Accepted paper:

Ahmad Yasavi in the Narrative Traditions of the Ismailis of Badakhshan


Daniel Beben (Nazarbayev University)

Paper abstract:

The rise of the Khanate of Khoqand in the 18th century led to a sweeping realignment of the political and social map of Central Asia. The rulers of Khoqand developed relationships with previously marginalized peoples in the mountainous territories adjoining the Ferghana Valley. Among these was the territory of Shughnan, the majority of whose population consists of adherents to the minority Ismaili Shiʿi Muslim community. The Ferghana Valley under the rule of Khoqand became a magnet for Shughnanis and other peoples from peripheral mountain regions beginning in the 18th century, first as traders and later, in the first decade of the 19th century, as a critical source of military labor. These troops, known as the Ghalcha, performed a key role in a number of campaigns waged by the Khoqand ruler ʿAlim Khan against Bukhara and into the southern regions of the Qazaq Steppe along the Syr Darya River. It was likely during this period that Ismailis among the Ghalcha troops came into contact with both oral and written traditions concerning the legendary Central Asian Sufi figure Ahmad Yasavi, whose renown is particularly strong among communities along the Syr Darya region. Subsequently, a body of textual works connected with Ahmad Yasavi, including genealogical and literary materials, were developed and circulated among the Ismailis of Badakhshan, which displayed an imaginative transformation of this figure into an Ismaili missionary and a purveyor of Ismaili doctrine. While this body of narrative materials has previously received some brief attention (mostly in an effort to dispute the historicity of the claim to Ahmad Yasavi's status as an Ismaili missionary), so far it has not been subject to any critical analysis or efforts to trace its origins or its significance amongst the Ismailis of Badakhshan. In this paper I will assess this body of material from two interrelated vantage points. First, I examine it as an artifact of the social and political environment of 19th century Central Asia, and particularly of the new trajectories of social contact that resulted from the rise of Khoqand. Second, I analyze them in terms of the religious meaning they had for Ismaili communities. I suggest that these narratives served in part as a means of addressing certain social and religious tensions that emerged within Ismaili communities in the early 19th century as a consequence of this new contact environment.

panel HIS-11
New Approaches to the History and Historiography of Central Asia from the 17th to the 19th Century