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Historical expansion of Turkic peoples

Historical expansion of Turkic Peoples

The historical expansion of Turkic Peoples influenced the great religions of the Middle East and Asia. New forms of these religions were created and became militant and political tools for Turkic expansionism. In early Islam civil wars erupted and that was turned into waves of Jihadist imperial ambitions by the Turkic elements in the new faith who constituted the bulk of armies and later on became the rulers in the new empires. Arabic Islam was very short-lived and it was replaced by conflicting Turkish Islam and its rival Persian Islam. Long before the appearance of Islam in the Arabian Peninsula, Persia itself was no longer Iranian as a result of Turkic infiltration.

As Fethullah Gu¨len put it “We are not here as Turkish Muslims to put ourselves in the service of Islam, but to put Islam in the service of life.” What is meant by “life” in this quote actually means “Turkic life” which implies the use of different forms of Islam to serve their expansion policies.

Below is brief article was written by M.Hakan Yavuz (a professor of political science at the University of Utah, Department of Political Science, The Middle East Center), and was posted on

The full article (20 pages) was posted on the Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, Vol. 24, No. 2, October 2004

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, 24 October 2001; Carleton University (Canada), 30 March 2002; Waseda University (Tokyo), 7 October 2002; and John Hopkins–Abant Platform, 19 April 2004.

Posting Foreword:

This brief and severely reduced review lets a 15-min course on the specifics of the Türkic and Turkish Islam, its common traits with other Islamic zones, and its uniqueness in the Islamic family. To remain within the historical scope, I deleted most of what addresses the current status and politics. I also “adjusted” somewhat derogatory references to Shamanism and substituted them with less misleading references to Tengrianism.

While the Arabs class their per-Islamic past as “unenlightened period” of idols and polytheism, The Türks are known to believe in a single omnipotent Tengri from the first records of their history, and the notorious confusion of Tengrianism religion with utilitarian services of Kams (Shamans belong to a different ethnos) brings a distortion as a remnant of old prejudices. For a complete PDF file, click on Link above.

The Zones of Islam

There are at least seven diverse competing and conflicting zones of political Islam. Conversion patterns, colonial legacy, types of nationalism, and political economy all factor into these evolving separate zones. Under certain political conditions, one sees the emergence of consensus and similar ‘public opinion’ across zones on various issues. For instance, the Arab–Israeli conflict and Bosnia helped to form a shared position under the rubric of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, but not the conflicts involving indigenous Muslim populations in Nagorno-Karabakh, Kashmir, or Cyprus.

Each zone’s understanding of the political role of Islam no doubt varies in terms of numerous socio-political groups employing Islamic idioms and identity claims within their respective zones, while themselves being influenced at the regional level by national culture and diverse historical and economic factors. None of these zones works in isolation and there is a constant fertilization of ideas, practices, and skills across zones, and a flow of ideas, skills, and ways of framing issues by intellectuals. In addition, the production of religious knowledge and the use of Islam in everyday life in each zone, are conditioned by its history and socio-political environment.

Such a heuristic approach is essential to understanding the various contingent manifestations of political Islam while evaluating the evolution of political Islam in specific zones, such as Turkey, and its relation to the non-Islamic Western world. Across the seven zones of Islam, it is clear that there has been a rediscovery of Islamic identity. This has generally taken place along the unexpected path of nationalism, which, in earlier studies, was regarded as antithetical to Islamic identity. Since the 1990s, almost all zones experienced a transformation of nationalism into forms of ‘Islamic patriotism’. On the one hand, there is an evolving transnational Muslim consciousness as a result of the persecution of Muslim communities in different parts of the world, brought to Muslim households through the rapidly expanding communication networks of television and Internet. These same images have also facilitated formation of an assertive ethnic nationalism.

There are also attempts to redefine Islam n national terms in order to consolidate the nation-state and national identity. Thus Islam has been an important facet of all Arab, Persian, Turkish, South Asian and Malay–Indonesian nationalisms, and it has also been mobilized for transnational causes such as in Bosnia or Palestine. In other words, the revival of nationalism in these zones has also led to the revival of Islamic symbols, practices, and institutions that had previously been an integral part of the social fabric of these countries. In other words, it is not only the universal principles of Islam that ground our everyday actions, but also the practical and immediate issues which Muslims confront. Although Islam provides a universal set of principles to make life meaningful, the principles are vernacularized and localized in specific narratives. One has to observe the critical distance between the universal principles of Islam (rather than a utopian model of Medina) and local narratives through which believers seek to preserve and perpetuate these principles.

