Central Asian Culture and Islam

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Central Asia played a pivotal role in the early debates about what it meant to be a Muslim, as the early practical experience of negotiating relations with the local population on the Central Asian frontiers left its mark in the developing consensus about the conditions for membership in the Muslim community, and for enjoyment of the privileges it entailed.

Islamization in Central Asia

Already in the eighth century there were signs of the dominance of the inclusive approach toward membership in the Islamic community that would prevail throughout the history of Islamic Central Asia. Local resentment grew over the unequal treatment often accorded new converts by Umayyad governors who, in response to declining revenues, toughened requirements for conversion and even rescinded the remission of the jizya, the poll tax on non-Muslims, promised to prospective converts. This helped turn the region into the staging ground for the Abbasid revolution. In doctrinal terms it lent support to the view that formal affirmation of faith and of affiliation with the Muslim community was sufficient to be regarded as a member of the umma in good standing, even if the people thus brought into the fold were not proficient in practice or clear on details of doctrine. This principle, articulated in the movement of the Murji˓a that gained wide support in Khurasan and Transoxania (Mawarannahr), was later enshrined in Hanafi juridical thought, which dominated Central Asian life from the ninth century to the twentieth century. It thereby shaped the process of Islamization in Central Asia, not only among the sedentary rural and urban population, but along the steppe frontiers as well, where the process of conversion appears to have begun in many cases with the establishment of social bonds between Muslim townspeople and nearby Turkic nomadic communities. This gave the latter a formal affiliation with the umma, with details of practice and belief to be worked out later.

There was considerable religious diversity in Central Asia at the time of the Arab conquest, and it persisted in later times. Manichean communities were active in Samarkand until the tenth century, Christian groups can be traced into the fourteenth century, and Buddhism was not supplanted from the northeastern part of the Tarim basin until the fifteenth century. Despite the frequent setbacks to Islamization in Central Asia, the region became quite early on a major center of Islamic learning, literature, and art.

Cultural Patronage and Religious Scholarship

The full flowering of Islamic science and literature, in Persian and Arabic, came in the tenth century under Samanid patronage. The Samanid court at Bukhara sponsored the Persian poets Rudaki and Daqiqi, and the compilation of the Shahname (Book of kings) by Firdawsi (who later enjoyed Ghaznavid patronage as well); Arabic poetry was also cultivated, as were translations from Arabic and other languages into Persian. The Samanids also patronized scientific endeavors, building on traditions that had produced pivotal works instrumental in the development of astronomy and mathematics in the Islamic world at large, and later in western Europe as well. Whereas in the ninth century scholars of Central Asian origin, such as Muhammad b. Musa al-Khwarazmi, Abu Ma˓shar al-Balkhi, and Abu ˓Abbas Ahmad al-Farghani, were drawn west to Baghdad, Samanid patronage kept these figures' successors at home, so to speak, and made tenth-century Bukhara the scene of a remarkable intellectual synthesis marked especially by scholars of encyclopedic breadth. The compendium of all branches of scholarship known as the Mafatih al-˓ulum was produced for the Bukharan court by Abu ˓Abdallah Muhammad al-Khwarazmi, and an important tradition of geographical study was sponsored by Samanid officials. The encyclopedic tradition shaped the work of the remarkable Khwarazmian al-Biruni (d. 1048), who distinguished himself in the natural sciences as well as in history and geography, and who later served the Ghaznavid sultans Mahmud and Mas˓ud as well. The illustrious polymath Ibn Sina (d. 1037), especially renowned in medicine and philosophy, spent his formative years in Samanid Bukhara.

