Qarakhanids Convert to Islam Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Satuq Bughra Khān of the Eastern Turkish Qarakhanid Dynasty compelled his people to adopt Islam. They were the first Turks to be drawn into the Islamic world.

Summary of Event

During the ninth century, and coinciding with the decline in authority of the Tang Dynasty (T’ang; 618-907), in the region now known as Xinjiang (Sinkiang), various Turkish peoples—Karluk, Yaghma, and Chighil—began to coalesce around a ruling family, known to modern scholars as the Qarakhanids (Karakhanids), who themselves may have been descended from one of the prominent clans among the Karluk. Like previous Eastern Turkish tribal confederacies, such as the Uighurs (744-840), Kirghiz, and Karluk, the majority of Qarakhanids were pastoral nomads practicing a shamanism tinged in the oases by Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, and Manichaeanism. The earliest history of the Qarakhanids is unrecorded, but between 992 and 1211, they ruled a vast swathe of territory, comprising the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang, China), the western Tian Shan, Semirechye (southeastern Kazakhstan), the Farghana valley (Kyrgyzstan/Tajikistan), and Transoxiana (Uzbekistan/Kazakhstan). Their headquarters were at Balasaghun in the Chu River Valley, but following their conversion to Islam, Kashgar increasingly served as a religious and cultural center. [kw]Qarakhanids Convert to Islam (Early 10th century) [kw]Islam, Qarakhanids Convert to (Early 10th century) Islam;Qarakhanids Qarakhanids China;Early 10th cent.: Qarakhanids Convert to Islam[1080] Central Asia;Early 10th cent.: Qarakhanids Convert to Islam[1080] Cultural and intellectual history;Early 10th cent.: Qarakhanids Convert to Islam[1080] Religion;Early 10th cent.: Qarakhanids Convert to Islam[1080] Satuq Bughra Khān Abū՚l-Naṣr Sāmāni

No medieval Islamic dynasty has a more obscure history. There are no surviving dynastic chronicles, and the course of events has to be reconstructed from accounts by hostile neighbors. Even the chronology is uncertain, because the dynasty observed a system of decentralized rule, with a supreme khaghan taking precedence over family members who held separate territorial appanages. When the khaghan died, appanage rulers moved up the hierarchy in a game of musical chairs made more complicated by internecine strife among familial rivals, a process that makes the numismatic history of the dynasty exceptionally confusing.

The term “Qarakhanid” is a construct of nineteenth century European Orientalism, based on the fact that, according to the eleventh century lexicographer Maḥmūd Kāshgarī Maḥmūd Kāshgarī , the Turkish word kara (“black,” also meaning “northern” and “powerful”), occurring frequently in their titulature, denoted a rank among these rulers, as did the term ilek-khan (or ilig-khan), by which they are also known. Contemporary Islamic writers referred to them as al-Khakaniyya, and the Persian literary tradition styled them al-i Afrasiab, linking them to the legendary Afrasiab, king of Turan, in Shahnamah Shahnamah (Firdusi) (c. 1010; the book of kings).

The Qarakhanids were the first Turkish people to become Muslims. Islamization came to them through four distinct processes. First, they were exposed to jihads (holy wars) by their Muslim neighbors. An example of this was the campaign of 893 by the Persian Sāmānids against the Turks of Talas (Dzhambul, Kyrgystan), in which the Nestorian church was converted into a mosque, as related in the Tārīkh-i Bukhārā (ninth century; history of Bukhara) by Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Jafar Narshakhī Narshakhī, Abū Bakr Muḥammad ibn Jafar . Second, they could be influenced by the religious practices of itinerant Muslim merchants through a process of osmosis. Third, the same process could operate very powerfully through the presence of Muslim Sufis (mystics), some of whom were quietists but others ghāzīs (holy warriors) in the Muslim borderlands. Finally, and perhaps most effectively, an already converted Turkish chieftain might compel his followers to subscribe to his newly acquired beliefs. This was what happened in the case of the Qarakhanids.

During the first half of the tenth century, a Qarakhanid ruler, Satuq Bughra Khān Satuq Bughra Khān , a descendant and possibly the grandson of the first Qarakhanid khaghan, became a convert to Islam, taking the Muslim name of ՙAbd al-Karim and vigorously imposing his beliefs on his followers. Although he was undoubtedly a historical figure, the facts of his life became overlaid with legendary material, preserved in Sufi devotional works such as the Tadhkira-yi Bughra-Khani (history of Bughra Khān) or Tadhkira-yi Uwaysiyya (c. 1600; history of the Uwaysis) of Ahmad Uzgani. Linked with his conversion was another, possibly legendary, figure, Abū՚l-Naṣr Sāmāni Abū՚l-Naṣr Sāmāni , whose name points to a connection with the Sāmānid Dynasty Sāmānid Dynasty[Samanid Dynasty] of Bukhara (819-1005) or with the Sāmānid realm (Transoxiana). According to tradition, Abū՚l-Naṣr combined the occupations of merchant, man of learning, and missionary. In a dream, the Prophet Muḥammad instructed him to search out and convert a man from Turkistan, who would thereafter spread the faith among the Turks. After much wandering, Abū՚l-Naṣr learned that the person for whom he was searching was a boy living in Kashgar. This was Satuq Bughra Khān.

