Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Relationship between Sufis and Inner Asian Ruling Elites

Academic journal article Southeast Review of Asian Studies

The Relationship between Sufis and Inner Asian Ruling Elites

Article excerpt

Sufism flourished during the thirteenth century in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Mongol conquests have been given much credit, at least for the spread of Sufism, since Sufis immigrated--as did many others--to safer regions to avoid the destruction of war. Afterward, a variety of relationships developed between Sufis and Inner Asian elites during the period of the Mongol Empire, in the successor khanates, and eventually in other Inner Asian kingdoms. Still, Sufism and its relationship with Inner Asia, particularly among the Inner Asian elites, remains a largely neglected area of study. This article examines the historiography of the field and synthesizes what is known of the relationship between Sufis and Inner Asian elites. By examining Sufism and its position and attitudes from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century, one can see a metamorphosis of this relationship from one of hostility to one of mutual benefit.

The Need to Examine the Early Sociopolitical Role of Sufis

Sufism, a mystical and emotive form of Islam, spread and flourished during the thirteenth century in the Middle East and Central Asia. The Mongol conquests have been given much credit, at least for the spread of Sufism, since Sufis immigrated--as did members of many other groups others--to safer regions to avoid the destruction of war. Later, as the Mongols of the Il-Khanate of Persia (1260-1335); the Jochid Khanate (1260-1480), known popularly as the Golden Horde; and the Chaghatayid Khanate (1260-1360) converted to Islam, Sufis played a major role in the conversion of the Mongols. Later still, Sufis played a central role in the affairs of the successors of the Mongols, not only in matters of religion but also in politics. Yet, beyond the scope of religion, what exactly was that role? And how have scholars approached it? How did the Sufis fit into the political structure of a nomadic and often alien court, government, and social structure, one that was tolerant of all religions but, at the same time, aggressively punished any religion that threatened its power? Although the issue of conversion of Inner Asian elites cannot be avoided in this discussion, the focus will be on these other important questions.

The Period of Mongol Invasions

Although initial contact between Inner Asians and Sufis--called thus because they tended to wear course woolen robes known as sufs--occurred prior to the 1219-60 Mongol invasions of the Middle East and Central Asia, it is more appropriate to begin this study with the 1219-20 Mongol invasion of the Khwarazm Empire. Prior to this invasion, a different milieu existed. The Saljuqs and other Oghuz Turkic groups were Muslim. Islam spread among them fairly quickly; and due to intermittent warfare and trade between Dar al-Islam (the "Abode of Islam," or Islamic world) and Dar al-Harb (the "Abode of War," or non-Islamic world) across the Syr Darya River, the Turks who migrated into the Middle East were not unfamiliar with Islam. Furthermore, the Mongol invasions were catastrophic in the sense that, to much of the sedentary world, the Mongols were an enigma. No one knew much about them prior to the invasions; it was difficult to understand their tolerance of all religions; and, in the Islamic and Christian worlds, the Mongols were seen a punishment from heaven. Thus, not only did the Mongol invasions manifest a real political and economic instability but they also created a true spiritual crisis for many Muslims and Christians. For the purpose of this study, however, the discussion will be directed only to the impact upon Muslims.

According to Potter (1994, 77), the Mongol invasions of Iran were crucial for Iran's religious identity--and perhaps for the identity of the Islamic world in general. Tensions between Sunni and Shi'a subsided; and the differences in the interpretation of the Shari'a (Islamic Law) among the four Sunni schools of law, which sometimes led to large-scale riots, became less important. …

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