Sunday, January 3, 2010

Rediscovering Central Asia

by S. Frederick Starr

It was once the “land of a thousand cities” and home to some of the world’s most renowned scientists, poets, and philosophers. Today it is seen mostly as a harsh backwater. To imagine Central Asia’s future, we must journey into its remarkable ­past.

In AD 998, two young men living nearly 200 miles apart, in ­present-­day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, entered into a correspondence. With verbal jousting that would not sound out of place in a ­21st-­century laboratory, they debated 18 questions, several of which resonate strongly even ­today.

Are there other solar systems out among the stars, they asked, or are we alone in the universe? In Europe, this question was to remain open for another 500 years, but to these two men it seemed clear that we are not alone. They also asked if the earth had been created whole and complete, or if it had evolved over time. Time, they agreed, is a continuum with no beginning or end. In other words, they rejected creationism and anticipated evolutionary geology and even Darwinism by nearly a millennium. This was all as heretical to the Muslim faith they professed as it was to medieval ­Christianity.

Few exchanges in the history of science have so boldly leapt into the future as this one, which occurred a thousand years ago in a region now regarded as a backwater. We know of it because a few copies of it survived in manuscript and were published almost a millennium later. ­Twenty-­six-year-old Abu ­al-­Rayhan al-Biruni, or al-Biruni (973–1048), hailed from near the Aral Sea and went on to distinguish himself in geography, mathematics, trigonometry, comparative religion, astronomy, physics, geology, psychology, mineralogy, and pharmacology. His counterpart, Abu Ali Sina, or Ibn Sina (ca. 980–1037), was from the stately city of Bukhara, the great seat of learning in what is now Uzbekistan. He made his mark in medicine, philosophy, physics, chemistry, astronomy, theology, clinical pharmacology, physiology, ethics, and even music. When eventually Ibn Sina’s great Canon of Medicine was translated into Latin, it triggered the start of modern medicine in the West. Together, the two are regarded as among the greatest scientific minds between antiquity and the Renaissance.

Most today know these argumentative geniuses, if at all, as Arabs. This is understandable, since both wrote in Arabic (as well as Persian). But just as a Japanese writing in English is not an Englishman, a Central Asian writing in Arabic is not an Arab. In fact, both men were part of a huge constellation of ethnically Persian or Turkic geniuses in mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geology, linguistics, political science, poetry, architecture, and practical ­tech­nology—­all of whom were from what today we call Central Asia. Between 800 and 1100 this pleiad of Central Asian scientists, artists, and thinkers made their region the intellectual epicenter of the world. Their influence was felt from East Asia and India to Europe and the Middle ­East.

Today, this is hard to imagine. This vast region of irrigated deserts, mountains, and steppes between China, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and the Caspian Sea is easily dismissed as a peripheral zone, the “backyard” of one or another great power. In impoverished Afghanistan, traditionally considered the heart of Central Asia, U.S. forces are fighting a ­backward-­looking and ignorant Taliban. The main news in America from the rest of Central Asia is that the Pentagon is looking for bases there from which to provision the Afghan campaign. In China, the region is seen chiefly as a ­semi-­colonial source of oil, natural gas, gold, aluminum, copper, and uranium. The Russian narrative, meanwhile, dwells on Moscow’s geopolitical competition there with the West and, increasingly, China. By and large, most people abroad ignore the land of Ibn Sina and al-Biruni, dismissing it as an inconvenient territory to be crossed while getting somewhere ­else.

Given the dismal plight of these lands in the modern era, who can be surprised at this? Beginning a century and a half ago, Russia colonized much of the region, while Britain turned Afghanistan into a buffer to protect its Indian colonies from Russia. China eventually absorbed a big chunk to the east, now known as Xinjiang, the “New Territory.” Ancient traditions of learning had long since died out, and while the Soviets revived literacy, they suppressed free thought in both the secular and religious spheres. A new day for the region began with the creation of five independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and with the establishment of a new and more modern government in Afghan­istan after ­9/11.

Eighteen years on, all of the new states have preserved their sovereignty and Afghanistan is clinging to life. But several of the region’s countries remain destitute, and even the most successful ones are riddled with corruption and still dependent on authoritarian forms of rule. As William Faulkner reminded us in his speech accepting the Nobel Prize in 1950, there is a big difference between surviving and prevailing. Is the best hope of these lands merely to work their way back up to zero? Or can they possibly reclaim some of the luster of their glorious past, and ­prevail?

And glorious it was. It is hard to know where to begin in enumerating the intellectual achievements of Central Asians a millennium ago. In mathematics, it was Central Asians who first accepted irrational numbers, identified the different forms of cubic equations, invented trigonometry, and adapted and disseminated the decimal system and Hindu numerals (called “Arabic” numbers in the West). In astronomy, they estimated the earth’s diameter to a degree of precision unmatched until recent centuries and built several of the largest observatories before modern times, using them to prepare remarkably precise astronomical tables.

In chemistry, Central Asians were the first to reverse reactions, to use crystallization as a means of purification, and to measure specific gravity and use it to group elements in a manner anticipating Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table of 1871. They compiled and added to ancient medical knowledge, hugely broadened pharmacology, and passed it all to the West and to India. And in technology, they invented windmills and hydraulic machinery for lifting water that subsequently spread westward to the Middle East and Europe and eastward to China.

But wasn’t this the great age of Arab science and learning centered at the Caliphate in Baghdad? True enough. There were brilliant Arab scientists such as the polymath and founder of ophthalmology Ibn ­al-­Haytham (ca. 965–1040). But as the Leipzig scholar Heinrich Suter first showed a century ago, many, if not most, of those “Arab” scientists were in fact either Persian or Turkic and hailed originally from Central Asia. This is true of the mathematician and astronomer Mukhammad ibn Musa ­al-­Khorezmi (ca. AD 780–850), who was from the same Khorezm region of the Uzbekistan-Turkmenistan border area as ­al-­Biruni, hence “al-Khorezmi.” Algorithms, one of his many discoveries, still bear his name in distorted form, while our term “algebra” comes directly from the title of his celebrated book on mathematics. Similarly, Abu Nasr ­al-­Farabi (ca. AD 872–961), known in the West as Alfarabius, whose innovative analyses of the ethics of Aristotle surpassed all those of Western thinkers except Thomas Aquinas, was a Turk from what is now Kazakhstan, not an ­Arab.

The extraordinarily important role of Central Asian intellectuals in Baghdad is less surprising when one bears in mind that the Abbassid Caliphate was actually founded by Central Asians. True, the caliphs themselves were Arabs who had settled in the East, but in the process they had “gone native” and embraced the Persian and Turkic world in which they found themselves. One caliph, ­al-­Ma’mun, refused for years after his appointment in AD 818 to leave Central Asia, ruling the Muslim world instead from the splendid oasis city of Merv in what is now Turkmenistan. When he eventually moved to Baghdad he brought with him, along with his Turkic soldiers, the more open and ecumenical values of Central Asia, with their blend of influences from the Persian and Turkic cultures.

The movement from Central Asia to the Middle East recalls the ancient brain drain from the centers of Greek learning to Rome. The difference is that even as some Central Asian scientists and scholars were moving to Baghdad, Arab intellectuals were also being attracted to the great centers in Central Asia. In a kind of reverse brain drain, the extraordinarily enlightened city of Gurganj (where al-Biruni lived), in what is now Turkmenistan, became a magnet for Arab scientists, as did the ­well-­financed and opulent court at Ghazni in eastern Afghanistan. Nor did all Central Asians who had been lured to Baghdad choose to stay ­there.

What territories should we include in this “Central Asia” that produced such a flowering of genius? Certainly all of the five “stans” that gained independence in 1991: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. No less central to this flowering of the intellect were the great cities of what is now Afghanistan: Balkh, Herat, and others. Add also modern Iran’s northeastern province of Khorasan, whose capital city, Nishapur, produced long ranks of innovators during those bounteous years. The boundaries of this “zone of genius” also extend across what is now the western border of China to embrace the ancient city of Kashgar and several other great centers that have always fallen within the cultural orbit of Central ­Asia.

It is one thing to draw a circle on the map, but quite another to explain why this region, call it Greater Central Asia, should have produced such a cultural flowering. Booming cities provided the setting for cultural life. A traveling Arab marveled at what he called the “land of a thousand cities” in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. The ruins of mighty Balkh, once the capital of this region, still spread for miles and miles across the plain west of modern Mazar–­i-­Sharif in Afghanistan. In its heyday Balkh was larger than Paris, Rome, Beijing, or Delhi. Like all the great regional centers, it had running water, baths, and majestic palaces—and solidly built homes of sun-dried brick for non-palace dwellers.

It was also richer, thanks to continental trade. Merchants from Balkh and other Central Asian commercial centers journeyed to the Middle East, Europe, China, and deep into India. Traders from those lands brought goods to the sprawling commercial entrepôts in Greater Central Asia. Since slavery thrived throughout the Muslim world and beyond, the bazaars also included large slave markets. Gold, silver, and bronze currency from these thriving hubs of commerce traveled all the way to Gotland in Sweden and to Korea and Sri ­Lanka.

Central Asia lay at the junction of all the routes connecting the great cultures of the Eurasian landmass. This network of routes, today often called the “Silk Road,” in its heyday transported a huge variety of goods in every direction. Glass blowing spread from the Middle East to China via Central Asia, while papermaking and sericulture (the production of silk) went from China westward. But the Central Asians were not passive transmitters. For half a millennium, Middle Easterners and Europeans esteemed Samarqand paper as the best anywhere, while the treasures of more than one medieval cathedral in Europe consist of silk manufactured in the Fergana Valley of what is now mainly ­Uzbekistan.

