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Book Review: Piles Of Bones And Pools Of Blood

  • Bruce Pannier

A strong leader came to be more highly regarded than a divine one, whose actions are beyond reproach.

A strong leader came to be more highly regarded than a divine one, whose actions are beyond reproach.

We haven't had a book review in the Qishloq for some time now, so I am pleased to present this, the more so because I am a huge fan of Central Asian history. Jesko Schmoller is an amazing scholar and the former president of CESMI (see the upper right-hand corner under sites we like). Schmoller brings us his review of Thomas Welsford's book, titled Four Types Of Loyalty In Early Modern Central Asia, a work that reminds us that so much of what is happening in Central Asia now has happened before.

The title of this review of Thomas Welsford's Four Types Of Loyalty In Early Modern Central Asia does not evoke bloodshed in order to imply that this period of Central Asian history was particularly cruel. Rather, this gruesome word choice alludes to the events described in the book's subtitle: The Tuqay-Timurid Takeover of Greater Ma Wara al-Nahr, 1598–1605. A conquest inevitably leads to violence, and this likewise applies to the Tuqay-Timurid replacement of the Abul-Khayrid (also known as Shibanid) dynasty, which ruled the region for about a century. Describing and interpreting political events that are more than 400 years removed from our days presents considerable challenges, but Welsford guides the reader unfalteringly through difficult terrain. For the sake of clarity, I will contextualize the book by summarizing the tumultuous events of this particular era, at the same time paying attention to the types of loyalty Welsford discerns in the source material. He differentiates between loyalties that are motivated by reason (charismatic loyalty), interest (clientelist and inertial loyalty), and affection (communal loyalty).

In the late 16th century, much of the area we know as Central Asia was ruled by Abul-Khayrid Abdallah Khan. He was responsible for reforming the office of khan, or head of state, in a way that seriously expanded the sovereign's privileges but also made him more liable for his actions. When Abdallah died in 1598, his son Abd al-Mumin ascended the throne and immediately began attacking and executing any close relatives that he viewed as wavering in their loyalties. This strategy proved unwise, as Abd al-Mumin was nevertheless assassinated only six months into his reign. Meanwhile, in the southern territories of his realm, a new contender to the throne would eventually bring down the entire Abul-Khayrid dynasty.

This individual was Yar Muhammad, the new ruler of Herat. Through his ancestor Tuqay-Timur, he was in fact related to the late khan Abd al-Mumin, as Tuqay-Timur was the brother of Shiban and both were grandchildren of Chingiz Khan. Abd al-Mumin's ancestors had in the past mostly lived in Western Siberia, while the Tuqay-Timurids came from an even more distant point of origin. Other lines descending from Tuqay-Timur had generated the khans of Kazan, Crimea, and Astrakhan. Welsford argues that the Abul-Khayrids had enjoyed the charismatic loyalties of the people for such a long time that it hampered a successful transition of loyalties to the new dynasty. Luckily for the Tuqay-Timurids however, Abd al-Mumin had already damaged the prestige of the Abul-Khayrid dynasty.

It is during this transitional period that the commotion truly begins. Unexpectedly, the Kazakh ruler Tawakkul Khan emerges from the north and takes the cities of Tashkent and Samarkand without any significant obstacles. Pir Muhammad, the Abul-Khayrid ruler of Bukhara, finds himself under attack and turns to the grandson of Yar Muhammad, the Tuqay-Timurid prince Baqi Muhammad, for assistance. Baqi Muhammad meets Tawakkul in battle, fatally injuring the Kazakh khan and dispersing his army. Pir Muhammad decides to make the victorious hero Baqi Muhammad governor of Samarkand, but the latter soon begins to act as if he were the great khan.

This behavior urges Pir Muhammad in the autumn of 1599 to go on a punitive expedition to Samarkand. As the armed forces clash before the city, Baqi Muhammad remains victorious and has Pir Muhammad executed. But how had Baqi Muhammad been able to rely on the support of the Samarkandi population? Welsford argues that his triumph over Tawakkul had impressed the people profoundly and he simply seemed the person ideally suited to provide the necessary public services to suit the needs of the population. With the above-mentioned reforms of the khanal office, a strong leader came to be more highly regarded than a divine one, whose actions are beyond reproach. The clientelist loyalties of the Samarkandi population thus worked in favor of Baqi Muhammad. We may understand clientelism as the exchange of goods and services for political support.

According to Welsford, there is yet another type of loyalty that Baqi Muhammad profits from during the fight before the gates of Samarkand: the communal loyalty of the people. It appears that Pir Muhammad as well as his predecessors Abd al-Mumin and Abdallah had treated the Muslim mystics that were revered by the population in a disrespectful manner and they now had to pay for their mistake when the supporters of those holy men sided with Baqi Muhammad. Some emirs may also have hoped that Baqi Muhammad would better uphold the more general interests and values of the Samarkandi community.

After Baqi Muhammad's second victory, several former associates of Pir Muhammad transferred their loyalties to that fledgling dynasty. Welsford explains this move with the concept of inertial loyalty, which resembles clientelist loyalty but is more distinctly determined by rational calculation. Apart from that, it is not a particular ruler but a regime that becomes the object of inertial loyalty. In order to consolidate the empire, Baqi Muhammad undertakes an offensive, easily captures Bukhara, and controls Termez and Balkh by the end of the year 1600. The Abul-Khayrid princes Muhammad Salim, who is the son of the late Pir Muhammad, and Jahangir flee and seek refuge with Shah Abbas, the Safavid king of Iran. Abbas promises support for their plan to reestablish Abul-Khayrid rule in Central Asia and they set out at the head of an army to take back Balkh. However, they are met with little sympathy in the population, whose loyalty lies firmly with the Tuqay-Timurids by now. As the soldiers run out of food, the campaign eventually needs to be abandoned in the summer of 1602. Although it is difficult to establish when historical processes begin and end, the Tuqay-Timurid takeover can be regarded as more or less complete at this point.

Welsford's book is a serious piece of scholarship, and he presents his line of reasoning in a convincing manner. The one problematic aspect of the text is whether it is possible to deduce the motivations for particular loyalties from people's recorded actions. Moreover, are we dealing not only with a different period but also with a foreign culture. Is there not the danger of projecting our own conceptions of loyalty onto circumstances to which they are not fully applicable? As an anthropologist, it would be even more fascinating to learn how actions were explained and interpreted by the people themselves. Such a perspective would call for a history of ideas or history of concepts approach. Welsford is aware of this problem and argues that we cannot take the historical accounts at face value, as their authors used words in a very instrumental fashion. Since this is obviously true, we must accept that there are limits to what can be done with the sources. Under these conditions, it is remarkable how Welsford recreates in all shades and colors a long bygone age before the reader's eyes.

Jesko Schmoller is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Comparative History and Political Studies at Perm State University. He is an anthropologist who wrote his PhD at the Central Asian Seminar of Humboldt University Berlin. His book Achieving A Career, Becoming A Master; Aspirations In The Lives Of Young Uzbek Men was recently published with Klaus Schwarz

About This Blog

Qishloq Ovozi is a blog by RFE/RL Central Asia specialist Bruce Pannier that aims to look at the events that are shaping Central Asia and its respective countries, connect some of the dots to shed light on why those processes are occurring, and identify the agents of change. Content will draw on the extensive knowledge and contacts of RFE/RL's Central Asian services but also allow scholars in the West, particularly younger scholars who will be tomorrow’s experts on the region, opportunities to share their views on the evolving situation at this Eurasian crossroad. The name means "Village Voice" in Uzbek. But don't be fooled, Qishloq Ovozi is about all of Central Asia.

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