Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

The age of reason…Part 1 The Kushans

I am a newly registered user here.  I am also a newly registered user at MyDD (although I have read myDD for over 5 years now).  Yesterday, I posted a diary there in response to a diary by user “Canadian Gal”.  In the comments, user “spacemanspiff” suggested that I cross post the diary here.  I am greatful to “spacemanspiff” for introducing me to this blog… and please be gentle (I am relatively new to this blogging thing)

And so, I am copying that diary below the fold.

There is an excellent diary by Canadian Girl on the girls of Afghanistan who were recently attacked by the Taliban, while they were on the way to school.

This diary is noteworthy (I liked it, and so I recommended it), but it also became somewhat controversial in the comments.  In the comments, it was argued that any criticism of human rights violation in the Muslim world is akin to furthering Zionist propaganda.

While reading the comments, I had a feeling that I was reading not the comments themselves, but a deeper underlying problem.  And that underlying problem is that the Muslim world is today seen as (correctly, in my opinion) being somewhat antiquated, with nary a trace of modernity in their thinking.  This impression is then extrapolated to (incorrectly, in my opinion) that the Muslim world is incapable of modern thinking, and that they (the Muslim world) will consequently always be a mess.

We all know that Islam has had a great history, and that it ushered in modern thinking.  Where did all that go ?  Why did all that transcend into the modern day mess that we now have.

I would like to visit that question by visiting the age of reason.  In our history, there have been many examples of civilizations that have been so far advanced that they would put the most “modern” society of our present era to shame.  And yet these civilizations have declined, and been replaced by barbarism.  The transition from modernity to barbarism, and back to modernity offers clues to the predicament faced by the modern Muslim world.

And so, today, I would like to visit a pre-Islamic society founded on lands inhabited by Muslims today.  The land is Central Asia…the mountainous region where the Hindu Kush mountains and the Himalayas converge.  The empire was built around a dynasty of Kings called the Kushans.  You may recognize it as modern day Afghanistan, along with other “Stans” (Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan).  Their capital was Bagram (in Afghanistan, where the US now has an Air Force base), Taxila (sometimes known as Purushpura, which is modern day Peshawar) and Mathura (in India).

The Kushans were quite unique… they would have been very advanced (and very unique) even for the modern era, but they ruled about 300 years before Islam (or 300 years after Christ…depending on your viewpoint).

And what made them unique ?

They were an actively tolerant, actively pluralistic society.

They did not practice the philosophy of keeping “church” and “state” separate.  Rather, the “state” actively embraced the “church”… all churches, all religions, all languages, and all cultures.  

The great Kushan rulers were devout Buddhists (you may have heard of the famous Bamiyan Buddhas… that was the work of the Kushans).  But they actively embraced all other religions as well.  It is not uncommon to find Kushan coins with Hellenistic Gods on one side, and Hindu gods on the other.  They also had Iranian and Zoarastrian gods.  They had inscriptions in Greek, and in Pali, and Kharoshti scripts.

It seems that there was not an idea in the world that the Kushans did not actively embrace.  

The thinking appears to have been Why take a chance and piss off the Hellenistic Gods… they might be more powerful than the Zoarastrian Gods .  (The early Kushan rulers were Zoarastrian, the Greatest Kushan rulers were Buddhist, and the later Kushan rulers were Hindus).

And yet, today, the descendants of this advanced society actively closes it’s minds to all new ideas.

So what happened to the Kushans ?

The answer to that question might offer some clues as to what happened to the great Islamic civilization.

The Kushans had originated in Central Asia, but as their empire expanded and included northern India, they gradually shifted their capital (from Bagram to Peshawar in Pakistan and on to Mathura, in Northern India).  And yet, they Kushan rulers did not forget their ancestral homeland… they yearned for it, even though it was over the Hindu Kush mountains.

They yearned for it, and continually strived to include Central Asia in their domain.  They strived for it, even though controlling Central Asia from Mathura required regular expeditions over the Khyber pass to Afghanistan.  The result was a fairly regular series of “foreign wars” that drained the treasury at a very rapid rate.  I recall reading somewhere that the Kushan coins went from having a lot of gold to having almost no gold at all in less than 20 years.