Traders also carried religions. Greek settlers in the wake of Alexander the Great (356–23 BC) brought the cults of Athena, Hercules, and Aphrodite to their new cities in Afghanistan. Then Buddhism found fertile soil across the region, and spread from there to China, Japan, and Korea. Along the way, Buddhist artists picked up from immigrant Greeks the idea of depicting the Buddha in sculpture. About the same time, Jewish communities were formed, Syrian Christian bishoprics established, and Manichean communities founded across the region. In a stratum beneath all these religions lay the region’s core faith, Zoroastrianism, with its emphasis on the struggle of good and evil, redemption, and heaven and hell. Zoroaster, who probably lived in the sixth or seventh century BC, came from the region of Balkh, but his religion spread westward, eventually to Babylon, where Jews encountered it and fell under its influence. From Judaism its concepts spread first to Christianity and then to ­Islam.

So when Islam arrived with the Arab armies in the late seventh century, it encountered a population that was expert in what we might today call comparative religion and philosophical analysis. Many Central Asians converted, but others did not, at least not until after the period of cultural effervescence had passed. Muslim or not, they were expert codifiers, and one of them, Muhammad ibn Ismail al-Bukhari (AD 810–70), brought together and analyzed the hadiths (sayings) of Muhammad, the compilation becoming re­garded as Islam’s second most holy book after the Qur’an. Secular ideas also wafted back and forth across the region. The astronomer al-Khorezmi wrote a book comparing the utility of Indian numerals (and the concept of zero) with all other contenders, while others mined Indian geometry, astronomy, and even calendar systems for good ideas. Earlier Central Asians had tested various alphabets, including ones from Syria and India. Several local languages opted for an alphabet deriving from Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. It is hard to imagine a more intellectually open region ­anywhere.

What distinguished Central Asians from both the Arabs and the Chinese is that they were polyglots. They considered it normal to live amid a bewildering profusion of languages and alphabets, and managed somehow to master whichever ones they needed at the time. Thus, when the Arab armies arrived bearing a new religion, it was natural that at least some officials and intellectuals would learn the Arabs’ strange language to see what it offered. Traders soon thereafter began arriving with writings newly translated from classical Greek. Often the work of Christian Arabs, these translations suddenly opened challenging new ideas in philosophy and science to Central Asians. In due course, they were to master and even go beyond their ancient Greek ­mentors.

The flowering of Greater Central Asia was thus a product of “location, location, location,” both with respect to the ­trade-­based prosperity that it generated and to the welter of religions and ideas that came on the back of that trade. But trade alone would not have given rise to the intellectual awakening that occurred, for not all trade unleashes genius. Perhaps it is best to think of trade as a necessary condition for intellectual ­take­off, but not a sufficient ­one.

How important was religion to this explosion of creativity? For many, Islam was the crucial factor. When ­al-­Bukhari embarked on his lifework of scholarship he was doubtless moved by deep piety, as were scores of other great thinkers. Al-Farabi never doubted that his research into the basis of ethics would strengthen formal religion. Others agreed with al-Farabi but insisted that free inquiry and research should guide religion, not vice versa, and certainly not be constrained by it. Still others were outright skeptics who dismissed religion as fine for the mass of society but a farce for intellectuals. This was the view of Omar Khayyám (1048–1123), the brilliant mathematician who is known today mainly for his poetry, a collection of which was introduced to the West in the 19th century as the Rubáiyát of Omar ­Khayyám.

All this adds up to the possibility that intellectual boldness owed less to what religion did than to what it did not do. This is important, given the struggle that existed at times between religion and science in the West. But one senses that someone like ­al-­Farabi, who tossed off a major study on musical theory in addition to all his other works, needed neither permission nor encouragement to treat the whole world as his oyster.

Pinpointing the causes of Central Asia’s golden age is all the more difficult because the great minds who gave the age its brilliance were such a diverse lot. A few came from wealthy landed families and could live off their estates, while others, such as Ibn Sina and ­al-­Biruni, won appointments to lucrative high offices. But they were exceptions. Most of the thinkers were ­full-­time scientists, scholars, and intellectuals, or at least aspired to be. With no universities or academies of science to support them, this was no easy undertaking. Even if they assembled a few paying students, the resulting income never provided enough to sustain them. And so, by default, they relied on the patronage of ­rulers.

Here was one of Central Asia’s great strengths. To be sure, a ­would-­be scientist could strike out for Baghdad in hopes of joining the House of Wisdom, an academy of sciences established by the Central ­Asia–born caliph ­al-­Ma’mun. But there were many local rulers and courts throughout the region, just as there were also in Persia to the west. All gave a respectful nod to Baghdad but considered themselves functionally independent. Each of these rulers was a kind of caliph in his own right, ruling in a thoroughly authoritarian manner and defending his territory with a large army of Turks. But they also promoted trade, collected taxes, built splendid capitals, and, significantly, spent fortunes on the arts and sciences. One such court was at Gurganj, where ­al-­Biruni worked. Another was at the already-ancient walled city of Samarqand, where between 850 and 1000 the Samanid dynasty maintained a magnificent library, intense salons where savants discussed the Great Questions, and a lively social world centered on music and poetry.

There was nothing kind and gentle about some of these rulers; nor were all of them sophisticated as patrons of the arts and sciences. From his capital in eastern Afghanistan, Mahmud of Ghazna (971–1030) ruled an empire stretching from India to the heart of modern Iran. Mahmud was ruthless and viewed culture more as an adornment than a necessity. Yet he successfully engaged ­al-­Biruni, who proceeded to author the first comprehensive study of India and Hinduism in any language. Mahmud also pa­tron­ized the great poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi, whose grand panorama of ­pre-­Muslim Persia, the Shahnameh (ca. 1000), in­fluenced troubadours as far away as France and remains a classic of world literature.

The last great explosion of cultural energy in Central Asia occurred under the Seljuk Turks beginning about 1037 and continuing for more than a century. From their eastern capitals at Merv in modern Turkmenistan and Nishapur near the present-day Iranian-Afghan border, they encouraged innovators in many fields. Among their achievements was the invention of a way to cover large spaces with double domes. One of their earliest efforts can still be seen rising from the desolation of their ruined capital at Merv. Following a circuitous route that led through Filippo Brunelleschi’s dome at the Cathedral of Florence to St. Nicholas’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, this innovation eventually defined the cupola of the U.S. Capitol in ­Washington.

Why did the great age of Central Asia fade? The most common explanation blames the waning of the intellectual whirlwind on the Mongol invasion, which Ghenghis Khan launched from the Mongolian heartland in 1218. It is true that the Mongol invaders sacked most of the magnificent cities of Central Asia, but three objections undermine this thesis. First, all but a few of the cities quickly revived, thanks to trade and commerce. Second, far from isolating the region, the Mongol conquest increased contacts between Greater Central Asia and both Europe and the rest of Asia. This happened because the conquering Mongols abolished borders and tariffs within their vast empire. When Marco Polo passed through Afghanistan en route to China in the 13th century, he did so with a single “patent,” or visa. To the extent that cross-cultural contact was an essential ingredient of intellectual vitality, it flourished under the ­Mongols.

Third, even if the Mongols had set out to suppress free thought in 1221 (they did not), there would have been no need for them to do so. A full century earlier, much of the cultural energy that had crackled across the length and breadth of Central Asia for hundreds of years had dissipated. True, at Merv in the 12th century there were still a dozen libraries, one of them with 12,000 volumes, and there were more than 50 doctors in Bukhara. But as early as 1100, the focus of intellectual life had shifted from bold sallies into vast and unknown territories to the preparation of compendiums of earlier studies and careful treatises on safer, more limited subjects. A sure sign that the formerly bright flame had diminished is the fact that most of the surviving manuscripts from this period are either copies of earlier writings or commentaries on them, not original ­works.

If the “Whodunit?” question does not point to the Mongols, what caused the decline? Most of Central Asia’s great ancient cities today present a picture of gaunt ruins baking silently in the desert sun, the bleakness relieved only by occasional tufts of sage. Viewing them, one is tempted to blame the cultural downturn on climate change or some other ecological shift. But most studies of the region’s ecological history conclude that the climate during the boom years was nearly identical to what it is today, and that the main change was the decay of the irrigation systems that were once the region’s ­glory.

Looking beyond the Mongols and ecology, at least four factors contributed to the region’s decline. First, and perhaps foremost, nothing endures forever. The golden age of classical Athens lasted barely a century before the city slipped into a lesser silver age. Few of the Renaissance cities remained at a peak of cultural creativity for more than a century and a half. It is natural and inevitable that decline should set in after a high ­point.

In the case of Central Asia, even more than with the Arabs to the West, the mighty stimulus for original thinking had been the challenge of mastering and assimilating vast and unfamiliar bodies of thought, from ancient Greece, the Middle East, and India. By 1100 this had been accomplished, and no comparably huge body of new learning presented itself thereafter. The European Renaissance should have provided such a stimulus, of course, but by that time the great trade routes that had connected civilizations had seen better days and Central Asia’s isolation and decline was becoming ­entrenched.

Second, religions, like the cultures of which they are a part, go through cycles, beginning in dynamism, ­self-­confidence, and experimentation and then hardening into orthodoxy. In Central Asia, this had already occurred with both Zoroastrianism and Buddhism. In the case of Islam, the greatest flowering of creative thought started early, between 800 and 1100. The hardening into orthodoxy also began early, but did not reach its apex until around 1100. Even then, there remained a few isolated outposts that stayed intellectually vital for another century or so. But in Persian and Turkic Central Asia, as in the Arab heartland and in Persia proper, the demands of a steadily rigidifying Muslim orthodoxy gradually narrowed the sphere in which free thought and humanism could be ­exercised.

Beyond these “morphological” realities that contributed to the withering of free intellectual life in Greater Central Asia, a third and much more specific factor was at work: the ­Sunni-­Shia split within the Muslim faith. This fundamental division dates to the first generation after Muhammad’s death in AD 632. By the time of the rise of the first Caliphate in Damascus, the Sunnis were firmly in charge throughout the Muslim world except in Egypt, where the Fatimids, a Shiite dynasty, flourished from 968 to 1171. But even before the fall of the Fatimids the Shiite faithful were being hounded eastward, shifting the core zone of confessional conflict to Persia and Central Asia. As this occurred, the reigning Sunni rulers across the region tightened their grip on all who might be suspected of schismatic leanings. Many of the great innovators, such as Ibn Sina, had come from Shiite families. Now anyone like him was ­suspect.

