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Muslims in Central Asia: Expressions of Identity and Change

Muslims in Central Asia: Expressions of Identity and Change

by Jo-Ann Gross (Editor), Edward A. Allworth (Editor), Beatrice Forbes Manz (Contribution by), Muriel Atkin (Contribution by), Oliver Roy (Contribution by)

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Central Asia is distinctive in its role as a frontier region in which a unique diversity of cultural, religious, and political traditions exist. This collection of essays by expert scholars in a range of disciplines focuses on the formation of ethnic, religious, and national identities in Muslim societies of Central Asia, thus furthering our general understanding


Central Asia is distinctive in its role as a frontier region in which a unique diversity of cultural, religious, and political traditions exist. This collection of essays by expert scholars in a range of disciplines focuses on the formation of ethnic, religious, and national identities in Muslim societies of Central Asia, thus furthering our general understanding of the history and culture of this significant region.
This study includes several geopolitical regions—Chinese Central Asia, Soviet Central Asia, Afghanistan, Transoxiana and Khurasan—and covers historical periods from the fifteenth century to the present. Drawing on scholarship in anthropology, religion, history, literature, and language studies, Muslims in Central Asia argues for an interdisciplinary, inter-regional dialog in the development of new approaches to understanding the Muslim societies in Central Asia. The authors creatively examine the social construction of identities as expressed through literature, Islamic discourse, historical texts, ethnic labels, and genealogies, and explore how such identities are formed, changed, and adopted through time.

Contributors. Hamid Algar, Muriel Atkin, Walter Feldman, Dru C. Gladney, Edward J. Lazzerini, Beatrice Forbes Manz, Christopher Murphy, Oliver Roy, Isenbike Togan

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Muslims in Central Asia

Expressions of Identity and Change

By Jo-Ann Gross

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9735-9


The Development and Meaning of Chaghatay Identity

Beatrice Forbes Manz

The process of ethnogenesis has attracted increasing attention in recent literature, as scholars have noted and studied the formation of new ethnic groups in the modern world. (See, for example, Keyes, 1981; Charlesley, 1974; Bromley, 1984; Gladney, 1990). This chapter is an exploration of a historical case of ethnogenesis: the development of Turkic Chaghatay (Cagatay) identity under the Timurid dynasty of the fifteenth century. The Chaghatays originated as the ruling group first in the Ulus Chaghatay, a nomad tribal confederation controlling Transoxiana, named after Chinggis Khan's son Chaghatay. It was here that the great conqueror Tamerlane (1370-1405) rose to power. After Tamerlane's conquest of the Middle East, these Chaghatay nomads became the ruling group within a large, primarily urban and agricultural realm covering Iran and present-day Afghanistan. During the rule of Tamerlane and his successors, they became a defined and self-conscious group of people. They were distinct not only from the members of their subject population, largely Persian speaking and agricultural, but also from other people of similar life-style and provenance: the Turkmen nomads of the Middle East and the Turko-Mongolian ruling elite of neighboring regions, including Khorezm, the Russian steppe, and the eastern Chaghatayid or Moghul realm to the northeast. The name Chaghatay was used for this group both by its own members and by outside people, including the Ottomans, Byzantines, and Uzbeks (Eckmann, 1966: 2-4).

The term ethnic group is often limited to the modern period in the belief that ethnicity, as a conscious collectivity, emerged in response to nationalism and the nation state. Nonetheless, many concepts connected with ethnicity can be usefully applied to the Chaghatay, who developed and maintained a separate cultural and political identity within a heterogeneous society. The definition of an ethnic group adopted is that of Charles Keyes, who has specified two crucial criteria: the possession of cultural distinctiveness—a set of shared cultural traits—and structural opposition to other groups in society (Keyes, 1979:5). Other scholars add to these criteria that of self-awareness or definition, and common economic or political interests (Hicks and Leis, 1977:2-10; Bromley, 1984:10-14). These criteria can well be applied to the Chaghatay, for whom a distinct group identity, defined both politically and through shared cultural traits, was crucial if they were to continue as a ruling class.

