While Central Asia has been a crossroads of cultures and religions throughout its history, there can be no question that Islam has been a central feature of its cultural life for the past millennium. Islam arrived with the Arab conquests of the early eighth century CE and over the next several centuries acquired a position of dominance. Central Asia was both part of the heartland of the Muslim world (its cities were bastions of Islamic learning, its scholars and poets occupied central places in the Islamic tradition, and it gave birth to numerous Sufi orders that spread far beyond its borders) and its frontier (some steppe nomads became Muslim only in the 19th century). Central Asia is thus heir to a rich and multifaceted Islamic tradition.
After the massive upheavals of the twentieth century that saw Communist regimes being established in the former Russian empire as well as China, Central Asians became (in the words of Alexandre Bennigsen) the “forgotten Muslims” of the world, their present condition little known and their pasts increasingly misunderstood for being seen through the prisms of contemporary exigencies. Central Asian Muslims did indeed experience the twentieth century differently than other societies in the Muslim world. The massive social and cultural experiments carried out by the two regimes left a deep imprint on Central Asia and its people. Understanding this impact is necessary for understanding both the contemporary cultural and political landscape of Central Asia and the diversity of contemporary Islam in the world.
Yet, for several reasons, Central Asia remains a difficult region to grasp for the non-expert. Throughout its recent history, Central Asia has been affected by developments taking place far away from it. To comprehend the history of Central Asia, we need to understand such varied phenomena as the rise of Islam, the emergence of the Mongol Empire, imperial rivalry between Russia and Great Britain, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and the nationalities policies pursued by the regimes that emerged from them. This means that scholarship on the region tends to be scattered across academic specializations, languages, methodologies, and intellectual traditions. It can also be politically tendentious. Scholarship published in the Soviet Union was subject to ideological and political constraints (and the situation remains that way in the People’s Republic of China). In independent post-Soviet states, the political constraints have shifted, but not gone away. During the Cold War, western scholarship had its own constraints. Hampered by lack of access to the region, many scholars wrote in a highly politicized vein. They paid scant attention to methodological questions, which produced some paradoxical results. Although Western scholars of Central Asia constantly questioned the conclusions of Soviet scholarship, they seldom questioned its methodological assumptions. Cold War-era scholarship in the West often tended to reproduce the methodological assumptions of Soviet scholarship, with only the valences reversed.
The situation has changed significantly in the last two decades. Scholars of Central Asia have increasingly become aware of their methodological assumptions, and have sought to place their work in ever broader comparative perspectives. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed access to the region and allowed scholarly contacts to be established with local scholars. The very rich archival and library collections of the region have provided an immense trove of material with which to rethink our understanding of the region. These are exciting times for Central Asian studies.
This supplement is meant to help the non-expert incorporate Central Asia into courses dealing with broader themes or with neighboring regions. It provides help for navigating various strands of the scholarly literature on Central Asia. The study of Islam provides a good bridge through which to link Central Asia into the curriculum. Instructors teaching courses on the Islamic tradition and the Muslim world can use this supplement to give Central Asia a more robust presence in their coverage. Instructors teaching courses on Russia or China will find material here to ground their coverage of Islam more solidly in the scholarly concerns and methods of Islamic studies.
Scholarship on Central Asia appears in a number of languages and in different scholarly traditions. We have included additional resources and selected primary sources, some in translation, others in the original, that should also prove useful to advanced students and scholars alike.