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The Historical Interaction between the Buddhist and Islamic Cultures before the Mongol Empire

Alexander Berzin, 1996
lightly revised, January 2003, December 2006

Part III: The Spread of Islam among and by the Turkic Peoples (840 – 1206 CE)

14 The Founding of the First Two Turkic Islamic States

The Conversion of the Qarakhanids to Islam

During the 930s, Nasr bin Mansur, a prominent member of the Samanid royal family, defected to the Western Qarakhanids and was installed as the governor of Artuch, a small district north of Kashgar. He was undoubtedly trying to infiltrate behind the Qarakhanid lines in order to facilitate a further expansion of the Samanid Empire. Being a devout Muslim, the Samanid ordered a mosque constructed at Artuch, the first in the Tarim Basin. When Satuq, the nephew of the Western Qarakhanid ruler, Oghulchaq, visited the area, he developed an interest in the new religion and converted.

According to Islamic historical accounts, when Satuq tried to convince his uncle to change religions as well, the latter resisted, which led to a prolonged clash. The nephew eventually overthrew his uncle and assumed the title Satuq Bughra Khan. With his declaration of Sunni Islam as the state religion, the Western Qarakhanids of Kashgar became the first Turkic tribe officially to adopt the Muslim faith. This occurred in the late 930s.

Analysis of the Motives for the Conversion

Although religious fervor may have motivated Satuq’s actions, he undoubtedly had an additional reason – ambition for power. In order to achieve his aim of ruling the Qarakhanids, he allied himself with the Samanid infiltrator who also had a similar objective. To gain his trust, Satuq would need to adopt a strategy.

The Iranian Samanids had followed the Arab Abbasid custom of taking Turkic tribespeople as slaves and conscripting their warriors into their army. Although the Samanids were exceptionally tolerant of other religions, they would nevertheless offer these slaves nominal freedom if they converted to Islam. More than a thousand Qarakhanids living in Samanid territory had changed religions in this manner. If Satuq voluntarily submitted himself and his followers to Islam, he would easily gain the confidence of the Samanids and seal a military alliance.

Furthermore, if Satuq had ambitions of his own to turn the tide of Western Qarakhanid losses of territory and forge the Turks into a regional power, his move would be facilitated by unifying his people around a new religion. This was the time-tested pattern of previous Tibetan, Eastern Turk, and Uighur successes. The combination of Buddhism and shamanism had failed to provide the supernatural support for his uncle to keep control of his lands across the Tianshan Mountains; whereas with Islam behind them, the Samanids had succeeded in gaining the victory. The choice of new religions was obvious.

The Qocho Uighurs were currently thriving as the upholders of Buddhism and lords of the northern branch of the Silk Route through the Tarim Basin. Their ethnic cousins, the Yellow Yugurs, also strong Buddhists, controlled the Gansu Corridor where, after the northern and southern branches joined at Dunhuang, the Silk Route funneled into Han China. In order to rally the Turkic tribes behind his ambition, away from the Uighurs, Satuq needed a religion not only different from Buddhism. He needed one that also would allow him to reopen the alternative southern branch of the route and shift the focus of control of the trade from the eastern to the western sectors.

As the western terminus of the Silk Route in Sogdia was in Islamic hands, Satuq’s plan seems to have been to conquer Sogdia. Then, driving eastward from Kashgar, he could use Islam to forge a cultural unity along the southern branch of the route and on through the Gansu Corridor, with himself as protector and overlord. Just as the Uighurs had used the flag of Buddhism to win and consolidate their hold on the northern Tarim branch of the Silk Route, Satuq apparently hoped to accomplish the same for the Qarakhanids with the southern branch under the banner of Islam. First, however, in order to rally the Turkic peoples behind him, he required the Turks’ sacred mountain to turn the supernatural advantage to his side. 

Consolidation of the Qarakhanid Islamic State

In 942, Satuq Bughra Khan, with the help of his Samanid allies, tried to conquer the Eastern Qarakhanids and gain control of Balasaghun. Being unsuccessful, he then turned against the Samanids themselves, helping local opposition groups to undermine their rule in Sogdia. This is added evidence that political ambition outweighed any feelings he might have had of religious kinship with his fellow Muslims.

Over the next decades, Satuq’s successors not only won Balasaghun and reunified the Qarakhanids, but also took Samarkand and Bukhara from the Samanids. As overlords and protectors of the Turks’ sacred mountain, they assumed the title qaghan by the end of the century. They could now turn their attention to their main objective, the southern Tarim branch of the Silk Route.

The Rise of the Ghaznavids and the Fall of the Samanids

In 962, Alptigin, an enslaved Turkic military chief under the Samanids who had won his nominal freedom by converting to Sunni Islam, seized from his masters Ghazna in modern-day southeastern Afghanistan. His son-in-law, Sabuktigin (r. 976-997), founded there the autonomous Ghaznavid Dynasty (976-1186), paying allegiance only to the Abbasid court. His was the second Islamic Turkic state to rise in Central Asia. He conquered the Kabul Valley from the Hindu Shahi ruler Jayapala (r. 964-1001), driving the Hindu Shahis back to Gandhara and Oddiyana, and extended his rule as far as northeastern Iran. He also invaded Sindh from Mukran (Baluchistan) and annexed some of its western portions.

The Persian Samanids further declined in power and were finally overthrown in 999. The Turkic slave soldiers in their service, preferring their own ethnic ways, helped the Ghaznavids and Qarakhanids depose them. Sabuktigin’s son and successor, Mahmud of Ghazni (r. 998-1030), divided what was left of the Samanid lands in Sogdia and Bactria with the Qarakhanid Qaghan. He also took Khwarazm – corresponding to modern-day northwestern Turkmenistan and western Uzbekistan – and most of Iran.

[ View Map Twenty-five: Early Qarakhanid and Ghaznavid Empires, Mid-Tenth Century.]

Despite being a Turk, Mahmud glorified the Iranian Sassanid Empire and patronized its cultural tradition, as had the Samanids before him. He summoned Persian scholars and writers to Ghazna, enlisting from Khwarazm, for example, Abu Raihan Muhammad ibn-I-Ahmad al-Biruni (973-1048) in his service as court astrologer. He encouraged the use of the Persian language wherever he conquered and would undoubtedly have appreciated the Iranian Sassanid motifs of depictions of the planets and signs of the zodiac on the walls of Subahar Monastery his father had found in Kabul.

Thus, although Islamic Turkic kingdoms now controlled Sogdia and Bactria for the first time in history, the tone of each was different. The Qarakhanids were the upholders of Turkic tradition, whereas the Ghaznavids favored Iranian culture. The leaders of the former had voluntarily converted to Islam mostly for economic and political gain, while those of the latter in order to gain relative freedom as enslaved military chiefs serving a foreign Muslim rule. Each spread Islam beyond West Turkistan during the course of their military expansion – the Qarakhanids to parts of East Turkistan, while the Ghaznavids to northern India. Let us examine their motives to assess whether their efforts were part of an actual holy war against other religions or only nominally a jihad, but in fact more political and economic in nature.