“Traditional” is always a contentious term, since it can easily be turned into the opposite of “modern” and “change” and used to connote a state of unchanging timelessness before the advent of modernity. Used with caution, however, the term can provide fruitful insights into the working
Transoxiana — the agrarian lands between the Amu Darya (Oxus) and the Syr Darya (Jaxartes) — had become an integral part of the broader Islamic world by the tenth century, its cities connected to networks of Muslim culture and of Islamic learning. Indeed, some of the most important figures in Islamic civilization originated from Transoxiana. Sunni Muslims hold six compilations of hadith to be authoritative. Two of the six compilers, Abu Isma‘il al-Bukhari (810-870) and Abu ‘Isa Muhammad al-Tirmidhi (825-892) were from Transoxiana. The influential jurists Abu Mansur Muhammad al-Maturidi (d. ca. 944) and Burhan al-Din Abu’l Hasan al-Marghinani (d. 1197), the great scientist Abu Nasr al-Muhammad al-Farabi (d. ca. 950), known as “the second teacher” (after Aristotle), and the rationalist philosopher Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) — figures of absolutely central importance in the history of Islamic civilization in its so-called “classical age” — were all born in the region. They were part of broader networks of travel and learning, which served to make the cities of Transoxiana part of the “heartland” of the Muslim world. This position was further cemented by the emergence, at the end of the tenth century, of Bukhara as the seat of the independent Samanid dynasty, which patronized the development of “new Persian” (i.e., Persian as a fully Islamized language) as a literary language.
The Mongol invasion destroyed a great deal of the infrastructure of Islamic learning and unleashed a period of religious crisis and experimentation (with numerous messianic and/or antinomian movements). Out of this crisis emerged a number of Sufi orders, many of which spread far beyond Central Asia in the coming centuries.
Ultimately, the experimentation was curbed with the rise of a conservative consensus among religious elites. Many of the Sufi orders turned to self-consciously to greater rigor and adherence to the legal norms of the Islamic tradition. Education in the Islamic legal tradition revived in the fifteenth century under the Timurids, who provided patronage for the establishment of numerous madrasas. Bukhara became the preeminent center of Islamic learning in Transoxiana, acquiring students from all over Central Asia and far beyond. Madrasas arose in other cities of Central Asia as well, particularly in the Ferghana Valley.
Over time, a synthesis between the legal and the mystical traditions emerged in Central Asia, so that the two became deeply intertwined. One must therefore be wary of simplistic claims that posit a dichotomy between “legal” or “orthodox” Islam of the madrasas and the allegedly “mystical” or “heterodox” Islam of the Sufis. Many professor in madrasas were Sufi adepts and many ishans (Sufi elders) possessed madrasa knowledge. A rough survey commissioned by a Russian administrator at the end of the nineteenth century in Tashkent revealed that a number of Sufi masters in the region had attended madrasas in Bukhara. Far from being mutually exclusive, juridical and mystical strands of Islam — shariat and tariqat — were often paired together as sources of proper conduct and understanding.
As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the ulama in Central Asia came to see the maintenance of social order as a paramount goal. They reconciled themselves to the power of the dynasts, arguing that as long as a ruler protected the shariat, his rule was legitimate. They also accepted many local customs and traditions (urf-odatlar in Uzbek) as compatible with the norms of Islam.
This consensus was never absolute, of course, but it nevertheless held. It defined the contours of Islamic education in the nineteenth century. This education was traditionalist in the sense that it self-consciously sought to reproduce a tradition and to incorporate new generations into it.
In the nineteenth century, this tradition was located in a widespread consensus over what constituted education. In the cities and villages of Transoxiana, most boys had some exposure to the Islamic tradition in the maktab. Girls (no doubt in smaller numbers) acquired a similar exposure at the hands of the otin, a learned woman, often of august lineage, who gave lessons at home.