Needless to say, the change hit the freethinkers particularly hard, but it affected no less the mainline Sunnis. Two figures from the town of Tus on the western fringe of Central Asia in what is now eastern Iran epitomized this new direction. The first, Nizam ­al-­Mulk (1018–92), was a highly gifted administrator and also one of the best political scientists of the era. ­Al-­Mulk’s teachers had introduced him to works by the best minds of the Central Asian renaissance. But by the time he was appointed vizier of the Seljuk Empire, the battle against Shiite dissidence was at full tilt. Fearing deviance on every side, ­al-­Mulk proposed to establish a network of schools, or madrassas, that would instill orthodox Sunni Islam and turn young men into ­well-­informed loyalists of the faith. Graduates would reject not only the Shiite schism but any other forms of thought that might be suspected of deviance from ­orthodoxy.

The second transformative figure, Abu Hamid Muhammad ibn Muhammad ­al-­Ghazali (1058–1111), a philosopher and theologian, launched a frontal attack on the dangers posed by the unrestrained exercise of reason. The title of his most famous work tells it all: The Incoherence of the Philosophers (i.e., scientists). Like the Grand Inquisitor in Feodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, al-Ghazali intimately knew his enemy, in this case Aristotelian empiricism, which had attracted the best minds of the region. Attacking Aristotle, he attacked all contemporary rationalists, and to devastating ­effect.

Together, ­al-­Mulk and al-­­Ghazali lowered the curtain on independent thought that had been raised in Central Asia for three centuries. Yet Central Asians responded with their typical creativity. With outer forms of the faith hardened and rigidified, they evinced a fresh interest in individual spirituality. Their highly personal system for achieving a mystical experience of God required neither books, hierarchies, nor mosques, and was called Sufism. Central Asians had ready at hand many forms of such mystical and private worship, thanks to their contacts with Hindu India and their rich local traditions of Buddhism, Syrian Christianity, and even Judaism, which had thrived in the region’s trade centers. How mystical currents within these faiths contributed to Sufism is much debated, but one thing is clear: Even though the first Sufis had been Arabs, Central Asia became Sufism’s heartland. Several of the first and greatest Sufi movements arose there and spread thence throughout the Muslim world. Today Sufi poems by Rumi, Attar, and others have gained a New Age following, but in their own era they represented a turning inward and away from the civic ­realm.

Central Asia by no means disappeared from the world’s view after 1100. In the 14th century, Timur, known in the West as Tamerlane, conquered the world from Delhi to the eastern shore of the Mediterranean and then assembled learned scientists and writers in his rebuilt capital of Samarqand. A century later, Babur sprang from the Fergana Valley and went on to found the Mughal dynasty in India. A gifted writer, Babur followed the old Central Asian practice of gathering creative talent to his ­court.

Yet Central Asia never regained the intellectual luster it had possessed in the centuries between 800 and 1100. High local tariffs killed the golden goose that had given birth to prosperity and inter-cultural contact. Religious orthodoxy stifled the region’s most original thinkers. As the decline set in, Central Asia gradually ceased to be central to the high culture of all Eurasia and sank into the status of a remote and dusty boondocks.

From this descent into obscurity it was an easy step to Dan Rather’s coverage of Afghanistan and the region in the immediate wake of 9/11. Donning a bush jacket and filming at dawn and dusk, he presented the region as inaccessible, backward, exotic, marginal, and ­threaten­ing—­in short, the end of the world. Ibn Sina, ­al-­Biruni, and scores of other ­world-­class geniuses from the region might just as well never have ­lived.

Even though the Central Asia of Rather’s depiction was and is an evocative image, it carries some bothersome implications. On the one hand, it conjures up a place where the best the United States and the world community can hope for is to limit the damage arising from it. This means destroying whatever threatens us and then getting out. The problem is that the thinking behind such an approach can then become ­self-­fulfilling: A place we judged to be hopeless becomes truly so, and even more threatening than before. The fact that Central Asia and Afghanistan are situated between four—and possibly soon five—nuclear powers does not help ­matters.

Fortunately, this prevailing image of backwardness is not the whole story. Since the region emerged from Soviet and Taliban rule, the ancient continental trade routes have begun to revive. Indians and Koreans flying to Europe stop off there. Half a dozen countries and as many international financial institutions are busily building a network of highways that will eventually link Europe, China, India, and the Middle East. The fact that this is occurring without central direction means that its extent has largely gone unnoticed. But the road building has now reached the level of an unstoppable force. The opening of routes between ­Europe and ­China and across Afghanistan toward the Arabian Sea, India, and Southeast Asia and linking the Middle East, China, and India will, in the coming decade, transform the entire Eurasian landmass. Little that is emerging is absolutely new. Indeed, anyone interested in knowing what the new transport configuration will look like might start by examining the trade routes of the golden ­era.

Similarly, the opening of Central Asia between 1991 and 2001 is beginning to transform the region intellectually. Tens of thousands of the region’s students have gone to study at the best universities abroad. In an act of enlightenment worthy of their predecessors a millennium ago, the governments of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan have paid for these young people to acquire the most modern knowledge and bring it back home. They return with a passion for reconnecting their region with the global world of ideas. Within the next decade, these young men and women will assume leadership roles in their societies and in the region as a whole. It is hard to imagine that they will consider the prevailing corruption to be normal, or accept ­Soviet-­style controls over their ideas. Even in Afghanistan the National University, the recently established American University, and thousands of lower schools are opening new prospects to the rising ­generation.

These young people quite reasonably ask, “Who are we?” Answers pour in from every side. Many in the Middle East and even in the West, from the White House down, tell them they are Muslims, defined mainly by the faith in which they were raised. Alternatively, some experts smugly invoke the notions of tribal or clan heritage to explain what they consider the region’s hopelessly retrograde politics. Meanwhile, local patriots hail their various national ethnic ­identities—­Kyrgyz, Tajik, or ­Uzbek—­each of which, they insist, is absolutely unique and like no ­other.

These proposed identities may have some basis in reality. But all run the risk of narrowing the horizons of the emerging generation and limiting their expectations of themselves. The attraction of some young people to fundamentalist religious organizations or narrowly nationalistic groups is also a cause for concern. But Central Asians have ready at hand a meaningful past that lifts up the individual, defines each person in terms of reason and wisdom, and places that person in the mainstream of global developments. This is the great tradition that for 300 years made their region the center of the world of intellect. Why shouldn’t Central Asians and their friends abroad place this remarkable heritage, rather than some narrowly religious or national ideology, as the lodestone of their policies ­today?

This means focusing more of our support and theirs on reopening the great continental transport routes, instituting freer borders, lowering tariffs, and reducing meddling from the governments. Free trade must also extend to the world of ideas. This means creating the unfettered intellectual space that enabled Ibn Sina and al-Biruni to hypothesize on evolution rather than creationism and even to contemplate the existence of other worlds. Though they each lived under a different government, nobody intercepted their mail and nobody censured their heretical thoughts. In fact, rulers competed to become their patrons and to support their ­work.

Would this happen today in Central Asia? Several governments in the region are glad to talk of unfettered continental trade but bridle at the prospect of an unfettered exchange of ideas. Yet in every country in the region, there are distinguished champions of the kind of intellectual openness that will give rise to modern Ibn Sinas and al-Birunis. With the emergence of the new generation, increasing numbers of these people are in government. The idea of a fresh flowering of Central Asia may seem a distant prospect, but it is not impossible, especially if Central Asians become more familiar with their rich heritage and draw from it relevant lessons for the ­present.

If this is the challenge to inhabitants of the region today, the challenge to their international partners is to treat the regional states as sovereign countries, not as culturally inert objects to be shoved around on a chessboard. It is not enough to view them simply as a “zone of [our] special interest,” as Vladimir Putin’s government does; as a source of raw materials, as the Chinese do; or as a fueling stop en route to Kabul, as the United States does. The better alternative is to acknowledge that somewhere in the DNA of these peoples is the capacity to manage great empires and even greater trading zones, to interact as equals with the other centers of world culture, and to use their unique geographical position to become a link and bridge between civilizations. Such an awareness will raise expectations on all sides, and encourage the region’s international partners to view it as more than the object of a geopolitical ­game.

This, too, won’t be easy, but acquiring a deeper knowledge of Central Asia’s past is an essential place to begin.

What Kind of Arabs Does the Youngest Leader of Central Asia Prefers?

The youngest leader in Central Asia, who agreed upon opening Israel embassy at the Iranian border, has actively promoted connections with the Arab world lately. But being in the very center of the “Big game” he is very careful in choosing his partners in the Middle East.

Turkmen and Jordanian leaders

On the 29th of June the Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov paid his first official visit to Jordan. The leader of Central Asian Republic who became a president in February 2007 celebrated his 52-nd birthday in Amman.

King Abdullah and Mr. Berdymukhamedov discussed economic cooperation. The Turkmen president called upon the Jordanians to take part in building a transnational roadway that would link the republics of Central Asia with Iranian ports on the Persian Gulf.

Contrary to the official mass-media of Turkmenistan, the Jordanian press agency Petra informed that the leaders of two countries also discussed “the efforts in reaching stable and true peace in the Middle East” speaking of the Arab-Israeli conflict. For the first time in history the leader of Turkmenistan was discussing this issue, as until recently Ashkhabad distanced itself from the Arab-Israeli problems. In January 2009 Turkmenistan was the only country of Central Asia that didn’t even “notice” the Israeli operation in the Gaza Strip.

Berdymukhamedov’s visit to Amman has become a part of the tendency in promoting relations with the Arab world, Jordan in particular, that the new state leader took right after he had come to power. For the last two and a half years the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan became a priority in the Ashkhabad “Arab policy”.