By offering these zones, I seek to bring this critical and dynamic distance between the ethical principles of Islam and the local narratives into the forefront in order to understand that there is no universal model or a single highway to salvation but, instead, there are multiple ways of being and becoming a Muslim. I will disaggregate the Islamic world into seven separate zones and identify the major historical and social factors which shape these zones. These seven diverse ethno-cultural zones are Arab, Persian (Shi’i), Turkish, South Asian (Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan), Malay–Indonesian, African and Minority (Diaspora) zones. Each zone’s understanding of Islam is primarily informed by its own national culture and by diverse historical and economic factors. In this paper, I will deal briefly with the first two zones and dwell mostly on the Turkish zone of Islam.

The Arab Zone

The Arab zone represents the origin and the past of Islam. At the same time, the Arabic language and identity tend to blur ethnicity and religion. More than non-Arabs, Arab Muslims mix what is religious and what is cultural in the evolution of Islamic theology and institutions. One of the most damaging factors in political development in this zone has been the impact of oil wealth and the fostering of overbearing authoritarian state structures with little need for taxation or accountability to their civil societies. This is the case even with large states like Egypt and Syria who are not major petroleum producers but still rely on such ‘rents’ for a major source of their state revenue.

In this zone the state is more oppressive and more powerful than the societal groups of which it is composed. Due to its economic power, the state structure centralized religious education and created an ineffective religious bureaucracy of the ulema. Thus, in almost all Arab countries it created a state-ulema, i.e. the state shapes the ulema and the ulema identifies its interests with the interests of the state rather than those of society.

The state seeks to control the flow of information by censoring and limiting access to the Internet and by controlling the institutions of civil society. Arab states did not invest in technical or professional education for their own nationals, as they could hire large numbers of skilled and even unskilled foreign workers. The oil economy has undermined work ethics in the Arab zone. The people participate in politics only when oil prices drop, funds are diverted to government projects, such as defense, or when the state cuts subsidies.

The Persian Zone

The Persian zone is heir to a highly developed civilization that reinterpreted Islam for its own societal model. Under Safavid rule in the sixteenth century, Iran became a Shi’i country; hence the Shi’i interpretation of Islam marks the Persian zone of Islam. Oil gave rise to rentier statehood and to corruption in government, first with the governing class and then with the radical religious class that seized control after the1979 Islamic Revolution. It is an area that has adapted Islam to fit its needs rather than adapted itself to fit the Arab model of Islam, and continues to adapt and redefine Islam in order to cope with internal and external societal pressures.

The Safavid empire centralized the government by reaffirming the religious authority of the monarchy. The Safavid were originally a Turkic Sufi Islamic movement having transformed their assertive identity turned Shiism into the state ideology. The movement absorbed many Zoroastrian ideas such as the view of history as a struggle between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, the moral dimension of human existence, the after-life, and the duality of human existence.

At various times, Islamic religious scholars (ulema) rose against the Shah and the foreigners to defend the faith and Iranian national interests. Thus, Iranian national interests were framed by and promoted in Islamic terminology.

The Turkish Zone

We should accept the fact that there is a specific way of being Muslim which reflects the Turkish understanding and practices in those region [which] stretch from Central Asia to the Balkans.

Ahmet Ocak refers to this as the Turkish Islam (Türk Müslümanlıgı), and different from the Persian and Arab Islam due to ‘its production of cultural norms and modes of thinking’ as related to religion, faith, personal life, ritual practices, and religious holidays – covering a whole spectrum from ‘social mores to personal mores’ and the interpretations of Islamic principles.

Although Türk Müslümanlıgı refers to the production of religious knowledge by believers within the local context and concerns. Again, Turkish Islam is not about attitudes towards Islamic doctrines but about Islamiyat (Islamicate) – putting the universal principles of Islam to work in terms of building institutions, ideas, practices, arts, and vernacularized morality. It is a particular way of crafting and creating one’s own way of being Muslim.

The story of Turkish Islam is an example of the localization of a universal teaching through the works of the Sufi orders. As a result of this localization, one can identify several key social, political and economic factors that were and continue to be instrumental in the formation of Turkish Islam’s distinct understanding of Islamic identity and its niche in the Muslim world by presenting a more successful model of religio-political synthesis. There are two intellectual roots of Turkish Islam: Ahmet Yesevi (the main intellectual source of heterodox Islam) and Mansur Maturidi (orthodox Islam).

