Ethnic identity is a fuzzy concept for several reasons. On the one hand, the very question of what is an ethnic group is not an easy one to answer. On the other hand, once this is established for a specific case, it is yet another task to define who belongs to it, and who does not, and how stable such assignments actually are. This is as true for Central Asia as for any other place in the world, and the fact that, for earlier periods of history, the records—both native ones and others—use a great variety of terms for human populations, does not make it any easier. Thus, it is largely unclear, which of the tribal groups or early statehoods correspond to a contemporary understanding of ethnicity.
Anthropological scholarship on Central Asia has, by contrast, stressed the rather vague and floating categories that people in the region used to define themselves and others. According to this view, the creation of ethnic groups was largely a product of more or less artificial engineering during Soviet times. Before, local communities and extended kin groups, regularly reshuffled and redefined in history, were of much greater importance for people’s identification and alliances than language or assumed genetic ties.
While there is some truth in that, the picture is more complex. Particularly among the Turkic-speaking groups in the region, a steady process of consolidation set in following the decline of the Mongol Empire, resulting in the emergence of contemporary ethnic groups out of earlier configurations. The underlying concepts of attachment and self-understanding vary, however, and can be distinguished in two different modes, roughly corresponding to the divide between nomadic and sedentary groups. Among the former, the idea of patrilineal descent, or a genealogical model, is at the bottom of internal divisions as well as external demarcation; in the oases, the prime criteria are proximity and shared culture, or a territorial model of ethnic identity. Kazaks and Uzbeks respectively represent examples of these two models.
Processes of ethnic demarcation have, however, been greatly accelerated during the Soviet period and its aftermath. Today, a hasty search for national identities can be observed across the region; while following lines of Soviet ethnicity concepts, these identities fundamentally change their understanding as well as inter-ethnic and majority-minority relations. This is still a very open and dynamic process leading to new (inter-)ethnic constellations and political power relations.
Dan Smyer Yü and Sonam Wangmo
With the available historical Tibetan written records from late 8th century on and the existing scholarly works on Buddhism, this historical overview recounts how Buddhism was Tibetanized and how it became both the national religion of Tibet and a world religion spread to Inner Asia, East Asia, and other parts of the world. It also adds interpretive commentaries leading to more historical inquiries and suggestions for alternative historiographical approaches to the formation of Tibetan Buddhism, adopted from disciplines other than history of religion and Buddhist studies. An emphasis is placed on the significance of folk accounts that reveal “the geomythological reorientation” of Buddhist conversion in the historical Tibetan context not merely as an intellectual and doctrinal acceptance of Indian Buddhism but also as a symbiotic process in which Indian Buddhism and indigenous religious practices mutually transformed each other. The emergence of the different Buddhist schools in Tibet is also a result of the politics of the sect-specific powers throughout Tibetan history. It is thus essential to recognize the formation of the five schools also as a set of religio-political occurrences, particularly since the formation of Gelug (dGe lugs) School in the 15th century and later becoming a Gelug-based Tibetan polity in the 17th century. The Gelug School dominated Tibetan Buddhism, and successive Dalai Lamas ruled Tibet from the mid-17th to the mid-20th centuries. Given the regional and global status of Tibetan Buddhism, emphasis is placed on Tibetan Buddhism as a transregional religion in Inner Asia and later as a form of modern Buddhism since the middle of the 20th century. With these emphases, the historical overview presented here is intended to generate more scholarly discussions and inquiries into the history of Tibetan Buddhism in both monastic and lay spheres in and outside Tibet.
Pre-modern Central Asia saw a lot of violence and wars that had religious underpinnings or originated from genealogical claims. The colonial and Soviet reforms brought about reconsideration of cultural diversity in the logic of ethnic division. In the 20th century, reference to ethnicity became the main language of spontaneous violence escalation and explanation. With the weakening of Soviet rule, the region saw a series of heated conflicts. The most massive of them were the 1989 pogroms against Meskhi Turks in Uzbekistan and the 1990 clashes in Kyrgyzstan that took the shape of ethnic confrontation between the Kyrgyz majority and the Uzbek minority. Lesser disturbances also emerged in the borderlands and in mixed-ethnicity villages.
After the collapse of the USSR, the 1990s saw an increase in social and religious violence in Central Asia. However, despite the violence being different in character, Central Asia had already gained a reputation of a very conflict-ridden region precisely in the ethnic sense. Many experts and politicians listed manifold potential ethnic conflicts about to break out in the region. In 2010, one of these predictions came true in the south of Kyrgyzstan, where a clash erupted between the Kyrgyz and Uzbeks. These expert assessments were also borne out by occasional conflicts over land and water arising between communities that live in the border areas.
Nevertheless, the label of ethnic conflict does not always explain the reasons for violence. The conflicts in Central Asia arise and develop as a variety of local actions, which have different sequences, logic, and motivation. These actions are performed by very different agents—people, groups, and institutes that have their own interests and dispositions. Social and political slogans sound during the events, while the line of confrontation lies between local communities and particular groups of people, not between “nations” or “ethnic groups.” The label of ethnic conflict simplifies all these entanglements; there is usually a political interest or a certain intellectual tradition behind it, which essentializes and historicizes the reasons for aggression.