Though diplomatic relations between Turkmenistan and Jordan have been established as early as in 1993 together with other countries of the Middle East, they remained in the embryo state until Berdymukhamedov came to power. In July 2008 the first meeting of two leaders took place in the capital of Kazakhstan. In August 2008 the king of Jordan visited Ashkhabad for the first time in history of relations between two countries. In September Abdullah became the only Arab leader whom Berdymukhamedov called and congratulated with the Ramadan.

A special envoy of the king of Jordan, Abdullah Voriekat, vizited Ashkhabad twice (08.2008 and 02.2009). At the same time the embassy of Jordan was open in Turkmenistan. While foreign ambassadors usually present credentials to the chairman of the parliament of Turkmenistan, this time an exception was made for the representative of the Hashemite Kingdom: in August he was welcomed by president Berdymukhamedov himself. Spearheaded by the leader of the Republic the countries came to the agreement upon creating a bilateral committee on interstate cooperation.

The Arab vector of Ashkhabad

Jordan occupies the leading position in the Berdymukhamedov “Arab policy” regarded by the number of top-level contacts (4 per year). It’s significant that it was at the meeting with the king Abdullah's envoy in August 2008 that the new president of Turkmenistan announced his regional policy calling “the partnership with the Arab countries… one of the main priorities of the Turkmen foreign policy”. Following this statement he has been actively developing relationships with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt for 2007-2009.

In August 2007 Berdymukhamedov visited the United Arab Emirates. In February 2008 the president of this Arab state visited Ashkhabad. In May 2008 the minister of external trade of the United Arab Emirates visited Turkmenistan, in January 2009 the head of the economic department did this as well. Berdymukhamedov granted the new ambassador of the United Arab Emirates an audience, and the parties agreed upon creating a bilateral intergovernmental committee.

The first Arab state that Berdymukhamedov visited after his inauguration was Saudi Arabia. It was a significant step of the new leader of the Islamic Republic, regarding the special status of Saudi Arabia in the Islamic world – being the guardian of the main Islamic relics and the protector of Islam. Then, in April 2007 they reached the agreement concerning the Saudi participation in exploitation of Turkmenistan's oil and gas lot of the Caspian sea. Riyadh promised its assistance to Ashkhabad in medical sphere and HR in the agricultural sector. Parties agreed upon opening embassies.

In October 2007 relations between Turkmenistan and Egypt also started reviving (the Egyptian non-resident ambassador visited Ashkhabad). In February 2008 the deputy minister of foreign affairs of Egypt, Tamer Khalil, came to Turkmenistan. In January 2009 the first international meeting of the Turkmen-Egyptian Committee with participation of the Egyptian minister of international cooperation (also welcomed by the president) took place in Ashkhabad.

Besides, in March 2009 the ambassador of Lebanon was accredited in Turkmenistan for the first time. Several months earlier, in December 2008, the head of the Republic received the vice-president of Lebanese-European “Consolidated Contactors Company” (CCC), Samer Khuri. Since 1950-ies this company was closely connected with FATAH (the members of the Khuri clan originating from the city of Safed in Galilee regarded themselves Palestinians), and since 1990-ies - with the leaders of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA). Samer Khuri is a CEO of the Palestinian Investment Fund (PIF) that finances various PNA projects. His brother, Wail Khuri, is known for his connections with the Israeli establishment. Notably in the end of the 1990-ies and in the beginning of the 2000 he was a business partner of Yossef Genosar, the former head of the Northern district of Shin Bet, the Israeli Secret Service (1981-84) and ex-representative of three Israeli prime ministers at the negotiations with the PNA chairman Yasser Arafat (1992-96; 1999-2000).

It’s absolutely clear that the contacts with official Beirut, Lebanese and Palestinian businessmen are secondary in the “Arab policy” of Berdymukhamedov. His main partners are Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. All of these are moderate Arab states and are allies of the USA in the Middle East. Moreover, Jordan and Egypt have diplomatic relations with Israel, while the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia secretly maintain economic ties with Israel.

It must be noticed that Berdymukhamedov has no contacts with Syria that is at outs with America and supports Palestinian Islamist organizations (HAMAS and Islamic Jihad). It also comes unto notice that Ashkhabad keeps in touch with the CCC which is linked with the PNA (FATAH, the HAMAS’s adversary), and connected to the Western and Israeli establishment. By the way, the Khuri family whose company has already implemented a large project in Ashkhabad (i.e. the “Olympic city”) is well-known by its highly negative attitude towards Islamic extremists due to its association with the Greek Orthodox church. It is impotant to remind that in January 2009 Turkmenistan was the only state in Central Asia that didn’t show any trace of anxiety concerning the Israeli operation in Gaza Strip against the armed gangs of HAMAS.

Active developing of Turkmenistan's links with moderate Arab countries forms a part of global process that could be nominally divided into three levels: geopolitical, interregional and local.

The Big Game

On the geopolitical level this republic is one of the main objects of competition for political influence and for the energy resources of Central Asia between Russia, the USA, China, the European Union and Iran. It is imposed by the fact that Turkmenistan is the fourth largest gas supplier in the world (after the Russian Federation) in the post-Soviet area. The present “Big game” flare up is caused by the attempts of overcoming energy dependence of the European Union on Russia in the midst of the Georgian-Osetian conflict (08.2008) and the Russian-Ukrainian gas crisis (01.2009). For the last 6 month it lead to several of events that draw more international attention to Turkmenistan:
- In March-April there emerged a clash between Ashkhabad and Moscow which made Turkmenistan stop delivering its gas via Russia;
- In April the European Union showed unprecedented thaw in relations with Turkmenistan (the European parliament approved the trade agreement with the Republic, and European Committee opened its representative office in Ahskhabad), but in the beginning of June it laid down unacceptable conditions for partnership in energy sphere;
- In June China took advantage of the Turkmenistan-Russian contradictions and of the delay in dialogue between Askhabad and Brussels and made haste in accommodating Turkmenistan with a loan of $4 billion;
- In April-June Ashkhabad was visited by a number of high-ranking officials of the new US cabinet (Richard Baucher, Richard Morningstar, George Krol), and in June the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan visited Washington (trying to win the American support in the dialogue with the European Union).

The present competition of the world powers for influence in Central Asia is the “Big Game” of the XIX – XX centuries going on after the USSR disintegration. The role of this region depends not only on its resources but also on its strategic location at the borders with Russia and China, Iran and Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. This “Game” provides favorable conditions for the countries of Central Asia in trading their energy resources, allocation of military and strategic installation of Russia and the USA on their ground and also provides room for maneuver during their sovereignization.

Are Arabs our brothers?

The development of relations between Central Asian republics with the Arab world at the “interregional level” became the inseparable part of the “Big Game”. At the beginning of the 90-ies the Arab countries, following Turkey and Iran, tried to spread their influence upon this region. But Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and even Egypt (with its Al-Azhar University) made the same mistake as Iran did. They used relations with the countries of Central Asia for promoting their religious and political influence. This contributed greatly to the activity growth of the Islamic extreme elements in the region. As a result the governing regimes put development of relations with the Arab world on hold.

The situation started to change at the beginning of the millennium. Due to the tragic events of September 11th and due to the Islamic opposition's activity growth in the Arab countries they refused using Islam as one of the key factors in their Central Asian policy. Its role in the bilateral relations was upstaged on the symbolic declarative level (while the economic partnership and cooperation against the Islamic extremists came to the foreground).

In the meantime the republics of the region started feeling the growing disappointment and even discontent with the behavior of the West. Washington and Brussels discussed strategic role of Central Asia, often reproaching local leaders in the absence of democracy while “investing” little in development of bilateral relations, in economic sphere especially. In the midst of “orange” revolutions in the CIS in 2004-2005, at a time when the president of the Kyrgyz Republic Askar Akayev was dethroned (03.2005), leaders of Central Asia didn’t even view the West as a source of threat. The anti-Western mood reached its climax in the view of the Andijan events in the Eastern Uzbekistan (05.2005). It pushed the republics of the region to the embrace of alternative power centers, not only Russia and China, but also the Arab world.

The chronicles of visits of Central Asian leaders to the Arabian countries since the beginning of the 2000 show the stirring up of relations:

• 2000: N. Nazarbayev (Kazakhstan) – the United Arab Emirates and the Palestinian Authority; E. Rakhmonov (Tajikistan) – Qatar.
• 2001: E. Rakhmonov – Saudi Arabia;
• 2004: N. Nazarbayev - Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates; I. Karymov (Uzbekistan) - Kuwait.
• 2005: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates; E. Rakhmonov – Tunisia and Saudi Arabia.
• 2006: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Jordan.
• 2007: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Syria; I. Karymov - Egypt; E. Rakhmonov - Egypt, Syria, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates; G. Berdymukhamedov - Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates.
• 2008: N. Nazarbayev - Oman, Egypt; I. Karymov - the United Arab Emirates; E. Rakhmonov - Algeria, Yemen, Qatar.
• 2009: N. Nazarbayev - the United Arab Emirates; G. Berdymukhamedov - Jordan.

This data shows that strengthening of relations between the republics of Central Asia and the Arab countries started in the 2004-2006 after the two-year break in 2002-2003. One can notice the specific nature of the “Arab policy” of the states in this region.

Kyrgyzstan, being in the state of permanent internal political crisis doesn’t pay any attention to developing relations with the Arab world.
Kazakhstan is trying to conduct "multidirectional” policy, which shows its ambitions to act as the global “intercivilizational” mediator in Asia (it is expressed in Nazarbayev's initiatives of the CICA and in interfaith dialogue Forum). It’s also noticeable that Nazarbayev prefers rich monarchies of the Persian Gulf.