The Kushans were very advanced for their age, but they were consumed by one idea (that of controlling their ancestral homeland) that they could not get beyond.

One bad idea is all it takes to destroy the age of reason!!

It seems that our capacity for clear and rational thought can be easily corrupted by one bad emotion.  I recall that George Lucas explored this theme very well with his concept of Darth Vader.

And therein lies the lesson for multiple modern civilizations.  Like the Kushans, the Jews yearn for their promised land… even as that yearning destroys the Jews from within.  The Muslims (and the Indians too) remember their past glory, and cannot get beyond that to embrace modernity.

And the Americans could well be on the way to being consumed by costly foreign expeditions in search of grandeur.


  1. Strummerson

    I appreciate some of the sentiments of this diary.  But historical analogies, and indeed all analogies, are necessarily imperfect.  A comparison between two things depends as much upon their dissimilarity as their similarity, otherwise they are not distinct enough to be compared.  Indeed, analogies are often as instructive in how they do not hold as in how they do.  So I would like to complicate for a moment your concluding claims:

    “Like the Kushans, the Jews yearn for their promised land… even as that yearning destroys the Jews from within.  The Muslims (and the Indians too) remember their past glory, and cannot get beyond that to embrace modernity.”

    As for Jewish yearning for “their promised land,” this sustained yearning played a central role in Jewish cultural and physical survival and development for close to two millennia.  As such, it fed considerable intellectual and cultural productivity.  This yearning offered consolation and hope, and structured a narrative by which Jews have made sense of their historical experiences.  

    The idea that this yearning is now destroying Jews “from within” focuses exclusively on the political and material aspects of the Zionist project.  But it neglects its vast cultural contributions.  While the former indeed have compromised, complicated, and challenged Jews ethically, (as does the wielding of political power in general, particularly in the form of the liberal nation state) the latter have in many senses been truly enriching.  The vibrancy of Hebrew literature and scholarship we have seen in the last century, even half century, has been truly magnificent.  These and other cultural contributions have nourished Jews and produced new understandings of Jewishness and Jewish experience that must not be underestimated.  Nor have these contributions only affected Jews positively.  The cultural aspects of the Zionist project include contributions of Jewish artists, thinkers, and scientists to the world community.

    I have a bit less to say about your claim that remembrance of past Muslim glory impedes an embrace of modernity.  Nonetheless, while salafist dreams of reestablishing a theocratic Caliphate indeed seem threatening, remembrance of a time when Muslims led the world in science, mathematics, literature, theology and philosophy, architecture and technology might provide just the engine for a new commitment to modernity in the Muslim world.  

    But beyond that, I think the division between modernity (conceived as progressive and rational) and anti-modernity (conceived as reactionary and traditional) is too simple and ethically suspect as a general perspective.  It assumes that modernity is rational (there are significant ways in which its not) and that reason is a reliable guarantor of social progress (a questionable reading of history at best).  

    I am not suggesting a relativist cop out that leads to the abandonment of our advocacy and responsible engagements of other cultures, and where ethically necessary even intervention.  But I think we have to be careful about resting too confidently in our general conviction of superiority.  We have much to learn and to perfect within ourselves.  Progressive elitism, as with conservative exceptionalism, can blind us to our own flaws and faults.  It also informs rhetorical habits that impede mutually productive engagements between cultures.

    Sorry for the length.  I hope those who take the time to read this unintentional mini-diary find it a helpful contribution to this discussion.

  2. fogiv

    I agree with Strummerson’s comment above that the comparisons of ancient cultures that have proven so dynamic over time is an arduous task.  Assigning a value such as “modernity” is difficult to do cross-culturally, as the evolution (or de-evolution as the case may be) of one culture may not necessarily reflect parallels in that of another.