Satuq Bughra Khān’s father died when he was seven, and in accordance with Turkish custom, his mother then married her late husband’s brother, Hārūn Bughra Khān. At the age of twelve, Satuq Bughra Khān, although still a pagan, one day encountered a hare (among the shamanist Turks, animals, especially the hare, were venerated as transmitters of wisdom to humans). In one account, it then transformed itself into a Sufi master (in other accounts, it became Khidr, the Green Man of ancient folklore, or an angel), teaching him to say “there is no God but God and Muḥammad is his Prophet” and alerting him to the coming of Abū՚l-Naṣr.

While he was out hunting with his companions, Satuq Bughra Khān encountered Abū՚l-Naṣr, made the full declaration of faith, and acknowledged Abū՚l-Naṣr as his teacher. For a while, he and his companions practiced Islam secretly, but his uncle and stepfather, Hārūn Bughra Khān Hārūn Bughra Khān , got wind of his conversion and plotted his death. When divine intervention purportedly caused the unbelievers to fall into a deep sleep, Satuq Bughra Khān entered his uncle’s room with the intention of killing him. His conscience, however, restrained him, as his uncle had been like a father to him, but his dilemma was solved when God caused the ground to open and his uncle was swallowed up. In an alternative account of these events, related by a Qarakhanid envoy in Baghdad in 1005 and preserved in the writings of the Ottoman historian Ahmed Dede Müneccimbaṣi Müneccimbaṣi, Ahmed Dede (c. 1702), Satuq Bughra Khān obtained a fatwa (legal opinion) from a faqih (religious scholar) in Bukhara authorizing him to commit parricide.

Having overcome all opposition, Satuq Bughra Khān compelled the people of Kashgar to accept Islam, subsequently spending his summers waging war against the unbelievers in the borderlands and his winters at his devotions in Kashgar. A near-contemporary historian, Ibn Miskawayh, reported that within a decade of the ruler’s death, 200,000 Turkish tents (households) had adopted Islam, and his tomb became a place of pilgrimage, which it remains to this day.

Thereafter, the Qarakhanid realm was regarded as a fully fledged Muslim state, but under Satuq Bughra Khān’s grandsons, two separate khanates emerged. One grandson ruled the eastern khanate, consisting of Kashgaria, Semirechye, and eastern Farghana, while the other ruled the western khanate, encompassing Transoxiana and western Farghana. Their descendants quickly assimilated the Perso-Islamic traditions long established in Transoxiana, building mosques and caravansaries, and emulating as literary patrons the Sāmānids, whom they had ousted from Bukhara in 992. The twelfth century belleletrist Neẓāmī lists thirteen Qarakhanid court-poets writing in Persian.

Unlike such Turkish dynasties as the Ghaznavids(997-1186) and the Seljuks (1038-1194), the Qarakhanids preserved many aspects of traditional pre-Islamic Turkish culture, such as those that still survived in the Uighur kingdom of Qocho (850-1250), near Turfan (Xinjiang). From Qarakhanid times come two of the earliest Turkish literary texts, Maḥmūd Kāshgarī’s Dīwān lughāt al-Turk (1074; Compendium of the Turkic Dialects Compendium of the Turkic Dialects (Kāshgarī) , 1982-1985), a Turkish-Arabic dictionary written to show that Turkish was the equal of Arabic as a vehicle of literary expression, still invaluable for the study of early Turkish dialects; and Kutadgú biligŏ (1070; Wisdom of Royal Glory Wisdom of Royal Glory (Yūsuf Khāss Hājib) , 1983) by Yūsuf Khāss Hājib of Balasaghun, a Turkish “mirror for princes” saturated with Sufi thought and imagery. One of the charismatic Sufi shaykhs who lived under the Qarakhanids was Ahmed Yesevi Ahmed Yesevi (d. 1166), founder of the dervish-order of the Yasawiyya. His Dīwān-i hekmet, an anthology of short mystical poems written in Turkish in a genre of mystical folk literature, contributed powerfully to the diffusion of Islam among the Central Asian steppe peoples.


Through Satuq Bughra Khān, the Qarakhanids were the first Turks to be drawn into the Islamic world. Their melding of Islamic high culture with elements of indigenous pre-Islamic folklore as well as Sufism gave a distinctive character to the beliefs and practices of the Muslim Turks of this part of China, who continue to maintain them to this day.

Categories: History