Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

6.8. Fremde erleben / Experience the Foreign
Herausgeber | Editors | Éditeurs: Christof Hamann (Solingen) / Mme Neriman Eratalay (Hacettepe Université, Ankara) / Munira Shahidi (Dushanbe, Tajikistan)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Re-evaluating the Avicennian Tradition

Munira Shahidi (Duschanbe)


A distance-learning project involving 15 countries, most of them in the Mediterranean Basin, has been initiated by UNESCO under the name of the Avicenna Virtual Campus. "The aim of Avicenna," says Walter Erdelen, UNESCO’s Assistant Director-General for Natural Sciences, "is to help bridge the gap in science and technology education in the region using ICT. The virtual campus will reinforce existing higher educational establishments in the region, not replace them."(1)

The significance of the Avicennian heritage, however, is wider than just bridging the gap between the scholarly and technological cultures. A re-evaluation of the Avicennian tradition, and the processes common to Tajikistan, the relative national cultures in the Islamic world, Europe, and USA could be helpful for the challenge of the modern creative capacity as a whole. Although Ibn Sina/Avicenna (born 980 in Bukhara) came from Central Asia, and although his holistic vision of the world was embraced by Mediterranean civilisation in the Middle Ages, his vision (which is the core of his theory of creativity) has been narrowed and restricted by the modern world’s solely materialist approach.

The Avicennian holistic vision is based (in contrast to the Aristotelian exclusive philosophy), on the inclusive art of thought. As a conflict-resolving, peace-building phenomenon, this vision greatly impacted the formation of the literary thought of the Middle Ages as a global phenomenon. Defining the common aspects of religious/secular, idealistic/realistic, and national/international cultures, the Bukharian physician, scholar, and poet opened perspectives for the interaction of cultures, which has been reborn as a new phenomenon in our own times.

In contrast to the concept of the ‘first teacher’ of the world, who discussed the man/world relationship as a theory, Avicenna’s concept legitimised the potential of man to express a divine message via art, thus purifying and enlightening terrestrial life. This idea is formulated in all of Ibn Sina’s works, but particularly underlined and stressed in his metaphysics and poetics.

But marginalised from the world system of knowledge from the 17th century on, this concept returned to the Central Asia of the last century in its abrupt, westernised perception. Although the re-evaluation of original Avicennian tradition was an important aspect of Central Asian cultural movement (known in the history of the region as jadidism) in the middle of 19th century, this movement was suppressed and oppressed by the imperialist thinking of the 20th century.(2) Nevertheless, adopted as it was by the Latin world of the Middle Ages, the Avicennian heritage was the ‘hidden’ generator of classical heritage as a whole, nourishing the artistic thought of the first post-revolutionary generation of writers and artists. Re-evaluating the Avicennian ideas of flexible, harmonic training of the masses via music and poetic rhythm, the actors of the newly formed national cultures of the eve of the 20th century aimed at restoring a national/regional identity in the new, Soviet reality. Within the dissolution of the Soviet system, however, these actors are sorely marginalised by inward/outward powers in the name of building a ‘real’ national identity.

While the Internet is making another technical revolution, it has twofold significance for the newly forming generation. Liberalizing artistic minds from the isolationist ideology of the Soviet period on one hand, it brings a lot of stereotypes and clichés of ‘modernity’ in its westernized interpretations or misinterpretations, on the other. For example, Sufism and metaphysics, two ‘taboos’ of Soviet times, are attractive and widely discussed issues for the artistic minds of the post-Soviet time, but an essentially stagnated academic activity falls to fit its growing demands.

Avicennian artistic thought is an important aspect of his critical approach to Aristotelian heritage. This is a starting point for creation of the new scholarly terminology in the theory of art. One of these academic terms, which significantly influenced the further literary process globally, is ‘Intellect-Love’, or the ‘pairness’ of matter-soul. It has interdisciplinary philological and philosophical meanings. While in the science of philology this term is an essential image-maker, in philosophy it means the inner light, which, being divine in its nature, enlightens the way of the traveler in the world of knowledge.

This twofold meaning of light-love was ‘borrowed’ by Dante Alighieri, as the Great Italian poet himself says in his philosophical treatises, and helped him to create the image of Beatrice, widening and deepening the concept of traveler in his magnum opus, The Divine Comedy.(3) But ignored by later generations of the European Renaissance, this interdisciplinary approach to creativity was almost lost to modern artistic identity. And although this very approach is central to post-modern (or contemporary) world art, the interdisciplinary approach to creativity is not so often taken up by the artists of our national/regional cultures. Moreover, a misunderstanding and fear of world reality, encouraged by a subjective approach to art, leads most politicians in the cultural field to use the old and odious knowledge to obtain position and power. Thus, the clash of the old cultural policy of Soviet times and the new reality of post-Soviet times is an essential stumbling block to modern creativity.

Art, according to Avicenna, is the most constructive way to gain eternity in life. This is the ‘secret’ of the eternal nature of post-Avicenna Persian-Tajik poetry, known through the names of Khayam, Hafiz, Mavlana Rumi, Nizami, Jami, Navai, Bedil, and many others. Their art of thought is still alive, while no poets of the last century from Central Asia or anywhere else are known really internationally. The last of them, to my mind, was Wolfgang Goethe. Realizing himself as a twin of Hafiz, the German poet, philosopher, and scholar believed, along with Avicenna, in the eternal power of life.(4)

While a virtual campus, bridging the gap between science and technology in the name of Avicenna, will provide basic scholarly and technological views to "each of the 15 ‘knowledge centers’ in the network," Central Asia is striving to restore its original interdisciplinary approach in the art of self-expression. This long-lasting project of national/regional theatre, music, and poetry, however, does not have its own modern national background. This lack of modern national art has created another clash between folklore and professional art. Although folklore is a fundamental source of creativity, the philosophy of art is a constantly changing phenomenon, and they are linked in the process of creativity. But the cultural policy of the last century in Central Asia divided them into two camps: amateur and professional art. Without developing their own, philosophical background of art, folklore became dry and monotonous. This is quite obvious in the Tajik theatre of today.

