Views of Central Asian Islam 

                    H. B. Paksoy, D. Phil.

     [Published in AACAR Bulletin (of the Association for
     the Advancement of Central Asian Research) Vol. VIII,
     No. 2, Fall, 1995]

                           Part 1 of 4

     During the past two and a half millennia, Central
Asia was buffeted by several political and religious
doctrines. Although the invasion of Alexander of Macedon
(356-323 B. C.) did not leave an enduring imprint, the
event itself might be taken as an early date marker. The
later direct participation of Central Asia in world
events did, and still continues to influence the
political and cultural events in Europe as well as the
rest of Asia.1  
Locus and Labels 

     Today, many authors use the designation "Muslim" in
their analyses when referring to the territories or
people of Central Asia. This is a relatively new
phenomenon among a long string of classifications.
Central Asia was was labelled "Tartary," or "Independent
Tartary" by romantic European cartographers and
travellers in the 15th-17th centuries, and the
inhabitants were called "Tartar."2   Perhaps Christopher
Marlowe (1564-1593), by writing fiction about Timur (d.
1405), with a stretch of imagination calling him
Tamburlane,3 is one popular source of this peccadillo.
But Marlowe's and like-minded authors' writings also
betray the inadequate information the Western world
possessed on Central Asia despite their fascination with
the area. What they did not know, the authors created.4
Only later would the Westerners begin to learn the
Central Asian languages and dialects, in order to read
what the Central Asians had written about themselves.     
     With the Russian encroachments (East of the Urals,
South of Siberia) after the turn of the 18th century, the
designation began to be changed to "Kirghizia" and
"Kirghiz,"5 a tribal confederation.6 After the Occupation
by tsarist armies, when tsarist bureaucrats began to
understand the language and dialects of the region in the
19th century, they commenced employing the terms
"Turkistan," "Turk" and "Sart." However, the Imperial
Russian bureaucratic designations inorodtsy (aliens) and
"Muslim" were employed with the establishment of tsarist
Military Governorships in Central Asia, especially after
1865.7  The designation Turkistan Military District has
been in continuous use since the late 19th c.  Meanwhile,
portions of the population, on some of whom tsarist
citizenship was imposed, were still regarded Turk, Tatar,
Kirghiz, Sart; including those living to the West of the
Urals (Tatars, Bashkurt), and either side of the Caucasus
mountain ranges, including Azerbaijan.8  The Central
Asians living around the Altai mountain range were
assigned still other designations, despite what they
called themselves. Moreover, those designations were
changed at various junctures. As Denis Sinor points out
in his introduction to Radloff's Proben,9 in the past 100
years, "New, artificial, names have been created and it
is not always easy to establish equivalencies."10 
      This tendency applied to the labels of "languages"
as well: Altai was known as Kara-Tatar, later changed to
Oirot (doubly misleading, since Oirot is a Mongolian
tribal sub-division), and back to Altai; Tuvinian was
originally Soyon and Urinkhai and sometimes Shor; Khakass
was called Abakan or Abakan-Tatar; Kachin and Sagay were
jointly converted into Khakass; Uyghur first became
Taranchi, and later Modern Uyghur; Kazakh was Kirghiz. It
should be noted that in no Turk dialect is there any such
differentiation as Turkic and Turkish. This distinction
is a new introduction into the politics of nationalities,
and exists in some Western languages, as well as Russian,
with the latter referring to the Ottoman or Turkish
republican domains and the former, to other Turks.11 
     With the advent of the glasnost (openness) in
Moscow's thinking, the Russian chauvinism began to gain
publicity once more. In a recent article on the potential
dissolution of the USSR, a Russian nationalist included
historically non-Russian lands (the Volga-Urals, Siberia,
the Altai) in his picture of a "new Russia."12 
     The designation "Altai," as Ozbek and Kazakh, are
primarily geographical, tribal or confederation names,
not ethnonyms. Those appellations were mistakenly or
deliberately turned into "ethnic"or "political"
classifications by early explorers or intelligence agents
arriving in those lands ahead of the Russian armies and
bureaucrats. Early in the 8th century, the Turks
themselves provided an account of their identity,
political order and history. These were recorded on the
scores of stelea, written in their unique alphabet and
language, and erected in the region of Orkhon-Yenisey.13
This information is corroborated in earlier written
sources, in the Byzantine and Chinese chronicles, the
Turks' Western and Eastern neighbors, respectively. Most
mountains, cities, lakes, deserts, rivers in this region,
from early historical times until the Soviet period,
carried names of Turkish origin.14 They are being
restored in the late 1980s as demanded by the Central
Asians. Turkish language and its many dialect groupings
such as Orkhon, Kipchak, Uyghur, Chaghatay, constitute a
very large portion of the Altaic family. The
dialect currently spoken in the Altai region is related to
old Orkhon and Uygur. Only since the Soviet language
"reforms," especially of the 1930s, have the dialects
been asserted to be "individual and unrelated Central
Asian languages." They are mutually intelligible.  
