The composite Turko-Persian tradition was a variant of Islamic culture. It was Persianate in that it was centered on a lettered tradition of Iranian origin; it was Turkic insofar as it was founded by and for many generations patronized by rulers of Turkic origin; it was Islamic in that Islamic notions of virtue, permanence, and excellence infused discourse about public issues as well as the religious affairs of the Muslims, who were the presiding elite.
After the Arab Muslim conquest of Persia, Middle Persian, the language of Sassanids, continued in wide use well into the second Islamic century (eighth century) as a medium of administration in the eastern lands of the Caliphate. Despite Arabization of public affairs, the peoples retained much of their pre-Islamic outlook and way of life, adjusted to fit the demands of the Islamic religion. Towards the end of the first Islamic century, population began resenting the cost of sustaining the Arab Caliphs, the Umayyads - who become oppressive and corrupt, and in the second Islamic century (eighth century AD), a generally Persian-led uprising - led by the Iranian national hero Abu Muslim Khorasani - brought another Arab clan, the Abbasids, to the Caliphal throne. Under the Abbasids, the Persianate customs of their Barmakid viziers became the style of the ruling elite. Politically, the Abbasids soon started losing their control, causing two major and lasting consequences. First, the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutasim (833-842) greatly increased the presence of Turkic mercenaries and Mamluk slaves in the Caliphate, and they eventually displaced Arabs and Persians from the military, and therefore from the political hegemony, starting an era of Turko-Persian symbiosis. Second, the governors in Khurasan, Tahirids, were factually independent; then the Saffarids from Sistan freed the eastern lands, but were replaced by independent Samanids, although they showed perfunctory deference to the Caliph. Separation of the eastern lands from Caliphate was expressed in a distinctive Persianate culture that became a dominant culture in West, Central and South Asia, and the source of innovations elsewhere in the Islamicate world. This culture would persist, at least in the modified form of the Ottoman Empire, into the twentieth century. The Persianate culture was marked by the use of the new Persian language as a medium of administration and literature, by the rise of Persianized Turks to military control, by new political importance of non-Arab ulama, and by development of ethnically composite Islamicate society.
Middle Persian was a lingua franca of the region before the Arab invasion, but afterwards Arabic became a preferred medium of literary expression. Instrumental in the spread of the Persian language as a common language along the Silk Road between China and Parthia in the second century BCE, that lasted well into the sixteenth century, were many Bukharian Jews who flocked to Bukhara in the Central Asia and as a merchant class played a great role in the operation of the Silk Road. In the ninth century emerged a new Persian language as the idiom of administration and literature. Tahirids and Saffarids continued using Persian as an informal language, although for them Arabic was the "only proper language for recording anything worthwhile, from poetry to science", but the Samanids made Persian a language of learning and formal discourse. The language that appeared in the ninth and tenth centuries was a new form of Persian, based on the Middle Persian of pre-Islamic times, but enriched by ample Arabic vocabulary and written in Arabic script. The Samanids began recording their court affairs in Arabic and in this language, and they used it as the main public idiom. The earliest great poetry in New Persian was written for the Samanid court. Samanids encouraged translation of religious works from Arabic into Persian. Even the learned authorities of Islam, the ulama, began using the Persian lingua franca in public, although they still used Arabic as a medium of scholarship. The crowning literary achievement in the early New Persian language, The Persian "Book of Kings" of Firdowsi, presented to the court of Mahmud of Ghazni (998-1030), was more than a literary achievement; it was a kind of Iranian nationalistic memoir, Firdowsi galvanized Persian nationalistic sentiments by invoking pre-Islamic Persian heroic imagery. Firdowsi enshrined in literary form the most treasured stories of popular folk-memory.
Before the Ghaznavids broke away, the Samanid rulership was internally falling to its Turkic servants. The Samanids had their own guard of Turkic Mamluk mercenaries (the ghilman), who were headed by a chamberlain, and a Persian and Arabic speaking bureaucracy, headed by a Persian vizier. The army was largely composed of mostly Turkic Mamluks. By the latter part of the tenth century, Samanid rulers gave the command of their army to Turkic generals. These generals eventually had effective control over all Samanid affairs. The rise of Turks in Samanid times brought a loss of Samanid southern territories to one of their Mamluks, who were governing on their behalf. Mahmud of Ghazni ruled over southeastern extremities of Samanid territories from the city of Ghazni. Turkic political ascendancy in the Samanid period in the tenth and eleventh centuries resulted in the fall of Samanid ruling institution to its Turkic generals; and in a rise of Turkic pastoralists in the countryside. The Ghaznavids (989-1149) founded empire which became a most powerful in the east since Abbasid Caliphs at their peak, and their capital at Ghazni became second only to Baghdad in cultural elegance. It attracted many scholars and artists of the Islamic world. Turkic ascendance to power in the Samanid court brought Turks as the main patrons of Persianate culture, and as they subjugated Western and Southern Asia, they brought along this culture.