Tajikistan is not really particular in its connections and has no special preferences. Rakhmonov’s activity in the Arab world comes down to the pleads for economic help for the poor republic.
Uzbekistan, that faced with the destructive Arabian influence in the 90-ies more than its neighbors, is still very careful. Since the beginning of the 2000 Karymov has been visiting the Arabian countries far less frequently than Nazarbayev and Rakhmonov.
Turkmenistan during Niyazov's rule (1991-2006) was in international isolation. In his later years Niyazov went abroad rarely. His successor prefers the allies of the West (Jordan and the Sunni monarchies of the Persian Gulf, the United Arab Emirates in particular).

In general the stirring up of relations of the Central Asian countries with the Arab world depends on the following factors:

- The urge of Central Asian regimes to diversify their international connections and gain a foothold in Asia (in the midst of suspicions concerning the West, the desire of getting more independence in relations with the former metropolis and hidden fears of Chinese expansion).
- The urge of the leading Arab states (Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan) to play more significant role in the Islamic world, in competition for influence with one another and even more with Iran and Turkey. Therefore the Central Asia with its population of 60 million, bordering with the Caucasus, Iran and Afghanistan is worth a lot for the Arab countries.
- The growing role of Islam in national identification of the Central Asian people, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Southern Kyrgyz people especially.

In the midst of the “Big game” and “interregional” policy the activization of relations between Turkmenistan and the Arab countries is highly predictable. But one should also consider internal political factors as well.

Overcoming isolation

At the local level the geopolitical competition flare up in the region and strengthening of connections with the Arabs coincided with the efforts of the new president of Turkmenistan in leading the republic out of isolation. According to the IzRus portal, it is revealed both in internal and external policy of Berdymukhamedov.

The youngest leader of the Central Asian region being in power less that two and a half years managed to accomplish a lot. He has renewed the cabinet; reformed the parliament and conducted parliamentary elections - with participation of the observers from the West, for the first time in history; changed the constitution; restored pension benefits and reformed the education system; started restoring the Academy of science, Opera, rural clinics; permitted opening of Internet-cafes and started introducing Internet at schools.

Herewith Berdymukhamedov raised international activity of Turkmenistan. Firstly, he is more open to the world and he proved that having invited observers to the parliamentary elections in December 2008. For the last year, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan, the country was visited by 422 foreign delegations. Secondly, the new president started using the geostrategical potential of his country – its location (at the border with Iran and Afghanistan and close to China) and its giant resources of natural gas, in much more flexible way. The careful separation of Ashkhabad from Moscow is being shaped now, in favor of Beijing and the Western capitals.

On the 29th of June in the light of all these factors the head of Turkmenistan visited Jordan for the first time. In the nearest future one should expect the further consolidation of connections with the moderate Arab countries, which doesn’t exclude promoting relations with Israel as well (all the more so in the midst of activity of the new Israeli Minister of foreign affairs, Avigdor Lieberman at the post-Soviet region).

The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia: A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages

Christopher I. Beckwith
Princeton University Press 1987
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005
A millennium before the Great Game between the British and Russians, earlier great powers competed for control and influence in Central Asia. In The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia, Beckwith provides a narrative of events running from around 600 to 850 CE, with the greatest detail in the first half of the 8th century. He presents a Tibetan perspective, but uses Chinese and Arab sources and gives what is effectively a general history of the Tarim basin and surrounding areas.

The origins of the Yarlung dynasty are mirky; a historical narrative commences around 600. The 7th century saw a three-way struggle over the Tarim basin between the Tibetans, the Chinese, and a Mongolic-speaking people called the `Aza or T'u-yü-hun. A Tibetan defeat of the Tang in 670 "marked the end of two decades of Chinese domination of the Tarim Basin", under the name "the Pacified West".

A seesawing balance of power ensued, which also involved the Eastern Turks and Western Turks (the On oq). The Tibetans had the ascendancy until internal collapse allowed the Chinese to retake the "Four Garrisons" — Khotan, Kashgar, Kucha, and probably Agni — in 692.

The early 8th century saw the Tibetans turn their attention to the "Western Regions" in the Pamirs and Tukharistan. The Arabs under general Qutayba fought the Western Turks, with interference from both Tibetan and Chinese. In 715 the Arabs took Ferghana and a raiding party reached Kashgar, bringing them to the borders of the Tang Empire, but the significance of the event was not understood by either party at the time.

Conflict between China and Tibet continued, with the Tibetans allying with the Türgis confederation of the Western Turks. Tibetan client states in the west defected to the Chinese, with Chinese troops defeating the Tibetans in Little Balur (probably the Hunza valley) and blocking their route to the west. Meanwhile the Arabs subdued a Sogdian revolt.

The Tibetan-Türgis alliance fought both Chinese and Arabs, but the period saw increasing Chinese power, with 750 "the acme of Chinese military and political power in Central Asia". The Chinese also had a run of successes against the Tibetans in the east. But their success brought the Tang into conflict with the Arabs, who defeated them in the battle of Talas in 751.

An Lu-shan's rebellion in 755 and ensuing dynastic conflicts weakened the Tang and gave the Tibetans the ascendancy, though they didn't take Khotan until the early 790s. Other key players included the Qarluq confederation and the Uyghurs, while the Tibetans became involved in a protracted conflict with the Arabs. Beckwith's narrative continues in less detail (the Old Tibetan Annals end in 765) down to 866, when only bits and pieces remained of the once powerful Tibetan Empire.

In an epilogue Beckwith situates the early medieval Tibetan Empire in the context of broader Eurasian history, stressing the importance of Central Asia and international trade during the period. He is highly critical of Pirenne and others who have dismissed the Franks and Tibetans as "barbarians" and downplayed their achievements — and he makes a reasonable case here, though he goes too far the other way in putting down Tang China, the Byzantine Empire and the early Arab caliphate. (Beckwith takes other idiosyncratic positions: his prologue, for example, includes a rant about there being no evidence for a Sino-Tibetan language family. In other places, however, he is up front about his limitations: an inability to scan Arabic for names and a lack of familiarity with the South Asian sources.)

The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia presents a near-continuous narrative of military and political events, with no attempt to cover culture and religion as well. It is dense with the names of people and places, but the main text is readable, with discussions of historiography, sources, epigraphy, links to archaeology, and so forth relegated to the footnotes, which take up around a third of most pages. The one map provided is decent but too small; readers not already familiar with the geography of the region will have trouble following events. And there's a useful fifteen page bibliographical essay discussing the sources for the period.

As the only general history of the region during the early medieval period, The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia will be essential reading for area specialists. Its layout also makes it accessible to lay readers with some background in the area.

December 2005

External links:
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Related reviews:
- books about Central Asia + Mongolia
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%T The Tibetan Empire in Central Asia
%S A History of the Struggle for Great Power among Tibetans, Turks, Arabs, and Chinese during the Early Middle Ages
%A Beckwith, Christopher I.
%I Princeton University Press
%D 1987
%O bibliography, index
%G ISBN 0691054940
%P 269pp

Islam in China

The 'Great Mosque of Guangzhou' is also known as Huaisheng Mosque which means 'Remember the Sage' (A Memorial Mosque to the Holy Prophet) and is also popularly called the 'Guangta Mosque' which translates as 'The Beacon Tower Mosque'. Huaisheng Mosque is located on Guantgta Road (Light Pagoda Road) which runs eastwards off Renmin Zhonglu.

Prior to 500 CE and hence before the establishment of Islam, Arab seafarers had established trade relations with the "Middle Kingdom" (China). Arab ships bravely set off from Basra at the tip of the Arabian Gulf and also from the town of Qays (Siraf) in the Persian Gulf. They sailed the Indian Ocean passing Sarandip (Sri Lanka) and navigated their way through the Straits of Malacca which were between the Sumatran and Malaysian peninsulas en route to the South China Sea. They established trading posts on the southeastern coastal ports of Quanzhou and Guangzhou. Some Arabs had already settled in China and probably embraced Islam when the first Muslim deputation arrived, as their families and friends back in Arabia, had already embraced Islam during the Holy Prophet's revelation (610-32).

Guangzhou is called Khanfu by the Arabs who later set up a Muslim quarter which became a centre of commerce. Guangzhou's superior geographical position made it play an important role as the oldest trading and international port city in China. Witnessing a series of historical events, China has become a significant place in history and one of the fastest growing regions in the world enjoying unprecedented prosperity.

Whilst an Islamic state was founded by the Holy Prophet Muhammad, China was enduring a period of unification and defence. Early Chinese annals mentioned Muslim Arabs and called their kingdom al-Madinah (of Arabia). Islam in Chinese is called "Yisilan Jiao" (meaning "Pure Religion"). A Chinese official once described Makkah as being the birthplace of Buddha Ma-hia-wu (i.e. Holy Prophet Muhammad).

There are several historical versions relating to the advent of Islam in China. Some records claim Muslims first arrived in China in two groups within as many months from al-Habasha Abyssinia (Ethiopia).

Ethiopia was the land where some early Muslims first fled in fear from the persecution of the Quraysh tribe in Makkah. Among that group of refugees were one of Prophet Muhammad's daughters Ruqayya, her husband Uthman ibn Affan, S'ad Ibn Abi Waqqas and many other prominent Sahabah (Companions) who migrated on the advice of the Holy Prophet. They were successfully granted political asylum by al-Habashi King Atsmaha Negus in the city of Axum (c.615 CE).

However, some Sahabah never returned to Arabia. They may have traveled on in the hope of earning their livelihood elsewhere and may have eventually reached China by land or sea during the Sui Dynasty (581-618 CE). Some records relate that S'ad Ibn Abi Waqqas and three other Sahabah sailed to China in c.616 CE from Abyssinia (Ethiopia) with the backing of the king of Abyssinia. Sa'd then returned to Arabia, bringing a copy of the Holy Qur'an back to Guangzhou some 21 years later, which appropriately coincides with the account of Liu Chih who wrote "The Life of the Prophet" (12 vols).

