Tag Archives: Iran
Over a thousand years ago, Nuh ibn Mansur, the reigning prince of the medieval city of Bukhara, fell badly ill. The doctors, unable to do anything for him, were forced to send for a young man named Ibn Sina, who was already renowned, despite his very young age, for his vast knowledge. The ruler was healed.
Ibn Sina was an 11th century Persian philosopher, physician, pharmacologist, scientist and poet, who exerted a profound impact on philosophy and medicine in Europe and the Islamic world. He was known to the Latin West as Avicenna.
Avicenna’s Canon of medicine, first translated from Arabic into Latin during the 12th century, was the most important medical reference book in the West until the 17th century, introducing technical medical terminology used for centuries afterwards.
Avicenna’s Canon established a tradition of scientific experimentation in physiology without which modern medicine as we know it would be inconceivable.
For example, his use of scientific principles to test the safety and effectiveness of medications forms the basis of contemporary pharmacology and clinical trials.
Avicenna has been in the news recently due to his work on contagions. He produced an early version of the germ theory of disease in the Canon where he also advocated quarantine to control the transmission of contagious diseases.
Uniquely, Avicenna is the rare philosopher who became as influential on a foreign philosophical culture as his own. He is regarded by some as the greatest medieval thinker.
Maverick and prodigious
He was born Abdallāh ibn Sīnā in 980AD in Bukhara, (present day Uzbekistan, then part of the Iranian Samanid empire). Avicenna was prodigious from youth, claiming in his autobiography to have mastered all known philosophy by 18.
Avicenna’s output was extraordinarily prolific. One estimate of his body of work counts 132 texts. These cover logic, natural philosophy, cosmology, metaphysics, psychology, geology, and more. Some of these texts he wrote while on horseback, travelling from one city to another!
His work was a virtuosic kind of encylopedism, gathering the various traditions of Greek late antiquity, the early Islamic period and Iranian civilisation into one rational knowledge system covering all of reality.
Avicenna’s texts were forged out of the colossal Graeco-Arabic translation movement that took place in medieval Baghdad. They then played a key role in the Arabic to Latin translation movement that brought Aristotle’s philosophy back, in a highly enriched manner, into Western thought.
This was a chapter in the story of large-scale transmission of knowledge from the Islamic world to Europe.
From the 12th century on, Avicenna shaped the thought of major European medieval thinkers. Thomas Aquinas’s writings feature hundreds of quotations from Avicenna regarding issues such as God’s providence. Aquinas also sought to refute some of Avicenna’s positions such as that which argued the world was eternal.
Book of Healing
Avicenna’s Kitāb al-shifā , The Book of Healing, was as influential in Latin as his medical Canon.
Divided into sections covering logic, science, mathematics and metaphysics, it produced highly influential theses on the distinction between essence and existence and the famous Flying Man thought experiment, which aims to establish how the soul is innately aware of itself.
A medical pioneer
Avicenna’s Canon brilliantly synthesises Islamic medicine with that of Hippocrates (460 – 370 BC) and Galen (129 – 200 AD). There are also elements of ancient Persian, Mesopotamian and Indian medicine. This was supplemented by Avicenna’s extensive medical experiences.
In the Canon, Avicenna introduced diagnoses and treatments for illnesses unknown to the Greeks, being the first doctor to describe meningitis. He made new arguments for the use of anaesthetics, analgesics, and anti-inflammatory substances.
Looking forward to modern notions of disease prevention, Avicenna proposed adjustments in diet and physical exercise could heal or prevent illnesses.
Avicenna’s detailed descriptions of capillary flow and arterial and ventricular contractions in the cardiovascular system (the blood and circulatory system) assisted the Arab-Syrian polymath Ibn al Nafis (1213-1288), who became the first physician to describe the blood’s pulmonary circulation, the movement of blood from the heart to the lungs and back again to the heart.
This happened in 1242, centuries before scientist William Harvey arrived at the same conclusion in 17th century England.
Another innovative aspect of Avicenna’s Canon is its exploration of how our body’s well-being depends on the state of our mind, and the interaction between the heart’s health and our emotional life.
This connection has been seen in the last few months, with doctors describing increases in heart damage due to the psycho-emotional pressures of the pandemic.
Avicenna’s advocacy for an interrelated, organic and systems-based understanding of health gives his thought universal, ongoing relevance.
