. Greek language and culture came with the Greek kings
who succeeded Alexander the Great. Persia remained under Greek
rule for centuries.
What was the second Persian Empire?
The Persian Empire of the Sassanid (Sassanian) dynasty emerged
in 226 CE. The Sassanian expanded their power throughout the Middle
West (at one point they conquered Yemen), and chose Tisfun (outside
Baghdad) as their capital. The Sassanian made numerous wars against
the Roman Empire. Probably influenced by its close relations with
India, the Persian Empire of the Sassanid was a highly centralized
state, based on a rigidly organized caste system of Priests, Soldiers,
Scribes, and Commoners. People from lower or middle classes were
banned from engaging in learning of the sciences. If a peasant
or a blacksmith arranged for his child to learn how to read, he
could get punished by death.
The clergy was all powerful under
the Sassanid. Zoroastrianism was made the official state religion;
other religions were persecuted. The incessant wars with the
Romans eventually contributed to the decline of the Sassanid Empire.
Persian Empire of the Sassanids was on its way to decay when
it was was conquered by Islamic Arab armies in 641-650. The Arab
was a major turning point that transformed Persia. Islam replaced
Zoroastrianism, and an entirely new language and culture emerged
in Persia. History is full of examples of entire nations changing
their religions by force or by consent. That was how Christianity
was introduced in Europe.
Were there other major civilizations in the Middle East?
Before the Persian or Islamic Empires there were other major
civilizations in the Middle East; these were the Egyptian, Assyrian,
Babylonian (today's Iraq), and the Phoenician (today's
Lebanon) civilizations. The Phoenicians formed a major commercial
naval power in 1200 BC and ruled the Mediterranea for centuries.
They created extensive commercial networks throughout the Mediterranea,
with sophisticated systems of payment, credit, and banks. The Phoenician
alphabet forms the basis of all modern European and Middle Eastern
alphabet. With the rise of Assyria, the Phoenician cities lost
their independence, and were later dominated by Babylonia. Eventually
Phoenicia became a province of the Persian Empire.
What was the Islamic Empire?
Islam began in Arabia in 611 CE with Muhammad, who
united Arabia under the rule of Islam. By 690 CE,
after a series of conquests the Arab Empire had become
the largest state in history, stretching from Spain to
Afghanistan. The first 90 years of the Islamic Empire
was marked by chaos, tyranny, and violence of the
Umayyad Califes. The Umayyad created a system of
oppression and privilege favoring their Arabian tribal
cronies. But they faced a series of revolts throughout
their empire, revolts that culminated in the Abbasid
take over of power with the help of an uprising led by
Abu Muslim Khorassani (718-755 CE), one of the
greatest military leaders and strategists in the
history of the Middle East.
Abu Muslim was born in either ëin Marv or in the
vicinity of Isfahaní (according to the Encyclopedia
Iranica) around 718 or 723. He grew up in Kufa (Iraq)
and later joined the movement organized by the
Abbasid. In 743, a wave of revolts began against the
Umayyad tyranny. Abu Muslim went to Khorassan where he
found support among the people; He was able to launch
a revolt in support of the Abbassid. In 750, Abu
Muslim's army stormed the Umayyad capital, Damascus.
Abu Muslim's military campaign and the people who
supported him created a major turning point in the
history of the Middle East. It brought to power the
more progressive Abbassid Califes, and helped pave the
way for a new age of prosperity.
Abu Muslim strongly believed in the establishment of
the rule of justice. That was why he fought against
the Umayyad tyranny. After the overthrow of the
Umayyad, he let the Abbassid take the power, and moved
back to become the governor of Khorassan, at the time,
a province of the Islamic Empire. This brings us to
the central point of this essay: that there were
always people who struggled for justice and freedom
and that they played a crucial role in our history.
What was the Islamic Empire of the Abbassid?
The Abbassid built a new empire; they learned what they could
from Persian and Roman administration systems. In 762 CE, the Abbassid
moved their capital from Damascus to Baghdad, outside the Persian
Sassanid capital, Tisfun. The move was significant. Baghdad was
the closest Arab city to the Persian heartland. The Islamic Empire
of the Abbassid was an Arab Empire, but Persian scholars gained
prominence in the rulers' court.
Under the Abbassid rule,
Baghdad grew to be the most prosperous, most cultured capital
city of the old world. An extensive network of mercantile capitalism
came to existence extending from China to the Persian Gulf, to
Ethiopia, and to Spain. Along with an explosion in the commerce
of cotton, rugs, fruits, spices, sugar, and textile, merchants
emerged who organized large caravans of camels and fleets of
trading goods throughout the vast territories. The golden age
of Islamic civilization had begun.
