Qarakhanid Literature and the Beginnings of Turco-Islamic Culture

Robert Dankoff

The two major Qarakhanid literary monuments were the product of a unique moment in cultural history. The Diwan Lughat at-Turk by Mahmud al-Kashgari, probably completed in 1077, is an encyclopedic lexicon of the Turkic dialects, including citation of proverbs and poetry, with glosses and explanations in Arabic. The Qutadghu Bilig by Yusuf of Balasaghun, written in 1069, is a long didactic poem in the mirror-for-princes genre. The language which Kashgari described and in which Yusuf composed is substantially the same language as that of the Turkic "runic" inscriptions dating from the eighth century; of the vast translation literature in Uighur Turkic, mainly of Buddhist content; and of the later efflorence of Eastern Turkic Islamic literature known as Chaghatay, with its modern descendants, Uzbek and new Uighur. Taken together, the two monuments can be considered examples of an attempt by the Turks of Central Asia to lay the foundations for a Turco-Islamic literary culture.

The Qarakhanid Turks converted to Islam in the middle of the tenth century. Unlike the Seljuks, who began their career as a band of freebooters, and the Ghaznavids, who started out as slaves, the Qarakhanids, led by their Khaqans, preserved much of their Central Asian aristocratic and cultural heritage. They traced their ancestry to the legendary hero Alp Ar Tonga, whom they identified with the arch-enemy of Iran, Afrasiyab. They cultivated Turkic language, and also continued to employ the Uighur script (which they called "Turkic" script)--a rare example of a Muslim people using a non-Arabic script.

By the eleventh century, while the Iranian component of Islamic culture was already well advanced, the Turkic one had yet to be created. The Qarakhanids played a cultural role for the Muslim Turks similar to that of the Samanids for the Muslim Iranians a century before. In this they again differed from the Ghaznavids and Seljuks, who both patronized Iranian and not Turkic culture.

By "culture" here I intend something wider than literature. I mean specifically what is connoted by the Arabic term adab. Originally the word meant "custom." In early Islam it came to mean "high quality of soul, good upbringing, urbanity and courtesy." It represented an ideal corresponding to "the refining of bedouin ethics and customs as a result of Islam and the contact with foreign cultures during the first two centuries A.H." In intellectual content, adab meant "profane culture... based in the first place on poetry, the art of oratory, the historical and tribal traditions of the ancient Arabs, and also on the corresponding sciences: rhetoric, grammar, lexicography, metrics." During the period of high Abbasid culture in the ninth century the concept was broadened to include non-Arab traditions as well, particularly Iranian epic and narrative, and Iranian gnomic wisdom (andarz), but also Indian fables and Greek philosophy. Finally, in the narrower sense of literature, adab meant belles-lettres; thus it became the basis of the term for literature (adabiyat) in several modern Islamic languages.

For what concerns us here, which is the creation of a Turkic adab, we can see three outstanding elements in the Arab and Iranian adabs that served as models for the Turkic. These are, first, the mastery of the language; second, the transmission of profane wisdom, particularly as attached to the royal courts, and third, pride in the national legends, customs and traditions.

The Arabic philologists of the first few Islamic centuries, partially for religious reasons, made it their task to collect and record all the linguistic usages of the Arabs, especially as preserved and handed down in the poetry and proverbs of the Jahiliyya. The study and mastery of Arabic provided the basis not only of the profane culture, or adab, but also of the Religious sciences, or ilm. This might be the reason why grammatical and lexicographic scholarship lagged in the Iranian cultural sphere.

From the early period we have only Asadi's Lughat-i Furs, written c. 1070, with its limited aim of explaining difficult words used by Firdawsi and the other New Persian poets. We shall see in a moment that Kashgari expresses a rather different orientation to the question of linguistic scholarship, one that harkens back to the Islamic ideology which spurred on the Arabic philologists in their classical period.