One of the Sahabahs who lived in China is believed to have died in c.635 CE and was buried in the western urban part of Hami. His tomb is known as "Geys' Mazars" and is revered by many in the surrounding region. It is in the northwestern autonomous province of Xinjiang (Sinkiang) and about 400 miles east of the latter's capital, Urumqi. Xinjiang is four times the size of Japan, shares its international border with eight different nations and is home to the largest indigenous group of Turkic-speaking Uyghurs. Hence, as well as being the largest Islamised area of China, Xinjiang is also of strategic importance geographically.

The Qur'an states in unequivocal words that Muhammad was sent only as a Mercy from God to all peoples (21:107), and in another verse, "We have not sent thee but as a (Messenger) to all Mankind" (34:28). This universality of Islam facilitated its acceptance by people from all races and nations and is amply demonstrated in China where the indigenous population, of ethnic varieties of Chinese Muslims today is greater than the population of many Arab countries including that of Saudi Arabia.

The history of Huaisheng Mosque represents centuries of Islamic culture dating right back to the mid-seventh century during the T'ang Dynasty (618-907) - "the golden age of Chinese history". It was in this period, eighteen years after the death of the Holy Prophet, that Islam - the last of the three great monotheistic religions - was first introduced to China by the third Caliph, Uthman Ibn 'Affan (644-656 CE/23-35 AH ).

Uthman was one of the first to embrace Islam and memorize the Holy Qu'ran. He possessed a mild and gentle nature and he married Ruqayyah and following her death, Umm Kulthum (both were daughters of the Holy Prophet). Consequently he was given the epithet of 'Dhu-n-Nurayn' (the one with the two lights). Uthman was highly praised for safeguarding the manuscripts of the Qur'an against disputes by ordering its compilation from the memories of the Companions and sending copies to the four corners of the Islamic Empire.

Uthman sent a delegation to China led by Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas (d. 674 CE/55 AH) who was a much loved maternal uncle of the Prophet and one of the most famous Companions who converted to Islam at the age of just seventeen. He was a veteran of all the battles and one of the ten who it is reported that the Holy Prophet said were assured a place in paradise.

In Madina, Sa'd, using his ability in architecture added an Iwan (an arched hall used by a Persian Emperor) as a worship area. He later laid the foundation of what was to be the first Mosque in China where early Islamic architecture forged a relationship with Chinese architecture.

According to the ancient historical records of the T'ang Dynasty, an emissary from the kingdom of al-Madinah led by Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas and his deputation of Sahabah, who sailed on a special envoy to China in c.650 CE, via the Indian Ocean and the China Sea to the famous port of Guangzhou, thence traveled overland to Chang'an (present day Xi'an) via what was later known as the "Silk Route".

Sa'd and his deputation brought presents and were warmly received at the royal court by the T'ang Emperor Kao-tsung, (r. 650-683) in c.651 CE despite a recent plea of support against the Arabs forwarded to the Emperor in that same year by Shah Peroz (the ruler of Sassanids Persia). The latter was a son of Yazdegerd who, along with the Byzantines already had based their embassies in China over a decade earlier. Together they were the two great powers of the west. A similar plea made to Emperor Tai Tsung (r.627-649) against the simultaneous spread of Muslim forces was refused.

First news of Islam had already reached the T'ang royal court during the reign of Emperor Tai Tsung when he was informed by an embassy of the Sassanian king of Persia, as well as the Byzantiums of the emergence of the Islamic rule. Both sought protection from the might of China. Nevertheless, the second year of Kao-tsung's reign marks the first official visit by a Muslim embassador.

The emperor, after making enquiries about Islam, gave general approval to the new religion which he considered to be compatible with the teachings of Confucius. But he felt that the five daily canonical prayers and a month of fasting were requirements too severe for his taste and he did not convert. He allowed Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas and his delegation freedom to propagate their faith and expressed his admiration for Islam which consequently gained a firm foothold in the country.

Sa'd later settled in Guangzhou and built the Huaisheng Mosque which was an important event in the history of Islam in China. It is reputedly the oldest surviving mosque in the whole of China and is over 1300 years old. It survived through several historical events which inevitably took place outside its door step. This mosque still stands in excellent condition in modern Guangzhou after repairs and restorations.

Its contemporary Da Qingzhen Si (Great Mosque) of Chang'an (present day Xi'an) in Shaanxi Province was founded in c.742 CE. It is the largest (12,000 sq metres) and the best early mosque in China and it has been beautifully preserved as it expanded over the centuries. The present layout was constructed by the Ming Dynasty in c.1392 CE, a century before the fall of Granada, under its (ostensible) founder Hajj Zheng He who has a stone tablet at the mosque in commemoration of his generous support, which was provided by the grateful Emperor.

A fine model of the Great Mosque with all its surrounding walls and the magnificent, elegant appearance of its pavilions and courtyards can be seen at the Hong Kong Museum placed gracefully besides the model of the Huaisheng Mosque. I was fortunate to visit the real mosque last year during Asr prayer, after which I met the Imam who showed me an old handwritten Qur'an and presented me with a white cap.

Walking to the prayer hall is like sleepwalking through an oriental oasis confined in a city forbidden for the impure. A dragon symbol is engraved at the footstep of the entrance opposite the prayer hall demonstrating the meeting between Islam and the Chinese civilisation. All in all it is a dazzling encounter of the architecture of Oriental China with that of the indigenous fashionable taste of Harun ar-Rashid (147-194 AH/764-809 CE) of Baghdad - a newly founded city that was to become the greatest between Constantinople and China, fifty years after the time of Harun.

The Sheng-You Si (Mosque of the Holy Friend), also known as the Qingjing Si (Mosque of Purity) and Al-Sahabah Mosque (Mosque of Companions), was built with pure granite in 1009 CE during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127). Its architectural design and style was modeled on the Great Mosque of Damascus (709-15) in Syria thus making the pair the oldest extant Mosques to survive (in original form) into the twenty-first century.

Qingjing Mosque is located at "Madinat al-Zaytun" (Quanzhou) or, in English, "City of Olives" (Olive is a symbol of peace according to Arab/Muslim tradition) in Fujian Province, where there are the Sacred Tombs of two Companions of the Holy Prophet who accompanied Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas's envoy to China. They are known to the locals by their Chinese names of "Sa-Ke-Zu and Wu-Ku-Su" and Arabs from various countries come to pay homage.

Zhen-Jiao Si (Mosque of the True Religion), also known as Feng-Huang Si (the Phoenix Mosque) in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, is believed to date back from the Tang Dynasty. It has a multi-storied portal, serving as a minaret and a platform for observing the moon. The Mosque has a long history and it has been rebuilt and renovated on a number of occasions over the centuries. It is much smaller than it used to be, especially with the widening of the road in 1929, and it was partly rebuilt in 1953.

The other ancient Mosque is located in the city of Yangzhou in Jiangsu Province, once the busiest city of trade and commerce during the Song Dynasty (960-1280). Xian-He Si (Mosque of Immortal Crane) is the oldest and largest in the city and was built in c.1275CE by Pu-ha-din, a Muslim preacher who was a sixteenth-generation descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

According to Chinese Muslim historians, Sa'd Ibn Abi Waqqas died in Guangzhou where he is believed to be buried. However Arab scholars differ, stating that Sa'd died and was buried in Medina amongst other Companions. One grave definitely exists, while the other is symbolic, God only knows whether it is in China or Medina. The message of Islam took root peacefully in China. The first envoy reached the southeast via the Zhu Jiang (The Pearl River) and was later followed by contact via an overland route from the northwest. Muslim communities are present over a wide geographical area in China today, including some in the remote places of Tibet, where I once met Tibetan Muslims in the middle of nowhere, while on a trek.

by: Mohammed Khamouch

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Arabs of the Caucasus and Central Asia

In 1728, a Russian officer described a group of Sunni Arab nomads who populated the Caspian shores of Mughan (in present-day Azerbaijan) and spoke a mixed Turkic-Arabic language. It is believed that these groups migrated to the Caucasus in the 16th century. The 1888 edition of Encyclopædia Britannica also mentioned a certain number of Arabs populating the Baku Governorate of the Russian Empire. They retained an Arabic dialect at least into the mid-19th century, but since then have fully assimilated with the neighbouring Azeris and Tats. Today in Azerbaijan alone, there are nearly 30 settlements still holding the name Arab (e.g. Arabgadim, Arabojaghy, Arab-Yengija, etc.).

From the time of the Arab conquest of the Caucasus, continuous small-scale Arab migration from various parts of the Arabic-speaking world was observed in Dagestan influencing and shaping the culture of the local peoples. Up until the mid-20th century, there were still individuals in Dagestan who claimed Arabic to be their native language, with the majority of them living in the village of Darvag to the north-west of Derbent. The latest of these accounts dates to the 1930s. Most Arab communities in southern Dagestan underwent linguistic Turkicisation, thus nowadays Darvag is a majority-Azeri village.

According to the History of Ibn Khaldun, the Arabs that were once in Central Asia have been either killed or have fled the Tatar invasion of the region, leaving only the locals .[50] However, today many people in Central Asia identify as Arabs. Most Arabs of Central Asia are fully integrated into local populations, and sometimes call themselves the same as locals (e.g. Tajiks, Uzbeks) but they use special titles to show their Arabic origin such as Sayyid, Khoja or Siddiqui.