    That said, this is an interesting diary and a great place to begin a discussion.  Should you stick around here (and I hope you do), you’ll find that that’s what the Moose is all about.  Discussing, learning, progressing.

  3. welcome to the moose – i think you’ll find it a far nicer place than most.  as to the content of diary…

    i think this is an important diary because history is so important in understanding the here and now and in helping us shape the future. admittedly my knowledge of muslim history is limited…  

    the only real part that i think i would disagree with a bit is the ‘jewish destroyed from within’ analogy.  i don’t think that is the case.  zionism as a philosophy can only be understood (and accepted) in context of history. ignoring the political and human ramifications that led to the creation of zionist philosophy and the state of israel in any discussion, be it the current i/p crisis, relevancy of israel as a sovereign state and the rights of its peoples really simplifies a highly complex issue.

    but the better question would be – why would we want to?  if we are to build a better lives for the palestinians and israelis shouldn’t we take an honest framing of history and use it to shape the path for the future?

  4. It’s a long diary, and I’ll get back later when I’ve had time to read it fully, and some of the longer responses.

    My only caveat at this stage, is the concept of ‘The Muslim Word’. Would this include Bosnia, a large part of India, Turkey, Indonesia? It’s so diverse that I have a struggle to grasp how it would be that much different from talking about ‘The Christian World’?

    That said I love a good discussion and thought provoking material.

    Back with more after rumination

  5. Instead of making several comments I’m going to try to address several threads in this one comment.

    Welcome to the moose, lotusblossom. If this diary is a sample of what you can contribute here, you are thrice-welcome.

    The Kushan empire actually works against your premise. They spread widely and assimilated much from other cultures. The seeds of their downfall may actually be in their original expansion. Once they split into two empires they were doomed to fall to stronger cultures. In the end, their openness to other ideas and gods, which is part of your argument, did not save them.

    Pointing to the Jews as a culture that does not totally sublimate itself to the dominant culture is a good example. However, it seems most of the comments here are equating Israeli Jews with all Jews. The American Jewish culture has expanded and thrived while holding tight to the core of their cultural history.

    The melting pot theory for the US is fine, as far as it goes, but the US isn’t really a melting pot. It is far more complicated than that.

    There are several sub-cultures in the US that are distinct. Life in Mississippi is very like life in Northern California, yet at the core they are very different cultures. Even geographically close areas can have big differences. Life in Brooklyn is quite different in many ways from life in Connecticut. Life in the burroughs of NY is quite different from life in upstate NY.

    Some cultures thrive by keeping themselves separate from the dominate culture. The Amish are a perfect example of this. Others suffer by partly assimilating, yet remaining separate, like many Native American communities.

    I don’t agree that the Jews are being destroyed by their yearning for their homeland. I believe it is what has held their culture together through 2000 years of diaspora. “Next year in Jerusalem,” was not only a rallying cry, it was a way of clinging to the culture of their ancestors by reminding them of whence they had come.

    The Arabic world, as opposed to the Islamic, yearns for the past, yet that yearning may yet inspire them to reach for that past greatness by embracing the modern world. Only time will tell.

    When it comes to American efforts for an empire, I think we have seen a dampening of that desire. Perhaps our possibly ill-fated efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan will have a beneficial effect in the end by teaching us that the time of empires is past. I fervently hope so.

    Americans were bedazzled by the sudden knowledge that they had no peers when it came to military power. The end of the USSR’s ascendancy led many to believe that it was possible for the USA to dominate the world, both culturally and militarily. It only took 20 years to show the fallacy of such a belief. We may yet gain from all of this.

  6. is likely among the oldest roots of human religion.  “In the past” (dragons flew, giants walked, manna rained down from heaven), but we fell from grace and now need to try to crawl backward into the dusty womb of history…

    And how dare you suggest that my father lied when he told me about Our Sacred Ancestors…

    Multi-generational society seems to have been one of the most influential cruxes in human development – when you have more than two (adult and child) generations alive at the same time.  Prior to that, human culture was truly primitive – older children bore and raised young children and very rarely lived long enough to pass wisdom down from a long-view of the aged maturity one gets after 30.  The Old Ones were the store of all knowledge, and understandably could be seen by the others as having come from a Wiser Time.