It’s simply not possible to do justice to the value of Iran’s cultural heritage – it’s a rich and noble history that has had a fundamental impact on the world through art, architecture, poetry, in science and technology, medicine, philosophy and engineering.
The Iranian people are intensely aware – and rightly proud of – their Persian heritage. The archaeological legacy left by the civilisations of ancient and medieval Iran extend from the Mediterranean Sea to India and ranges across four millennia from the Bronze age (3rd millennium BC) to the glorious age of classical Islam and the magnificent medieval cities of Isfahan and Shiraz that thrived in the 9th-12th centuries AD, and beyond.
The direct legacy of the ancient Iranians can be found across the Middle East, the Caucasus and Turkey, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt and Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, India and Pakistan.
In the 6th century BC, Iran was home to the first world empire. The Achaemenids ruled a multicultural superpower that stretched to Egypt and Asia Minor in the west and India and Pakistan in the east. They were the power by which all other ancient empires measured themselves. Their cultural homeland was in the Fars province of modern Iran. The word Persian is the name for the Iranian people based on the home region of the Achaemenids – Pars.
Some of the richest and most beautiful of the archaeological and historical heritage in Iran remains there. This includes Parsgardae, the first Achaemenid dynastic capital where King Cyrus(c. 590-529BC) laid down the foundations of law and the first declaration of universal rights while ruling over a vast array of citizens and cultures.
Nearby is the magnificent site of Persepolis, the great palace of the Achaemenid kings and hub of government and administration. Architecturally stunning, it is decorated with relief sculptures that still today leave a visitor in awe.
Seleucid and Parthian Iran
When the Achaemenids fell to the armies of Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, what followed was great upheaval and also one of the most extraordinary moments in human history. The mixing of Persian and eastern Mediterranean cultures created the Hellenistic Age. The Macedonian King Seleucus (died 281BC) and his Persian wife Apame ruled a hybrid kingdom that mixed Greek, Persian, Jewish, Bactrian, Armenian, Sogdian and Aramaean cultures and religions.
With new cities, religions and cultures, this melting pot encouraged the rise of a thriving connectivity that linked urban centres in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Syria (where many of the Hellenistic sites (such as Apamea) have been devastated in recent years by war and looting). The great city of Seleucia-on-Tigris/Ctesiphon, just south of Baghdad on the Tigris river in modern Iraq, became the western capital and centre for learning, culture and power for a thousand years.
Hellenistic rulers gave way to Parthian kings in the 2nd century BC and the region was ruled by the Arsacid dynasty whose homeland, around Nisa, was the northern region of the Iranian world. The Parthian Empire witnessed growing connectivity between east and west and increasing traffic along the silk routes. Their control of this trade led to conflict with the Romans who reached east to grasp some of the resulting spoils.
It was also a time of religious transition that not only witnessed the rise of Buddhism, but also a thriving Zoroastrian religion that intersected with Judaism and developing Christianity. In the biblical story of the birth of Christ, who were the three kings – the Magi with their gifts for Jesus – but Persian priests from Iran coming to the side of child messiah, astronomers following the comet.
The last great ancient kingdom of the Iranians was the Sasanian empire based around a dynasty that rose out of the final years of the Arsacid rule in the 3rd century AD. The Sasanians ruled a massive geopolitical entity from 224-751AD. They were builders of cities and frontiers across the empire including the enormous Gorgan wall. This frontier wall stretched 195km from the Caspian Sea to the mountains in Turkmenistan and was built in the 5th century AD to protect the Iranian agricultural heartland from northern invaders like the Huns.
The wall is a fired-brick engineering marvel with a complex network of water canals running the whole length. It once stood across the plain with more than 30 forts manned by tens of thousands of soldiers.
The Sasanians were the final pre-Islamic dynasty of Iran. In the 7th century AD the armies of the Rashidun caliphs conquered the Sasanian empire, bringing with them Islam and absorbing much of the culture and ideas of the ancient Iranian world. This fusion led to a flowering of early medieval Islam and, of the 22 cultural heritage sites in Iran that are recognised by UNESCO, the 9th century Masjed-e Jāmé in Isfahan is one of the most stunningly beautiful and stylistically influential mosques ever built.
This was a thriving period of scientific, artistic and literary output. Rich with poetry that told of the ancient Iranian past in medieval courts where bards sang of great deeds. These are stories that we now believe reached the far west of Europe in the early medieval period possibly through the crusades and can only emphasise the long reach of the cultures of ancient and medieval Iran.
