Islamic Central Asia: An Anthology of Historical Sources

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Islamic Central Asia is the first English-language anthology of primary documents for the study of Central Asian history. Scott C. Levi and Ron Sela draw from a vast array of historical sources to illustrate important aspects of the social, cultural, political, and economic history of Islamic Central Asia. These documents-many newly translated and most not readily available for study-cover the period from the 7th-century Arab conquests to the 19th-century Russian colonial era and provide new insights into the history and significance of the region.

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Part 1 Central Asia in the Early Islamic Period, Seventh to Tenth Centuries

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Already by the middle of the seventh century AD, merely two decades after the installation of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, on the throne of the Muslim polity in Mecca, the armies of the Arab caliphate approached the banks of the Amu Darya River, a distance of more than 1,600 miles from their soon-to-be capital in Damascus. Having defeated the Sasanian Empire, the Arabs proceeded eastward and endeavored to cross the great river into the little known (to them) areas beyond it. This was not a trivial matter; indeed, the initial phase of the Arab conquest, although achieving some temporary success, did not yield any long-term results, and the Arabs were quickly pushed back to their base in the city of Merv.

The state of affairs beyond the Amu Darya was complicated. Different Iranian civilizations had deep roots in the region, and for centuries they had played a vital role in the trans-Eurasian exchange of goods and ideas. The population was heterogeneous: most spoke Iranian dialects, some spoke Turkic, and there were a variety of scripts in use. Their religious landscape was shaped by the Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Manichean, and Jewish traditions, and also by diverse Christian sects; their lands had witnessed the passage of great armies; and their politics, culture, and economy were profoundly influenced by the symbiosis between nomadic and sedentary populations. Politically fragmented, the ancient principalities of Soghdiana—the sedentary heartland of Central Asia including Samarqand, Bukhara and Ustrushana, Farghana, and Shash—raised tribute for the Turkic Qaghan in the beginning of the seventh century. To the southeast, in Tukharistan, and further to the east, along the Tarim river basin, the different city-states paid duty to Tang China until the middle of the seventh century, and then to the Tibetan Empire and the Turks.

 

Part 2 Encounter with the Turks

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One of the most consequential developments in the history of the Muslim world and particularly in the history of Central Asia was the influx of Turkic peoples into the region, and beyond. The Turkic encounter with, and subsequent integration into, the Muslim world occurred largely through the migrations—both voluntary and forced—of large numbers of Central and Inner Asian Turkic peoples to the Near and Middle East. Many of the Turks who made their way out of the steppe did so as conquerors, many others arrived as slaves, but the majority eventually embraced Sunni Islam. It did not take long—just a couple of centuries from their initial encounter—before a sizable portion of the Muslim world would be ruled by Turkic dynasties, many of which had as their founders slaves who served in different capacities, frequently in the military. In the Central Asian context, particular mention should be made of the Qarakhanids (999–1211), the first Turkic-Muslim dynasty in Central Asia; the Ghaznavids (977–1187), the dynasty centered in Ghazna (modern day Afghanistan) founded by Sebuktegin, a military commander for the Samanids; and the Saljuqids (Saljuqs), a Turkic dynasty that flourished in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and ruled over much of Western Asia. The impact of the rising Turkic presence was at first felt perhaps most profoundly in the political arena and in the military, but it quickly influenced many other aspects of life as well, including language, customs and rituals.

 

Part 3 The Mongol Empire

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The Mongol conqueror Chinggis Khan (more well known as Genghis Khan) was named Temujin when, probably in 1167, he was born in the pastoral-nomadic steppe to the north of China. When Temujin was just nine years old, a band of Tatars poisoned his father, Yisugei, and the remaining years of Temujin’s adolescence were extremely difficult. Shunned and alone, his mother, Ho’elun, managed to care for her children and keep them alive, although at times it seemed she was destined to fail. Being raised in such an environment taught Temujin the importance of strength, self-reliance, and persistence. In later years he also proved himself to be an insightful judge of character, a charismatic and visionary leader, a brilliant military strategist, and a ruthless conqueror.

In the early years of the thirteenth century, Temujin managed to attract a substantial following and establish himself as the dominant power in the steppe north of China. In 1206, the defeated nomadic tribal aristocracy was gathered together so that they might acclaim Temujin to be “Chinggis Khan”: the Oceanic Ruler. They did so, and soon thereafter the Mongol armies erupted with the full might of the steppe. China was the first to experience the Mongol onslaught. Moving southwestward, in 1209 the Mongols forced the small Tibetan-Buddhist Hsi Hsia kingdom to acknowledge their suzerainty. Chinggis Khan then turned his attention to the considerably more substantial and potentially disruptive power to the east, the ethnically Manchurian Qin (1125–1234). The Qin themselves had just one century earlier departed the steppe to invade the Khitan territories in northeastern China, conquering some and forcing others to move westward where they became known as the Qara Khitai. In 1215, the invading Mongol army occupied the Qin capital of Zhongdu, modern Beijing, and forced the Qin to retreat and take up a defensive position further to the south. Soon thereafter, the Qin received a temporary reprieve as events in Central Asia drew the Mongol forces from their campaigns in China.