The great Iranian contribution to adab culture was the translation of the Sasanian Royal traditions into a form suitable for the Islamic context. The works of Ibn al-Muqaffa are pre- eminent here; but we may also mention the Kitab at-Taj of pseudo- Jahiz, and the Javidan Khirad of Miskawaih. This movement added a stock of Iranian andarz to the Arab amthal (proverbs); also a stock of epical and historical traditions which the chroniclers tried to coordinate with their inherited Arabian and Israelitic materials. The specific pride in Iranian, versus Arab, civilization, which had given rise to the Shu'ubiyya phenomenon, emerged triumphant with the Samanids, and is very clear in the Shah-nameh. It is characteristic that when al-Ghazali (d. 1111) set out, toward the end of his life, to write a mirror for princes, he chose to do so in Persian and not in Arabic.

Returning to the Turks, let us briefly examine the Qarakhanid literary monuments to determine whether they can be interpreted, each in its own way, as an attempt to create a Turkic Adab.

In his introduction to the Diwan Lughat at_turk, Kashgari states:

When I saw that God Most High had caused the Sun of Fortune to rise in the Zodiac of the Turks, and set their Kingdom among the spheres of Heaven; that He called them Turk," and gave them the Rule; making them kings of the Age, and placing in their hands the reins of temporal authority; appointing them over all mankind, and directing them to the Right; that He strengthened those who are affiliated to them, and those who endeavor on their behalf;... [then I saw that] every man of reason must attach himself to them, or else expose himself to their falling arrows. And there is no better way to approach them than by speaking their own tongue, thereby bending their ear and inclining their heart.

He then quotes the prophetic hadith: "Learn the tongue of the Turks, for their reign will be long;" and goes on to say: "if this hadith is sound... then learning it is a religious duty; and if it is not sound, still Wisdom demands it." The peroration ends with his dedication of the work to the reigning caliph, al_muqtadi.

In explaining his methodology in drawing up his work, Kashgari writes:

I have set it out according to the order of the alphabet; and adorned it with words of wisdom and elegant speech, proverbs, verses of poetry, and sentences of prose... I originally intended to structure the book along the lines of al_khalil... in order to show that the Turkic dialects keep pace with Arabic like two horses in a race.... I have strewn therein examples of their verses, which they utter in their pronouncements and declarations; as well as proverbs which they coin according to the ways of wisdom, both in adversity and in felicity, and which are handed down from speaker to transmitter. And I have gathered therein much-repeated matters, and famous expressions. Thus has the book attained the utmost of excellence, and the extreme of refinement.

The immediately following section is an exposition of the "Turkic" (i.e. Uighur) script, which "is used for all documents and correspondence of the Khaqans and the Sultans, from ancient times to the present, and from Kashgar to Upper Shin (China), encompassing all the lands of the Turks." The last sections of the introduction deal with grammar, dialectology, and linguistic geography, including the famous map.

The verses which Kashgari cite are, like the proverbs, oral and anonymous. And they are all in the syllabic-counting meters of Turkic folk poetry. The scattered, isolated verses, which are cited to illustrate usage, can be grouped together in "verse cycles" --groups of stanzas sharing a common rhyming and metrical scheme and a common theme. There are fifty or so such cycles, ranging from one to sixteen stanzas. A third of these falls in the class of "wisdom" poetry, and a fifth relates to warfare; the rest are concerned with love, nature, the hunt, etc. One frequently cited i a lament on the death of Alp Ar Tonga (identified with Afrasiyab).

There are, in addition, two "narrative cycles" which can be pieced together from Kashgari's historical or legendary notes connected with the folk etymologies of geographical names and culture terms. All these materials relate either to Afrasiyab, or to a certain Shu, "king of the Turk," who defeated the world- conqueror Dhu'l-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great).

The striking thing about both these cycles is their lack of resemblance to the Afrasiyab-Turan theme and to the Alexander romance theme as found, for example, in the Shah-nameh. Rather, we have indigenous Central Asian legends relating to Tonga Alp Ar and to King Shu as national heroes of the Turks.

Thus: Afrasiyab was the Khaqan; the founder of the royal dynasty of Khans, Tegins, and Terims; and the father of Qaz, Barman, and Barsghan, who all founded cities named after them. (The city named after Qaz is Qazvin in Iran, originally Qaz Oyni meaning "Qaz's playground"!) He himself founded Kashgar (=Ordu Kand), while his residence was at Barchuq. Now none of this is known to the Iranian tradition. In the Shah-Nameh, for example, Afrasiyab has a son named Shida and daughters named Manizha and Farangiz; while his residence is at Qunduz (=Gang), later at Baikand.

