Classical textual sources report an intriguing anecdote in the generally adventurous life of the philosophical giant Ibn Sina — the Avicenna of the Latin West and the majestic ‘Grand Shaykh’ (al Shaykh al Raees) of Islamic intellectual history.
In the year 1023, after having served as a vizier of the Shi‘i Buyid ruler Shams al Dawla, and having mysteriously gone into hiding for several years while embroiling himself in some ‘shady’ clandestine activities, he was imprisoned in the outskirts of Hamadan.
His patron’s Turkish army had charged him with the capital crime of ‘anti-state’ activities. This was a political scandal that involved dynastic/partisan machinations, for it is reported that some bad blood had been generated between our sage and that army.
All this sounds like a series of dramatic episodes in the life of a busybody, a scheming state actor, rather than isolated accidents piercing through the serene solitude of a prolific world philosopher. But it so happens that this is precisely the case here, since philosophers, poets and men of letters in general typically served as state functionaries in the Persianate Muslim empires.
In Bukhara, where Ibn Sina began his career, he ruled locally as district governor. Later, in 1015, he was placed in a lofty post in Hamadan, under the patronage of Shams al Dawla. Upon the death of Shams some six years later and the accession of a new emir, Ibn Sina abandons his high state position and, after having disappeared from the public eye for some eight years, remaining under the protection of a private patron, he is now incarcerated.
But then, just four months later, the philosopher’s prospective Kakuyid patron sacks the Buyid ruler of Hamadan, and the philosopher is now unfettered and free. But one day, perhaps just after one year, Ibn Sina escapes to Isfahan. Here, the story becomes even more riveting: he escapes with four accomplices in the middle of the night — all disguised as Sufis.
Incarcerations, court drama, military adventures, high offices, shifting loyalties and patronages, absconding — all these are, typically, historical elements in the life of intellectuals, thinkers and poets of the Persianate world. How do we explain this?
An answer to this question leads us to the crux of this rather longwinded biographical excursus. We have already noted that men of learning and art served as state functionaries in the Turkic and Persianate dynasties in the medieval Muslim world. This means that they were not mere passive subjects acted upon by dynastic manoeuvrings; in fact, they were actors themselves — and this is a unique feature of the dynastic history of the Islamic world. But there is yet another unique characteristic of the Muslim dynastic culture.
So we note another Muslim royal peculiarity. Learned men and philosophers were, to victorious rulers, commodities; part of their booty to be acquired, along with precious gems and gold and silver and artwork. Just as the defeated rulers had to surrender their palaces, so, too, they were forced to surrender their intellectuals and poets.
When, in the wake of his advance on the bank of the Oxus river, Mahmud Ghaznavi sent an ultimatum to the defeated Khwarazmshah ruler, the victor’s demands were typical:
“I have heard that there are in Khwarazmshah’s court several men of learning, each peerless in his science, such as [so and so, and so and so]. You must send them to our court, so that they may have the honour of being presented there and that we may derive prestige from their knowledge and capabilities...”
Note that it is not just the material wealth and valorous armies that brought prestige and might to the royal court. This glory also arose from the entourage of poets, writers and thinkers that the ruler had managed to gather around him, and the libraries he had acquired, including rare manuscripts and artwork. Often, learned personages were taken away by the victor against their own will; they were kidnapped, looted away, literally.
Ghaznavi, who ruled over a vast area during 998-1030, brought to his capital Ghazna entire libraries from many centres of cultural refinement, Rayy and Isfahan among them. In his court, there were as many as 400 poets, like a silvery cluster of moons around a twinkling poet laureate, in this case, the unparalleled Unsuri.
The case of al Biruni is both dramatic and instructive here. In the year 998, he entered the service of the Ziyarid emir in Gorgan, Shams al Maali Qabus — it was under the Qabus patronage that al Biruni wrote his first major celebrated work on historical and scientific chronology, Al Asar Al Baqiya [Chronology of Ancient Nations].
Given Ghaznavi’s terrifying ultimatum for the surrender of human intellectual commodities, al Biruni moved out of Gorgan and moved around, perhaps being among those intellectuals who refused to yield to the ultimatum. Now, stories have it that he was captured by Mahmud Ghaznavi’s army — if this is so, then this monumental sage was delivered to the sultan in chains.
But back to our Shaykh. It seems quite clear that Ibn Sina’s frequent relocations, and his sneaky escape from Hamadan, were all desperate attempts to dodge the kidnapping raids of Ghaznavi’s soldiers.
We are talking about massively turbulent times in the post-classical history of Muslim dynasties, so turbulent that one who is an unchallenged ruler one day, might end up a shackled prisoner the next — with the exception of the Ghaznavids, most dynasties of the period were very short-lived. A historic outcome of all this is the emergence of a new genre of poetry called habsiyyat or prison poetry. Our own Faiz Ahmed Faiz wrote a whole Zindan-nama (The Prison Book).
Once they lost their throne, the sacked rulers entered another dominion which they ruled over: the dominion of poetry. Poetry, then, served as crutches on which even erstwhile sovereigns could rest their broken legs and injured egos.
These days, when we do not cultivate poetic sensibilities in our youngsters, training them only in vocational trades, they have no crutches to fall back on in moments of distress and worldly failures. In fact, we have deprived them of their dreams, displaced them from the world of imagination, broken their crutches.
The columnist is dean of the School of Liberal Arts of the University of Management and Technology, Lahore, and visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, May 30th, 2021