Why was there such an explosion of intellect in the Islamic
Some have explained the growth of Islamic
sciences by pointing out that Islam based the time of prayer upon
the motions of the
moon and the sun, and that many passages in the Koran invite us 'to
think'. This view does not explain the dark ages that followed
in the Middle East. After all the Koran was the same book after
1350 CE as it had been before. Civilizations rise due to a whole
array factors, and they eventually decay due to a number of other
factors. One can not credit a single factor for any event in history.
The Middle Eastern intellectual golden age began shortly after
the fall of the Umayyad tyranny. It lasted more than four centuries.
As the time line above shows, most of our great thinkers lived
in the period that began in 750 CE and ended with the Mongol
and Tatar invasions. The French historian, Leon Gautier, points
what characterized that period was general prosperity, along
with a series of enlightened despots, and a fragmented political
based on a network of local princes. Intellectuals flourish in
an atmosphere conducive to cultural freedoms, not under brutal
The Islamic empire brought together many nationalities under
one cultural and communication system. Arabic was a rich language
that bound Islamic intellectuals together, just as English brings
together today's world scholars. Without knowledge of Arabic,
Ibn-e Rushd, the Jewish philosopher from Spain could not have read
books written in Baghdad or Shiraz. The great thinkers of the Arab
Islamic Empire built upon the rich histories of Persian, Egyptian,
and Greek civilizations. They collaborated with each other and
produced major intellectual works, at a time when the Europeans
were in the dark ages, at a time the European clergy burned people
for saying that the earth moved around the sun. El-Hakam II, the
Arab Calife of Corodoba in Spain (961-976 CE), sponsored the creation
of a library of 400,000 books, organized with a catalogue that
consisted of 44 volumes; all this before the print machine!
How was daily life in Baghdad at the time?
Ibn Battuta describes
Baghdad around 1325 CE: "Then we traveled
to Baghdad, […] the Capital of Islam. Here there are two
bridges on which the people promenade night and day, both men and
women. The baths at Baghdad are numerous and excellently constructed
most of them painted with pitch which has the appearance of black
marble. This pitch is brought from a spring between Kufa and Basra,
from which it flows continually. It gathers at the sides of the
spring like clay and is shoveled up and brought to Baghdad.
establishment has a number of private bathrooms, every one of which
has also a wash-basin in the corner, with two taps supplying hot
and cold water. Every bather is given three towels, one to wear
round his waist when he goes in, another to wear round his waist
when he comes out, and the third to dry himself with." Travels
in Asia and Africa 1325-1354
Was the fall of the Sassanid a disaster?
Some Persian nationalists believe all was well in Iran until
the Arab invasions. The Arabs abolished the caste system of the
Sassanid. Saadi, Hafez, Khayyam, and Rumi all came after the fall
of the Sassanid. Most of these writers took pride in writing eloquent
verses in Arabic as well as Persian. Conversion to Islam did have
tax benefits (similar to buying property today in the USA), but
the peoples living in the Islamic Empire were not forced to adopt
the religion of Islam.
Many Arab countries have rich histories. Centuries before Kourosh
there were cities with sewage systems and running water in Babylonia
(today's Iraq) and in Yemen. In 2002 an important report
was written by Arab scholars from the United Nations about the
cultural stagnation of the Arab World. A study of that report shows
that today Iran suffers from many of the same problems.
If I learned
that I have neighbors that suffer from the same plague as mine,
I would talk to them about those problems. That would serve everyone
better than arguments over who did what to whom 1400 years ago,
or what was the exact historical name of the Persian Gulf. In
Europe after long periods of warfare and violence,
they finally opted
for cooperation among nations. There will come a time when we
can overcome the existing cultural backwardness and
engage in cultural
exchange with our neighbors, the Turks, the Kurds, the Arabs,
and the Jews.
What was the Seljuk Empire?
The Muslim world was shaken again in 1037 with invasions by the
Seljuk Turks from the Central Asia. Seljuk Turks swept across and
conquered most of Islamic Asia, to restore a new orthodox Islamic
rule. Based in today's Uzbekistan (historically known as
Turkestan), the Seljuk rulers created a large Middle Eastern empire
which lasted until the Mongol invasions. Omar Khayyam, One of the
greatest Persian mathematicians, astronomers, and poets lived in
the Seljuk Empire.
Has there been a continuous history of Persia, unified
under a central government going back 2,600 years?
There are no ancient nations with uninterrupted
histories. Phoenicia was invaded by the Babylonians, the Persians,
the Greeks, and then
by the Romans. Egypt of the Pharaohs later became a Roman province,
later occupied by Arabs, and then by the Ottomans. After the fall
of the Roman Empire there was no unified Italian state for centuries.
In the Middle Ages Germany and Italy were provinces of the Holy
Roman Empire. Italy and Germany became modern unified independent
states only in 1870.