     After the dissolution of the Mongol empire, the
Chinese (Manchu) asserted control over portions of the
previous eastern Mongolian territories in the 18th c.
(approx. 1757-1912), including a part of a larger Altai
region, the "Tuva" area Altaian Turks became vassals of
the Chinese. Tuva was designated a "country" for the
benefit of the tsarist government, and in 1912, like
Mongolia, gained independence from China. It became a
Russian "protectorate" in 1914.15   During 1921, the Tuva
People's Republic was created, much like the Mongolian
Republic, theoretically not part of USSR. In 1944, Tuva
People's Republic "asked" to join the Soviet
Union. The Altaian Turks eventually were incorporated into
the Russian Empire, in the Altai okrug, about the size of
France and had a total population of 3.6 million,
including many Russian settlers. administered directly by
the tsarist Cabinet. The inhabitants were counted as
inorodtsy (aliens).  The number of settlers grew,
displacing the native population from their land. During
1907-09 alone, 750,000 Russian settlers came to the Altai
region, taking land that had been declared "excess."
During the 19th c., the railroad had linked Altaian towns
to Russian markets, thus strengthening the exclusive
economic links with Russia.  A Bolshevik-dominated soviet
took power in the capital, Barnaul in 1920. Thus the
greater part of Altai region was incorporated into the
ever expanding USSR.  
     These were and are part of the Nationalities
Policies originally designed by the tsarist bureaucrats
and put into use by Lenin and expanded by Stalin. By and
large, these policies subsequently remained in force
regardless of the changes in the CPSU leadership.16 
Hence, the discussion centering on one appellation may
not provide the full understanding of events in Central
Asia. Religion --specifically Islam-- has its place in
this society as in any other, in the realm of individual
conscience or in mass politics.  Whether or not
religion reached the point of a universal identity for
the Central Asians, submerging all other possible
identities, has been a matter of prolonged debate. The
tsarist era historian (of German origin) W. Barthold
(1869-1930) declared that, when asked, a Central Asian
would identify himself in a three step process: 1. local
(i.e. name of village or tribal origin);  2. regional
(Bukhara, Khorasan, etc);  3. religious (Muslim).
Bennigsen reversed that order. Later observers emphasized
a crucial fact: the identity of the questioner. The
Central Asians may indeed have answered as outlined
above, but due to considerations not immediately clear to
the questioner. The Central Asian respondent did not know
the true motivation for the outsiders' curiosity. Perhaps
he was a tsarist colonial tax collector, Bolshevik
political agent or military surveyor, none of whom was
especially welcome. The Central Asian did not have to bare
their souls to those "aliens." Bennigsen, recognizing
this phenomenon and the tendency to "conceal the true
self- identification" born out of concern for
self-preservation, later called that practice (of giving
variable responses according to the perceived identity of
the questioner) "the tactical identity."17 
     The Soviet apparatus had other opinions concerning
the identity issue, including the designation of
"nationalities" in the smallest possible sizes. No small
"nation" could block the creation of a new breed, the
"Soviet person" (Sovetskii chelovek) devoid of past
affiliations and allegiances.18  The Central Asians' own
expressions of identity were contained in their own
dialects in their local and regional media.  These
declarations are by no means a product of the Soviet
period, for they go back centuries.  Only recently have
those examples reached the attention of the outside
Arrival of Islam in Central Asia   

       Islam is the latest religion to reach Central
Asia. The indigenous Tengri and Shamanism,20 which
appears to have co- existed with Zoroastrianism,
prevailed even after the arrival of other religions such
as Buddhism and Manichaeanism.21 The introduction of
Islam into Central Asia went through roughly three
stages: force of arms and alms; the scholasticist
madrasa; Sufism. But the first group to come into contact
with Islam in Central Asia were not the Shamanistic or
Buddhist Turks. It was the Zoroastrian Persians.22 
     Within 100 years of the death of the Prophet
Muhammad, i.e. by 750, the Muslim Arabs had expanded
their political state far beyond the Arab lands.