In recent years the concept of ethnicity, and with it that of ethnogenesis, have undergone significant changes. Ethnicity is now portrayed as a fluid and to some extent pragmatic identity, while the process of ethnogenesis is seen not as the gradual development of a primordial cultural group, but as a continuing process, creating a useful but not necessarily unchanging identity. Cultural distinctiveness is not automatic, but acquired, constantly communicated and revalidated through myth, religious ritual, folk history, and other cultural expressions (Keyes, 1979:4). Soviet scholarship, the main forum for the discussion of Central Asian ethnicity, has remained largely outside this movement (Bromley, 1984:93-100; Abramzon, 1971:13-19). Nor have new formulations fully penetrated historical scholarship, where the paucity of sources makes serious inquiry into the process difficult. Much may be learned, then, from a new look at the history of ethnic processes in pre-modern Central Asia. What follows will be a preliminary attempt to trace the process of ethnogenesis for one group; it should be clear that this account presents only the first findings of ongoing research, and its conclusions remain tentative.

In examining the formation of Chaghatay identity, two separate stages may be distinguished, eventually leading to the formation of a definite and self-conscious group which defined its identity in relation to the people around it. This process began with the formation of a large tribal confederation whose elite shared a number of important traits of life-style and cultural and political loyalties, and who were united by common concerns. This confederation came to form a distinct group with boundaries recognized both by its members and by neighboring powers. A second and later process under the Timurid dynasty fixed and developed a separate ethnic identity and status for this group as the ruling class within a large dominion.

The Formation of a Distinct Group

The Chaghatays began as a group of nomads, including an aristocracy and the common nomads making up their armies, organized as a tribal confederation. The Chaghatayid khanate, the domain that Chinggis Khan bestowed on his second son, Chaghatay, split into two parts after the deposition and death of Tarmashirin Khan (Tarmasirin Han [1326-34]), a controversial figure whose conversion to Islam and acculturation to Islamic and agrarian civilization had cost him the support of part of his nomadic following, unwilling to adapt to settled ways. The eastern section of the realm remained more fully nomadic, and continued under khans descended from Chaghatay, as the eastern Chaghatayid or Moghul khanate. It is the western section, in Transoxiana, which is of concern in this study. This became known as the Ulus Chaghatay; the term ulus was used to denote a large group of people, usually several tribes. The nomad population here, while strongly loyal to Mongol traditions, became largely Muslim and lived in close contact with the settled population. The Ulus Chaghatay continued as a separate political entity for about forty years, until in 1381 Tamerlane, or Timur (Temür), began his great career of conquest. During this period the Ulus grew to include much of the territory of northern and eastern Afghanistan.

The Ulus Chaghatay was a confederation of five or six major tribes, controlling smaller nomad populations. As Thomas Bar-field has pointed out, a tribal confederation should not be seen as a large tribe; this was a different political entity, in which kinship was not the dominant cohesive force (Barfield, 1989:27). The Ulus Chaghatay had originated as an imperial structure, and it continued to depend on imperial ideology for its political identity. Nonetheless, despite its origins, the Ulus Chaghatay grew and prospered without strong central leadership; indeed, for much of its existence its leadership was actively contested. This polity was one which was formed largely through the voluntary allegiance of tribes and groups who found an advantage in such adherence and who shared the common life-style of nomadism, along with loyalty both to the Chinggisid dynasty and the religion of Islam (Manz, 1989:22-27). Over a period of thirty or forty years the active members of the confederation remained together and moreover developed a strong identity and sense of cohesion which set them apart from their subjects and neighbors, and which, in the Timurid period which followed, formed the basis of a separate ethnically based identity.