In Kashgari's version of the Alexander romance, Dhu'l-Qarnayn gives names to the three main Turkic groups of the age --the Chighil (=Qarakhanids), the Turkman (=Oghuz), and the Uighur-- all of them provided with Persian (!) etymologies. He also furnishes the name for a place (Altun Qan), a title (Oga), another tribe (Qalach), and a food (Tutmach)--all these with good Turkic etymologies. But Dhu'l-Qarnayn is not the hero of the legend, for he is defeated by the Turkic king Shu, founder of the capital of Balasaghun. The idea of Alexander as the enemy reflects a pre- Islamic Iranian view (Iskandar-i mal'un); in the Shah-Nameh and later Iskandar-namehs he is the invincible hero, even (under Koranic influence) a kind of Prophet.

Finally, Kashgari at one point relates a ghazi legend, which in turn can be connected with four groups of verses that originally must have been part of one larger verse cycle, perhaps interspersed as songs within a prose narrative as in the later Turkish minstrel cycles of Dede Korkut and Koroglu.

So in the Diwan Lughat at-Turk we do have, in germ, Turkic epic materials. While it is a historical fact that these were not embroidered and developed in a pan-Turkic epic tradition, in the manner of the Shah-Nameh, some elements did survive in different dress. Thus, some of the Alexander-romance material turns up again in the legends of Oghuz Khan. Similarly the ghazi legend, relating the miraculous victory of a Muslim Turkic hero over a group of infidel Turkic tribes, survives to some extent in themes incorporated into the Tazkare-i Satuq Bughra Khan.

From Kashgari's point of view, these poems and legends were only so many cultural materials, to be recorded in his Diwan along with data on Turkic ethnography and folklore, social organization and kinship structure, calendars, recipes, and folk remedies. He saw it as his task to present these materials in a coherent way, for he was convinced of the supremacy of the Turks in God's design, and of the need for non-Turkic Muslims to know the language and the lore of their Turkic brothers in the faith. Indeed, Kashgari succeeded in doing for the Turks what the Arab philologists in the first centuries of Islam had done for the Arabs: namely, to organize and elucidate their linguistic, genealogic, and cultural traditions.

We can say something very similar about Qutadghu Bilig: that Yusuf of Balasaghun attempted, with some measure of success, to establish the Central Asiatic Turkic tradition as a legitimate element within the parameters of Islamic culture, just as his counterparts from Ibn al-Muqaffa to Firdawsi had done for the Iranian tradition. But unlike Firdawsi Yusuf took as his starting point, not the sagas and epics that were current at his time, but rather the heritage of "royal wisdom" (qutadghu bilig) preserved in Qarakhanid ruling circles, which he tried to amalgamate with the Irano-Islamic ideals of statecraft preserved in Arabic and Persian adab.

Thus as authorities for the wisdom sayings scattered throughout the text, Yusuf cites only various Turkic princes and poets, but also "an Arabic saying" (line 5809), "an Iranian sage" (line 3265), and the Sasanian king Nushirvan, the model of just sovereignty (line 290). "If you observe well," he states in the introductory portion of the work (Lines 276-282),

you will notice that the Turkish princes are the finest in the world. And among these Turkish princes the one of the outstanding fame and glory was Tonga Alp Er. He was the choicest of men, distinguished by great wisdom and virtues manifold.... The Iranians call him Afrasiyab, the same who seized and pillaged their realm...

A conqueror requires great virtue indeed, and mind and wisdom, in order to rule. The Iranians have written this all down in books--and who could understand it if it were not written down?

Among the proverbs quoted by Kashgari in the Diwan Lughat at- Turk (fol. 465) is: yash ot koymas, yalawar olmas "Fresh grass does not burn, the messenger does not die." Kashgari goes on to say that this is so.

even though his message may contain treachery or coarseness on the part of the sender. This is similar to the words of the Exalted [Koran 5:99] "It is only for the Messenger to deliver the Message."