Consequently, the Muslim community of believers, umma,
began to encompass ethnicities beyond the Arabs
themselves. The first non-Arabs to accept Islam in large
numbers were the Persians, whose empire the Arab forces
defeated in a series of battles between 637-651.  
     Far more numerous than the Arabs, and with a
tradition of kingship and bureaucracy going back for many
centuries, the Persians altered the character of Islam in
southwest Asia. As Richard N. Frye has put it, the influx
of Persians into the umma "broke the equation that Arab
equals Muslim." He calls this process the
"internationalization" of Islam. The large number of
Zoroastrians in the vast Sassanian bureaucracy (scribes,
tax- gatherers, translators, civil and foreign service
officials, etc) forced the Arabs eventually to allow them
special "protected" status like those of the Christians
and Jews, though the Zoroastrians were not people of any
"book."  Thus administrative practice --including the
caliph's rule when it was moved to Baghdad from Damascus
in 750--  bore an unmistakable Persian stamp. The language
of bureaucracy was Persian, though the language of
religion remained Arabic.23 
     From here, early in the 8th century, the Islamic
forces sought to extend their sway into Transoxania, to
the Iranian (Samanid Empire centered in Bukhara)24 and
Turkish (Uygur, Karluk)25 Empires centered in their
ancient cities.26  Beyond the cities were the Chinese. The
campaigns began around 705 and led within ten years to
the defeat or subduing of the major cities and empires of
Transoxania. This was also the time when Bilge Kagan and
Kul Tigin of the Orkhon-Yenisey stelea were rebuilding
their empire.27  But the death of the leading Arab
general in Transoxania and civil wars among the Muslims
were coupled with the rise of Chinese power in Mongolia,
ended the contests for Transoxania and gave the local
rulers some respite.28 
     Fighting resumed by mid-century. The execution of a
Turkish ruler in Tashkent led the people of the town to
call for aid from the Arabs and perhaps also from the
Karluk Turks.29 In July 751, the Chinese forces lost to
these combined armies ending Chinese influence in Central
Asia. According to Barthold, this day was decisive in
determining that Central Asia would be Turkish rather than
Chinese. The Chinese, however, were also diverted by an
uprising in the center of their own domains and entirely
lost Central Asia.30 
     Thereafter, the local rulers throughout Transoxania
and the empires built there --both Persian and Turkish--
partially professed Islam, until the Mongol conquests
of Chinggiz Khan and his armies in the 13th c. The members
of the steppe societies remained beyond the Islamic
lands, and entered into the Islamic world almost
exclusively as individuals, as military bondsmen,
or mamluks. The mamluks came to constitute an elite
cavalry (later palace guard) in many Muslim states, Arab,
Persian and Turkish, for no training in a sedentary
empire could produce a horseman and warrior equal to the
steppe nomad. There are cases in which a mamluk would
seize power from a weak ruler and found his own dynasty.
Such is the case of Alptigin, founder of the Ghaznavid
dynasty (994-1186) that ruled from Ghazna in what is now
     On the Western edges of Central Asia, other tribal
confederations --such as the Karakalpak and the Khazar--
held power "in a checkerboard pattern," as Peter Golden
points out, centuries prior to the arrival of Mongols.
Some had been converted to Judaism, others to
Christianity.32  Both groups have left Turkic language
documents using a number of alphabets, the first one
being unique to themselves.33 The European missionaries
were active among them, and one such group translated an
eulogy to Jesus Christ into their language.34   
     By means of the mamluk phenomenon and by conversion
of Turkish empires and populations, a third major people
began, slowly at first, to enter the Islamic community
and to alter it in their turn. The language of the Turks
became the third major language of the Islamic world by
the 10-11th centuries --the language of the military and,
in sizeable number of cases, of imperial rule:35 In the
East, the Ghaznavids (dynasty r. 994- 1186) and
Karakhanids (10th-11th c.);36 in the Center,
Seljuks/Oghuz (1018-1237)37 and the Timurids (15th-16th
c.)38; in the West, the Ottomans (13th-20th c.);39 the
Golden Horde Khanates (14th-16th c.)40 to the Northwest.