The Kara-Khanid Khanate (999-1140) at that time were gaining pre-eminence over the countryside. The Kara-Khanids were pastoralists of noble Turkic backgrounds, and they cherished their Turkic ways. As they gained strength they fostered development of a new Turkish literature alongside the Persian and Arabic literatures that had arisen earlier.
The beginning of the Turko-Persian symbiosis
In Samanid times began the growth of the public influence of the ulama, the learned scholars of Islam. Ulama grew in prominence as the Samanids gave special support to Sunnism, in contrast with their Shiite neighbors, the Buyids. They enjoyed strong position in the city of Bukhara, and it grew under the Samanids' successors Kara-Khanid Khanate. Kara-Khanids established a dominance of ulama in the cities, and the network of recognized Islamic authorities became an alternative social instrument for the maintenance of public order. In the Kara-Khanid Khanate formed an ethnically and dogmatically diverse society. The eastern lands of the Caliphate were ethnically and religiously very diverse. Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians were numerous, and also several minority Islamic sects had considerable following. These diverse peoples found refuge in the cities. Bukhara and Samarkand swelled and formed ethnic and sectarian neighborhoods, most of them surrounded by walls, each with its own markets, caravansaraies, and public squares. The religious authorities of these non-Muslim communities became their spokesmen, just as the ulama were for the Muslim community, they also began overseeing internal communal affairs. Thus, alongside the rise of the ulama, there was a corresponding rise in the political importance of the religious leaders of other doctrinal communities.
The ruling institution was dominated by Turks from various tribes, some highly urbanized and Persianized, some rural and still very Turkic. It was managed by bureaucrats and ulama who used both Persian and Arabic, its literati participated in both the Arabic and Persian traditions of high culture of the wider Islamicate world. This composite culture was the beginning of the Turko-Persian variant of Islamicate culture. As "Persianate" it was centered on a lettered tradition of Persian origin, it was Turkic because for many generations it was patronized by rulers of Turkic ancestry, and it was "Islamicate" because the Islamic notions of virtue, permanence, and excellence channeled the discourse about public issues and religious affairs of the Muslims, who were a presiding elite. The combination of these elements in the Islamic society had a strong impact on the religion, because Islam was disengaged from its Arabic background and Bedouin traditions and became a far richer, more adaptable, and universal culture. The appearance of New Persian, ascendancy of Turks to power in place of the Persian Samanids, rise of the non-Arabic ulama in the cities, and development of ethnically and confessionally complex urban society marked an emergence of a new Turko-Persian Islamic culture. As the Turko-Persian Islamic culture was exported into the wider region of Western and Southern Asia, the transformation became increasingly evident.
The early stages of Turko-Persian cultural synthesis in the Islamic world are marked by cultural, social and political tensions and competition among Turks, Persians, and Arabs, despite the egalitarianism of Islamic doctrine. The complex ideas around non-Arabs in the Muslim world lead to debates and changing attitudes that can be seen in numerous Arabic, Persian and Turkic writings before the Mongol expansion.
The Perso-Islamic tradition was a tradition where the Turkic groups played an important role in its military and political success while the culture raised both by and under the influence of Muslims used Persian as its cultural vehicle. In short, the Turko-Persian tradition features Persian culture patronized by Turkophone rulers.
Spread of Turko-Persian Tradition
The Turko-Persian Islamicate culture that emerged under the Persianate Samanids, Ghaznavids, and Kara-Khanids was carried by succeeding dynasties into Western and Southern Asia, in particular, by the Seljuks (1040-1118), and their successor states, who presided over Persia, Syria, and Anatolia until the thirteenth century, and by the Ghaznavids, who in the same period dominated Greater Khorasan and India. These two dynasties together drew the center of the Islamic world eastward. The institutions stabilized Islamic society into a form that would persist, at least in Western Asia, until the twentieth century.