These two individuals played key roles in the localization of universal faith and also in the universalization of local Turkish understandings of religion through Islam. The relations between the orthodox (ulema-centered and some Sufi orders) Islam and the heterodox Sufi Islam were punctuated by rivalry and antagonism. The Turkish conceptualization of religion achieved its completeness in the poems of Yunus Emre.21Due to its religious and philosophic approaches combined with a mystical character, Sufi Islam prevented Turkish culture from losing out within the Islamic religion, and provided an opportunity to formulate its own zone of ‘Turkish Islam’. By absorbing Islam into Turkish culture the Sufi networks created Turkish Islam.


Although Arab invaders brought Islam to the region in the eighth century, the conversion patterns and socio-cultural structure created a specifically vernacular Turkic Islam. The Turks were nomadic people who practiced Tengrianism as their dominant faith. Saman and Kam, the religious-charismatic leaders in Tengrianism, converted to Islam and became Sufi dervishes, known as ‘baba’ and ‘ata’. These individuals personified the old religion and became the agents of Islamization in Central Asia. The new faith was internalized through vernacular narratives and the synchronization of older traditions. Islam, as a new faith, was regarded as a part of native culture due to its ability to enhance and build upon important facets of the old Tengrianism. This symbiosis between different cultures and religions in the region helped to produce four major Sufi orders: Yeseviyye, Bektasiyye, Mevleviyye, and Naksibendiyye. AhmetYesevi, Sarı Saltuk, Hacı Bektası Veli, and Bahattin Naksibend constitute the major intellectual cornerstones of Sufi Islam in Turkey.

The first factor, therefore, that defines the Turkish understanding of Islam and makes it unique is the enduring tradition of Sufism that formed its foundation and has managed to remain a dominant force despite various efforts towards its subjugation or elimination. The Turkish zone, which incorporates people from various cultures, began as a diverse amalgamation of nomadic tribal Tengrianism and Central Asian Buddhism (and Christianity in its Manichean and Nestorian and Arian forms). Turkey’s Sufism has adopted a non-literal and inclusive reading of religion. Famous Sufis such as Jallalud din Rumi, Yunus Emre and Hacı Bektasi Veli would often declare that they were beyond Islam in the belief that traditions rather than doctrine define a religion. Turkish understanding of Islam is very much punctuated by the tolerance of Rumi, love of Yunus and reasonability of Hacı Bektasi Veli. Upon reaching Anatolia, the Turkic nomadic hordes organized into small groups of warriors called ghazis and under the leadership of Sufi babas started to transform the landscape of Anatolia. Some of the ghazis became sedentary and eventually internalized a more Orthodox version of Islam.

There is a close and mutually reinforcing relationship between the processes of sedentarization and Islamization. Some of the nomads resisted the sedentary lifestyle, and being aware of diverse religious traditions, and while maintaining aspects of their own Tengrianism, they synthesized diverse beliefs with the framework of Islam, ultimately formulating the Alevi doctrine of Turkish Islam. According to Ulken, a leading scholar of Turko-Islamic intellectual history, Turkish Sufism differentiates itself from Persian Sufism by stressing ‘morality’ over anthropomorphic (human-centered) understanding of religion. One sees the traces of the perennial conception of religion as a common human journey to understand and celebrate human diversity.

The case of Turkish Islam is striking in its method of visiting mosques, almsgiving and feasts, which appears to have more in common with Balkan Christianity than with Saudi Wahhabism and Iranian Shiism. Turkish Islam is a form of Sufi Islam with dense networks that transmit the flow of ideas, practices and leaders, helping to link local and universal versions of Islam. In Sufi Islam, there is a self within the self.

Muslims are encouraged to encounter and discipline this ‘other’ within the self through pious engagement. This requires ‘jihad al-akbar’ (the bigger struggle – control of one’s desires and passions). Thus, there is no need for the external ‘other’ self to construct an identity. Sufi understanding of Islamic identity is without the ‘other’. Sufism, with its inner philosophy, has enjoyed a strong identity independent of others and does not define itself by its differences from others but rather by the similarity between all of God’s creatures.

Out of necessity, 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 non-believers. 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 Turkish zone as an underlying institution of revival and alternative thinking throughout the centuries. It flourished during the Seljuq period and subsequently played a formative role in the creation of Turko-Ottoman culture.

Despite Kemalist attempts to eliminate the ideas and practices of Sufism, it survived through a number of major transformations. Indeed, Sufi networks, according to Serif Mardin, were the transmission belt between the high court culture and the heterodox popular culture of Ottoman society. They also formed an oppositional identity along with networks against the oppression of the state. Sufi networks, such as the Naksibendi Sufi order have provided an outlet for Islamic religious expression and in doing so have managed to block the radicalization of religion that might otherwise have been present. Sufism became the shield for society, the core of ‘civil Islam’.