The Uyghurs comprise a Turkic-speaking and predominantly Muslim nationality of China, with communities living in the independent republics of Central Asia that date to the 19th century, and now a global diaspora. As in the case of many national histories, the consolidation of a Uyghur nation was an early 20th-century innovation, which appropriated and revived the legacy of an earlier Uyghur people in Central Asia. This imagined past was grounded in the history of a Uyghur nomadic state and its successor principalities in Gansu and the Hami-Turfan region (known to Islamic geographers as “Uyghuristan”). From the late 19th century onward, the scholarly rediscovery of a Uyghur past in Central Asia presented an attractive civilizational narrative to Muslim intellectuals across Eurasia who were interested in forms of “Turkist” racial thinking. During the First World War, Muslim émigrés from Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) living in Russian territory laid claim to the Uyghur legacy as part of their communal genealogy. This group of budding “Uyghurists” then took advantage of conditions created by the Russian Revolution, particularly in the 1920s, to effect a radical redefinition of the community. In the wake of 1917, Uyghurist discourse was first mobilized as a cultural rallying point for all Muslims with links to China; it was then refracted through the lens of Soviet nationalities policy and made to conform with the Stalinist template of the nation. From Soviet territory, the newly refined idea of a Uyghur nation was exported to Xinjiang through official and unofficial conduits, and in the 1930s the Uyghur identity of Xinjiang’s Muslim majority was given state recognition. Since then, Uyghur nationhood has been a pillar of Beijing’s minzu system but has also provided grounds for opposition to Beijing’s policies, which many Uyghurs feel have failed to realize the rights that should accord to them as an Uyghur nation.
Throughout more than two millennia, the extensive droughty areas in East Asia were occupied by pastoral nomads. A long history exists of hybridity between steppe and agricultural areas. The ancient nomads had a specific pastoral economy, a mobile lifestyle, a unique mentality that assumed unpretentiousness and stamina, cults of war, warrior horsemen, and heroized ancestors that were reflected, in turn, in both their verbal oeuvre (heroic epos) and their arts (animal style). They established vast empires that united many peoples. In the descriptions of settled civilizations, the peoples of the steppe are presented as aggressive barbarians. However, the pastoral nomads developed efficient mechanisms of adaptation to nature and circumjacent states. They had a complex internal structure and created different forms of social complexity—from heterarchical confederations to large nomadic empires. The different forms of identity in pastoral societies (gender, age, profession, rank) are presented in this article. Special attention is given to how ethnic identity is formed from small groups. The ethnic history of the ancient nomads of East Asia is described, particularly for such pastoral societies as the Xiongnu, the Wuhuan, the Xianbei, and the Rouran.
Michael R. Drompp
The people who called themselves Türk (Chinese Tujue突厥) appear in historical records only a few years before they overthrow their political masters in the middle of the 6th century CE and create a powerful steppe empire that stretched at its height from Manchuria to the Black Sea. These early Türks are sometimes called “Kök” (Old Turkic “Blue,” referring particularly to the color of the sky but also indicating the East) Türks to distinguish them from other peoples who spoke Turkic languages and called themselves by various names, some of which included the term Türk. The Kök Türks dominated much of Inner Asia for most of the period from the mid-6th to the mid-8th centuries; during that era their polity waxed and waned in strength and did not always enjoy political unity. Nevertheless, they exercised authority throughout much of Eurasia for some two centuries; Türk military, diplomatic, and economic interactions with their neighbors, including the Chinese, Persians, and Byzantines, are an important component of their historical significance. They created Inner Asia’s first native script and first known examples of historiography, and promoted the international exchange of goods and ideas on an unprecedented scale. The expansion of Türk power and culture helped shape the Inner Asian world in which the Mongols later established their empire.
Scott C. Levi
Contrary to long-held notions that gunpowder weapons technologies were devised in the West and gradually transmitted eastward into Asia, more recent scholarship indicates that innovations flowed in both directions. Scholars have also come to recognize that there was no uniformity in the ways that states implemented gunpowder weapons, and that multiple factors relating to environment, demographics, and cultural preferences informed decisions about when and how to embrace the new technology. The major Asian agrarian states of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals (the so-called Gunpowder Empires) and the Ming and Qing dynasties in China implemented gunpowder weapons differently. The Ottomans were the most aggressive in this regard, the Mughals preferred a hybrid force, and the Safavids long favored cavalry. Chinese militaries employed hybrid forces to great effect, but in later years a lengthy peace during the Qing era slowed the implementation of new technologies. In Central Asia and other places where rulers could rely on large numbers of well-trained, fast-moving mounted archers and a nearly endless supply of horses, they found little reason to rush to embrace what for several centuries represented an expensive, slow, and unreliable technology.