Central Asian Arabic is a variety of Arabic spoken in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan and currently facing extinction. It was once spoken among Central Asia's numerous settled and nomadic Arab communities, which inhabited areas in Samarqand, Bukhara, Qashqadarya, Surkhandarya (present-day Uzbekistan), and Khatlon (present-day Tajikistan), as well as Afghanistan. The first wave of Arabs migrated to this region in the 8th century during the Muslim conquests and was later joined by groups of Arabs from Balkh and Andkhoy (present-day Afghanistan). Due to heavy Islamic influences, Arabic quickly became the common language of science and literature of the epoch. Most Central Asian Arabs lived in isolated communities and did not favour intermarriages with the local population. This factor helped their language survive in a multilingual milieu until the 20th century. By the 1880s many Arab pastoralists had migrated to northern Afghanistan from what is now Uzbekistan and Tajikistan following the Russian conquest of Central Asia. These Arabs nowadays speak no Arabic having adapted to Dari and Uzbek. With the establishment of the Soviet rule in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, Arab communities faced major linguistic and identity changes having had to abandon nomadic lifestyles and gradually mixing with Uzbeks, Tajiks and Turkmen. According to the 1959 census, only 34% of Arabs, mostly elderly, spoke their language at a native level. Others reported Uzbek or Tajik as their mothertongue. Nowadays Central Asian Arabic (heavily influenced by the local languages in phonetics, vocabulary and syntax) is spoken in 5 villages of Surkhandarya, Qashqadarya and Bukhara. In Uzbekistan, there are at least two dialects of Central Asian Arabic: Bukharian (influenced by Tajik) and Qashqadaryavi (influenced by Turkic languages). These dialects are not mutually intelligible. In Tajikistan, Central Asian Arabic is spoken by 35.7% of the country's Arab population, having been largely replaced by Tajik.

Iranian Arabs (Persian: عربان ايرانی Arabān Irānī, Arabic: عرب إيران‎ `Arab Īrān) are the Arabic-speaking peoples of Iran. Most Iranian Arabs live in the coastal regions of southern Iran by the Persian Gulf. Iranian Arab communities are also found in Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.

Although after the Arab invasion of Persia in the 7th century, many Arab tribes settled in different parts of Iran, it is the Arab tribes of Khuzestan that have retained their identity in language, culture, and Shia Islam to the present day. But ethno-linguistic characteristics of the region must be studied against the long and turbulent history of the province,with its own local language khuzi, which may have been of Elamite origin and which gradually disappeared in the early medieval period. The immigration of Arab tribes from outside the province was also a long-term process. There was a great influx of Arab-speaking immigrants into the province from the 16th to the 19th century, including the migration of the Banu Kaab and Banu Lam. There were attempts in vain by the Iraqi regime during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) to generate Arab nationalism in the area but without any palpable success.

Regional groups


Most Iranian Arabs in Khūzestān Province are bilingual, speaking Arabic as their mother tongue, and Persian as a second language. The variety of Arabic spoken in the province is Khuzestani Arabic, which is a Mesopotamian dialect shared by Arabs across the border in Iraq. It has significant Persian influence and may be harder to understood by other Arabic-speakers.

Modern Standard Arabic and Classical Arabic, which differ to a degree from the Khuzestani Arabic dialect, are taught across Iran to students in secondary schools, regardless of their ethnic or linguistic background. In fact the constitution of the Islamic republic requires this particular subject to be taught after primary school.


In Hormozgan Province the Iranian Arab population speak various local dialects of Gulf Arabic that like the Mesopotamian dialects has significant Persian influence. The Arabs in the province are mostly Sunni Muslims from neighboring Oman.


In Bushehr Province, there are about 20,000 Arabs that immigrated to Iran because of the unpleasant environment of Saudi Arabia. Many of them arrived in Bushehr Province in 1946. The majority of these Arabs live in Kangan and Bandar-i Tahiri.


Khamseh nomads live in eastern Fars Province.


Most Khorasani-Arabs belong to the tribes of Sheybani, Zangooyi, Mishmast, Khozaima and Azdi. Khorasani-Arabs are Persian speakers and only a few speak Arabic as their mother tongue.


The Arabic language clans in Semnan Arabi and Garmsar: Arab Sarhangi , Arab Derazi , Arab Ameri , Kati and Arab Masomi .

The Islamists (militant Moslems) Have it Wrong

The new Arab "identity" really derives from the impact of the West in the last fifty years
Islamism...a symptom of secularization and..
a reshaping of...religion into a modern,
ideological totalitarianism
-- Sheikh Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri

Islamism is a late 20th century totalitarianism.
It follows in the wake of fascism and communism
-- Khalid Duran

The Islamists Have it Wrong
by Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi
June 02, 2002

Western observers, both among the general public and the media, commonly make the mistake of thinking that Islamism1 is the same as traditional Islam.
Even Western researchers describe Islamism as a resurgence of traditional Islam. One researcher describes Islamists as people of the "anthropological tradition"2. In contrast, moderate Sunni Muslims are characterized as those whose faith is mitigated, influenced by syncretism or diluted by a certain amount of secularization and Westernization.3 Yet, this turns reality upside-down.

In fact, Islamists depart in important ways from the Islamic tradition. This is especially apparent in what concerns divine attributes, Islamic law and Sufism. Indeed, some outstanding traditional Muslim scholars, such as Sheikh Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri 4 and Sheikh Ahmad al-'Alawi,5 see Islamism as a symptom of secularization and as a reshaping of their religion into a modern, ideological totalitarianism.6 It is view that I myself share and shall present here.


Khalid Duran notes the distinction between traditional Islam and its political counterfeit by underlining their different understandings of the relationship between religion and politics: "Whether Islamists like the term fundamentalist or not, their understanding of religion resembles that of fundamentalists in other religions. This is not to say that Islamists are more religious or more genuinely Islamic than other Muslims. Islamism is a late 20th century totalitarianism. It follows in the wake of fascism and communism, picking up from those and seeking to refine their methods of domination."

Few Muslims would deny that political commitment is part of Islamic ethics, but most disagree with the Islamist insistence that there exists a clearly defined "Islamic system," different from all other political systems.7 Islamists draw on modern European models that posit a scientific revolutionary movement, an elitist scheme of ruling society by means of secret cults that act behind the scenes and a manufacture of consensus by means of propaganda. They reject those aspects of the Islamic tradition that do not fit with this political outlook.

Theirs is, in fact, an extremist ideology; they consider their organizations and militants as custodians of the projects for Islamizing the world and whoever criticizes them (be he a Muslim or a non-Muslim) is immediately accused of being anti-Islamic, "Islamophobic" and so forth. Unwilling to be ruled by non-Islamist Muslims, Islamists adopt an approach characterized by political supremacism. Their pious rhetoric does not hide the fact that they exploit the religious feelings of their followers to acquire mundane power and enhance their finances. They claim to be vanguard Muslims, integrating faith and politics, but their cardinal concern is holding power themselves and excluding others. Thus, the goal of these radicals is not genuinely religious, but political and even totalitarian. Like other totalitarian ideologies, contemporary Islamism is blindly utopian. It implies a wholesale denial of history; the Islamists' model of an ideal society is inspired by the idealized image of seventh-century Arabia and an ahistorical view of religion and human development. It is based on anachronistic thinking that rejects modern concepts of pluralism and tolerance. It ignores a history of Islam that is rich in models of heterogeneous social organization and adaptation to the times.

For Islamists, building an Islamic state is the central achievement of the prophetic mission.8 Conflating the role of the Muslim scholar with that of a political leader, they hold that the spread of Islam cannot be separated from the creation of what they call the Islamic state. They argue that "Islam is both religion and government" (al-Islam din wa dawla );9 and this serves the basic description of their creed. They neglect to mention, however, that this expression is found in neither the Qur'an, the Hadith (sayings and doings of the Prophet Muhammad), or in any other of the authoritative Islamic sources. The slogan was in fact coined by Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), an extremist scholar who became a staunch supporter of anthropomorphic theology and of extreme literalism in the understanding of the Qur'an, and was heartily criticized by most of the Sunni theologians and jurists of his time.10


The Islamist version of jihad includes and legitimizes terrorism against civil targets such as churches, synagogues, and cemeteries and even against old people, women, and babies. Notwithstanding the clear Islamic prohibition on suicide, it also includes suicide operations. A recent fatwa by Mufti Farit Salman, deputy president of the Council of Muftis of the European States of Russia, eloquently condemned such behavior in the aftermath of the sacking of Joseph's Tomb, a Jewish shrine in Nablus:

"There are many fanatics in the Holy Land who with their intelligence swayed by Satan wrecked the tomb of the Man of Allah, Joseph, peace be upon him; wrecked the tomb of the man whom the Messenger of Allah, Muhammad (blessings and peace upon him), met and conversed with in his ascension to the throne of Allah; wrecked the tomb of one of the dear prophets whom the Holy Qur'an disclosed as a model of physical and spiritual splendor and of humility . . . and this occurred during the [Islamic] holy month of Rajab! How could Muslims do such a thing? No! Those who gave hand to destroy a sanctuary of ours are not of us! . . . Woe unto those who desecrate the name of names, who demolish tombs of the prophets, synagogues, churches, mosques! Political actions cannot be painted over by religious motives."11


These problems are not limited to the Muslim world but are now also found in the West. Local branches of the radical organizations that promote terrorism in the Middle East are taking root in Western countries. They represent not more that 10 percent of the total Muslim population in those countries, but they control the main Muslim organizations and most of the mosques in western Europe and North America. They are a world-wide, organized network, using acronyms, but always ensuring that the Muslim Brethren is the inner circle behind the scenes. They claim to represent all Muslims and get a respectful reception from non-Muslims, who know no better.

This situation has many causes, but the principal one is that while traditional Islam is multifaceted and spontaneous, Islamism is forwarded by a worldwide network of activists funded by the Saudi and some other Gulf governments. Those looking for ways to prevent Muslim minorities in Europe and North America from turning to Islamism find that the Gulf countries represent the main obstacles. Ironically, then, the structure of the Muslim Brethren is supported, in other words, mainly by those countries that are regarded as friends of the West. Muslim Brethren are often appointed as imams of important mosques, especially in democratic countries where there is no ministry of religious affairs to check their orientation and where imams with the expected "permission to teach" (ijaza shar'i) are the exception.

The West is both loved and feared by Islamists. They cannot hope to defeat it militarily, so instead they aim to influence it from within. In part, this means that Islamists divide their work between militants and more moderate-sounding types. Militants execrate the U.S. government and call for its destruction, while the more moderate Islamists are honored guests at the White House. With the Soviet bloc history, they dream of making Saudi Arabia prevail over Israel in U.S. foreign policy. This will be achieved by increasing the Saudi lobby activity to convince the American establishment that Saudi Arabia serves not just as a source of key hydrocarbons, but also a gate to the Arab market; in contrast, Israel is presented as a strategic and economic liability.