Searching for new ideas and images suitable for a national/regional/world audience, naturally talented Tajik theatre producers are mainly oriented either towards rethinking folk narratives within the European technique, or aspiring to bridge the two different traditions of East and West into one composition. But the lack of background creates a dichotomy in the artistic mind, which is not helpful for the bringing the audience back to the theatres (these very methods were already used in the theatre of the 1940s and 50s).

Although Tajik theatre in the 20th century started its ‘own’ formation within Shakespearean dramaturgy in a Russian-Soviet interpretation, there is a certain difference between the art of Shakespeare and Milton on one hand, and Navai and Bedil on the other. While human-divine love is murdered by the ‘hidden’ intrigue of the human-devil in the dramas of Shakespeare (Othello), the interactivity of human-divine behaviour overcomes oppression in the art of Abdulkadir Bedil (Komde va Madan).

By all means, interconnection and interaction in Avicennian poetics, has crucially transformed the literary process globally. But gradually politicised and annihilated by a solely pragmatic view of art, his poetics were available only to the shrunken intellectual elite of the last century. What are the obstacles to democratisation of these ideas, which were really sustainable during the last millennium, but squeezed and annihilated by localisation inwardly and globalisation outwardly? Is it really possible to build a modern open society, based on present national/regional values, in post-Soviet times?

The Russian philosopher Yu Rotenfeld, when he discussed these problems (Lugansk, 2001), pinpointed the main reason for the slow transformation of art in the still globally trend of imperial thought. The solution to that problem, according to the philosopher, lies in the changing the style of modern thought from logico-philological into a modern dialectico-philosophical identity. I think, however, that the interdisciplinary, Avicennian theory of liberalisation of minds from the old and odious methods of the cultural policy of Soviet times could be more helpful.

The stumbling block is the inward/outward arrogance toward the artistic potential of Central Asia in general, and Tajikistan, particularly. Although Tajikistan is a key player in the region, the cultural potential of the country is totally ignored in building new relationships. This arrogance, echoed in a diversity of local levels, confuses some government clerks, who are established as political players in the sphere of arts. As a result, there are no international figures in the artistic sphere who can forge the link between national and world arts. Although Tajikistan as a national-administrative structure has no imperial history or imperial style of identity, this identity is artificially created in the reality of our own days.

In a recent seminar of the Public Counsel, which was dedicated to the problems of mass media, one of these authorities outlined that "the reason of all the losses of Tajiks has been their humanistic soft power; and now we must transform that soft power into strong power." But I think that the real reason for losses in all branches of national culture, is our backward cultural policy, the result of which is total isolation. Self-censorship, taboos, misinterpretation of classical images, all keep our leaders locked in a backwards cultural policy backward. Where we are going now? As a part of Eurasia, which became a ‘chessboard’ for a diversity of players, the real art of thinking, inherited from Islamic art, has stagnated; and this stagnation is the reason for our lost modern identity.

To move from this stagnation into the real world with that diversity of cultures means to research the ethic of the modern interaction of cultures. A crucial re-forming of some national cultures, encouraged by superpowers in their own political interests, has to be initiated through study of the ‘others’, with an eye to transforming the contradictions of the last century into co-operation in the current one.

Corruption in art is one of the most dangerous problems of our time. It starts from an isolation of the minds, which had been empowered during the Soviet period, but never discussed openly and professionally in post-Soviet times. Isolation and corruption in the sphere of art are sustained by the bilateral local/global lack of investment in the development of the international values of national arts. Ethical norms for freedom of thought, which are at the core of art - these are the demands of our times.

Empowering intellectual thinking in European cultures formed the modern approach to Avicennian heritage in its global significance. Intellect-Love as the creative nucleus of art was overshadowed by a solely pragmatic approach to this heritage, which formed the millennial artistic tradition of Central Asia. To re-evaluate Avicennian tradition now means to legitimise Central Asia as an original part of Mediterranean civilisation and as a basis for modern civilisation. In both periods of this unity (in the Middle Ages and today), Ibn Sina/Avicenna was and is a central figure. Thus, the common Mediterranean and Central Asian traditions have to be discussed within the context of new challenges.

The idea of the mirroring of all good and bad from East to West and vice-versa belongs to Jalaliddin Rumi. But facing the demand to re-evaluate Rumian art in the contemporary theatres of Central Asia cannot satisfy those who know the Avicennian tradition in the Rumian interpretations of Tajikistan, Europe, and America.

© Munira Shahidi (Duschanbe)



(2) Мусо Раджаби. Ислом ва чадидийа. Душанбе, 1992

(3) Мунира Шахиди. Ибн Сина и Данте. Душанбе, 1986

(4) Вольфганг Гёте.Восточно-Западный Диван. М., 1978

6.8. Fremde erleben / Experience the Foreign

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Munira Shahidi (Duschanbe): Re-evaluating the Avicennian Tradition. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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