Sufi networks were active in community building through education, and social services. They functioned as the moral centers of society to teach right and wrong and helped to institutionalize Islam as the grammar for society to define the meaning of the good life. Through this tradition a code of ethics was constructed from Sufi and Bektasi/Alevi ideals, which defined many normative traditions still present in Turkish society.

Frontier Islam

Turkish Islam is in constant evolution as a result of the tension between heterodox and orthodox interpretations of Islam. Moreover, due to the Ottoman expansionist policy, which was justified on the basis of Islam, the idea of the frontier also highlighted the search for security and stable political authority. This search for political stability and security helped to create a staufi netntric culture (and religion). Thus, Turkish Islam sees the existence and preservation of the state as a vital instrument for the existence of Islam and the Muslim community. The ulema became the servants of the state, becoming bureaucratized and holding positions as judges, teachers, and prayer leaders. In the Ottoman Empire (and also in Republican Turkey), the state and ulema have been in a symbiotic relationship because of the need for legitimacy of the state and resources. (However, the heterodox Sufi orders have an ambiguous and confrontational relation with the state.)

Although there is no formal clergy in Sunni Islam, the Ottoman ulema functioned as a class with its own distinct sense of identity and common interest and remained loyal to the state as long as they were benefiting from such loyalty.  It was not difficult for Turkish Islam to ally itself closely with nationalism as long as the goal was to protect the state. Because of these frontier conditions, security and state power shaped Turkish political culture. Unlike many other predominantly Muslim states, the Turkish state does not promote Muslim ideals, nor is it controlled by an autonomous religious authority. Historically, the Turkish solution to potential competition with religious power has been to incorporate, federalize, and control every facet of religious life. For example, in Iran, the independently funded ulema exercise a good measure of control over the state.

In Turkey, the ulema were immediately incorporated as part of a state agency. All funds come from the government, and the government exercises complete control as a result. In modern Turkey today, the state has consistently implemented the philosophy of cooperation in order to maintain control.

The ‘Melting Pot’ and Islam as an Ethnic Identity

The dervishes of Iranian Khurasan, known as (Türkich term) alp erenler, moved to Anatolia and established a number of lodges. From the beginning of the fourteenth century these heterodox Sufi groups became the instruments of Turkification and ‘ethnos builders’. They ‘spread Islam among the recently immigrated Turkish tribesmen and, at a later stage, among the Christian population of Anatolia’ and the Balkans as well. Bektasiyya was one of the containers of the Turkish language and culture during the Ottoman period. The periods of Ottoman expansion resulted in a constant evolution of ideals. The expansionist Ottoman state was forced to embrace and co-exist with Christian and other groups.

Orthodox and heterodox Islam were forced to confront their differences and rehash their beliefs in order to survive in harmony with one another. This tradition of diversity allowed for a more inclusive societal model such as the millet system, a type of religious federalism. The Turkish zone of Islam, therefore, is a melting pot, incorporating various ethnic and religious groups including Kurds, Croats, Asiatic tribes, Buddhists, Christians, Bektashi/Alevi, and others. Through years of interaction, relations have somewhat softened between groups, and Islam emerges as a unifying force rather than a source of division.

Islam in Turkey served as a ‘melting pot’ to integrate the diverse ethnic groups.


Turkish Islam is essentially a ritualized Islam that has very limited impact on one’s moral conduct. There is a major gap between believing and behaving in Turkish Islam. According to the research by Ali Carkoglu and Binnaz Toprak, 86%of Turkish citizens regard themselves as ‘believers’; 84% regularly participate in Jumuahrituals (Friday prayers); and 46% pray five times a day. This belief system, one could argue, hardly reflects their conduct in the market, politics, or even in everyday life. Turkey ranks very high in corruption, nepotism, and even the torture of opposition and minority groups. Thus, as in Turkey, the tragedy of Islam in many Muslim countries is that it is totally reduced to ritualistic activities and divorced from the moral aspects of everyday life.