Iranian cultural heritage has no one geographic or cultural home, its roots belong to all of us and speak of the vast influence that the Iranians have had on the creation of the world we live in today. Iran’s past could never be wiped off the cultural map of the world for it is embedded in our very humanity.
This article is part of our series of explainers on key moments in the past 100 years of world political history. In it, our authors examine how and why an event unfolded, its impact at the time, and its relevance to politics today.
To understand what caused the Iranian Revolution, we must first consider the ongoing conflict between proponents of secular versus Islamic models of governance in Muslim societies.
It all began with the British colonisation of India in 1858, which precipitated the collapse of classic Islamic civilisation. By early 20th century, almost the entire Muslim world was colonised by European powers.
The Ottoman Empire, the last representative of the classic Islamic civilisation, collapsed after world war one in 1918. So, the first half of 20th century saw Muslim nations fight to regain their independence.
It was the secular-nationalist, western, educated elites who first led these movements, gaining political control and leadership of their respective countries. These leaders wanted to mimic Europe’s progressive leaps that took place after diminishing Christianity’s grip on society and politics. They believed Muslim societies would progress if the Islam was reformed and its influence on society reduced through separating religion and state.
A key reform enforced by the new secular Republic of Turkey, for example, was to remove the Ottoman Caliphate (the religious and political leader considered the successor to the Prophet Muhammad) from his position in 1924, sending shockwaves across the Muslim world.
This caused the emergence of alternative grassroots Islamic revivalist movements led by the ulama (Muslim scholars), who believed the very existence of Islam was in jeopardy.
These movements were non-political in their inception and gained mass support at a time when Muslim masses needed spiritual solace and social support. In time, they developed an Islamic vision for society and became increasingly active in the social and political landscape.
The impact of the Cold War
By the end of the second world war, Muslim countries had largely escaped from the constraints of western colonisation, only to fall victim to the Cold War.
Iran and Turkey were key countries where Soviet expansion efforts were intensified. In response, the United States, provided both countries with economic and political support in return for their membership in the democratic Western block. Turkey and Iran accepted this support and became democratic in 1950 and 1951 respectively.
Soon after, Mohammad Mosaddeq’s National Front became the first democratically-elected Iranian government in 1951. Mosaddeq was a modern, secular leaning, progressive leader who was able to gain the broad support of both the secular elite and the Iranian ulama.
He was helped by a growing disdain for Shah (king) Reza Pahlavi’s reigning monarchy and Iranian anger at the exploitation of their oil fields.
Whilst Persian oil was used by Britain and Russia to survive the Nazi onslaught during the second world war and greatly helped boost the British economy, Iranians were only receiving 20% of the profits.
Mosaddeq made the bold move to address this issue through nationalising the previously British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (AIOC). This did not work out in his favour, as it attracted British and US economic sanctions. This in turn crippled the Iranian economy.
In 1953, he was replaced in a military coup organised by the CIA and British Intelligence. The Shah was returned to power and the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company became BP, British Petroleum, with a 50-50 divide of profits.
Not only did this intervention leave Iranians with a sense of bitter humiliation, betrayal and impotence, its impact also reverberated within the wider Muslim world.
It sent the message that a democratically-elected government would be toppled if it did not fit with Western interests. This narrative continues to be the dominant discourse of Islamist activists to this day, used in explaining world events that affect the Muslim masses.
Looking more closely at the developments in Iran between 1953 and 1977, the Shah relied heavily on the US in his efforts to modernise the army, Iranian society and build the economy through what he called the White Revolution.
Though his economic program brought prosperity and industrialisation to Iran and educational initiatives increased literacy levels, this all came at a hefty cost. Wealth was unequally distributed, there was a development of an underclass of peasants migrating to urban centres and large scale political suppression of dissent. Disillusioned religious scholars were alarmed at the top-down imposition of a Western lifestyle, believing Islam was being completely removed from society.
The revolution – what happened?
Iranian dissidents responded finally to the Shah’s political suppression with violence. Two militant groups, Marxist Fadaiyan-e Khalq and Islamic leftist Mujahedin-e Khalq, started to mount attacks at government officials in the 1960s. More sustained and indirect opposition came from the religious circles led by Ayatollah Khomeini and intellectual circles led by Ali Shari’ati.
