Throughout much of the Abbasid period, the small, unlikely city of Toos on the distant frontier of Persia was an important Islamic intellectual center. Some of the greatest Muslim thinkers of the 10th and 11th centuries were born and/or made their homes here. Among these noteworthies were scientists Abu Musa Jabir Ibn Hayyan and Nasir Al-Din Tusi, the poet Asadi Tusi, and the scholar Nizam Al-Mulk. But the two greatest intellectual luminaries from Toos were arguably Hakim Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi Tousi and Muhammed Al-Ghazzali. Each left behind him an important legacy in terms of history and philosophy that remains influential in Islamic society to this day. Both are now buried in Toos and are regarded as local academic heroes.
It is possible that Abu’l Qasim Ferdowsi Tousi, Ferdowsi for short, is the greatest Persian poet to have ever lived, while some go even further and say that he was the greatest Islamic poet to have ever lived. Either way his contributions to Islamic literature cannot be denied. He was born near Toos around 935 AD and took to literature at an early age. Inspired by an historical work in his early twenties, Ferdowsi made it his life’s work to write the Shahnameh, an epic chronicle of the rulers of Persia. According to tradition, it took him nearly thirty-five years to complete this absolutely immense undertaking.
Ferdowsi presented his grand history to the royal court sometime around the year 1000 AD, at which time he was severely underpaid for his efforts. It is possible that his renumeration was cut short because it was believed that he was a Shi’ite, while the royal family for whom the book was written was Sunni. He died in poverty in 1020. Eventually, out of shame, the Sultan presented Ferdowsi’s family with the balance of the payment due. The sum was rejected, and turned over as a donation to a local rest house. In the end the Shahnameh became one of Islam’s greatest historical works.
If Ferdowsi was Toos’ great historian, than Muhammad Al-Ghazzali was undoubtedly its great theologian. Born in 1058 AD in Toos, Al-Ghazzali followed in Ferdowsi’s footsteps as one of Toos’ most learned men. A devout Orthodox Muslim and Sufi scholar, Al-Ghazzali was a renowned teacher and speaker by the time he was thirty years old. From 1091 to 1096 he was a popular lecturer in Baghdad, drawing audiences and scholars from throughout the Islamic world. Around 1100 Al-Ghazzali embarked on a long journey throughout the Middle East, including a pilgrimage to Mecca. When he was done, he spent most of his remaining years in Toos, where he commited his philosophies to writing.
Al-Ghazzali’s ideas were influential in helping to transform and redirect many aspects of Islamic religion and thinking. On the one hand, he preached a stricter adherence to Islamic law and the rejection of many ancient Greek ideas which were still common in the 11th century. On the other hand, he encouraged a Sufi-based lifestyle of tolerance and non-violence. His efforts helped to rally Islam in the face of invading Crusaders from Europe. By the time of his death in 1111, his name was known from Persia to Egypt. He has since been revered as Islam’s greatest theologian and teacher, perhaps the greatest since the days of the Rashidun. The fact that Toos was home to both Ferdowsi and Al-Ghazzali says much about the intellectual traditions of that city.
The Tomb of Ferdowsi is the city’s major tourist destination. Rebuilt after the Mongols destroyed the city, the mausoleum bears little resembles the architectural style of the Middle East in general or that of Persia in particular. Instead, its square, classical design is more reminiscent of something ancient Greek. Overall the structure is built of white brick and stands on a low, broad platform accessible by a wide flight of stairs. Ferdowsi is buried within. The whole shrine is surrounded by a well-organized garden that would look more at home in Victorian England.
Less visited but more important and interesting is the Haruniyeh Tomb. Much more Islamic in form and appearance, the Haruiyeh Tomb is actually the burial site of Harun Al-Rashid, one of Baghdad’s most successful Caliphs. Built in a plain brown brick, this impressive structure would appear much more like a traditional Persian mosque if it did not utterly lack for tiles or color. The whole is topped with a matching brown brick dome. The Tomb of Muhammed Al-Ghazzali was added to the mosque early in the 12th century.
Toos is a relatively small city that is little more than a suburb about 20 miles northwest of Mashhad and about 420 miles east of Teheran. Both mausoleums are located relatively close to the city center. Access is permitted to Muslims and non-Muslims (the latter with restrictions). The Tomb of Ferdowsi is open daily from 8:00am-5:00pm with later hours in the Summer. The cost of admission is IR20,000. No visitor information was available for the Haruniyeh Tomb as of the time of this writing. Web: www.tourismiran.ir (official tourism website of Iran)
The small City of Toos on the Central Asian frontier has been ravaged by nomads many times over the centuries, and little is left of the early city. One of the only other significant sites of interest to survive is the Mausoleum of Hordokieh.