    Since this dynamic is so deeply rooted in our culture it is not surprising that it is so hard to shake.  The American Sixties movement tried to shake it all at once, and showed that while idolizing them might not be actually necessary, there really is something useful about listening to your elders sometimes.

    This is the first place where I part with religion, the notion that there was an ideal world lost in time that we should obsess with.  The Wailing Wall is a pile of rocks built by people with primitive tools.  Rome is a city.  Ancient Texts are fascinating artifacts of earlier cultures.  I don’t really know if you can both embrace the Ancestor Worship of religion as well as fully acknowledge the present, but it certainly doesn’t always work out real well.

  7. creamer

    Quite a thread. The level of intellect displayed in most of the comments here is truly impressive. I must say I’m somwhat intimidated.

    Before I comment further I need to go home and find my thesaurus.

  8. creamer

     Of all the things discussed here, and I really find the discussion with Strummerson and John Allen fascinating, the foriegn wars analogy seems the most reacurring theme in the disolution of empires. Also the most applicable to us.

    I really don’t think LotusFlower meant to be as black and white in his comments as some here interpeted, but the diary definately brought differing points of view. I think the Jews somtimes singular focus on the “promised land” is a bit of a double edged sword, but I think you must view it in the context of European history with its pogroms and solutions.

    I’ve read others discribe Muslims as an embittered people, longing for their past greatness, wondering how this all came to be. I would suggest that this has much to do with its ruling class being more concerned with power than the welfare of its citizens. The free flow of ideas that lead to what we call modernity are a direct threat to the power of a few.  

  9. louisprandtl

    However couldn’t agree with some of your statements. I would be brief in my reply.

    1) Your statement that Islam mainly spread peacefully through India through Sufism is not entirely accurate.

    2) Your inferred that Kamsa and Kanishka are the same. The only place I have heard this contention being made is by Michael Wood in his recent PBS documentary. Do you have any other historical reference to back that up? There is hardly any reason to believe that Hindus would be celebrating the death of Kanishka when he was known to be tolerant of all religions under his rule whereas Kamsa was known to be an intolerant, evil king. Kanishka was followed by his son in the throne which is not the case of Kamsa story. Anthropological studies in Mathura show the dominance of Buddhism and Jainism during the early Kushana empire from Kanishka’s time. Very little is known about his death. A Chinese tale is a Kushan emperor was defeated by a famous Chinese general during the first century AD.. Lastly the Mahabharata story predates Kanishka by eons…

  10. spacemanspiff

    I am greatful to “spacemanspiff” for introducing me to this blog

    I am very excited about you being on the Moose.

    Thanks for stopping by. I think you’ll dig the vibe here.

    I knew this diary would provoke great thoughts and comments.


    • Kysen

      remembrance of a time when Muslims led the world in science, mathematics, literature, theology and philosophy, architecture and technology

      It has been a very long time since Kysen sat in class (and probably longer since he paid attention)… memories (which may, admittedly, be flawed) are that the Crusades played a large part in the destruction in the advancement of knowledge in the Muslim world.

      That, while it was the advance of Islam into Europe with the intent to expand the Muslim empire (led by the Turks..later the Ottoman Empire) that started ended in with the Crusades. The Crusades (and Spanish Inquisition) shattered the ‘unified’ nature of the Muslim world, feeding infighting amongst the various leaders and sects. Destroyed their ‘knowledge bases’ (in the name of God)…killing those who held the knowledge and eradicating record of it. The beginnings of an industrial revolution in Britain further drained the Middle East of its resources…yet another stumbling block during a critical time of development. The Crusades sparked (caused?) the descent into the Islam World’s equivalent of the Dark Ages at a time when Europe had crawled forth from its own and was well on their way to ‘Enlightenment’.

      The Crusades to the Islam World were as the burning of Alexandria was to Europe. Knowledge destroyed….lost to time.

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