An Iran – Iraq Project for an International University
A recent article has discussed the attempt to raise money throughout Asia for an international university in northern India that would recapture the glory of learning in that area in medieval times. The university is conceptualized as a rebirth of Nalanda University, one of the leading universities in the world during its medieval existence from the fifth to twelfth centuries. It was established to be a center of Buddhist studies but developed programs in the fine arts, medicine, mathematics, astronomy and politics. This effort, which is being funded from across South and East Asia, reminded me of a similar, more modest but equally high-minded undertaking, the establishment of the University of Central Asia. Begun in the nineties, the university now has campuses in Tajikistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, and Kazakhstan. It is both private and secular. The inspiration came and basic resources were provided by the Aga Khan and the President of Tajikistan. Its creation reminds us that Central Asia was once the crossroads of civilization, an area that once gave birth to an intense intellectual and cultural life.
This led me to thinking of the remarkable center of learning established by the Sassanian (Iranian) king in the fifth century: Jundi-Shapur in what is now Iranian Khuzistan. Originally seen as a center for medical studies. its curricula and research came to cover many fields. It was a center where scholars from India, Greece, and Syria could work together and exchange information. The original impetus was apparently the expulsion of the Nestorian Christians from the Christian lands to the west. Nestorian scholars were the primary students and translators of the Greek legacy at the time and the Persians wished to profit from their knowledge. Jundi-Shapur established as their new home. Some scholars claim that at the time of the Arab conquest Jundi-Shapur was the leading university in the world. It continued to function for many years after the Arab conquest. But when the Abbassid Caliphate was set up in Baghdad, many of the university’s scholars were brought to Baghdad. Eventually a new university was established in Baghdad for these transplants, a university sometimes referred to as the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom). It was in the setting of these two linked universities that the most authoritative translations of the Greek texts into Arabic were undertaken. Greeks, Christians, Jews, Indians, Arabs and Persians worked together on this common scholarly undertaking.
The Iranians have always taken an interest in what is now Iraq, particularly since the capital of their Sassanian Empire was at Ctesiphon near modern Baghdad. (Ctesiphon may have been the largest city in the world in the sixth century.) Their continued interest is suggested by the recent offer of the Iranians to help rebuild the great arch at Ctesiphon. It now occurs to me that sophisticated Iraqis and Iranians might be interested in cooperating on the building of a great international university in or near Baghdad that would be understood to be a direct descendant of both Jundi-Shapur (said to be founded on the model of the Alexandrian academy) and the Bayt al-Hikma. It could be seen as a gift from Iran to the Iraqi people, or perhaps the gulf states could be involved. It should be seen as an attempt to establish an institution that would rise above the sectarian, religious, and nationalist controversies of the day. Obviously, this is not a project to be organized in a day. It might not be acceptable in the sense described here to any of the major players in the current scene. But Iraq and its neighbors need a vision, a future goal that might lift the spirits of those intellectuals who have practically abandoned all hope for the country. Fortunately, there is enough oil money in the area to make the project feasible without significant money from the West.