In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Islam in Central Asia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Reference Resources
  • Guides to Primary Sources

Islamic Studies Islam in Central Asia
Devin DeWeese
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 June 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 14 December 2009
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195390155-0015


In modern terms, Central Asia comprises the five post-Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, as well as most of Xinjiang province in the People’s Republic of China and adjacent parts of the Russian Federation, Iran, and Afghanistan. The region is marked by a distinctive set of Islamic civilizations that began to emerge in the 8th century CE. It was shaped by the political, economic, and social interaction of nomadic groups from the broad Eurasian steppes and the sedentary inhabitants of agricultural oases—a distinction that roughly corresponds, in much of the Islamic era, to the linguistic division of Turkic- and Persian-speaking peoples. It was also shaped by the encounter of broader cultural traditions rooted in Inner Asia with those rooted in Iran and the Middle East. The study of Islam in Central Asia presents problems not typically encountered in the study of other parts of the Muslim world. One such problem is the isolation of much of the region during most of the 20th century. Another is the lamentably strong division between those who work on contemporary affairs and those who study Islamic Central Asia prior to the impact of the Russian (or Chinese) conquest and the Soviet era. Yet another problem is the impact of the Soviet state (and of the PRC) on the development of indigenous Central Asian attitudes toward the region’s Islamic heritage. A host of 20th-century policies have left most Central Asians handicapped in terms of their ability to engage directly with important aspects of their own local Muslim heritage, leaving them vulnerable to the continuing legacy of Soviet-era interpretations of their past and to external arguments that Central Asia’s religious heritage must be restored from outside. Perhaps the most striking of these special problems, however, is the distinctive chronological pattern evident for the region: the amount of scholarly attention devoted to Central Asia’s political, social, cultural, and religious history decreases the closer one comes to the present. One result of these problems is the scarcity of good studies in general; another is the scarcity of useful works in English. The following survey assumes that it is neither possible, nor desirable, to extract scholarship on “religion” in Islamic Central Asia from studies of political, social, economic, or cultural history.

General Overviews and Reference Resources

There is no good, reliable, general introduction to the history of Central Asia, to the history of Islam in Central Asia, or to the distinctive features of religious practice in contemporary Central Asia, in any language. Surveys of Central Asian history, and of the history of Islam in Central Asia, produced as “background” for studies of contemporary Central Asia (including some written by former contributors to Soviet antireligious efforts), are typically unreliable and are best avoided. Two indispensable resources for the study of Islamic Central Asia are Bregel 1995 and Bregel 2003.

  • Barthold, V. V. Four Studies on the History of Central Asia. Translated by V. Minorsky and T. Minorsky. 3 vols. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 1962.

    English translations of works by the eminent Russian scholar that come close to spanning the entire Islamic period, albeit each for limited parts of Central Asia.

  • Bregel, Yuri, ed. Bibliography of Islamic Central Asia. 3 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University, Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1995.

    Thorough, classified coverage of works published through 1988 on virtually all aspects of Central Asian history and civilization (except linguistics and literature).

  • Bregel, Yuri. An Historical Atlas of Central Asia. Leiden, the Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

    Good maps, matched by remarkably concise but densely packed facing-page historical summaries of the periods covered by each map.

  • Golden, Peter B. An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples: Ethnogenesis and State-Formation in Medieval and Early Modern Eurasia and the Middle East. Wiesbaden, Germany: Otto Harrassowitz, 1992.

    The most solid, rigorous introduction to the ethnic and political history of Central Asia’s Turkic peoples (in the context of a broader study).

  • McChesney, R. D. Central Asia: Foundations of Change. Princeton, NJ: Darwin Press, 1996.

    The best, most readable guide for introducing those familiar with contemporary Central Asia to the region’s Islamic past, with a focus on settled regions. Includes excellent discussions of the economics of shrine traditions and of patterns of hereditary power and prestige.

  • Light, Nathan. “Annotated Bibliography of the History and Culture of Eastern Turkistan, Jungharia/Zungaria/Dzungaria, Chinese Central Asia, and Sinkiang/Xinjiang.” Silk Road Foundation Newsletter 3, no 1 (2003).

    Excellent, up-to-date bibliographical coverage of works on Eastern Turkistan “for the 16th–20th centuries CE, excluding most travel narratives”. Available online.

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