To understand how this process occurred it is necessary to examine the development of both cultural and political bonds within the nomad population of the Ulus Chaghatay which led individuals to transcend tribal identities and to see themselves as members of a supra-tribal entity. The most immediately apparent bonds are the cultural ones, crucial in separating the nomad elite both from its subjects and from other similar nomad groups. First and foremost, this group saw itself as a sharer in the nomad lifestyle and in the charisma of the Chinggisid dynasty, which still ruled over a large portion of Eurasia. Most tribes traced their origin to tribes or armies which had participated in the Mongol conquest, and their ruling clans usually claimed descent from individual commanders who had served either Chaghatay or Chinggis Khan (Mu'zz alansab, ff. 28b-29a; Manz, 1989:154-65). These nomads continued to speak Turkic, though the tribal aristocracy was largely bilingual in Turkic and Persian. What distinguished this group from other Turko-Mongolian populations was first its willingness to live close to a settled population, directly exploiting its resources, and second, its loyalty to the descendants of Chaghatay. Although actual power lay with tribal leaders, these men ruled through a Chinggisid puppet khan (Manz, 1989:43-44, 50, 57). These traits then served to define what has been called the primordial or charter aspects of Chaghatay identity—the aspects of cultural practice and loyalty. (For the importance of these aspects of identity see Bentley, 1987:24-29; Keyes, 1981:510.)

Another important source of cohesion in the Ulus Chaghatay was the dynamics of internal politics, which though based on tribalism nonetheless served to form strong supra-tribal identity and loyalties. The lack of strong central leadership in the Ulus Chaghatay might seem to suggest a segmentary tribal system, in which the existence of a higher collectivity depended not on internal cohesion but on opposition to an outside group (Evans-Pritchard, 1940). This model, however, does not fit the Ulus; tribal leadership was strong, and indeed the leader of the Ulus Chaghatay had considerable strength if he was allowed to maintain his position. The leadership of the Ulus and that of the tribes were constantly contested. The succession to both positions was open to a large number of people, and conflicts were rarely permanently resolved.

The formulation of politics in segmentary tribes—"I against my brother, my brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against my neighbor"—likewise does not fit the politics of the Ulus Chaghatay. Here the pattern was reversed. "I and my cousin against my brother, my neighbor and I against my cousin." Members of the same or of rival lineages competed for power within the tribe, and to win this position, they sought alliances outside it. The tribe served as a framework for individual action, but it could not be the only focus for personal loyalty, nor did it confine the relationships of those within it. When Timur first won power within his tribe, the Barlas, for instance, he allied with outside tribal leaders unfriendly to the former tribal chief, men who had recently attacked his tribe. The former chief, setting out to regain power over the Barlas, did not go directly against Timur, but first sought allies for himself among yet other tribal leaders, and attacked Timur's main ally, whom Timur then had to join. When he and his ally were defeated, Timur rejoined his tribe in a subordinate position. The battle over Barlas leadership then was fought not within the tribe itself but among several tribes (Manz, 1989:47).

The struggle for power within the tribes of the Ulus Chaghatay was connected with the struggle over the leadership of the Ulus itself. For someone seeking power within a tribe, the best ally was a claimant for power over the Ulus who, if he won, would install his supporters as chiefs of their tribes. Candidates for central power then usually found it easy to recruit allies among the tribal aristocracy; if one candidate was backed by the chief of a tribe, his rival was likely to find support from another member of the leading tribal lineage, eager to unseat the chief. In many contests for Ulus leadership, therefore, we find members of the same tribe on different sides (Manz, 1989:62-63).

