Islamic Scholarly Exchange in Central Asia, 1747-1917


A review of The Persianate Sphere during the Age of Empires: Islamic Scholars and Networks of Exchange in Central Asia, 1747-1917, by James Robert Pickett.

To go by the local histories it produced, the city of Bukhara, “Abode of Knowledge,” was pretty much the center of the world in the 19th century. There one could find the finest institutions of higher learning, the most sacred remains of saints and prophets such as Job, and polymaths without peer in the Islamic world. In one sense such claims are unremarkable: they are the staples of a Persian tradition of chauvinistic local historiography that stretches back to at least the 11th century. But the Bukharan boosters were drawing on particularly strong material. There was something special about Bukhara, and while it may not really have been the center of the whole world, Bukhara was indeed the center of its own world, an intellectual sphere much larger than its zone of political domination.

In his wide-ranging 2015 dissertation, James Pickett asks a series of interlocking questions about this 19th-century world of Bukharan pre-eminence, questions that lead him as far back in time as Parthian nobles and as far away in space as Delhi and Kazan. Of what, exactly, was Bukhara the center? How did this sphere articulate with surrounding regions of the Persianate world? Where did this system of centrality come from and how was it perpetuated? Who were the men who kept it going and what were their values? To answer these questions, Pickett analyzes a wide variety of manuscript sources, putting chronicles, biographical dictionaries, hagiographies, and local histories in conversation with jung (legal miscellanies), fatwas, and legal commentaries. In doing so, he recasts a time and place that has often been called stagnant and benighted as a “Persianate high cultural world” at its peak.

Pickett starts with the knottiest question of all: what was the origin of the Persianate sphere? If Bukhara anchored one of several “little Persianate spheres” (149), we need first to understand its cultural inheritance as part of the larger Persianate world. It is now widely appreciated that a Persianate “cultural orientation” (in the words of Marshall Hodgson) connected Islamic societies from Anatolia to India well into the modern era. Pickett sets out to answer precisely which Persians bequeathed this cultural material to their eponymous sphere, and how such foundational material made its way to Bukhara. Here, in the introduction, Pickett works mainly from secondary sources, knitting together evidence from the latest scholarship on ancient and medieval Persia. To simplify brutally Pickett’s complex (and tentative) hypothesis, it was the persistence of a flexible class of originally Parthian elites, transforming themselves to maintain power through the Sasanian and Islamic periods, that supplied much of the Persian element in Perso-Islamic culture.

From here the argument turns to the question of periodization, and Pickett advocates a shake-up of our framework of later Central Asian history. Previous historians have seen an era defined by the return of Chinggisid rule in 1500, followed by fragmentation of the old Chaghatayid lands into the three Khanates of Bukhara, Khoqand, and Khiva. Pickett argues instead for an “even longer nineteenth century,” framed by the wars of Nadir Shah Afshar (d. 1747) and the arrival of Soviet rule in 1917. Nadir Shah’s conquests in Afghanistan and Central Asia reoriented the political landscape, writes Pickett, much as Alexander the Great’s invasions had transformed the same regions over two millennia before. From this moment on, Central Asia would be a land of competing city states. And Pickett demonstrates convincingly that it is a mistake to limit our view of those city states to the three Khanates of Bukhara, Khoqand, and Khiva. Overly clean, schematic notions of sovereignty have allowed us to exaggerate the sway of the three Khanates, and to write several other polities out of history. Recognizing “a constantly shifting tapestry of loyalties,” says Pickett, requires us to bring city-states like Shahrisabz and Kunduz back into the narrative. Moreover, basic structures of this city-state system persisted even after the region was absorbed into Russian protectorates in the late 19th century, stretching Pickett’s periodization to the arrival of Soviet rule.

All of the “Afsharid successor states” (53) may have been created equal, more or less, but by the 19th century Bukhara was preeminent, at least culturally. This was achieved through investment in educational institutions and religious structures, at a rate that far outpaced Bukhara’s competitors. The expansion of educational infrastructure drew scholars in the tens of thousands to Bukhara. Some of these educated elites would, in turn, glorify their city with local histories that further reinforced its fame. They did so by tying Bukhara’s sacred landscape to both Persian epic history and Islamic sacred history.

