Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr, published by Princeton University Press, 2013

Polymaths of Islam: Power and Networks of Knowledge in Central Asia by James Pickett, published by Cornell University Press, 2020

I enjoyed both books and would highly recommend them to anyone interested in how knowledge was developed and preserved in Central Asia. I did not plan to read these books together, but I think reading them back-to-back is beneficial as these books compliment each other so well.

Lost Enlightenment studies Central Asia’s Enlightenment from about 800 to 1200, with a particular focus on Abu Ali al-Husayn Ibn Sina and Abu Rayhan al-Biruni. The book is written in an easy to engage with prose. There is a lot of information, so re-reads are recommended, but I was never lost or felt overwhelmed. Overall, I found this book to be very eye-opening in terms to the depth of intellectual thought and development according in Central Asia from 800-1200 and I was introduced to several historical figures I either only heard about in passing or had never heard about. The pacing and structure of the book suffers from the vast scope of Starr’s narrative and while he tries to shape the book’s narrative around key events and key figures such as Ferdowsi, Ibn Sina, etc. there were parts of the book that felt disjointed or there were some chapters I would have liked to have seen broken into smaller chapters.

Polymaths of Islam studies the knowledge networks crafted specifically by the ulama of Central Asia. Pickett limits his exploration to the long 19th century, roughly from the collapse of Nadir Shah’s empire in 1747 to the rise of the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. This book is not as easy to engage with as Starr’s book, because Pickett has the daunting task of introducing multiple concepts and arguments at once and in an academic manner, but I would say that his book picks up in chapter three where he really begins talking about the formation of intelligence networks. The first two chapters are important for his overall argument, but if you’re not interested in terminology or academic argument building then you can skim them. Where Starr tripped because he was doing too much at once, Pickett benefits from his limited scope and simultaneously provided a, intimate and complicated portrayal of the ulama (challenging many assumptions) while also having the skill to take a step back and discuss the systematic developments that supported and hindered the ulama.

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One thought on “Book Review: Lost Enlightenment by S. Frederick Starr and Polymaths of Islam by James Pickett

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