The best means to limit the influence of Islamist factions is by supporting the teachings of traditional, moderate Islam. In the Middle East, unfortunately, this role of countering Wahhabism (the Saudi Arabia-based puritanical heresy at the base of Islamism) has not been assumed by moderate, Sufi-oriented Sunnis, so it was appropriated by the non-Muslim 'Alawis of Syria, headed by the Asad family. This circumstance has further discouraged the emergence of organized moderate Sunnis. In the former Soviet republics, in contrast, the muftis are starting to understand that Wahhabi infiltration threatens to change the face of their society; they seem to be willing to join forces in a common project of prevention. The president of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, has recently founded a new Islamic University in Tashkent12, which has among its main goals the education of moderate imams specially trained to refute Wahhabism and to promote dialogue between Muslims and other monotheists. In September 2000, the mufti of Russia, Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, in cooperation with the muftis of Chechnya, Daghestan, Ingushetia, Bashkiria and Siberia, established in Kazan the first Islamic university in Russia. The goal of this university is also to fight extremist influences coming from abroad.13 This can be understood as a sign that the diffusion of Wahhabism is no longer understood by Sunnis as ineluctable and that the followers of traditional Islam are starting to realize how such a global menace necessarily calls for a coordinated self-defense.

Non-Muslims also have a role to play. They must overcome their tendency to assume that real Islam is the one propagandized by the Wahhabis and their Islamist network.14 They need to understand that Islamism is a menace not just for Muslims but for all humans. Once they realize these two points, they should increase their dialogue and work with those traditional Muslims who join them in seeing radicalism as a disease, and who have ideas for an appropriate therapy to heal those afflicted by it.


Sheikh Abdul Hadi Palazzi is secretary-general of the Italian Muslim Association (AMI) and director of the Cultural Institute of the Italian Islamic Community. He lectures in Muslim history at the Research Institute for Anthropological Sciences (IFOSCA) in Rome.

Copyright © AIJAC 2001
Last Updated 28 September, 2001
Cultural Institute of the Italian Islamic Community


1. Often called fundamentalist Islam, I do not use this term (or radical Islam). If anything, I would use the term radical pseudo-Islam, thereby indicating that Islamism is not a legitimate form of Islamic expression.

2. Ronald A. Lukens-Bull, "Between Text and Practice: Considerations in the Anthropological Study of Islam," Marburg Journal of Religion, Dec. 1999, p. 6.

3. Dale F. Eickelman, "Changing Interpretations of Islamic Movements," Islam and the Political Economy of Meaning, ed. William R. Roff (London: Croom Helm, 1987), pp. 13-30.

4. Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri, Philosophy of Ijtihad and The Modern World (Lahore: Idara Minhaj-ul-Quran, 1985), pp. 26-28.

5. Martin Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century (London, Allen & Unwin, 1971), pp. 79-98.

6. R. Stephen Humphreys, "The Contemporary Resurgence in the Context of Modem Islam," Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World, ed. Ali E. Hillal Dessouki (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1982), pp. 74-75.

7. Khalid Duran, "Muslims and Islamists in America," L'abbaglio dell'immigrazione (Rome: Istituto di Formazione per le Scienze Antropologiche, 2000), pp. 27-28.

8. Rahim Yar Khan, "Mission Statement of Tanzeem-e-Islami," Sept. 8 and 9, 1967, Ta'aruf-e-Tanzeem-e-Islami

9. Richard P. Mitchell, The Society of the Muslim Brothers (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 16-21.

10. 'Abdullah al-Harari, Maqalat as-Sunniya (Beirut: Dar al-Masharih, 1998), pp. 38-42.

11. Vesti (Tel Aviv), n. 1888, Oct. 19, 2000.

12. Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan on the Threshold of the Twenty-first Century (Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 1997), pp. 19-28.

13. ITAR-TASS International News Service (Moscow), Sept. 28, 2000.

14. Asher Eder, Peace Is Possible between Ishmael and Israel according to the Qur'an (Jerusalem: Root & Branch, 1996), pp. 5-11.

This page was produced by Joseph E. Katz
Middle Eastern Political and Religious History Analyst
Brooklyn, New York
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Copyright © AIJAC 2001, Portions Copyright © 2001 Joseph Katz
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What is the Arab identity?

n the modern era, defining who is an Arab is done on the grounds of one or more of the following three criteria:

* Genealogical: someone who can trace his or her ancestry to the tribes of Arabia - the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula - and the Syrian Desert. This definition was the definition used in medieval times, for example by Ibn Khaldun,[dubious – discuss][citation needed] but has decreased in importance as more people have come to identify as Arabs.

* Linguistic: someone whose first language, and by extension cultural expression, is Arabic, including any of its varieties. This definition covers more than 300 million people. Certain groups that fulfill this criterion reject this definition on the basis of non-Arab ancestry, such an example may be seen in the way that Egyptians identify themselves.

* Political: in the modern nationalist era, any person who is a citizen of a country where Arabic is either the national language or one of the official languages, and/or a citizen of a country which may simply be a member of the Arab League (thereby having Arabic as an official government language, even if not used by the majority of the population). This definition would cover over 300 million people. It may be the most contested definition, as it is the most simplistic one. It would exclude the entire Arab diaspora outside of the Arab world, but include not only people with Arab ancestry (Gulf Arabs and others, such as Bedouins, where they may exist) or who identify themselves as Arabs, but would also include Arabized groups who do not identify themselves as Arabs (including many Lebanese and many Egyptians, both Christians and Muslims) and even non-Arabized ethnic minorities who have remained non-Arabic-speaking (such as the Berbers in Morocco, Kurds in Iraq, or the Somali majority of Arab League member Somalia).

Traditional Bedouin

The relative importance of these three factors is estimated differently by different groups and frequently disputed. Some combine aspects of each definition, as done by Habib Hassan Touma,[19] who defines an Arab "in the modern sense of the word", as "one who is a national of an Arab state, has command of the Arabic language, and possesses a fundamental knowledge of Arab tradition, that is, of the manners, customs, and political and social systems of the culture." Most people who consider themselves Arab do so based on the overlap of the political and linguistic definitions. Few people consider themselves Arab based on the political definition without also having Arabic as a language. Thus few Kurds and Berbers identify as Arab, although for instance some Berbers also consider themselves Arab (see for example: Gellner, Ernest and Micaud, Charles, Eds. Arabs and Berbers: from tribe to nation in North Africa. Lexington: Lexington Books, 1972). Some religious minorities within Western Asia and North Africa who speak Arabic or any of its varieties as their primary community language, such as Egyptian Copts and Lebanese Christians, may not identify as Arabs.

The Arab League at its formation in 1946 defined Arab as "a person whose language is Arabic, who lives in an Arabic speaking country, who is in sympathy with the aspirations of the Arabic speaking peoples".

The relation of ʿarab and ʾaʿrāb is complicated further by the notion of "lost Arabs" al-ʿArab al-ba'ida mentioned in the Qur'an as punished for their disbelief. All contemporary Arabs were considered as descended from two ancestors, Qahtan and Adnan.

Versteegh (1997) is uncertain whether to ascribe this distinction to the memory of a real difference of origin of the two groups, but it is certain that the difference was strongly felt in early Islamic times. Even in Islamic Spain there was enmity between the Qays of the northern and the Kalb of the southern group. The so-called Himyarite language described by Al-Hamdani (died 946) appears to be a special case of language contact between the two groups, an originally north Arabic dialect spoken in the south, and influenced by Old South Arabian.

During the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs forged an Arab Empire (under the Rashidun and Umayyads, and later the Abbasids) whose borders touched southern France in the west, China in the east, Asia Minor in the north, and the Sudan in the south. This was one of the largest land empires in history. In much of this area, the Arabs spread Islam and the Arabic language (the language of the Qur'an) through conversion and cultural assimilation. Many groups became known as "Arabs" through this process of Arabization rather than through descent. Thus, over time, the term Arab came to carry a broader meaning than the original ethnic term: cultural Arab vs. ethnic Arab. Arab nationalism declares that Arabs are united in a shared history, culture and language. A related ideology, Pan-Arabism, calls for all Arab lands to be united as one state. Arab nationalism has often competed for existence with regional nationalism in the Middle East, such as Lebanese, Syrian, Iraqi and Egyptian nationalism.

How is it possible to define the Arab identity in our society when it is increasingly so narrowly identified with Islam? Unfortunately, Westerners believe that being Arab necessarily means being Muslim. What a mistake they make! Overloaded by the news media, our minds do not stop accumulating such falsities. Amongst 1.6 billion Muslims throughout the world, Arabs represent only a minority today.

Misinterpretations of Islam and injustices committed in its name have led to many misunderstandings regarding the actual realities of the Arab world. I have made a great effort to accept realities without making any judgments. This has allowed me to adopt a better approach to understanding the problem that continues to feed the flame of hatred in the hearts of humans. If only we look at things simply, Islam is nothing other than the third monotheist religion born in this region.

I traveled widely for many years in the Middle East, North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, studying the differences and similarities of these regions. I portrayed the difficult everyday life of the people of these countries moving between war and faith, in unadorned and very personal shots and says, 'Seen from outside, the Arab world looks like a powder keg, ready to explode at any moment, and Islam seems to be the dominating power. Seen from inside, everything is different.

Samer Mohdad ... In Search of the Arab Identity On my trips to Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Gaza, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Saudi Arabia I am searching for traces of past civilizations and the vestiges of old traditions in contemporary everyday life, marked as it is by centuries of clashes between and a mingling of different religions and cultures, of destruction and reconstruction, preservation and adaptation.

It is undeniable that it is a region plagued by more important problems: war, lack of food for displaced persons, the construction of new infrastructure and so on... For me, it is absolutely necessary to memorize such moments and learn to read them. This will give us a better understanding of our situation and help guide us towards a constructive future.

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