Publication Spotlight: ‘Medieval Central Asia and the Persianate World: Iranian Tradition and Islamic Civilisation’
November 10, 2015 Leave a comment
When we think of the Sunni Muslim world today, we tend to think in terms of the great Arab Arab cities of the Middle East – places like Cairo, Damascus and Baghdad. Yet in the Middle Ages, especially the ninth to twelfth centuries, the cultural heart of this world was far to the east, in Central Asian territories now famous only for their obscurity and remoteness – Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan and eastern Iran. This vast region, which medieval Muslims called Khurasan, was the stronghold of Sunnism in a period when places likes Egypt and Iraq were under Shiite rule. Thus in fact it was Khurasan that played a crucial role in shaping what we think of as classical Islamic civilisation. From Khurasan came most of the compilers of the canonical collections of the Prophet’s sayings (the hadith), still in use among Sunni Muslims today, and it was there that Sufism, a form of Muslim piety based on the efficacy of holy men and miracles, developed into its recognisable form. For the princes of the Muslim courts of what is now Afghanistan and Uzbekistan some of the great works of classical Arabic and Persian literature were composed. The madrasa, the Muslim school of law which some consider the precursor of or even the inspiration for universities in the west, originated in Central Asia in this period, while even the tall, thin, cylindrical minaret, today the quintessential symbol of Islam, first developed in this region before spreading westward.
Despite its importance, medieval Islamic Central Asia is surprisingly neglected even by specialists in Islamic studies. The standard political history even today remains a work that originated as a PhD dissertation submitted to St Petersburg University in 1900! Nonetheless, there has been progress in recent years and the new volume coedited by Andrew Peacock Medieval Central Asia and the Persianate World: Iranian Tradition and Islamic Civilisation, brings together some of the best recent scholarship by leading academics from across the world, including the UK, USA, Japan, and Germany. The volume is based on a conference held at St Andrews organised by the Institute of Iranian Studies in 2013.
The conference and the book both aim to address the importance of medieval Central Asia from the point of view of Islamic studies in general, but specifically Iranian history. The rulers of Khurasan in the beginning of this period were mainly ethically Iranian, and under their rule there emerged a new Iranian identity that synthesised pre-Islamic Iranian traditions with the faith of Islam, symbolised by the emergence of Persian as a literary language in its modern form in the tenth century. This modern Persian, now written in the Arabic script and using a large number of Arabic loanwords but recognisably the descendant of the Indo-European tongue of the Sasanian and even Achaemenid empires, first came into common use for literature in what is now Uzbekistan in the tenth century, and only much later was adopted in what we now think of as Iran. Nonetheless, the tenth century language can be read with no difficulty by modern Iranians, and the Persian national epic which records the pre-Islamic history of Iran, Firdawsi’s Shahnama (‘Book of Kings’), venerated by (almost) all Iranians today is a product of tenth century Central Asia. Indeed, so prestigious and appealing was the Persian language and this Iranian-Islamic identity that even Turkish rulers, who dominated from the eleventh century, aspired to associated themselves with it.
Essays in the volume range across religious studies, political history, poetry, historiography, art history and social history to present an accessible overview of the latest research pinpointing Central Asia’s pivotal contribution to the formation of an Iranian-Islamic identity, but also pointing the way for future work. Plenty remains to be done, with some major sources still unedited and important archaeological sites and aspects of material culture from the period barely studied. The editors hope that the volume will inspire future work in the field.