The famed North African origin traveller Ibn Battuta
(1304-1368) indicates that Islam was found to be making
inroads into Crimea by the 14th century.41 
     "From the 11th century onwards, the Islamic world
became increasingly ruled by Turkish dynasties until
eventually, rulers of Turkish origin were to be found in
such distant places from their homeland as Algeria and
Bengal" writes C. E. Bosworth.42  It was in the 11th c.
that Kasgarli Mahmud wrote the Kitab Diwan Lugat at Turk,
to teach Turkish to non-Turks, as he explained in his
introduction.43 Ettuhfet uz zekiyye fil lugat it Turkiyye,
a mamluk period Kipchak Turkish grammar and dictionary
appears to have been written with the same intention, but
a bit later.44 It was also under the patronage of the
11th c. Turkish Ghaznavid ruler Mahmud that the Persian
poet Firdawsi compiled the surviving fragments of the old
Persian epic and "resuscitated" Persian in his
     In the 13th century, the armies of Chinggiz Khan (d.
1227), his sons and generals "reinvigorated" Transoxania
(and other places from China to the Volga and eventually
Budapest) with steppe elements, both Mongol and Turk. The
Rus were but one of their vassals. The new empire was
religiously tolerant, as were its predecessors, with the
khans (rulers) often having Christian or Muslim wives.
The khans themselves adhered to their traditional
beliefs, Shamanism and, according to at least one source,
of Tengri, the monotheistic pre-Islamic religion of the
Turks.  Within one century after the conquests ceased,
however, most of the successor states, except that in 
China under Kublai Khan, would also embrace Islam, and 
became markedly less tolerant of other religions. Although 
this conversion contributed to their own political decline,
the process strengthened the Islamic and Turkish (for the
Turkish element was greater in those armies that moved
farthest west) patterns that had existed in Central Asia
before the Chinggizid conquests.46  
     After the Mongol irruption, the older political
entities began a long process of fusion. Timur and his
dynasty arose after that period, uniting Central Asia
under his rule. Timur, a Turk of the Barlas clan used
Chinggizid legitimacy, even taking a Mongol wife. He and
his successors ruled Central Asia and northern India from
the 14th century until the end of the Moghul dynasty of
India in the 18th century (his direct descendant Babur
1483-1530 founded the Moghul dynasty).47  The Ottomans,
whom Timur defeated, underwent serious difficulties in
reasserting their authority in their former
territories.48 Thus the three major peoples to accept
Islam were firmly established --Arabs, Persians and
Turks-- and knowledge was preserved and literature
created in all three languages. 
     Scholarship in its many branches --philosophy,
theology, law, medicine, astronomy and mathematics,
poetry, manuals of statecraft-- were produced over the
centuries by native Central Asian scholars who adhered to
the new religion. Individuals such as Farabi (ca.
870-950)49, and Ibn-i Sina (d.1037)50 made original
contributions and preserved knowledge of the ancient
world when libraries were destroyed in warfare, including
the Crusades.51  Others, for example, Ibn Turk (10th
c.),52  Ulugbeg (d. 1449)53, Khorezmi (10th c.)54
contributed to the expansion of knowledge, especially
mathematics.  From their translations Europe was later
able to recover that knowledge.  
     The post-Mongol period reflected the flexible use of
languages. Babur (1483-1530) wrote his memoirs, the
celebrated Baburname55 in Turkish, while his cousin held
his court in Herat56 and produced enduring works of both
Persian and Turkish poetry. Meanwhile, Fuzuli (d. 1556)
was creating some of the best examples of poetry of the
period in Turkish.57 In the famous correspondence of 1514
between Shah Ismail (r. 1501-1524), the Turkish founder
of the Safavid dynasty of Iran (dynasty r. 1501- 1736)58,
and the Ottoman sultan Selim I (r. 1512-20), Selim wrote
in Persian, while the Ismail wrote in his native Turkish.
Selim would defeat Ismail later that year in the famous
battle of Chaldiran in 1514 thereby preserving his hold
over eastern Asia Minor. 
     Political legitimacy in Central Asia always required
mass communication. Perhaps the Shibaninama59 of the
early 16th c. is a good example, seeking to convince the
population that this ruler, Shiban of the Ozbeks, was
every bit a good and capable ruler as those preceded
him.60  This task, in an age before movable type, was
accomplished through the medium of literature.  Poetic
anthologies, often in manuscript, were duplicated by
copyists in palace libraries or by private savants. The
contents of these collected treasures (or single poems)
were committed to memory by individuals for later oral
recitation. The "minds and hearts" campaigns were used
more often than armed troops, for the poetry proved more
effective than the sword in convincing the Central
Asians. In this manner, the rulers also wished to
preserve the history of their reigns. 