Perhaps the most important contribution of pre-Mongol Central Asia to the religious culture of the larger Islamic world, however, lies in scholarship on hadith and in the juridical sciences and theology. Already in the ninth century, under the Tahirids, Central Asia produced several of the compilers of the major collections of hadiths regarded as authoritative throughout the Muslim world, above all the two pivotal traditionists, Muhammad b. Isma˓il al-Bukhari (d. 870), who lived much of his life near Samarkand, and Muslim b. Hajjaj of Nishapur (Ar. Nisabur) (d. 875). The growth and development of the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, which came to dominate interpretation and application of the shari˓a in much of the Ottoman-ruled world and in the Indian subcontinent, was largely the work of Central Asian scholars. Central Asia has been predominantly Hanafi in its juridical orientation throughout the Islamic period. There was a limited, but important, Shafi˓i presence in some areas. The region of Tashkent became a bastion of the Shafi˓i school (and produced the noted tenth-century jurist Abu Bakr Qaffal al-Shashi), as did the town of Taraz, while parts of Khwarazm were predominantly Shafi˓i until well after the Mongol conquest. Already before the Samanid era, however, the supremacy of the Hanafi school in Bukhara, and in the rest of Transoxania, was credited to the imam Abu Hafs al-Bukhari (d. 877), and from the tenth century to the fourteenth, Transoxania was by far the most productive region of the Muslim world in terms of the scholars and books that would define the Hanafi tradition.

The Samanid era saw the formulation of the theological school associated with the name of Abu Mansur Muhammad al-Maturidi (d. c. 944) of Samarkand. His theological elaborations, on a Hanafi foundation, defined the lines of religious thought that dominated the eastern Islamic world for centuries and, with the active support of Seljuk patronage, became firmly established in the Middle East beginning in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It was the era of Seljuk patronage, indeed, that produced many of the great classics of Hanafi jurisprudence in Transoxania. The central works include the Usul of Fakhr al-Islam ˓Ali b. Muhammad al-Pazdawi (d. 1089), the Mabsut and Usul al-fiqh of Muhammad b. Ahmad al-Sarakhsi (d. c. 1096), known as "Shams al-A˒imma," and the Hidaya of Burhan al-Din ˓Ali al-Marghinani (d. 1197). The activities of Hanafi jurists extended to juridical and civil administration as well, and hereditary transmission of the estates and power they were able to amass was common. The most famous case is the family known as the Al-e Burhan in Bukhara, whose members were recognized as the chief civil authorities in the city even by the non-Muslim Qarakhitays.

The Mongol conquest naturally meant a setback for the institutional foundations of Islamic religious culture, and for state involvement in the application and interpretation of the shari˓a, but its impact on religious life was not as far-reaching as is often supposed. If the transmission of juridical traditions in Central Asia is considered there is little evidence of any substantial discontinuity coinciding with the establishment of Mongol rule. With the conversion of the Mongol elites to Islam, patronage of Islamic scholarship, literature, art, and architecture expanded. During the fourteenth century a number of important Turkic religious works were produced and dedicated to khans and tribal chieftains of the Jochid and Chaghatayid realms. Timur patronized religious scholars as well as artisans and poets, often bringing prominent figures from the regions he conquered back to his capital in Samarkand, and scholars such as Sa˓d al-Din Taftazani (d. 1390) and ˓Ali Jurjani (d. 1413) thus worked for a time in Transoxania; on the other hand, some jurists found the cultivation of the Mongol heritage under Timur and his successors abhorrent and quit the Timurid realm for the Ottoman state or other parts of the Muslim world. By the Timurid era, in any case, the Hanafi school's dominance in Central Asia had become a virtual monopoly. Hanafi juridical scholarship continued in Transoxania into the twentieth century, until the closure of all madrasas by the Soviets in the late 1920s. Early in the Uzbek period, patronage of the religious sciences took on a new political importance in light of the emergence of the Shi ite state of Safavid Iran. The ulema of Transoxania supported the Uzbek rulers by declaring the Qizilbash to be the equivalent of infidels, thereby justifying the constant raiding and open warfare in Khurasan through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The religious frontier thus established was rarely an insurmountable obstacle to commerce or intellectual exchange, but nevertheless set the further development of religious culture in Central Asia apart from its traditional connections to Iran.

