Yusuf Balasaguni: Great medieval polymath

Famous 28 Apr 2021 Nilanjan Hajra
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Yusuf Balasaguni
Kashgar Hajib Yusuf Khass Balasaguni Tomb Main Gate Entrance View Point. Photo : Dreamstime

When in 2016 the Kyrgyz government printed a portrait of Yusuf Balasaguni, many, even in Kyrgyzstan raised their eyebrows. And that truly is a sad commentary on the manner in which history is preserved. He was one of the greatest medieval polymaths. He was an 11th-century poet, statesman, administrator, theologian, and philosopher. Historians generally believe that he was born in the great medieval city of Balasagun, which gave him his surname. The polymath was one of the tallest representatives of the Muslim renaissance.

Life and times of Yusuf Balasaguni

Balasagun, the birthplace of the great polymath, was located very near the present-day Kyrgyz city Tomkok. There is some confusion over the exact year of his birth. However, historians tend to agree that Yusuf Balasaguni was born in 1018 or 1019. According to some he was born in 1015. It is certain that he passed away in Kashgar, today located in the Xinjiang province of China. But again, there is debate over the year of his death. Many think it is 1077, others believe it to be 1085. The debate over such exact dates of his birth and death notwithstanding, there is no doubt that the polymath was a subject of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty.

Balasaguni was born in a very wealthy family. He received his primary educational training in his hometown. In keeping with his times, the teachings of many other Muslim scholars before him, such as Abu Ali Sina (Avicenna), Al-Farebi, and Ferdowsi heavily influenced young Balasaguni.

A mausoleum of the great polymath was erected in Kashgar in 1865. However, during the cultural revolution in China, local authorities destroyed it and built a school in its place. But after the death of Mao Zedong, authorities rebuilt the mausoleum. The USSR government also took a policy of suppressing the history of the Qarakhanid kingdom and buried Balasaguni in oblivion. In recent times, however, the Kyrgyz government has taken several initiatives to revive the memory of the great polymath.

His Magnum opus

Yusuf Balasaguni completed composing his magnum opus Qutadgu Bilig, meaning Wisdom of Royal Glory, when was 50. At that point in time, he resided in Kashgar. He wrote it in the middle Turkic language. He presented the book to the then prince of Kashgar, Hassan ibn Sulayman. Impressed by his work, the prince conferred upon the title of ‘Khass Hajib’, akin to the present-day chancellor.

The polymath composed of Qutadagu Bilig in Arabic Mutaqarib metre. Balasaguni for the first time applied this complex meter to Turkic language poetry. The author structured the book around relations between four characters: Kuntogdi (The rising Sun), Aytoldi (Full moon), Ogulmis (The highly praised), and Oogurmis (The awakened). In terms of occupations, these characters are the king, vizier, the sage, and the dervish.

Modern-day critics have suggested that Balasaguni, in this text, aimed to reconcile the Iran-Islamic and Turkish traditions, present among the Qarakhanids. We must remember that under the Qarakhanids a nomadic society was changing into an urban one. This seamless transformation called for an able leader. And the polymath’s magnum opus was an attempt to create a Turkic Shah Nameh, which spells out the qualities of an able leader.