The Modern Uzbeks: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present: A Cultural History

The Modern Uzbeks: From the Fourteenth Century to the Present: A Cultural History

by Edward A. Allworth
In this study of the modern Uzbeks, Professor Edward A. Allworth provides a comprehensive and authoritative survey of an important group of Muslim people who live within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. After the Russians and the Ukranians, the Uzbeks are the largest ethnic group in the Soviet Union and the strongest of a number of Muslim communities that populate


In this study of the modern Uzbeks, Professor Edward A. Allworth provides a comprehensive and authoritative survey of an important group of Muslim people who live within the boundaries of the Soviet Union. After the Russians and the Ukranians, the Uzbeks are the largest ethnic group in the Soviet Union and the strongest of a number of Muslim communities that populate the vast region of Central Asia.

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The Modern Uzbeks

From the Fourteenth Century to the Present a Cultural History

By Edward A. Allworth

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 1990 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-8733-6


Ideas of Community

    Äytkän gäp atqan oq.
    A word said is a shot fired.

    Kob oylä, az soylä.
    Think lots, say little.

    (Uzbek sayings)

Cultural history focuses on the ideas of the public at large, rather than those currents of thought that preoccupy highly educated elite. In this inquiry, two considerations make that prescription especially demanding. Until quite recently, Central Asians prized close-mouthed manhood (see the sayings at the beginning of this chapter). Furthermore, the nature of Central Asian politics over many centuries has discouraged free public discourse. Central Asia is not inarticulate, but a search for its voice often faces complex tasks and systemic resistance. In this research, diligence and good fortune were rewarded by finding witnesses and written sources. Attending to symbolic speech, savoring the works of creative writers and other intellectuals who speak for their community and strive to talk to all its members, and examining individual biography helps discover the region's salient values.

The situation in Central Asia confronts historians with the following questions: How will the creation of a corporate, retrospective nationality where none existed before affect people when it is politically motivated and applied and executed by outsiders? How long will it take an aggregate of people under alien laws, a superimposed group name, and an externally delineated territory to absorb the new identity to any significant degree?

Russian communist party officials perhaps meant to substantiate a pseudo-nationality, not a viable political Uzbek nationality when they established a Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR) named Uzbekistan. From the start they sharply distinguished between that administrative structure and the nationality itself. Apparently they meant the group formally designated Uzbek to restrain true patriotism while serving Soviet purposes in foreign and domestic policy. The people named Uzbek (designated by the founding of the Uzbekistan SSR in 1924–1925) understood these changes in Turkistanian life differently than the Soviet Russian politicians.

That divergence in understanding constitutes part of the problem confronting this inquiry. Uzbek writings and songs today infrequently celebrate the prowess of an Uzbek nationality; instead, they usually concern the administrative-territorial unit, Uzbekistan. Uzbeks did not measure out that unit on the map for themselves, which probably signifies something basic regarding their group identity. Contemporary evidence offers some arguments concerning the permanence (or transience) of modern, corporate Uzbek nationality ("nationality" and "ethnic" serve as adjectival synonyms here). Any contentions about its ethnic durability, however, become persuasive only when subjected to a thorough consideration of the extended preliminaries to the Uzbeks' current situation.


This book uses the word modern to designate concepts more complex than the chronological distinctions between ancient, medieval, and recent times or the political and sociological categories that measure the extent of industrialization or education reached by a certain population. Instead, modern here carries one of two senses that coexist in acute tension in Central Asia. The first goes beyond economic or material cultural development to describe the arrival of a group at a shared frame of mind and outlook. In that usage, modern connotes collective self-awareness or superimposed group identity.

Many now believe the officially titled Uzbeks lent their name to the Uzbekistan SSR — a misunderstanding that probably signals some change in attitude about Uzbek group identity. This book evaluates sources that suggest a certain cluster of ideas around this grouphood, including a sense of self-reliance and responsibility, cultural diversity, independent thinking, and an increased understanding of the essential differences between tyranny and democracy. This advance beyond earlier dependency, self-pity, and patient accommodation to alien ideologies may allow the discovery of a new voice enunciating qualities and signals of Uzbek group maturity in the twentieth century.

The second usage of modern may owe something to a harsh streak in Central Asia's composite personality, which expresses itself in a contempt for the delicacy of civilization and diversity and in human cruelty. It deifies power and the mobilization of resources for selfish or ideological ends. This autocratic modernity emerged in Central Asia in the second quarter of the nineteenth century and continues throughout the region into the present period.

In what proportions do the Uzbek group exhibit the two kinds of modernity? The answer does not come easily. The two forms continue to exert countervailing effects on Uzbek ethnic group identity. The growing strain in this ambivalence in modernness illustrates within this regional struggle the universal rivalries between open and closed societies. Analyzing the opinions and feelings of Uzbeks for evidence of truly modern attainments should test a major thesis of this study: when Uzbeks make the choice, their Russian-sponsored nationality may not persist in the form so recently supplied.