Sufism in Central Asia

The most important religious development of the post-Mongol era was the rise of Sufi communities organized according to the principle of the silsila or chain of spiritual transmission, and their emergence as important factors in political and economic history. The history of Sufism (tasawwuf) in Central Asia down to the Mongol conquest remains poorly studied, but it appears that by the tenth century a number of originally independent mystical currents, some with local roots and some imported from outside Central Asia, had coalesced under the designation of tasawwuf. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries major new patterns of Sufi activity and organization appear with the career of Abu Sa˓id b. Abil-Khayr (d. 1049) of Mayhana, in present-day Turkmenistan, who cultivated a high public profile in Ghaznavid Nishapur, and with the hereditary Sufi tradition of Ahmad-e Jam (d. 1141), whose natural descendants remained prominent well into the Uzbek era.

The Mongol and Timurid periods saw the crystallization of Sufi traditions that would dominate religious life in Central Asia down to the nineteenth century, in the form of organized orders that emerged around silsilas traced back to the prophet Muhammad through prominent saints of the thirteenth century. One was the Kubravi tradition, whose eponym, Najm al-Din Kubra, died in 1221 during the Mongol attack on his native Khwarazm. Another was the Yasavi tradition, named for Khwaja Ahmad Yasavi, whose center of activity was the middle Syr Darya valley. The Khwajagani tradition emerged in the thirteenth century as well, among the disciples of Khwaja ˓Abd al-Khaliq Ghijduvani, from a town near Bukhara. This tradition produced a lineage that became known as the Naqshbandiyya, after Baha˒ al-Din Naqshband of Bukhara (d. 1389). Representatives of these and other traditions were engaged in vigorous competition with one another, for court patronage and for popular support, in the context of the political and social turmoil of Transoxania and Khurasan in the fourteenth century. As part of that competition, many groups appear to have experimented with different ways of legitimizing the authority and efficacy of their specific ritual and devotional practices and their claims of spiritual preeminence, appealing to visionary sanctions of various sorts, hereditary transmission, demonstrated spiritual results, and other signs in addition to the silsila, which would become the normative mode of legitimation by the latter fifteenth century. Some of these Sufi communities, moreover, were actively engaged in Islamization, not in the sense of changing the beliefs of the Turkic nomads who became based in southern Central Asia through the Mongol invasion (though this may have happened as well), but in the sense of forging social and economic bonds with nomadic communities that were undergoing the profound dislocations of the Mongol era (i.e., tribal reorganization and adaptation to the enclosed nomadism of Transoxania and Khurasan).

By the late fifteenth century, the Naqshbandiyya was emerging as the dominant Sufi tradition of Central Asia, largely through the efforts of Khwaja ˓Ubaydullah Ahrar, a native of Tashkent who spent much of his life in Timurid Samarkand, and who exemplified the political engagement and the cultivation of economic power that became the hallmark of the Naqshbandi order. At the same time, the Naqshbandiyya was beginning its expansion beyond Central Asia, into the Ottoman Empire and the Indian subcontinent. The decentralized polity of the early Uzbek era favored intensified competition among representatives of the Naqshbandi, Yasavi, and Kubravi orders, but Naqshbandi dominance was assured by the second half of the sixteenth century. From then until the early eighteenth century, the Naqshbandiyya was a truly pervasive influence in all aspects of Central Asian political, economic, and cultural life.

The eighteenth century saw important changes in religious life, beginning with the introduction of the Mujaddidi (renewal) current of the Naqshbandi order, which had taken shape in seventeenth-century India, into Central Asia. The Mujaddidiyya offered an alternative source of legitimation for rulers seeking to counter the limitations on their power imposed by entrenched urban and tribal elites, and several Mujaddidi shaykhs were closely allied with khans of the Manghit and Ming dynasties in promoting religious "reform" in a way that undermined traditional Sufi groups and the popular practices associated with them. The late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw several reform efforts of this type, which entailed the condemnation of many long-established religious practices that had diffused from Sufi circles into the larger society as un-Islamic innovations. Local Sufi traditions survived, however, as did the local customs fought by the reformers, and the real blow to Central Asia's legacy of Sufism came only with the Soviet era.