The Turko-Persian distinctive Islamicate culture flourished for hundreds of years, and then faded under imposed modern European influences. Turko-Persian Islamicate culture is an ecumenical mix of Arabic, Persian, and Turkic elements blended in the ninth and tenth centuries, and eventually became a predominant culture of the ruling and elite classes of West, Central and South Asia.
The Ghaznavids moved their capital from Ghazni to Lahore, which they turned into another center of Islamic culture. Under Ghaznavids poets and scholars from Kashgar, Bukhara, Samarkand, Baghdad, Nishapur, and Ghazni congregated in Lahore. Thus, the Turko-Persian culture was brought deep into India and carried further in the thirteenth century.
The Seljuq successors of Kara-Khanid Khanate in Transoxiana brought this culture westward into Persia, Iraq, and Syria. Seljuqs won a decisive battle with the Ghaznavids and then swept into Khurasan, they brought Turko-Persian Islamic culture westward into western Persia and Iraq. Persia and Central Asia became a heartland of Persianate language and culture. As Seljuks came to dominate Iraq, Syria, and Anatolia, they carried this Turko-Persian culture beyond, and made it the culture of their courts in the region to as far west as the Mediterranean Sea. Under Seljuks and the Ghaznavids the Islamic religious institutions became more organized and Sunni orthodoxy became more codified. The great jurist and theologian al-Ghazali proposed a synthesis of Sufism and sharia that became a basis of a richer Islamic theology. Formulating the Sunni concept of division between temporal and religious authorities, he provided a theological basis for the existence of Sultanate, a temporal office alongside the Caliphate, which by that time was merely a religious office. The main institutional means of establishing a consensus of the ulama on these dogmatic issues were the madrasas, formal Islamic schools that granted licensure to teach. First established under Seljuqs, these schools became means of uniting Sunni ulama which legitimized the rule of the Sultans. The bureaucracies were staffed by graduates of the madrasas, so both the ulama and the bureaucracies were under the influence of esteemed professors at the madrasas.
The period from the eleventh to thirteenth century was a cultural blossom time in Western and Southern Asia. A shared culture spread from Mediterranean to the mouth of Ganges, despite political fragmentation and ethnic diversity.
Through the centuries
The culture of the Turko-Persian world in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries was tested by invading armies of inland Asia. The Mongols under Genghis Khan (1220–58) and Timur (Tamerlane, 1336-1405) had effect of stimulating development of Persianate culture of Central and West Asia, because of the new concentrations of specialists of high culture created by the invasions, for many people had to seek refuge in few safe havens, primarily India, where scholars, poets, musicians, and fine artisans intermingled and cross-fertilized, and because the broad peace secured by the huge imperial systems established by the Il-Khans (in the thirteenth century) and Timurids (in the fifteenth century), when travel was safe, and scholars and artists, ideas and skills, and fine books and artifacts circulated freely over a wide area. Il-Khans and Timurids deliberately patronized Persianate high culture. Under their rule developed new styles of architecture, Persian literature was encouraged, and flourished miniature painting and book production, and under Timurids prospered Turkic poetry, based on the vernacular known as Chaghatai (today called Uzbek; of Turkic Qarluq origin).
In that period prospered the Turko-Persian culture of India. Mamluk guards, mostly Turks and Mongols, along with Persians (now known as Tajiks), Khaljis and Afghans, dominated India from the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, ruling as Sultans in Delhi. Their society was enriched by influx of Islamic scholars, historians, architects, musicians, and other specialists of high Persianate culture that fled the Mongol devastations of Transoxiana and Khurasan. After the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258, Delhi became the most important cultural center of the Muslim east. The Delhi Sultans modeled their life-styles after the Turkic and Persian upper classes, who now predominated in most of Western and Central Asia. They patronized literature and music, but became especially notable for their architecture, because their builders drew from Muslim world architecture to produce a profusion of mosques, palaces, and tombs unmatched in any other Islamic country.
In Mongol and Timurid times the predominant influences on Turko-Persian culture were imposed from Central Asia, and in this period Turko-Persian culture became sharply distinguishable from the Arabic Islamic world to the west, the dividing zone fell along Euphrates. Socially the Turko-Persian world was marked by a system of ethnologically defined elite statuses: the rulers and their soldiery were Turkic or Turkic-speaking Mongols; the administrative cadres and literati were Persian. Cultural affairs were marked by characteristic pattern of language use: New Persian was the language of state affairs and literature; New Persian and Arabic the languages of scholarship; Arabic the language of adjudication; and Turkic the language of the military.
