Citation for Central Asia and China: A Trans-Regional History of Islam

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Papas, Alexandre . "Central Asia and China: A Trans-Regional History of Islam." In The Oxford History of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 5, 2021. <>.


Papas, Alexandre . "Central Asia and China: A Trans-Regional History of Islam." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 5, 2021).

Central Asia and China: A Trans-Regional History of Islam


Alexandre Papas

Central Asia and China share a common history through Islam. While most historiographies of Central Asia and China are still enclosed within imperial or national boundaries, applying imperial or nation-state models to trans-regional realities, an alternative vision focused on religion as a social, political, and intellectual force offers a new, and rather paradoxical, narrative. Unlike the usual opinion that Islam represents the main cause of distinction, if not of separation, misunderstanding, even conflict, between Central Asian Turko-Persian societies and Chinese people, the Islamic history of both Central Asia and China features a series of cultural interactions and shared issues. Based on recently discovered sources, arcaheological findings, fieldwork data and updated scholarship, this chapter traces the history of Islam across the Tian Shan Mountains, throughout the Tarim basin and along the Himalayan foothills. Five key periods will be examined: Islamization starting in the mid-tenth century; the eastward spread of Sufism from the sixteenth to the eighteen centuries; the Muslim reaction to the colonial order after the Qing conquest in 1759; the Islamic Reformism introduced in the 1900s; and the development of Islam from 1949 until today. In the long run, it appears that the area currently called Xinjiang played and continues to play the role of a political laboratory where Islam has been constantly convoked but ceaselessly questioned by Sino-Central Asian elites.


Despite their symbolic strength, neither the envoys sent by the Arabs toward al-Sīn (which meant not only China but also the sphere of Chinese influence) as early as 651 nor the Abbasid victory at the famous battle of Talas against the Tangs in 751 can be seen as the beginning of Islam beyond the Tian Shan. First contacts, whether peaceful or no, rarely lead to religious change and, significantly, these events did not arouse contemporary or later narratives of religious conversions, as is often the case in conversion processes. Such narratives emerged in the ninth and tenth centuries and should be read as not only legends of Islamization, which would merely provide a native representation of what may have happened, but also as themselves literary products of the Islamization process, that is to say, of what happened both factually and in the popular imagination. Instead of opposing story to history, or preferring one to the other, the historian reconstructs through stories a most likely factual scenario and considers these very stories as products or reinterpretations of historical events.

The Qarakhanids.

The assertion of the Arab geographer al-Ya‘qūbī (d. 897–8) that the ruler of the Qarluq Turkic confederation, which territory bordered the declining Tang empire, converted to Islam during the Caliphate of al-Mahdī (775–785), does not seem historical and simply exaggerates the formal tributary relationship between the Qarluqs and the Caliphate. Yet, it also reveals the rising cultural influence of Muslim traders and occupants of frontier forts (ribāt) attested by a few sources and suggested by surviving toponyms containing the word ribāt. At this time, during the ninth century, China lost its territories in the Tarim basin; the Uighur Empire occupied the main oases in addition to Beshbaliq (present-day Urumchi), and Turfan, (until the union of Qarluq, Yaghma, and other Turkic tribes dislodged it). A new kingdom covering Eastern Turkestan and Semireche (present-day South-Eastern Kazakhstan and Northern Kyrgyzstan) was then founded in 840 by the Qarakhanid dynasty. A more concrete example of a conversion to Islam was that of the Qarakhanid ruler after the “second” battle of Talas, conquered by the Iranian Muslim dynasty of the Samanids (875-999) in 893, a conversion followed by the transformation of a church into a mosque and the Islamization of groups of Oghuz and Qarluq tribes in the early tenth century. This pattern of Islamization, which regularly emerges from sources—i.e. conversion of the ruler, construction of a mosque and group conversions—indicate a vertical process of Islamization. They mainly present synecdochic narratives of conversions to Islam that were less the result of holy wars than a complex process of long-lasting contacts, control of sacred space, financial, legal and social interests, cultural prestige, and proselytizing fervor.

In a religious landscape characterized by an exceptional diversity, which included Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism and Shamanism or Tengrism, the first mass conversion to Islam of a Turkic population would have taken place in the mid-tenth century, perhaps in 960, with what the Arab historians Ibn Miskawayh then Ibn al-Athīr coined as the “200,000 tents of the Turks” embracing Islam. Drawn from earlier oral traditions and lost written texts, later Central Asian sources composed respectively in the early fourteenth, mid-sixteenth and eighteenth centuries linked the Islamization of the Turks to the conversion of the Qarakhanid prince Satūq Bughrā (d. 955–6) and his entourage, sometime between 921 and 945. One can summarize the narrative as follows: The Samanid prince Nasr fled Transoxiana to Kashgar and was made governor of Artush (in present-day Xinjiang) by the Qarakhanid khan Oghūlchāq. After that, many caravans full of precious goods arrived in Artush. In return, Nasr obtained permission(?) from the khan to build a mosque in that city. Oghūlchāq’s nephew named Satūq Bughrā was initially attracted to the goods brought by the caravans, but soon realized the value of Islam and secretly converted. The khan, alarmed by this news, punished him by forcing him to erect an idol’s temple. The young boy labored in the construction project, though with the intention to turn the temple into a congregational mosque. Soon after, Satūq Bughrā seized power in Kashgar under the banner of Islam. Between the legendary details, one reads the probably true history of religious constructions. Indeed, Chinese archeological findings confirm the existence of early Islamic buildings in Artush, along with trade agreements and political strategies at the head of state. To the younger generation of rules, Islam appeared to offer an attractive combination of economic success, a functioning legal system, and a vibrant faith, giving access to new opportunities on the scale of the Muslim world. The three-fold pattern of Islamization is dramatized in order to describe the difficulties faced by the still-minority Muslims: the prince converted secretly, the second mosque was camouflaged in a temple, and the prince took power and lead holy war, with jihād being a consequence of Islamization rather than a cause.