This proposition sets a crucial task for anyone interpreting Central Asian cultural history. Each chapter of this book attempts to measure Uzbek progress, if any, toward modern life. The first part of the inquiry looks into seven aspects of group identity that the accumulations of centuries have ostensibly brought to the Uzbek population. Most significant in this respect are ideas about community, sovereignty (symbolized by foreign diplomacy), and group naming. In this case, leadership will probably prove indispensable to collective identity. Ideology and values in the most appropriate group language round out this understanding of group identity.


The people now termed Soviet Uzbeks have a most complicated history and in cast of mind they appear to differ significantly from their predecessors. Why the Uzbeks have become the people they are can only be grasped through an understanding of their original nature and the great impact twentieth-century life has exerted on them. Old chronicles show the early Uzbeks actively engaged in relationships with surrounding tribes and aggregations, which affected their view of themselves and the world. The old interrelations shaped operative, practical distinctions between groups but, more important, conformed Uzbek outlook and thinking. This lateral interaction among Central Asian groups occurred much more frequently then than it does today. Some of those medieval contacts, seldom friendly but always influential, laid the groundwork for relations with non-Uzbeks far into the future.

Early Uzbek Interactions with Other Groups

Almost the first verifiable interactions of Uzbeks as a group with other tribes occurred in the area of Khwarazm. Then, as now, the middle of Khwarazm's territory lay in the delta of the Amu Darya (river) just south of the Aral Sea (see figure 1.1). By 1505, Khwarazm had become the Uzbeks' most powerful northern outpost. But more than a century before that, the establishment of Khwarazm tested the Uzbeks' military strength and the ability of a nomadic society to maintain a settlement.

Some Persian historians writing in the Middle Ages called the areas north of the Sir Darya Uzbek territory Yet the Uzbeks of 1390–1420 often lacked hegemony in the eastern part of the Qipchaq Plains (Däsht-i Qipchäq). Formidable khans from the Golden Horde, based on the Volga River, contested for Khwarazm with Central Asian potentates. In those battles, the Uzbeks, at that time neither psychologically nor geographically true Central Asians, allied themselves with or were subject to rulers of the Golden Horde. Its Manghit amir, Idiku Bahadur (in Russian sources Yedigey), scourged Russia as well as Central Asia. Idiku Bahadur, a wily field commander and a power behind the throne of the Golden Horde from 1396 to 1411, brought Uzbek warriors into his fight over Khwarazm, among other battlefields. Uzbek participation against princes in Russia and against Timur's descendants in the Khwarazmian region colored the Uzbeks' image in Russian as well as Timurid memory.

By 1413 Timur's descendants had made Khwarazm their domain once again by driving out its governor, Idiku Bahadur's son, and his warriors, who probably included some Uzbeks. Two decades after Idiku Bahadur had passed violently from the scene, the Uzbeks under their own leadership invaded Urganch, the capital of Khwarazm. A courier brought that unpleasant news from the Qipchaq Plains to the Timurid capital, far to the south in Herat. A Timurid historian, Abdurrazzaq Samarqandiy (1413–1482), disapprovingly reported the event in his chronicle:

Uzbek troops sprinkled the crown of their destiny with the ashes of perfidy and raised the dust of sedition ... Listening to this news [about the Uzbek invasion] turned out to be painful and difficult for the stable mind [of Timurid ruler, Shahrukh]. He ordered several amirs to that territory, and these eminent amirs, displaying the signs of courage and bravery, attacked the Uzbek people and state [ulus], destroying and scattering all these insolent ones.

In fact, the conflict did not resolve itself quite that way. According to some later Central Asian historians, dampness and/or plague drove out the invading Uzbeks, who were accustomed to the clean air and open spaces of the Qipchaq Plains. A modern interpretation suggests that the threat of strife in the plains drew the Uzbek forces back to protect their grazing lands. Regardless, the entry shows how the Uzbeks, by associating with antagonists to the Russian and Timurid thrones, acquired such a bad name. Although the Uzbeks evidently did not initiate the action, the negative epithets and attitudes expressed toward them in the account are the most consequential portion of this early record of Uzbek history. Before many more decades had passed, the Uzbek name and the sight of characteristic Uzbek battle dress (see figure 1.2) scattered Timurid troops of Central Asia in fright. In the early sixteenth century, Uzbeks once again received harsh words from their militant neighbors to the rear. Safavid historians in Persia colorfully chronicled battles between their forces and those they called miscreants and Uzbeks, Uzbeks and villains. The chroniclers registered the opinion that a victorious Central Asian Uzbek khan "throughout [Khurasan] raised the banner of oppression and injustice." That was a calculated insult, since justice was among the highest ideals of the Central Asian public and its monarchs. Their conception of justice included a belief that the ruler would deal fairly and responsibly with his subjects, good and bad, high and low. This popular view included deep admiration for the amir or khan's unwillingness to abuse his divinely bestowed authority.

Central Asian historians wrote of a good king's evenhandedness in meting out punishment, but no one dreamed of affording people the equality that characterizes newer thinking about a contractual relationship between leader and led. One recent definition of justice proposes that all "social primary goods — liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and the bases of self-respect — are to be distributed equally unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these goods is to the advantage of the least favored." Ideas such as distributive justice and complex equality have no relevance to the inherited Central Asian faith in the good ruler's justice, but they may connect with modern Uzbek aspirations for equality.