     The impetus for communication also came from the
people, wishing to safeguard their heritage. The Oghuz,
also called the Turkmen,61 constituted the basis of the
Seljuk empire.62   After the fall of the Seljuk empire, 
the Oghuz/Turkmen groups did not disappear.  Abul-Ghazi
Bahadur Khan (1603-1663), ruler of Khiva, was asked by
his Turkmen subjects (which constituted a large portion
of the population) to compile the authoritative
genealogy of their common lineage from many extant written
variants.  He prepared two, under the titles Secere-i
Terakime (probably completed in 1659) and Secere-i
     These genealogies are quite apart from the dastan
genre. The two constitute parallel series of reference
markers on the identity map. The dastans are the
principal repository of ethnic identity, history, customs
and the value systems of its owners and composers, which
commemorates their struggles for freedom.64  The Oghuz
Khan dastan, recounting the deeds and era of the
eponymous Oghuz Khan was one of the fundamental
dastans.65  Despite their non-Turkish titles, genealogies,
histories, or political tracts belonging to the Turks
were originally written in Turkish.  An example of this
phenomenon is Firdaws al-Iqbal,66 written in the
Chaghatay dialect. This is is also true of Ali Shir Navai
(1441-1501) and his Muhakemat al Lugateyn.67  Quite a few
of those original Turkish works were translated into
Persian and Arabic, and came to be known in the west 
from those languages rather than the original Turkish. 
     Thus language alone was no sure indicator of
ethnicity, for the educated came to be versed in the
major languages of the Islamic world at --Arabic, Persian
and later, Turkish.  Yet, the differences among them
remained.  Many pre- Islamic values of each culture
survived the transition to Islam and was preserved in
the native language of each people. Islamic period works
of various courts reflected the retention of traditional
values. Among the "mirror for princes" works68 the
earliest is the Turkish-Islamic work of statecraft, the
11th c. Kutadgu Bilig. It calls upon the king to be a
just ruler, mindful of the needs of the people, and
thereby echoes older traditions.69  
     Those Central Asians farthest from the border of
Islamic lands were the last to adopt Islam and retained
their traditional beliefs to the greatest degree. The
Kazakh and Kirghiz of the steppe were converted to Islam
only in the late 18th-early 19th centuries by Volga
Tatars thanks to policies of Catherine II, of
Russia (r. 1762-96), who apparently hoped that Islam
would soften those populations and make them more
receptive to the tsarist empire. She allowed the Tatars
to represent her court in Transoxania trade. On the way,
the merchants were encouraged to form settlements and
convert nomads.70  The Kazakh and Kirghiz, even today,
retain much of their pre-Islamic way of life including
mastery of the horse, drinking kumiss71 and extensive
personal independence of women so characteristic of
steppe societies.72  
     Thus Arabs remained Arabs; Persians, Persians; and
Turks remained Turks. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the
non-Arabs would debate the real meaning of Islam for them
and its role in their identities. The tension, even
hostility, among them remained as well, and is documented
by the slurs and stereotypes, and by frequent warfare (up
to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s) despite the ideal and
rhetoric and dreams of Islamic brotherhood and the
indivisibility of the umma.  

     Sufism, one of the forces responsible for spreading
Islam, is the "mystical dimension of Islam," as the
preeminent scholar of Sufism, Annemarie Schimmel called
her classic work on the subject.73 In each of the topics
referenced in this study, the Western reader relying only
on English-language works, must be extremely cautious.  
This is true also on the subject of sufism.  Over the
centuries, excesses and indulgences also took place in
the name of sufism.  More than a few Western writers have
described the entire complex phenomenon of Sufism on the
basis of such exaggerated events. Schimmel remains the most
reliable, and sympathetic, source available in English.  Her
approach takes account of sufism as an individual
mystical quest and as the basis for organized
brotherhoods called tariqa. Because the tariqa develop
later in history than sufism itself, she addresses them
toward the end of her volume.74 One of the earlier sufis
was Ahmet Yesevi (lived and died in current day
Kazakistan), wrote his major work Hikmet in Turkish in
the 12th c.75 
     Meanwhile, the other key institution responsible for
the diffusion of Islam, the madrasas (scholastic
schools), declined in quality; failing to square
themselves to the changing social and economic conditions
around them.76 They had not clarified a method of
comparing and contrasting their own methods against
the state of evolving knowledge in the world. As one
result, the rote system in use sapped the vitality of
original thinking and calcified what remained.  

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