Persia was an independent nation under the
Hakhamaneshis, the Sassanid, the Safavid, the Qajar, the Pahlavi,
and the Islamic Republic. There was no unified nation-state called
Persia in the period between Sassanid and Safavid states (641-1500
CE). Persia was a part of the Arab Islamic Empire and later
Seljukid Empire. At different times there were regional Persian
who paid taxes to the Arab Calife of Baghdad. With the important
exception of Mullah Sadra who lived under the Safavid rule,
very few of our great thinkers lived under the rule of strong centralized
Persian states. Intellectuals flourish in an atmosphere of
freedom, not repressive brutal tyrannies.
The Persian Empires of
the Hakhamaneshi and Sassanian were analogous to the Roman
Empire. They extended Persian military and political influence
the civilized world. However, with the important exception
of architecture which was later absorbed and developed by the Arabs,
Persian Empire produced little in the way of a lasting intellectual
heritage; in this respect the Persian Empire of the Sassanid,
was similar to the Roman Empire.
Should we keep our Persian heritage pure from foreign
Since the dawn of history civilizations have been engaged in
a process of constant exchange with each other. The array of what
can be exchanged is wide: the compass, a technique for making steel,
the cooking of a dish, an entire philosophical system, an ideology,
a religion, or a song, or new words borrowed from other languages.
These exchanges take place through travelers, invasions, commerce
and trade, or through long molecular processes.
Today a vast web
of communication has emerged to accelerate the exchange: the
printing press, the telephone, the radio, the Internet. Those who
stop the interaction of cultures may as well stop the planets.
What is seen as traditional in any given culture is the culmination
of centuries of cultural and economic exchange with different
nations and peoples. Each and every language today carries with
of vocabulary from other languages. English vocabulary is 30% Latin.
Persian vocabulary is about 30% Arabic. This makes Persian richer.
Persian alphabet is also based upon the Arabic alphabet. Some
modern Persian writers have tried to replace Arabic words, the
that Hafez and Rumi used, with older words of 'pure' Persian
origin. That is absurd. Persians gave a lot to world civilization.
They also learned a great deal from others. There are few peoples
who can proudly claim not to be using foreign vocabulary or
engaging in exchange with other civilizations: isolated peoples
jungles of Africa or the Amazone!!
Is California an Arabic name?
Even the name for California has Arabic origins. Spain was ruled
by the Arabs for centuries. As a result modern Spanish contains
thousands of Arabic words. California was first sighted by the
Spanish navigator, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo in 1542. In 1530's
one the first books to be published by the recently invented print
machine, was a fictional account of the Crusades, named 'The
Exploits of Esplandian', written by the Spanish author, Garcia
Ordóñez de Montalvo around 1500. In that novel there
was a mythical island named California, derived from the Spanish
word, Calife, which was based on the Arabic term Khalife.
What did Europe learn from the Islamic golden age?
The achievements of the Islamic Empire later became a launching
pad for Europe. Throughout the European Enlightment, a large number
of works written in Arabic were translated into European languages.
Hegel, the German philosopher, developed his philosophy after studying
'Al-Muqaddimah' (The Introduction) of Ibn-Khaldun. Hegel had a
direct influence on Karl Marx.
Ibn Sina's works had a major
influence on Da Vinci, and his books were used as textbooks for
medical education in Europe, as late as 1700 CE. Muhammad Khwarazmi
(b. Khwarazm, Uzbekistan), one of the greatest mathematicians
in world history, was the founder of modern Algebra; He developed
the system of numerical algorithms, which centuries later became
the foundation of all software development. The name Algebra
from his book, Al-Jabr wa-al-Muqabilah. He introduced the Indian
numerals (Arabic numerals) into Arab mathematics. His books were
used as textbooks in Europe until around 1600. The word, algorithm,
is a latinization of al-Khwarazmi's name.
The Italian mathematician
of 13th Century, Leonardo Fibonacci, studied mathematics during
his extensive trips in the Middle East. After the 16th Century,
a period of confrontations began pitting Kepler and Galileo
(both students of Islamic astronomy) against the Catholic Church.
arose between the modern bourgeoisie and the aristocratic order
culminating in the French Revolution of 1789 and the industrial
revolution of 1830's. Europe had entered the modern age.
How did the Middle East enter
the dark ages?
In 1095 CE the Crusades were started, a series of bloody wars
launched by the Catholic Church and European kings against the
Arabs. In 1219, Genghis Khan led the Mongols begin a barbaric assault
for the conquest of Central Asia and the Middle East. The Mongols
destroyed all that they could find: libraries, universities, schools,
observatories, hospitals, etc.
The Mongols conquered Persia, and
the rest of the Middle East. By 1258 CE they destroyed Baghdad.