Both the contest for central leadership and the contests within the tribes thus served to create supra-tribal loyalties among the members of the Ulus. As Max Gluckman has shown, conflict over leadership within a confederation can serve to bind it together rather than to divide it, if the validity of the supreme office is not challenged. In describing the relation between immediate family and larger social groups, Gluckman has suggested that larger groups, by claiming individual allegiance, weakened family links and thus strengthened social cohesion at a higher level (Gluckman, 1956:28-29, 44-45, 54-57). In the case of the Ulus Chaghatay, it appears that the relation between smaller and larger groups was a different one. The contest within the smaller group, the tribe, and more specifically within its leading lineage, led to an active search for outside allies. This conflict did not weaken the tribe itself. Although the tribal population could not be counted on for support, as a prize to be fought over, and as a source of wealth and power, the tribe remained central to its members and to the confederation as a whole. However, it could not alone define the loyalty or identity of an ambitious man—politically active individuals operated within the Ulus as a whole. While the individuals whose political activities we can trace were all members of the tribal aristocracy, these men controlled armies of common nomads who followed their leaders in their merry-go-round of alliances and thus fought together habitually with members of different tribes. The personal transactions and relationships whose frequency determine the group to which an individual belongs were bounded not by the tribe but by the Ulus as a whole (Cohen and Middleton, 1970:6, 16).

These constant political contests promoted cohesion in a number of different ways. The fact that the two levels of conflict were interrelated made it difficult to permanently resolve any contest; a tribal chief was always vulnerable to challenge, as was a leader of the Ulus. As leadership of tribes and of the Ulus changed, so did the alliances within it, and because alliances changed so quickly, permanent splits did not develop. In the many battles that Timur fought during his long rise to power, we see an ever changing army, sometimes larger, sometimes smaller, and a different set of alliances for almost every contest. Only his small personal following remained constant.

Some of the political activity of the Ulus must have been carried on in conversation, among the tents of the tribesmen, but most that we know of was carried out on horseback, by armed combatants. If this was to be sustained over a long period without damage to the Ulus, which depended not only on nomad but also on agricultural resources, violence had to be controlled by a set of rules understood by all contestants, and this indeed is what we find. This was a contest carried out among people who knew each other and who followed recognized norms. Rules of tribal vengeance were strongly upheld and usually if a member of the tribal aristocracy was executed, he was handed over to the relative of someone he or his tribe had killed.

Battles on the whole were controlled, and often avoided. We find on one occasion for instance that opposing armies drew up on opposite sides of a river, from which they could observe each other, the weaker side then retreating (ZNY I:45, 62; Muntakhab, pp. 209-10). Commanders here were helped by their personal knowledge of their opponents, whose troops were usually very familiar to them; they were likely to have fought together several times within the last years, sometimes on the same side, sometimes on opposing sides. Commanders had also to be aware that they might want many of their opponents as allies in the future, and this was easier to achieve in the absence of serious bloodshed. When in 1367, for instance, the rising star Timur opposed the leader of the Ulus, his former ally Amir Husayn of the Qara'unas, he faced an army composed of commanders and troops almost all of whom had been his allies within the last two years, and most of whom would fight on his side against Amir Husayn only one or two years later. These included two of his particular friends, whom his soldiers killed by mistake, failing to recognize them in the heat of battle, to Timur's considerable distress (ZNY I:114-17).

In the formation of the Ulus Chaghatay as a self-conscious group with definite and known boundaries we see that internal structure and political dynamics played a crucial part. The practice of tribal politics required the individual to deal habitually with people outside the tribe. Thus the Ulus as a whole can be defined as a community—a clustered network of interpersonal links (Charlesley, 1974:362-63). Constant political contests both required and created a definite and known set of participants. They further forged a set of norms by which these people acted, including an acceptance of tribal vengeance, of switching alliances, and of minimal killing. These norms then comprised what Bentley and Bourdieu have named a habitus—a set of schemes which produce habitual actions and representations, whose practice reinforces the sense of ethnic belonging (Bentley, 1987:28). The basic units of authority, the tribe on one level and the Ulus Chaghatay on the other, were accepted as given by all participants. The primordial elements—overriding ideologies, nomad superiority, Chingissid charisma, and loyalty to the house of Chaghatay also remained unchallenged, and served to set the Chaghatays apart from the settled population they controlled.


Excerpted from Muslims in Central Asia by Jo-Ann Gross. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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