In the sixteenth century arose the Turko-Persian empires of the Ottomans in Asia Minor, Safavids in Persia, and Mughals in India. Thus, from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries the territories from Asia Minor to East Bengal were dominated by Turko-Persian dynasties.
At the beginning of the fourteenth century the Ottomans rose to predominance in Asia Minor, and developed an empire that subjugated most of the Arab Islamic world as well as south-eastern Europe. The Ottomans patronized Persian literature for five and a half centuries and, because Asia Minor was more stable than eastern territories, they attracted great numbers of writers and artists, especially in the sixteenth century. The Ottomans developed distinctive styles of arts and letters. Unlike Persia they gradually shed some of their Persianate qualities. They gave up Persian as the court language, using Turkish instead; a decision that shocked the highly Persianized Mughals in India.
The Safavids of the fifteenth century were leaders of a Sufi order, venerated by Turkmen tribesmen in eastern Anatolia. As Safavids ascended to predominance in Persia in the sixteenth century - as the first native Iranian dynasty that united all the Iranian people after more than 800 years of Arab, Turkic, and Mongol rule, they patronized Persian culture in the manner of their predecessors. Safavids erected grand mosques and built elegant gardens, collected books (one Safavid ruler had a library of 3,000 volumes) and patronized whole academies. The Safavids introduced Shiism into Persia to distinguish Persia society from the Ottomans, their Sunni rivals to the west.
The Mughals, Persianized Turks who had invaded India from Central Asia and claimed descent from both Timur and Genghis Khan, strengthened the Persianate culture of Muslim India. They cultivated art, enticing to their courts artists and architects from Bukhara, Tabriz, Shiraz, and other cities of Islamic world. The Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The Mughals dominated India from 1526 until the eighteenth century, when Muslim successor states and non-Muslim powers of Sikh, Maratha, and British replaced them.
The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires developed variations of a broadly similar Turko-Persian tradition. A remarkable similarity in culture, particularly among the elite classes, spread across territories of Western, Central and South Asia. Although populations across this vast region had conflicting allegiances (sectarian, locality, tribal, and ethnic affiliation) and spoke many different languages (mostly either Indo-Iranian languages like Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Pushtu, Baluchi, or Kurdish, or Turkic languages like Turkish, Azeri, Turkmen, Uzbek, or Kyrgyz), people shared a number of common institutions, arts, knowledge, customs, and rituals. These cultural similarities were perpetuated by poets, artists, architects, artisans, jurists, and scholars, who maintained relations among their peers in the far-flung cities of the Turko-Persian world, from Istanbul to Delhi.
As the broad cultural region remained politically divided, the sharp antagonisms between empires stimulated appearance of variations of Turko-Persian culture. The main reason for this was Safavids’ introduction of Shiism into Persia, done to distinguish themselves from their Sunni neighbors, especially Ottomans. After 1500, the Persian culture developed distinct features of its own, and interposition of strong Shiite culture hampered exchanges with Sunni peoples on Persia's western and eastern frontiers. The Sunni peoples of eastern Mediterranean in Asia Minor, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and Sunnis of Central Asia and India developed somewhat independently. Ottoman Turkey grew more like its Arab Muslim neighbors in West Asia; India developed a South Asian style of Indo-Persian culture; and Central Asia, which gradually grew more isolated, changed relatively little.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Turko-Persian empires weakened by the Europeans' discovery of a sea route to India, and introduction of hand guns, which gave the horsemen of the pastoral societies greater fighting capability. In India, the Mughal Empire decayed into warring sister states. Only Ottoman Turkey survived into the twentieth century. The European powers encroached into the Turko-Persian region, contributing to the political fragmentation of the region. By the nineteenth century, the European secular concepts of social obligation and authority, along with superior technology, shook many established institutions of Turko-Persia. The rulers began emulating western models of governance, and cultural similarities that were formerly so apparent among the peoples of Turko-Persia were overlaid by western political ideas.