Shari’ati, a French-educated intellectual, was inspired by the Algerian and Cuban revolutions. He called for an active struggle for social justice and insisted on the prominence of Islamic cultural heritage instead of the Western model for society. He criticised the Shi’ite scholars for being stuck in their centuries-old doctrine of political quietism – seen as a significant barrier to the revolutionary fervour.
The barrier was broken by Ayatollah Khomeini, who rose to prominence for his outspoken role in the 1963 protests and was exiled as a result. His recorded sermons openly criticising the Shah were circulated widely in Iran.
Influenced by the new idea of an Islamic state in which Islam could be implemented fully, thus ending the imperialism of the colonial West, Khomeini argued it was incumbent on Muslims to establish an Islamic government based on the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad.
In his book Wilayat-i Faqih: Hukumat-i Islami (Islamic Government: Guardianship of the Jurist), Khomeni insisted that in the absence of the true Imam (the only legitimate leader from the linage of Prophet Muhammad in Shi’ite theology) the scholars were their proxies charged to fulfil the obligation by virtue of their knowledge of Islamic scriptures. This idea was an important innovation that gave licence to scholars to become involved in politics.
With the conditions ripe, the persistent protests instigated by Khomeini’s followers swelled to include all major cities. This culminated in the revolution on February 1, 1979, when Khomeini triumphantly returned to Iran.
The impact of the revolution
The Iranian revolution was a cataclysmic event that not only transformed Iran completely, but also had far-reaching consequences for the world.
It caused a deep shift in Cold War and global geopolitics. The US not only lost a key strategic ally against the communist threat, but it also gained a new enemy.
Emboldened by developments in Iran, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. This was followed by the eruption of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980, designed to bring down the new Iranian theocratic regime. The US supported Saddam Hussein with weapons and training, helping him clinch his grip on power in Iraq.
These two conflicts and the series of events that followed – Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1991, two Gulf-Wars, the emergence of Al-Qaeda, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks on World Trade Centre and subsequent war on terror – defined geo-politics for the last three decades and continues to do so today.
The Iranian revolution also dramatically altered Middle Eastern politics. It flamed a regional sectarian cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The revolution challenged Saudi Arabia’s monarchy and its claim for leadership of the Muslim world.
The religious and ideological cold war between Iran and Saudi Arabia continues to this day with their involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts.
Another impact of the revolution is the resurgence of political Islam throughout the Muslim world. Iran’s success showed that establishing an Islamic state was not just a dream. It was possible to take on the West, their collaborating monarchs/dictators and win.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s, Islamic political parties popped up in almost all Muslim countries, aiming to Islamise societies through the instruments of state. They declared the secular model had failed to deliver progress and full independence, and the Islamic model was the only alternative. For them, the Iranian revolution was proof it could be a reality.
Was the revolution a success?
From the perspective of longevity, the revolution still stands. It has managed to survive four decades, including the eight-year Iran-Iraq war as well as decades of economic sanctions. Comparatively, the Taliban’s attempt at establishing an Islamic state only lasted five years.
On the other hand, Khomeini and his supporters promised to end the gap between the rich and the poor, and deliver economic and social progress. Today, the Iranian economy is in poor shape, despite the oil revenues that holds back the economy from the brink of collapse. People are dissatisfied with high unemployment rates and hyper-inflation. They have little hope for the economic fortunes to turn.
The most important premise of Islamism – making society more religious through political power – has also failed to produce the desired results. Even though 63% of Iranians were born after the revolution, they are no more religious than before the revolution.
Although there is still significant support for the current regime, a significant proportion of Iranians want more freedoms, and disdain religion being forced from above. There are growing protests demanding economic, social and political reforms as well as an end to the Islamic republic.
Most Iranians blame the failures of the revolution on the never-ending US sanctions. Even though Iran trades with European powers, China and Russia, they believe the West does not want Iran to succeed at all costs.
Ultimately, the world geopolitics is a competitive business driven by national interests. The challenge before Muslim societies is to develop models that harmonises Islam and the modern world in a way that is appealing and contributory to humanity rather than seen as a threat.
Hard social and political conditions and forces of time have an uncanny ability to test and smooth ideologies. While the struggle between secular and Islamic models for society continues in Iran and the greater Muslim world, it is likely that Iran will evolve as a moderate society in the 21st century.