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.
By the late 19th century, when much of Islamic Central Asia was conquered by the Russian Empire, the region was home to tens of thousands of slaves. Most of these slaves were Shiʿa Muslims from northern Iran, though the slave trade also ensnared many Russians, Armenians, Kalmyks, and others. Slave labor was especially commonplace in the Sunni Muslim domains of Khwarazm and Bukhara, where enslaved people constituted a substantial proportion of all agricultural workers, domestic servants, and soldiers. Slaves also labored in many other roles, and an individual slave could be tasked with a variety of jobs. Slaves served, for example, as concubines, craftsmen, miners, herdsmen, entertainers, blacksmiths, calligraphers, and even, in rare instances, as government officials.
Before the 16th century, the majority of the slaves in Central Asia—defined here as the region extending from the eastern shores of the Caspian Sea through Xinjiang, China, and from southern Siberia to northern Iran—seem to have been trafficked to the region from India. This changed in the 16th and 17th centuries, as a significant number of Iranian war-captives were brought north and enslaved during the course of numerous armed conflicts between the Central Asian Uzbeks and Iranian Safavids. Many of these slaves evidently labored on the region’s rapidly expanding agricultural estates.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, frequent Turkmen raids into northern Iran resulted in tens of thousands of Iranian Shiʿas being captured and funneled into a booming slave trade in Khwarazm and Bukhara. Further north, a much smaller number of Russians were seized and sold into slavery by Kazakh nomads along the steppe frontier.
The region’s slave trade declined in the late 19th century and seems to have remained dormant throughout the Soviet period. The post-Soviet period has witnessed a resurgence of human trafficking throughout Central Asia. In recent decades, local governments and international organizations have labored with mixed success to combat a new kind of slave trade, as Central Asian victims are trafficked by criminal cartels to neighboring countries, or to other regions of the world, for the purposes of forced labor or sexual exploitation.