Some years ago I took my parents to an Iranian party to visit some of their old friends who were in town. I did not know the host or the other participants. When the party broke out singing one of the national anthems of Iran, I knew that I was in a super “Persian” gathering.
A young fellow sitting next to me after extending the usual Iranian greetings, “taarofat”, told me that some encyclopedia has had the gall to profile Ibn Sina as an Arab scholar. Ibn Sina or Abu Ali Sina more commonly known in the west as Avicenna is a noted scholar of the 10th century whose main body of work was written in Arabic. After informing me of this encyclopedic indiscretion, he began cursing the western media for their misinformation and the Arabs who are behind this and trying to enlist this venerated “Persian” scholar in their midst. I was taken aback with his diatribe. Once he slowed down I said, “Maybe we could look at this issue in a different light. Arabs claim to Ibn Sina is not such a bad thing; that could be interpreted as an indication of his stature. Imagine if more people put a claim on him that would be even better for Avicenna’s stature!” He changed the subject; I am guessing he knew by then that I was not part of the crowd.
On the way home I began thinking about what my heritage really is. I have never read any of Avicenna’s works and probably never will. If I ever do, it must be for some deep historical or archeological research. He was a well known physician at the time but I know more about many other scientists than Avicenna. I know more about Louis Pasteur and Linus Pauling and their works than Avicenna. I have read a considerable amount about the scientific works of Einstein, Feynman and Hawking. I was born in Iran, does that mean that Avicenna and Khayyam are my heritage but not the others, even if I identify more directly with Pasteur and other western scholars due to my knowledge of their works! Most of Avicenna’s works was lost to us Iranians and for that matter to Arabs. They came back to us, as archives, because Europeans maintained and used his works in their institutions of higher learning, and they built on it. Does this mean that Avicenna is our heritage but not European’s, even though they maintained his work, learned from and built on it?
My conclusion is when we identify only with “our” scholars – Avicenna, Hafez, and Khayyam …, in reality with only a small number of the scholars of antiquity – this is indicative of the shallow depth of “our” culture and how much farther we have to go. When a westerner tells you what a long and ancient culture you have, “Wow, 2500 years long!” Don’t puff up your chest in pride; at best he or she is being paternalistic. They already have claimed “our culture” as part of the rest of humanity’s many more thousands of years. Don’t be furious as if you have lost another thing to the westerners. That is only saying, catch up and join!