  1. Islam in Indo-Pakistani zone

Islam in Indo-Pakistani zone has evolved over a period of 13 centuries and it never freed itself from the influence of the indigenous population of the subcontinent. This interaction either resulted in adaptation of Hindu rites and customs or rejecting them and regularly experiencing the process of turning back to the ‘pristine Islam’ of Arabia. Due to presence of overwhelming Hindu population, Islam became more pluralistic and assimilated itself to local cultures. This trend toward assimilation prompted a regular religious revival among the ulema to turn back to pristine Islam. For instance, the Imam Rabbani and Deobandi school movement led by the ulema with the goal of resisting against bid’a (innovation) and getting rid of un-Islamic practices. The Deobandi movement was very practical and modernist by stressing the role of reason, Muslim values of equality, social justice, and asceticism, and responsibility. Second, Islamization of the subcontinent also brought Persian and Turkish cultures along with a political structure. Islam played an important role in the evolution of Urdu language. Yet, the boundaries between Muslims and Hindus remained very flexible until the British colonial rule. Third, the ulema and some Sufi orders such as the Naksibendiya were opposed to indigenization of Islam. The gap between the ulema and the masses was bridged by the activities of the Sufi orders. Fourth, as a result of the colonial legacy, the flexible boundaries became fixed and diverse Hindu practices and rituals were coalesced to create one Hinduism in opposition to Islam. This colonial construct of the Hindu–Muslim dichotomy resulted in the two-nation theory. Religion as a way of life turned into a foundation for nationalism and eventually resulted in the establishment of Pakistan. Finally, the Deobandi faith movement and the Aligarh education movement shaped the future of Islam in the subcontinent. In short, the West never became ‘the other’ of the formation of the Pakistani or Muslim identity;rather either Hindu identity or internal groups functioned as ‘the other’.

  1. South East Asian Islam

South Asian Islam is syncretic, pluralist and exists very much at the cognitive level, owing its form to a mixture of diverse belief systems. The Malay zone of Islam includes 10 contemporary nation-states and shares a commercial civilization that was influenced by sea-faring way of life of diverse ethnic groups. Conversion pattern was a gradual and bottom–up process through the conduct, ethics of trust and confidence set by the merchants. Islam in this zone was institutionalized in terms of a code of conduct for local sultans, the ulema, and village communities. Islam became a source of legitimacy, identity and a moral charter to define the meaning of the good life. The Malay language was used as the lingua franca of the region, as was Jawi –  that is, Malay written in Arabic script. Pondok pesantren (boarding schools) were at the center of the production and dissemination of Islamic knowledge. Traders, ulema and royal families were at the core of the overlapping extensive networks of Muslim communities.

The major ruptures in this evolving Muslim Malay civilization were the experiences of colonization and de-colonization. Dutch colonialism destroyed the networks of Muslim sultanates and created today’s Indonesia, while the Japanese occupation favored Islamic nationalism and Muslim leader-ship over the Western-educated aristocratic elite. The independence of Indonesia as a nation-state was won by a militant egalitarian and secular form of nationalism. In Malaysia, after independence, the British retained the authority structure and the Sultans maintained their symbolic power. Also after independence, because of Chinese hegemony in the economy, Muslim leaders stressed the notion of ‘developmentalist Islam’, i.e. Islam as an instrument to mobilize human and financial means for economic development.

In addition to the impact of pre-Islamic religions, a variety of other factors including the colonial legacies, the hegemonic control of economies by non-Muslim minorities, have shaped the Islamic discourse in the region. Islam in the Malay zone, unlike the Arab and Persian zones, did not become an ideology until the expanding influence of the oil money and establishment of medrese system led to the Arabization of Islam in this zone. See, Nakamura Mitsuo et al., Islam and Civil Society in Southeast Asia, Singapore: Sasakawa Peace Foundation,2001.

  1. African Islam

African Islam is shaped by a set of divisions between rural and urban; colonial and modern; and majority and minority. In those African communities where state capacity is too weak to promote law and order and meet the basic needs of the people, Islamic discourse is very much based on the idea of Islamic law (sharia) as a solution. African Islam is very much a local Islam, i.e. there is no centralized authority, and it is mixed with local practices and institutions. The mosque is the center of the community and the nexus with the global Islamic issues. Thus, it is not organized as the Catholic Church and does not have much organizational interaction with other Muslim communities either. It is extremely amorphous with nearly no structure.

Yet, for most African Muslims, Muslim identity means more than their national or ethnic identity in everyday life. Islam offers a cognitive map for these Muslims to interpret their presence and events. See Charlette and Fred Quinn, Pride, Faith, and Fear: Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa, New York: Oxford University Press,2002; Eva Evers Rosander and David Westerlund, eds, African Islam and Islam in Africa: Encounters Between Sufis and Islamists, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997.

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