Pilgrimage and Shrine Culture

One of the most characteristic features of Islamic religious practice in Central Asia, and one that linked the lower classes with the religious and social elites, was the widespread phenomenon of pilgrimage (ziyarat) to saints's shrines (mazars). This phenomenon was closely linked, but never entirely coterminous, with the spread of Sufism. Shrine-centered religious practice is evidenced already in the tenth century, and by the twelfth century there is extensive information on the large numbers of shrines in Khurasan in the hagiographies focused on the life of Abu Sa˓id b. Abu˒l-Khayr. From the same century dates the incident of the discovery of the reputed grave of ˓Ali near Balkh, under the Seljuks, suggesting already the political ramifications of cultivating shrine traditions, as well as the compilation of the earliest guide to holy places in Central Asia, entitled Lata˒if al-azkar, by a member of the Al-e Burhan of Bukhara. By the Mongol era, shrine culture was well entrenched, and appears to have played some role in the acculturation of the Mongol elites and ordinary nomads to the Muslim environment. Ibn Battuta reported that even pagan Mongols brought offerings to the shrine of Qutham b. ˓Abbas, the famous martyered Shah-e zinda in Samarkand, and there is some evidence of shrines serving as portals, in effect, for passage from the world of Mongol administrative service to the devotional and contemplative life of Sufism. In the fifteenth century, a shrine guide for Bukhara included a defense of the practice of ziyarat, but the legitimacy and efficacy of pilgrimage to saints's shrines were taken for granted through most of Central Asian history. The reform efforts of the early nineteenth century targeted some practices associated with shrines, and the Soviets directed intense, and destructive, antireligious measures against them, but in neither case were there permanent inroads into the public consciousness of shrines and their many roles. The collapse of Soviet antireligious efforts in the late 1980s led to a remarkable revival of ziyarat, including the reconstruction of numerous shrines as well as the "rediscovery," by quite traditional methods (not unlike those that revealed ˓Ali's burial place in the twelfth century), of long-forgotten sites.

The centrality of shrine-centered religious practice in the daily lives, and in connection with the most pressing human needs, of the majority of Central Asian Muslims is a major, and visible, part of the complex of normative religious customs that characterized traditional life in Islamic Central Asia. Other elements of this complex are more difficult to trace in literary sources from earlier centuries, but it seems clear that, during the Uzbek period at least, religious trends that were evident already in the Mongol and Timurid eras were solidified and became the standard features of traditional Islamic life down to the social and religious upheavals launched by the Soviet regime in Central Asia during the late 1920s. Some of these elements include the continuation of madrasa-based juridical education in such cities as Bukhara, which continued to attract students from among Muslim communities in the Russian empire as well as from India and Afghanistan; the expansion of Muslim education and literacy into the nomadic regions, especially among the Qazaqs; the incorporation of shrines and sacred lineages into the religious practice, social structure, and epic traditions of the nomads; the prominence of hereditary religious and social prestige in families linked to eminent local jurists and, especially, Sufi saints of the past; the permeation of kinship structures and communal life by elements of Sufi practice and thought; and the expansion of religiously defined and regulated occupational organizations in urban and rural environments, integrating the basic elements of craft production into a spiritual worldview that infused labor and its fruits with sacrality and religious meaning.

See alsoCentral Asia, Islam in ; Maturidi, al- ; Pilgrimage: Ziyara ; Tasawwuf .


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Devin DeWeese

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Central Asian Culture and Islam

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Central Asian Culture and Islam