The Ismailis are one of the largest Muslim minority populations of Central Asia, and they make up the second largest Shiʿi Muslim community globally. First emerging in the second half of the 8th century, the Ismaili missionary movement spread into many areas of the Islamic world in the 10th century, under the leadership of the Ismaili Fatimids caliphs in Egypt. The movement achieved astounding success in Central Asia in the 10th century, when many of the political and cultural elites of the region were converted. However, a series of repressions over the following century led to its almost complete disappearance from the metropolitan centers of Central Asia. The movement later re-emerged in the mountainous Badakhshan region of Central Asia (which encompasses the territories of present-day eastern Tajikistan and northeastern Afghanistan), where it was introduced by the renowned 11th-century Persian poet, philosopher, and Ismaili missionary Nasir-i Khusraw. Over the following centuries the Ismaili movement expanded among the populations of Badakhshan, reaching a population of over 200,000 in the 21st century. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Ismailis suffered a series of severe repressions, first under local Sunni Muslim rulers and later under the antireligious policies of the Soviet Union. However, in the decades since the end of the Soviet period, the Ismailis of the region have become increasingly connected with the global Ismaili community and its leadership. While many aspects of the history of Ismailism in the Badakhshan region remain obscure and unexplored, the discoveries of significant corpuses of manuscripts in private collections since the 1990s in the Badakhshan region have opened up wide possibilities for future research.
Ali Gibran Siddiqui
The Khwājagān (lit. “Masters”) were a constellation of Ṣūfīs in 13th- to 16th-century Mawara an-Nahr and Khurasan. The Naqshbandīyya were Ṣūfīs from among the Khwājagān who followed the teachings of their shaykh, or Ṣūfī master, Khwāja Bahāʾ ad-Dīn Naqshband (1318–1389). Given the eventual emergence of a more centrally organized Naqshbandī order among the otherwise unorganized Khwājagānī tradition by the mid-15th century, later Naqshbandī hagiographers have retroactively combined the development of both traditions under a single linear narrative. While such hagiographies from the 16th century onward portray the Khwājagān as a monolithic group, united in beliefs and rituals, and tracing its silsila (lit. “chain”) or spiritual lineage back to the first caliph Abū Bakr (r. 632–634), there is little evidence from the 13th and 14th centuries to buttress these claims. A study of earlier sources from this time period instead suggests that there was considerable variation among the attitudes and beliefs espoused by individual Khwājagānī Ṣūfī masters and that a loosely defined common identity among the Khwājagān grew out of aversion to the practices of more established Ṣūfī traditions that included ascribing particular importance to spiritual lineages and public displays of devotion. Thus, this Khwājagānī current spread across Central Asia in the form of local Ṣūfī communities, which sought to challenge traditional understandings of Sufism. Part of the Khwājagānī aversion to ostentatious modes of worship by more traditional forms of Sufism led to an increased preference for silent forms of dhikr (lit. remembrance) or the ritualistic recitation of sacred names and phrases, as opposed to more vocal and public forms. By the 15th century, this proclivity toward silent dhikr had become a hallmark of the Khwājagānī-Naqshbandī tradition.
The term Khwājagān is the plural of the Persian word khwāja, which literally means “master” and often reserved for persons of distinction. As an honorific term, originally reserved as a title of prestige for prominent members of Persianate societies, Ṣūfī murīds or disciples used the title “khwāja” to refer to their masters or teachers with respect. In Naqshbandī sources written from the 16th century onward, hagiographers such as ʿAlī b. Ḥusayn Kāshifī Ṣafī have consistently referred to all members of the Khwājagānī and the Naqshbandī tradition by the epithet “khwāja.” Consequently, these Naqshbandī hagiographers have used the term Silsila-ye Khwājagān or the Chain of the Khwājas to refer to both the Naqshbandī silsila and its predecessors among the Ṣūfī masters of 12th-, 13th-, and 14th-century Central Asia.
Beatrice Forbes Manz
The Timurid dynasty was founded in 1370 by the Turkic warlord Temür, usually known in the west as Tamerlane (Temür the lame). Rising to power within the realm of Chinggis Khan’s second son Chaghadai, Temür established his capital at Samarqand and embarked on a career of conquest throughout the former Mongolian Empire and the Central Islamic lands. While his campaigns ranged from Delhi almost to Moscow and from the eastern Turkestan to western Anatolia, Temür established an administration only over the central regions, including Iran and Transoxiana; these were largely settled and Persian-speaking territories. Temür and his followers were Turks loyal to the Mongol tradition, but they were also Muslim and well acquainted with Perso-Islamic culture. The dynasty lasted three more generations—those of Shāhrukh (1409–1447); Abu Sa`īd (1451–1469); and Sulṭān Ḥusayn Bayqara (1469–1506). During this time, the Timurid state shrank in size but gained fame for its wide-ranging cultural patronage and sophisticated styles in architecture, literature, and the arts of the book. In 1507, the Uzbek Shibani Khan overthrew the Timurid dynasty and took over its eastern territories. The Timurid prince Babur Mirza retreated from his region of Ferghana to Kabul and then in 1526 conquered Delhi and founded the Mughal or Later Timurid dynasty.