Conceivably this Turkic proverb was in Yusuf's mind when, in an appropriate context in the Qutadghu Bilig (lines 3817-3819) he appeals to the authority of the Khan of the Turks (Turk Hani) for the following lines:

yalawacqa bolmas olum ya qiyin
esitmis sozin cin tagursa tilin
yalawac tedukum bu tilci turur
bu tilci sozin aysa olmas qalur

"The messenger deserves neither death nor punishment, so long as he faithfully reports what he has heard. For this messenger is merely a spokesman, and when the spokesman transmits his message, he is not killed, but is left alone."

The major issue in Qutadghu Bilig is the conflict between the political ideals of the community and the religious conscience of the individual. The conflict is dramatized in the form of a debate between two brothers, one of them a statesman and chief advisor to the king, the other a recluse and mystic. The statesman is called "Highly Praised" (Tk. Odgulmis, a translation of the Arabic name Muhammad), while the recluse is named "Wide Awake" (Tk. Odghurmis-- cf. Ar. Yazqan, which was already used as an allegorical name by Ibn Sina).

Highly Praised knows what is best for the world's governance. In response to the king's queries, he describes the qualities and duties of the various courtiers: prince, vizier, commander, ambassador, secretary,treasurer, cook, etc. To Wide Awake, ignorant in the ways of the world, he explains how one must conduct oneself with the various classes of the society; courtiers and commoners, scholars, physicians, diviners, astrologers, poets, farmers, merchants, stockbreeders, craftsmen, beggars. He also gives advice on how to choose a wife, how to raise children, how to behave as host and as guest, and how to interpret dreams. He is the perfect adib, the personification of worldly wisdom.

Wide awake knows what is ultimately best for man's soul. In pursuit of complete devotion to God, he has adopted a life of poverty, renunciation, and solitude. He personifies, as Yusuf tells us (line 357), aqibet: Man's Last End. In the Mirror-for- Princes scheme, Wide Awake provides a leaven of otherworldly goals and ideals, without which the ruler's life would be vain. The ultimate reconciliation of the brothers, in the king's presence, demonstrates one of the deep rooted themes of the Irano-Islamic statecraft tradition: that just sovereignty and right religion are twins, born of the same womb, and cannot be separated.

I have tried to show that the two major Qarakhanid literary monuments, judged on their own terms, were successful in laying a foundation for a Turkic adab: the one in the areas of linguistic scholarship and the recording of national lore; the other in the area of royal wisdom. But in terms of historical development of Turkic culture, the efforts of Kashgari and of Yusuf of Balasaghun were practically fruitless. No Turkic Firdewsi came along to celebrate the pre-Islamic exploits of Alp Ar Tonga. The lively epic and historiographic traditions developed later by the Ottomans in the west and by the Timurids in the east were entirely based, on the one hand, upon the Oghuz settlement of Anatolia, and on the other hand, upon the exploits of the Chingissids, Temurids, and Shaybanis.

As far as we know, only one Islamic historian ever attempted to incorporate Kashgari's legends about King Shu and Dhu'l- Qarnayn into a grander scheme--viz. Badraddin al-Ayni in the first volume of his thirty-volume world history, written in 1422. As for Qutadghu Bilig, the only one to quote it in later Turkic literature, again so far as we know, was Rabghuzi in his Qisas al-Anbiya, written in 1310, where we find a paraphrase of Yusuf's, chapter "On the Seven Planets and the Twelve Constellations. It is true, judging by the three extant MS copies, that Qutadghu Bilig did enjoy a certain vogue as late as the Timurid period. But it never served as the basis for an elaboration, or even an imitation; in contrast, say, to the Persian Qabus-nameh, a mirror for princes written in 1082, which was translated into Ottoman Turkish no less than five times in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

To conclude: if I am right that Dian Lughat at-Turk and Qutadghu Bilig represent the budding of a Turkic adab; still, in terms of the historical development of Turco-Islamic culture, the labors of Kashgari and of Yusuf of Balasaghun did not bear fruit. To revert to my original image, they laid a foundation, but the edifice was not built---or, to be more exact, an edifice was built later on (especially by the Ottomans in the west and the Timurids in the east), but on a different foundation.