This, of course, was an approach widespread throughout the larger Persianate sphere, but Pickett shows that it had particular success in the case of Bukhara. He charts the city’s influence through biographical dictionaries, tracing the geographic origins of Bukhara’s intellectual elite mainly to Farghana, southern Turkistan, the mountain regions, and, of course, the Khanate of Bukhara itself. This “non-state transregional network” (149) was one of several “little Persian spheres,” alongside Ottoman, Iranian, and Indian spheres, with other intermediary zones also oriented toward Bukhara, including, Pickett argues, Chinese Turkistan and Russian Tatarstan.

The men drawn to Bukhara pursued all kinds of knowledge. Pickett draws examples from biographical dictionaries of poets and calligraphers to show the frequency with which Bukhara’s intellectuals laid claim to multiple fields of expertise. While the requisite madrassa education entailed the study of legal, exegetical, and grammatical texts, Bukharan intellectuals distinguished themselves through mastery of additional skills, including Sufi self-cultivation, occult sciences, poetry, astrology, and medicine. Here Pickett takes as his foil those scholars who would divide Central Asian literate society into clearly distinguishable groups, such as Sufis versus jurists. He argues instead that while individuals may have adopted different roles when writing in different genres, Sufis and jurists, poets and doctors, and magicians and scribes were more often than not the same people, members of a group he calls “high Persianate intellectuals” (176).

The intense overlap in intellectual interests is especially clear in the jung manuscripts, personal miscellanies that tend to focus on legal precedents but also include Sufi verse, spells, and other traces of the omnivorous minds at the center of the Bukharan sphere. Such far-flung intellectual interests entangled the Bukharan elites in “norms logically at odds with one another” (265). Intellectuals’ unproblematic embrace of apparent (from the outside, at least) contradictions undermines completely two tenacious orientalist stereotypes of the region: the romantic vision of a hedonistic orient and the countervailing image of austere, scripturalist fanaticism.

All of this played out in a political environment characterized by the interdependence of the intellectual elite and the military-political class, roughly delineated as Persianate scholars and Turkic nobles of military descent. To be sure, the two groups overlapped, especially when Turkic elites aspired to Persianate education. However, Pickett presents the relationship as mainly transactional. The political elite sought legitimacy from the intellectual stratum, and the intellectuals sought institutional support from the rulers. The potential benefits were enormous, especially for those scholars who managed to establish what amounted to scholarly dynasties, patrician families that Pickett deftly traces through the manuscript sources. The dangers were also profound, and Pickett tells a compelling story of intellectuals’ defense of their interpretive freedom as arbiters of Islam.

One of the study’s more surprising and interesting interventions, at least to this reviewer’s mind, comes in the brief epilogue. Here Pickett argues against significant continuity between the “little Persianate sphere” he has described and Central Asian society of the Soviet era. What is unusual about this is that Pickett’s research is situated firmly in the pre-Russian era. Specialists in 20th-century Central Asia often assume a stark break between pre-modern and modern social forms, whereas experts in the earlier periods are more likely to see continuity. Pickett’s portrait of discontinuity breaks with this pattern, providing a valuable alternative point of view from a scholar who is both well grounded in the manuscript sources and well travelled in contemporary Central Asia.

The strength of this study lies in the breadth of its ambitions. Like the Bukharan intellectuals he studies, Pickett pursues wide interests and deploys diverse skills. He shows political history and cultural history to be as inextricable as legal decisions and Sufi verse in a qadi’s jung. It is an achievement grounded in extensive reading of numerous and diverse primary sources, scattered across Eurasia. From a cultural history of the Bukharan educated elite, Pickett has developed something bigger – a re-evaluation of late Central Asian political, social, and intellectual history.

Rian Thum
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Loyola Universiy New Orleans

Primary Sources
The Rudaki Institute of Oriental Studies and Written Heritage of Tajikistan (IVANTaj)
The al-Biruni Institute of Oriental Studies of Uzbekistan
Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Public Library, Patna
Maulana Azad Library, Aligarh
Manuscripts and Rare Books section of Kazan State University
Oriental Department of the Scientific Library of St. Petersburg State University
Rare Books Collection of the National Library of Russia
Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences
The National Library of Tajikistan
Archive of the Orientalists of the Russian Academy of Sciences
National Archive of India
National Library of Uzbekistan
Russian State Historical Archive
The State Archive of Uzbekistan

Dissertation Information
Princeton University, 2015. Primary advisor: Stephen Kotkin.

Image: Simurgh on the portal of Nadir Divan-Beghi Madrasah, Bukhara, Uzbekistan, Wikimedia Commons.

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