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8.6: Islam

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    Central Asian had already been exposed to many foreign systems of belief prior to the coming of Islam in the 7th Century. Local merchants conducting long-distance trade along the Silk Road came into contact with many different religious doctrines. As western ideas traveled eastward and eastern concepts filtered into the west. In this manner, the Silk Road carried Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism (an Iranian religion with both monotheistic and dualist elements), Siberian Shamanism, and even Nestorian Christianity to Central Asia. By the 10th Century, however, all of the non-monotheistic faiths had disappeared from Central Asia in the aftermath of Islamic conquest.

    During the 8th Century, Qutayba ibn Muslim (669 – 716) expanded the presence of Islam in Central Asia after his forces defeated the Persians. By 715 CE, the conquest of Transoxiana was complete. Later still, in 751, the Battle of Talas River secured Central Asia and repulsed the only major challenge to Islamic rule: China.

    The Persian Samanids (819 – 999) made Islam the official state religion and established a school of theology in Bukhara. But Islamization did not take place overnight; instead, it took centuries. Transoxiana slowly Islamicized, though it never Arabized. The peoples in the area remained culturally Turkic and Persian. Central Asia retained its Turkic and Persian languages, albeit with a heavy Arabic influence in religious vocabulary.

    Unlike other places, where the religion filtered into society from the bottom up, as was the case in Southeast Asia, Islamization in Central Asia occurred from the top down. The process incorporated native peoples, who took part in the process of conversion. Local leaders submitted to the faith in order to maintain their social status and elite position in society. The conquerors offered the Central Asian nobility important positions in the administration so long as they professed Islam.

    Islam also displayed a remarkable ability to assimilate indigenous Central Asian frontier customs as it advanced through the area. This action allowed some traditional practices to remain so long as it accelerated conversion. By accepting certain harmless practices in order to Islamicize Central Asia, these Muslims mirrored Christian efforts to Christianize Eastern Europe.


    The Islam of Central Asia differed greatly from that which originated in the Arabian Peninsula. This vast region embraced Islam, remaking it culturally it's own. Essentially, Sufism emerged from the fusion of Islamic sedentary civilization and Buddhist nomadic culture.

    Central Asians were generally receptive and tolerant of foreign beliefs. For example, missionaries of other religions had to make concessions to the native culture. The urban-dwelling and agricultural populations of the region generally accepted Sunni Islam and the law of the Sharia. However, the culture and lifestyle of the itinerant peoples of the steppe did not readily conform to the rigors of Islamic law. Sufism helped convert these tribes to Islam, in part due to its doctrinal flexibility. What arose from the mix of orthodox Islam and Turkic pastoral nomadism was a uniquely Central Asian brand of Sufism.

    Sufi merchants were largely responsible for bringing Islam to the region. Central Asian Sufi orders such as the Yasaviyah established themselves along trade routes in order to reach out to travelers. Meanwhile, the Naqshbandi Order, operating in travel lodges, spread Sufism by ministering to Iranian and Tajik peoples.

    This page titled 8.6: Islam is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Brian Parkinson (University System of Georgia via GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .

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