By identifying the cultural regions of Asia as the Middle East, South Asia, Russian Asia, and East Asia, the Europeans in effect dismembered the Turko-Persian Islamic world that had culturally united a vast expanse of Asia for nearly a thousand years. The imposition of European influences on Asia affected social affairs throughout the region where Persianate culture had once been patronized by Turkic rulers. But in informal relations the social life remained unaltered. Also, popular customs and notions of virtue, sublimity, and permanence, ideas that were entailed in Islamic religious teaching, persisted relatively unchanged. Unlike the European images of them, people saw themselves as the heirs of illustrious past, and still situated on a central stage of history.
The twentieth century saw an ocean of changes in inland Asia that further exposed contradictory cultural trends in the region. Islamic ideals became predominant model for discussions about public affairs. The new rhetoric of public ideals captured interest of peoples throughout Islamic world, including the area where in public affairs Turko-Persian culture once was prominent. The Islamic moral imagery that survived in informal relations emerged as the model of ideology expressed in its most virile form in the Islamic revolution of Iran and in the Islamic idealism of the Afghanistan mujahedin resistance movement.
The Islamic resurgence has been less a renewal of faith and dedication than a public resurfacing of perspectives and ideals previously relegated to less public, informal relations under impact of European secular influences. They are not medieval Islamic ideals, but ideas from the past that remained vital to many of these peoples, and now are used to interpret the problems of contemporary times. The Turko-Persian Islamic tradition provided the elements they have used to express their shared concerns.
"The work of Iranians can be seen in every field of cultural endeavor, including Arabic poetry, to which poets of Iranian origin composing their poems in Arabic made a very significant contribution. In a sense, Iranian Islam is a second advent of Islam itself, a new Islam sometimes referred to as Islam-i Ajam. It was this Persian Islam, rather than the original Arab Islam, that was brought to new areas and new peoples: to the Turks, first in Central Asia and then in the Middle East in the country which came to be called Turkey, and of course to India. The Ottoman Turks brought a form of Iranian civilization to the walls of Vienna. [...] By the time of the great Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century, Iranian Islam had become not only an important component; it had become a dominant element in Islam itself, and for several centuries the main centers of Islamic have the power and civilization were in countries that were, if not Iranian, at least marked by Iranian civilization. [...] The center of the Islamic world was under Turkish and Persian states, both shaped by Iranian culture. [...] The major centers of Islam in the late medieval and early modern periods, the centers of both political and cultural power, such as India, Central Asia, Iran, Turkey, were all part of this Iranian civilization. Although much of it spoke various forms of Turkish, as well as other local languages, their classical and cultural language was Persian. Arabic was of course the language of scripture and law, but Persian was the language of poetry and literature".
-- Bernard Lewis
With the firm guidance of 'ulema', the diverse native traditions were transformed to a uniform mold that crossed borders and customs. The original diverse traditions were consistently shaped to conform to specific norms embedded in the Islamic law. One notable exception in the Turko-Persian tradition was the attitude to the women. The original attitude of respect to the mothers, and protection of the sisters and daughters overcame the tenets imposed by the new religion, and survived as an inherent component of the learned new society. The idea of slaughtering mothers and daughters, incessantly proclaimed from the pulpits, remained a call for action, but not the action in the majority sphere of the Turko-Persian tradition. While the best of the Turko-Persian literature is venerated and admired, the respect for the women and the old traditions of equality generally survived to the present times, except for the areas where the Arab Islamic tradition managed to entirely replace the original native traditions. The early Turkish Muslims accepted and embraced the pre-Islamic traditions and combined them with their own in a form of Sufi mysticism. Less prominent were the strict Islamic law (Sharia) and concept of waging violent external jihad against nonbelievers. Instead, as Islam was diffused into the Turkic world through Persian Sufi influences, it sought to establish a commonality of belief with the indigenous religious practices. Despite a myriad of attempts to curb it, Sufism has survived in the Turkic zone as an underlying institution of revival and alternative thinking throughout the centuries.
- Robert L. Canfield, Turko-Persia in historical perspective, Cambridge University Press, 1991
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- Francis Robinson, "Perso-Islamic culture in India", in R.L. Canfield, "Turko-Persia in historical perspective", Cambridge University Press, 1991. Quotation:"... In describing the second great culture of the Islamic world as Perso-Islamic we do not wish to play down the considerable contribution of the Turkish peoples to its military and political success, nor do we wish to suggest that it is particularly the achievement of the great cities of the Iranian plateau. We adopt this term because it seems best to describe that culture raised both by and under the influence of Muslims who used Persian as a major cultural vehicle."
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