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Turko-Persian Tradition

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Turko-Persian Islamic culture is distinctive culture that 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 it eventually became a predominant culture of the ruling and elite classes of West, Central and South Asia.[1] When in the seventh and eighth centuries the peoples of Persia, Khurasan, and Transoxiana were overwhelmed by the Arab Muslim armies, they became a part of empire much larger than any previous under Persian rule.[2]


Emergence of Turko-Persian Simbiosis

Middle Persian, the language of Sasanian Persia, continued in wide use well into the second Islamic century (8th c. AD) as a medium of administration in the eastern lands of the Caliphate [3]. 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 dogma. 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 (8th c. AD) a general uprising brought another clan, Abbasids, to the Caliph throne. Under Abbasids, the Persianate customs became the style of the ruling elite. Politically, the Abbasids soon started losing their control. 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 [4]. Separation of the eastern lands from Caliphate was expressed in a distinctive culture that became a dominant culture in the West, Central, and South Asia, and the source of innovations elsewhere in the Islamicate world. The Turko-Persian culture would persist, at least in the form of the Ottoman Empire, into the 20th c. The Turko-Persian 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 administrative control, by new political importance of ‘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. 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" [Frye 197 5a: 1921]), but 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 Persian lingua franca with public, although they still used Arabic as a medium of scholarship. The crowning literary achievement in the early New Persian language, Shahnama of Firdowsi, presented to the court of Mahmud in Gazni (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 [5].

Turkic Supremacy

Before the Ghaznavid Turks broke away, the Samanid rulership was internally falling to its Turkic servants. The Samanids had their own guard of Turkish Mamluk mercenaries (ghulams), who were headed by a chamberlain, and a Persian and Arabic speaking bureaucracy, headed by a vizier. The army was composed of mostly Turkic Mamluks, the palace school was mainly populated by Turkic youths, where the servants of the court were prepared for service. 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 century resulted in Samanid territories falling to the Turks; 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 (Bosworth 1963). It attracted not only Turkic warriors, but also many scholars of Persian and Arabic culture. 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 the Turko-Persian culture. The Qarakhanids (999-1140) at that time were gaining pre-eminence over the countryside. The Qarakhanids were pastoralists of noble 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. As the tenth century ended, the Turkic generals of the Samanid regime gave way to the pastoralist Qarakhanids[6].

Social Prominence Of ‘Ulama’

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 Qarakhanids. Qarakhanids 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 Qarakhanid Khanaate 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, caravansarais, 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[7].

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 (Hodgson 1974 1:58). The combination of these elements in the Islamic society had a strong impact on the Islam religion, because Islam was disengaged from its Arabic background and Bedouin traditions and became a far richer, more adaptable, and universal culture (Frye I965:vii; 1975a:200-7). The appearance of New Persian, ascendancy of Turks to power in place of the Persian Samanids, rise of the ‘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[8].

Spread of Turko-Persian culture

The Turko-Persian Islamicate culture that emerged under the Samanids and the Qarakhanids 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 Afghanistan 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[9].

Tne 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, Bagdad, Nishapur, and Ghazni congregated in Lahore. Thus, the Turko-Persian culture was brought deep into India (Ikram 1964:36);and carried further in the thirteenth century[10].

Tne Seljuq successors of Qarakhanids 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, Khurasan, and Transoxiana 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 Seljuks, 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 (Frye 1975a:224-30)[11].

The eleventh to the thirteenth century’s period 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[12].

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 (1220-58) and Timur (Tamerlane, c. 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 Mongols (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. Mongols and Timurids deliberately patronized 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 Turkish poetry, based on the vernacular known as Chaghatai (today called Uzbek, of Karluk dialect)[13].

In that period prospered the Turko-Persian culture of India. Mamluk guards, mostly Turks and Mongols, along with some Tajiks, Khaljis and Afghans, dominated India from the thirteenth to the fifteenth cc., 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 (Ikram 1964:42, 112). The Delhi Sultans modeled their life-styles after the Turkish 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 (Ikram 1964:120).

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; 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[14].

In the sixteenth century arose Turkic empires of Ottomans in Asia Minor, Safavids in Persia, and Turkic Mughals in India; and in Transoxiana presided another Turkic dynasty, the Shaybanids. 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 (Yarshater 1988:15). The Ottomans developed distinctive styles of arts and letters. Unlike Persia they gradually shed some of their Persianate qualities, the first of the Turkic empires they gave up Persian as the court language, using Turkish instead, a decision that shocked the Mughal Turks in India (Titley 1983:159).

The Turkic 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, to enhance their image 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 (Titley 1983:105). The Safavids, originally Sunnis themselves, introduced Shiism into Persia to distinguish Persia society from the Ottomans, their Sunni rivals to the west (Hodgson 1974 ni:16ff.).

The Mughals, these Persianized Turks who invaded from Central Asia and claimed descent from both Timur and Genghis, 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 the Iranian plateau (Titley 1983:186), Taj Mahal was commissioned by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The Mughals dominated India from I526 until the eighteenth century, when Muslim successor states and non-Muslim powers of Sikh, Maratha, and British replaced them[15].

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, Pushtu, Baluchi, or Kurdish, or Turkic languages like Azeri, Turkmen, Uzbek, or Kirgiz), 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 (Hodgson 1974, iii,:80-6).

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 virulent South Asian style of Turko-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[16]. 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 (Mottahedeh 1985:161-2). 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[17].

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 (Roy 1986; Ahmed 1987). The Turko-Persian Islamic tradition provided the elements they have used to express their shared concerns[18].


  1. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 1
  2. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 4
  3. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 5
  4. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 6
  5. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 7
  6. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 8
  7. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 9
  8. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 12
  9. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 12
  10. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 13
  11. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 14
  12. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 14
  13. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 15
  14. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 15
  15. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 15
  16. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 20
  17. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 25
  18. ^ Robert Canfield “Turko-Persia in historical perspective”, Cambridge University Press, 1991, p. 25
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