Whereas the eastern part of the Tarim Basin was dominated by the Uighur state and oriented towards Buddhist China, in the west, especially Kashgaria (now Southern Xinjiang), fell under the rule of the Qarakhanids. As a result, Islamic civilization developed increasingly at three important levels: law, language, and ethics (adab). As early as the late eleventh century, Islamic law was established as is shown by documents discovered in Yarkand. Legal disputes, property exchanges, and other issues were brought before a Muslim judge (qāzī) or a notary, who issued a ruling based on specific principles; read it in Arabic then translated it orally into Turkic, a language which itself welcomed loan words from Arabic and Persian; and used either Uighur or Arabic scripts. An emblematic figure of this state of affairs was the famous Mahmūd Kāshgharī (1005–1102) who composed in Arabic the Compendium of the Turkic Dialects (Diwān lughāt al-turk). Moreover, this book has been produced intentionally by the author as a description of the Turks (illustrated by a map of tribes), but also as an evidence of their Islamic identity and destiny and offered to the Caliph al-Muqtadī (r. 1075–1094) in Baghdad. Not surprisingly, around this time the first Turkic Islamic literature was produced in the dialect of the capital city of Kashgar, with two foundational works: Yūsuf Khāss Hājib’s Wisdom of Royal Glory (Qutadghu bilig) composed in 1069 and Ahmad Yüknekī’s Threshold of the Truths (‘Ataba al-haqā’iq) written between the late twelfth and the early thirteenth centuries. Both poetical books were products of the intellectual milieu of the eastern Qarakhanid khanate and offered didactic teachings addressed to the ruling elite, mixing Perso-Islamic ethics and moralia on the one hand and Turkic folk and nomadic traditions on the other. Worth mentioning too is the first Turkic translation and commentary (tafsīr) of parts of the Quran during the same period.

The early presence of twelve-imam Shi’ism is attested in historical records. Still, given the Central Asian context and its prestigious Sunni scholarly centers such as Bukhara and Samarkand, Sunni Hanafism was most likely the main form of Islam and became predominant in many oases of Eastern Turkestan (Kashgar, Yarkand, Khotan, Aksu, Kucha) in the early thirteenth century. However, beside the clear Islamization of culture described above, the previous examples also betray an acculturation of Islam, which expressed itself in languages other than Arabic and borrowed concepts and values from other beliefs and systems of thought, this despite growing religious tensions with Buddhist communities. We can understand this dual process as a questioning of the Islamic legacy, which had only recently arrived and was still under construction and discussion among the elite. One should recall here the common practice of religious debates among Turkic and Mongol rulers. As a matter of fact, the Muslim West, though influential in many ways, was not an exclusive horizon to the Qarakhanid court who, at the same time, established commercial and sometimes even matrimonial relationships with the different Sinitic states, such as the Khitan, the Tangut and the Song. Islam was such an established element of the culture that the Buddhist dynasty of Qara Khitay, which ruled over Central Asia between 1124 and 1218, did little to interrupt Muslim religious life. Cross-cultural contacts continued along trade routes linking Transoxiana, Mongolia and China. Meanwhile, the general revolt of Eastern Turkestan, which broke out around 1207, was targeted against the extortions of tax collectors rather than against the “infidel” Qara Khitay rulers.

Islam under the Mongols.

The Mongol conquest continued the non-Muslim dominance over Islamic Central Asia, but from there Islam continued to advance inside China. After having subjugated most of Northern China in 1215, the army of Chingis Khan (d. 1227)’s army, led by Jebe Noyon, seized control of Kashgaria three years later. After the conquest, Transoxiana, Semireche and the Tarim basin formed the appanage (ulus, or gift of land) of Chaghatay (d. 1242), the second son of Chingis. The situation of Islam looked then more paradoxical than ever in that the Islamization progressed despite two obstacles. The Mongol conquest put in closer contact Muslim and Buddhist populations in closer contact, provoking occasions of religious tensions between both communities. Instead of open conflicts though, these tensions seemed limited to mutual antipathy, as is expressed in the rhetoric of contemporary sources as well as in the emerging collective memory among the Turks of Eastern Turkestan connecting Muslim martyrs to legendary battles against Buddhists. The displacement of populations during the Mongol era was the main source of this first problem. Although historical details are still missing, it is possible that, for example, the large number of Chinese living in Almaliq (now Ghulja) and Beshbaliq in the thirteenth century has been the result of a Mongol transfer. It is likewise very possible that the migration of the Muslim Salar people, who were of Turkmen origin, to present-day Qinghai was the result of the Mongol transfer policy. This last case – which was not unique (see the thousands of Uighurs sent to Iran in the 1250s) –, documented by a Chinese chronicle and a Salar oral legend, suggests that many Muslim groups of Western China are descendants of these immigrants. In other words, forced exile inadvertently served the expansion of Islam towards the Far East.

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