Islam on a Silk Road to Southern Siberia

05 February


The “Great Silk Road” is an ancient caravan route more than 12 thousand kilometers length: from the west of China to the states of Central Asia, through the steppes of Kazakhstan and Middle East to the Mediterranean Sea. Except the silk, the caravans carried a rich variety of products. But this route wasn't only economic connect to Eurasia, it was a channel of cultural and spiritual exchange. The way operated for approximately one and a half thousand years and influenced on the development of many nations.

Silk was transported to Western countries along three main routes, which also went through the territories of modern Russia. The northern route passed along the steppe roads of Central Asia, touching southern Siberia. Its inhabitants lived at the crossroads of ancient roads and river ways. They contributed to the movement of commodity flows, experiencing the influence of world civilizations and regional cultures. It is known from medieval sources that in the 9th–10th centuries the main route of the Silk Road passed through Muslim regions.

Islam wasn't the only source of spirituality in Southern Siberia. Coexistence with Christian teaching and archaic ideas about the world fostered the experience of tolerance. A resident of Siberia survived by following the laws of harsh nature, and its veneration was reflected in the formation of “Siberian Islam”. The peculiarity of local worship developed under the influence of Sunnism from Central Asia. Within the borders of Siberian natural and cultural spaces, happened a synthesis of traditional Islam and ancient beliefs.

The nature of Southern Siberia itself determined the uniqueness of the ethnic and cultural processes taking place within the region. The rivers Yenisei, Ob, Tom and Irtysh in the east and the Altai Mountains in the west served as barriers against attacks, although they were completely surmountable. There were no serious natural obstacles to the south or north. The Altai massif provided reliable protection from raids. But the attacking nomads weren't in a hurry to leave the comfortable area with numerous valleys and a mild climate.

After the establishment of Islam in the Middle East and Central Asia, Arab and Central Asian travelers, in search of new knowledge, reached the basins of the Irtysh, Ob, and Yenisei rivers. The Quran, in at least thirteen ayats, commands people to travel the earth to learn a lesson from the traces of past generations. The 9th century diplomat and merchant Sallam Al-Tardjuman was the first traveler which described the Bashkir people, and possibly reached Altai.

For today the first known monument of Arabic epigraphy in Siberia is a signet - a carnelian cabochon with an engraving in the form of a mirror image of the inscription: “Al-Hasan ibn Muhammad”. In terms of style, the item dates back to the 9th-10th centuries, but the find doesn't give grounds to talk about the widespread of Arabic writing and Islam in the region. However, the “first pages” of Siberian Islam are associated with Altai, although the religion actively began to spread throughout Siberia from the Middle Irtysh region.

Coming under the control of the Golden Horde, part of the population of the forest-steppe zone of Siberia began to be included in continental processes. The majority, due to circumstances, turned out to be passive consumers of the spiritual and material products of world civilizations. The minority, involved in maintaining the communications of the Great Silk Road in the Altai region, actively came into contact with traders, diplomats and missionaries from Europe and Central Asia traveling further to the east.

It is known that in the first quarter of the 14th century, Uzbek Khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde, proclaimed Islam as the state religion. Reforms could influence on the development of Muslim teachings in the medieval state, however, for the most part, the event affected only on the aristocratic nobility. The ordinary population en masse began to accept Islam in the 15th century. Before this period, it might be only contacts with merchants from Muslim regions who also carried out missionary activities.

This was the first impulse in the dissemination of ideas and objects bearing the imprint of Islamic culture. The young religion encouraged innovations, which consisted in the development of crafts and the transition to new technologies. It has also been established that in the XIII-XIV centuries, trading posts of Muslim merchants arose in the Sayan-Altai, establishing a monopoly on caravan trade. The fact is confirmed by studies of burials according to the Muslim rite on the right bank of the Khemchik, near the mouth of the Barlyk - along the caravan way to China.

Archaeological research in Tuva gives grounds to assert that the burials were made according to the Muslim rite - in ground burial grounds, on the back, with arms extended along the body, with an orientation to the southwest. Other evidence of Muslim funeral rites wasn't found. The funeral cult is associated with worldview and traditions, and is preserved in culture for a long time. For this reason, some scientists, based on the findings, believe that the date of the appearance of Islam in the Siberia may be changed.

Most scientists agree that Islam began actively establishing in Southern Siberia in the 14th-17th centuries. There is a difference of opinion only in the question of the missionaries: are they from the Volga region or Central Asia. Formally, the Great Silk Road ceased to function in the 15th century, but its ways were relevant centuries later thanks to Muslims. Volga and Central Asian merchants, stopping caravans, didn't forget about missionary activity, according to the precepts of Islam.

Single contacts with representatives of religion sowed the “seeds of Islam” in the territory of Southern Siberia. The shoots arose on the basis of social and economic changes: the processes of feudalization and class stratification, the growth of urban settlements, handicraft production and the emergence of agriculture. There is no attempt here to belittle the merits of other religions in the life of Siberians. The flexibility of Islam turned out to be more suitable for the circumstances and challenges that the local community faced.

The experience of cooperation between nations and states on the Great Silk Road is a vivid example of the interpenetration of cultures in the Eurasian space. Studying the role of Muslims in these processes may be useful for strengthening modern ties between the states of this region. The name “New Silk Road” was given to China’s global project, which is actively promoting through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. As it was before, an impressive part of the new way will go through Russia and Muslim countries.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"

Photo: Daniil Silantev/Unsplash