In Khwarazm soon after its temporary conquest by the Uzbeks in 1431, aspects of these two versions of justice were at work. The Uzbek chieftain proudly rewarded his victorious warriors with gold and valuables from the rich treasury captured in Urganch. He demonstrated his idea of fairness not by giving each the same sum but by allowing officers and troopers to approach the door of the repository two by two and take away all they could carry in one trip. Here the Uzbek khan also acted fairly, relying on physical ability and sound judgment rather than exact equality. This idea might prove useful in late twentieth-century Central Asia when comparing medieval popular justice with what prevails in that area Russian authorities named Uzbekistan.

As the early Uzbeks conglomerated and emerged into public view, they invited considerable verbal abuse. The specific charge of injustice leveled at these early Uzbeks by the Safavid historian arose out of the religious rivalry between Central Asia and Persia from the sixteenth century. Religious hostility alone, however, did not supply all the grounds for condemnation, for annalists also created attitudes.

In addition historians such as Mahmud ibn Wali, who dedicated his history to the governor of Balkh and later to the Ashtarkhanid dynasty's ruler, Nadir Muhammad, who ruled from 1642 to 1645, undoubtedly reflected the government's perception of the Uzbeks. In his Bahr al-asrar fi manakib-i al-ahyar (Sea of Secrets Concerning the Braveries of the Noble), composed 1634–40/41), ibn Wali, writing about the geography of Turkistan, added these remarks: "The people of this land in each era had a special name and nickname. Thus, from Tura ibn Yafas's time to the emergence of Mogul-Khan, people called the inhabitants of this land Turks." He explains that after the Mongols took power, all the tribes who inhabited the region were called Moguls. Then, "after the raising of Uzbek Khan's sovereign banner [over the Golden Horde] and to this day, the inhabitants of this land have been named Uzbeks." Abroad, however, people called all inhabitants of Turan, the area northeast of Iran, Turks. Once ibn Wali established that the Turks in Central Asia were the Uzbeks, he went on to characterize their nature: "This group is famed for bad nature, swiftness, audacity, and boldness."

Thus, this seventeenth-century author deliberately distanced himself and his patron from the fearsome character and name of the Uzbeks, practicing a type of ethnic discrimination that often hardens its victims' defiant sense of identity. In this case, however, foreign hostility seemed to lessen the security of the Uzbek group name and image. That may have occurred partly because Uzbeks did not enter the scene until several strong powers — Ottomans, Safavids, Timurids, and Aqqoyunlu (White-Sheep Turkmens) — had established themselves in Central Asia or around its periphery.

If the Uzbeks as a whole projected an outlaw image among foreign rulers and historians, some in the tribe probably gloried in that fearsome reputation. But the socialization of a few Uzbek leaders made them want to be admired by their neighbors and peers. The unflattering image seemed to accompany their assumption of an imperial role in the Central Asian region. The incident in 1431 at Khwarazm, which Uzbeks briefly recaptured before withdrawing, and the language used to characterize it introduce another telling feature of group identity relating to the Central Asians. The written history of any era accords with the viewpoint of its writer or his sponsor. For perhaps one hundred years after their collective emergence in the 1380s, the Uzbeks evidently lacked their own literate historians. A few educated, ambitious Uzbek leaders learned from alien competitors that the compilation of histories conveyed contemporary glory and important status on the sovereigns who commissioned them. Later generations, including subjects, foreigners, scholars, and students, would judge a khan's stature on the basis of oral and written histories.

Beginning in the 1430s certain Uzbek khans, blessed with power, leadership, means, and the desire to have their stories told, began supporting learned emigrant scholars from Iran. Later in that century Fazlallah ibn Ruzbihan Isfahaniy (Khunji) (b. Shiraz 1457, d. Central Asia sometime between 1521 and 1533), an eminent Persian Sunni historian, came to Samarkand. He had previously spent about four years in Azerbayjan at the court of the Turkmen Aqqoyunlu dynasty, where he wrote its annals. Isfahaniy entered the service of the Uzbeks' Shaybaniy Khan (r. 1500–1510) no earlier than 1503 and completed Mihman namä-yi bukhara (The Book of Bukhara's Guest), a highly respected history of that ruler's exploits and ideas, in 1509. After the khan perished in battle the following year, Isfahaniy also served Ubaydullah Khan (r. 1512–1539), a Shaybanid, for whom he composed a treatise on good government called Suluk äl-muluk (Rules for the Conduct of Sovereigns, 1514). It included an account of that khan's victory over Zahiriddin Muhammad Babur (r. Farghana 1494–1501, Kabul 1504–1530, Samarkand 1511–1512). Babur was the last Timurid prince to contend seriously with the Uzbeks in Central Asia; he bitterly disparaged them in every way.


Excerpted from The Modern Uzbeks by Edward A. Allworth. Copyright © 1990 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Meet the Author

Edward A. Allworth is a Professor of Turco-Soviet Studies, Head of the Center for the Study of Central Asia and the Division of Central Asian Studies, and Director of the Program on Soviet Nationality Problems, all at Columbia University.

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