by Austin Michael Bodetti. He researches the intersection of Islam, culture, and politics in Africa and Asia.When analysts study Iran, they tend to concentrate on diplomacy, politics, and religion. While this focus can lead to valuable insights, an overemphasis on Iran’s foreign policy, political system, or Islamic culture can obscure another aspect of the country’s cultural heritage critical to understanding Iran’s interactions with its people and neighbors: the legacy of Persia, Iran’s predecessor state as well as one of the longest-lasting civilizations in world history. Much of what defines Iran as a nation-state comes from this often-understudied source of national pride for Iranians across the political spectrum.
In addition to ancient conquerors such as Cyrus the Great, Darius I, and Xerxes I, Persian history features polymaths renowned for their accomplishments in the rich academic disciplines of philosophy, science, and theology. The dozens of well-regarded Persian historical figures include the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, the physician Avicenna, and the jurist al-Ghazali, three medieval scholars famous for their contributions not only to the Islamic Golden Age but also to contemporary Persianate societies.
The social influence of these Persian polymaths has lasted well into the present day. The Iranian city of Hamedan contains the Bu-Ali Sina University and the Avicenna Mausoleum, a landmark so popular that Iranian travel agencies like to reference the gravesite to court tourists. For its part, Tehran has the Kharazmi University, the oldest example of higher education in the Middle Eastern country. Outside Iran, the Imam Ghazali Institute, a nongovernmental organization, describes itself as “at the forefront of delivering relevant and digestible avenues of spreading sacred knowledge”.
These institutions show that Persian historical figures such as al-Farabi, al-Khwarizmi, Avicenna, al-Ghazali, and their contemporaries remain influential in civil society and popular culture throughout the Muslim world. Even so, the philosophers’ and scientists’ effect on the public sphere in Iran and beyond goes further — even to politics. The extent of these polymaths’ role in the public sphere comes from their popularity across the Iranian political spectrum, for they transcend polarization in Iran.
In January of 1989, the year of his death, Khomeini wrote a letter to Mikhail Gorbachev, praising the Soviet leader for his role in dismantling the “repressive Communist regime,” and suggesting, in the words of Alexander Knysh, that “the ideological and cultural vacuum created by the fall of Marxism should be filled with immortal philosophical teachings and moral values worked out by the medieval Muslim thinkers.” In his invitation to Gorbachev to embrace Islam, instead of directing his Soviet counterpart to the Qur’an, Khomeini recommended a series of mystical and philosophical thinkers that have historically been viewed with suspicion by more traditionalist members of the Shi’i clergy. — Adam Lewis, “Reconceptualizing Khomeini: The Islamic Republic of Iran and U.S. Democratization Policies in the Middle East“, Haverford College, 2010.
“Born in the tenth century, Avicenna is commonly considered to be the greatest philosopher of the Islamic world and one of the greatest of medieval times,” reads Harvard Divinity School’s account of the Persian polymath’s legacy in Iran and the rest of the Muslim world. “His immense impact on Islamic thought is evident in the hundreds of books written in response to different aspects of his philosophy in the post-classical period. What resounded as a result of his writing was such that Muslim philosophers and theologians ceased responding to Aristotle in order instead to engage with him.”
The current supreme leader, the hardliner Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, references Avicenna to glorify Persians’ scientific achievements during the Islamic Golden Age, which he contrasts with the contemporaneous backwardness of the Dark Ages in Europe. Meanwhile, the reformist Mohammad Khatami, who served as Iranian President from 1997 to 2005, sought to extol Iran’s cultural heritage to the rest of the world by participating in a conference on Avicenna in 2004.
From Khamenei to Khatami, hardliners and reformists alike see the value in using Avicenna and other medieval Persian polymaths to build a national consciousness. Iranians also recognize that this bevy of historical figures can strengthen their reputation in the eyes of the international community.In the last two decades, Iranian diplomats have made Avicenna part of Iran’s foreign policy. In collaboration with UNESCO, Iran established the UNESCO Avicenna Prize for Ethics in Science in 2003. Six years later, Iran endowed a monument at the UN Office in Vienna: the Scholars Pavilion, which houses statues of Avicenna and the philosopher al-Razi, the physicist al-Biruni, and the astronomer Omar Khayyam, all Persians.
To boost coordination with the European Union, Iran facilitated the accreditation of Avicenna International College in Budapest in 2007. Later in 2015, the statues of Avicenna and the Hungarian physician Ignaz Semmelweis side by side were unveiled in the presence of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán at the Tehran University of Medical Sciences (see image below).
Avicenna’s ubiquity, and that of other Persian historical figures, such as the poets Ferdowsi and Rumi, also have legacies that span Central Asia and the rest of Greater Iran. The cultural heritage is used to try to connect Iran to the many other nation-states that Persian historical figures traversed a millennium ago. Just as the legacies of the medieval Andalusian philosophers Ibn Tufail and Averroes have sparked insights among scholars throughout North Africa and Western Europe, Iran might opt to draw on the legacies of Persian cultural icons to bridge gaps with the Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries hugging its borders.
In its various iterations throughout the millennia, the rulers of the Persian Empire held at least part of Anatolia, the Balkans, the Caucasus, the Levant, Lower Egypt, Mesopotamia, Central Asia, and South Asia. This geography has allowed Iran to forge cultural and political ties with its neighbors, similar to Russia’s engagement with the former Soviet Union. Iran has accepted its mantle as the successor state of the Persian Empire, a legacy with countless implications for the Middle East. Iranian clerics, diplomats, and politicians enjoy social influence throughout the region, thanks in part to this history.
While current events have played the most obvious role in Iran’s relationships with Afghanistan, Iraq, and its other neighbors, an understanding of how Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries view Avicenna, al-Ghazali, al-Khwarizmi, and other renowned Persian historical figures can explain how the cultural heritage that Iran shares with other Persian societies still binds them together. Iran’s history has much to say about the country’s foreign policy, political system, and Islamic culture.