Persia became land in ruins, a division of the incredibly vast
Mongol Empire, and later splintered into a large number of small
impoverished states, open to still more conquest by a brutal
Tatar conqueror: Timur invaded Persia in 1370 and ravaged the country
for years. The Middle East entered the dark ages. With the discovery
of America in 1495, the Middle East was no longer a commercial
hub connecting Europe with China and India.
When did Iran (Persia) become a unified nation after
Persia did not emerge as an independent political
entity until 1500 CE, when the Safavid Dynasty emerged from Azerbaijan.
Safavid Shah Ismail founded a new united political power to stop
the ever expanding power of the Ottoman Empire. Wars with the Ottomans
were a fact of life in Safavid Persia. The Safavid created the
official Shiite religion to unite Iranians against the Ottomans.
In 588 CE, Shah Abbas came to power and instituted a series of
reforms. He moved his capital to Isfahan, which became one of the
most important cultural centers in the Islamic world. Under the
Safavids Persia enjoyed its last period as a major power. Persia
witnessed a revival of philosophy under the Safavid rule. But that
was temporary. Gone were the days of Ibn Sina, Razi, and Rumi.
What came after the Safavid?
In 1722 the Safavid rule collapsed under the weight of invasions
by the Afghans, the Ottomans, and the Russian armies of Peter the
Great. Persia experienced a temporary political revival under Nader
Shah in the 1730s. After Nadir Shah, chaos ruled until 1779, when
the rule of Turkman based Qajar dynasty began. The great French
Revolution of 1789 and the industrial revolution transformed Europe.
Unable to compete with the new industrial powers of Europe, Persia
languished under the Feudal rule of the Qajar throughout the 19th
Century. In spite of a major constitutional democratic revolution
in 1906, Reza Khan Mir-Panj (later renamed to Pahlavi) seized power
from the Qajars to found a new dictatorship in 1925. In the 20th
century Middle East dictatorial regimes have suffocated intellectual
progress. Cultural progress has not been easy in our part of the
Here is the history of the Middle East,
caravans carrying silk and pearl, gardens of roses,
with cascades, inner circles of the harems, sultans,
concubines that danced on marble, emirs, shahs, kings
of 1001 nights, minarets, women of hannah, weaving
carpets of gold. Then came the wasteland that followed
our intellectual golden age, mystery, resignation,
fortune tellers, cages, green bearded mullahs reading
the Koran, sleepy people reading old books bound with
leather, books with pages in yellow, the Persian music
that appears to have been made to mourn the loss of
greatness. The sun rising, to be followed by the
crescent of the moon, lands of slaves, some naked,
some covered under the veil, all going hungry while
they were promised the salvation of the world after.
Here is the orient, the orient raw and pure, than can be seen
through the foggy ruins of time.
Here is to review the main themes of the essay:
I- One trend is consistent about our intellectual golden age:
our great thinkers needed regions of intellectual freedom so they
could explore the sciences. Many of them had to struggle against
the forces of oppression. Ferdowsi was humiliated by a king, and
Khayyam was persecuted by the Mullahs.
II- Our great thinkers were not stuck on preserving some imaginary
heritage that would set Persians apart from our neighbors. The
period of our intellectual golden age was a period of intense interchange
throughout the Middle East. The Khalifes of Baghdad learned civilization
from the Persians. In return, Persian, Turkish, Spanish, and Jewish
intellectuals went to Baghdad to study and to exchange ideas.
III- Today Europe is more civilized than the Middle East. An
indicator of that progress is that the European countries join
forces to send satellites to the outer space. They make efforts
to educate their new generations in each others languages. After
centuries of warfare they have learned how to engage their neighbors
in intellectual exchange rather than idiotic debates, on who is
better than whom.
IV- Our intellectual golden age would not have come about without
the peopleís struggle for justice and freedom. It was the
peopleís movement led by Abu Muslim Khorassani that helped
overthrow the Umayyad oppression, and ushered a new golden age.
V- Today many Persians have relegated our great thinkers to the
forbidden realm of the sacred, holy books that should forever remain
closed. They use the poetry of Hafiz for fortune telling (Faal-giri).
But our great thinkers, they knew the only true sacred space, our
real lives, our eternal search for freedom, dignity, and a better
VI- Progress comes about by questioning what some may view as
sacred, in an atmosphere of freedom. Progress comes about by taking
out what is relevant in our rich heritage and combining that with
the wealth of works created in the last three centuries, the works
of Mozart, Beethoven, Eisler, Marx, Darwin, Balzac, Shakespeare,
Einstein, Neruda, and Brecht.
VII- In the last century Iran has witnessed the emergence of
many world class intellectuals such as Abbas Kiarustami, Ehsan
Yar-Shater, Ahmad Shamlu, and many others. The great thinkers of
our intellectual golden age were stars that left us long ago, but
others have been rising, and new ones shall rise.
This essay was inspired by the works of the French historian,