 

Part 4 Timur and the Timurids

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In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Chaghatayids remained a significant power in Moghulistan but their influence had waned in the western stretches of the ulus. In Transoxiana political authority had gradually, and temporarily, shifted from the Chaghatayid Mongols to local Turkic Muslim tribal leaders. The first of the Turkic tribal nobility to usurp power from the Mongols was Amir Qazaghan (r. 1346–58) of the Qara’una. In 1346, Amir Qazaghan led a substantial force of Turkic manpower to occupy the Chaghatay Mongols’ western capital of Qarshi, following which he executed his Chaghatay suzerain Qazan Khan (r. 1343–46) and placed a Chinggisid puppet on the throne. In 1351, Amir Qazaghan annexed Herat and appeared to be a new rising star in the eastern Islamic world. His reign was cut short, however, when the son of the former amir of the Qara’unas sought vengeance and killed him. For the next two decades, the political climate of Islamic Central Asia descended into near chaos as the Turkic nobility vied for power and territory among themselves and with the Chaghatay khans of Moghulistan, who several times invaded the region.

 

Part 5 Central Asia in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

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The sixteenth century witnessed the last great nomadic migration in Central Asia as much of the steppe population, referred to by the designation “Uzbek,” made its way to the sedentary regions. Led by descendants of Chinggis Khan, the newcomers conquered the lands of Khorezm and Mawarannahr and established their control over much of Central Asia. On the way, they also separated into several groups, the most famous of which were the Qazaqs, who had settled in the areas of Moghulistan. The reasons for what became known as the “Uzbek Conquest” are varied, and contributing factors include internal conditions in the Dasht-i Qïpchaq, changing natural conditions in that region, the weakening of the Timurid states, and the appearance of a successful and charismatic leader in Muhammad Shïbani Khan.

Following the Uzbek leader Abu’l-Khayr Khan’s death in 1467, the steppes were thrown into a vicious cycle of wars and feuds with domestic and outside enemies (Moghuls, Uzbek-Qazaqs, and Oirats), which led to highly unstable conditions: anxiety and an economic crisis as a result of the loss of livestock—the nomad’s main capital—led the steppe inhabitants to look elsewhere for security and fortune. In addition, some argue that the steppe was suffering from growing aridization, mainly in its western parts, a process that would have reduced the amount of land available for grazing. Meanwhile, the ultimate destination for the nomads, the Timurid domains, was concomitantly suffering from a long period of political decline. The Uzbeks were aware of the Timurid position through trade and travel, and also because they were led by a new leader, Muhammad Shïbani Khan, who had considerable experience in Timurid service. Furthermore, whether in rhetoric or conviction, at the end of the fifteenth century the Uzbeks advanced toward the Timurid state as the protectors of Sunni Islam against the emerging Shi ‘a in Safavid Persia.

 

Part 6 Central Asia in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

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The people of Central Asia have long benefited from their position at the center of the Eurasian landmass. Throughout much of their history, Central Asians have enjoyed bilateral commercial relations with the neighboring civilizations of China, Russia, the Middle East, and India. And Central Asia’s location, beyond the frontiers of the larger agrarian civilizations, has also made it an infrequent target for military conquest. Indeed, in those instances when military conflicts did occur, geographic obstacles and a virtually unlimited supply of horses and nomadic manpower generally placed the advantage in the Central Asians’ favor. But in the rapidly changing world of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Central Asia’s geographical position proved to be far less advantageous than it had in the past.

This transition was underway well before 1758–59, when the armies of the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644–1911) established Chinese control over East Turkestan, later designated as Xinjiang (New Province). This victory extended Qing authority further to the west than any Chinese dynasty had achieved since the Tang era (618–907), and for those in Central Asia it represented a traumatic event. Several million Muslim Turks found themselves subjects of the distant non-Muslim Qing emperor, and many more were left wondering how such an unfortunate development could come about. This was compounded as the Russian Empire concomitantly encroached from the north and subsumed the steppe. The legendary biographies of Timur, included here in original translation, illustrate some of the ways that Central Asians grappled with their altered position in eighteenth-century Eurasia.

 

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