From Sogdian to Persian to Sart to Tajik & Uzbek: The Reformulation of Linguistic and Political Identity in Central Asia

(Many thanks to Asya Pereltsvaig for her assistance with this post)

Wikipedia map of Ancient SogdianaThe Turkic-Persian historical synthesis found in Iranian Azerbaijan (discussed in the previous post) extends well beyond Iran’s borders. Through much of Central Asia, the dominant cultural framework is perhaps best described as a hybrid formation. In a fascinating book, Robert Canfield and his colleagues go so far as to designate a vast zone in central, southern, and southwestern Asia as “Turko-Persia.” As the Wikipedia describes the concept: “The composite Turko-Persian tradition … was Persianate in that it was centered on a lettered tradition of Iranian origin; it was Turkic insofar as it was for many generations patronized by rulers of Turkic background.” In the modern era, however, national governments have made great efforts to divide “Persians” from “Turks” across the region, creating the modern Tajik and Uzbek nationalities in the process.
Wikipedia Map of Bactria, with Sogdiana addedTurkic and Persian traditions have long been deeply intertwined in a region once known as Sogdiana, centered on the Zeravshan Valley of what is now eastern Uzbekistan. Sogdiana has played an important role in world history for millennia. Fertile and well-watered alluvial fans along the foot of the Pamir Mountains provided the agricultural foundation for an urban civilization stretching back almost 3,000 years. The Sogdians were renowned merchants, plying the routes of the so-called Silk Road that linked China to western Asia. In the process, they transmitted a number of religious practices and cultural ideals across much of Eurasia, including those associated with Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Mahayana Buddhism, and Manichaeism. After the Muslim conquest in the late 600s, the Sogdians gradually deserted their pluralistic religious heritage in favor of Islam. They also abandoned their own language, which belonged to the Eastern branch of the Middle Iranian grouping, in favor of a language from the Western branch that eventually became what is known today as Persian/Farsi (although a dialect of “neo-Sogdian” is still spoken by the Yaghnobi people, some 12,500 strong, of Tajikistan). Despite the loss of their distinctive ethnic identity, the Sogdians’ descendents continued to be an important mercantile people, noted for the wealth and beauty of their cities, particularly Samarkand and Bukhara. With the decline of the Abbasid Caliphate in the early 800s, a powerful and explicitly Persian state, the Samanid Empire (or Samani Dynasty), arose in the eastern Persian lands, with its capital in Bukhara. The Samanids made a concerted and largely successful effort to convert the Turkic-speaking nomads living to their north to Islam.
Map of Samanid Empire With the downfall of the Samanid Empire in 999 CE, Sogdiana came under the political domination of these same Turkic-speaking peoples. Over time, significant numbers of Turkic speakers settled in the region, intermarrying broadly within the local population. As a result, their language spread. But as it did, it was molded by the pre-existing Persian substratum, gaining a large number of Persian words and expressions; several of the resulting dialects even lost the distinctive “vowel harmony” that characterizes Turkic and, more broadly, Altaic languages. But the spread of Turkic speech did not result in the disappearance of Persian (or Tajik, in Turkic parlance). Instead, linguistic duality came to characterize much of the region. At the beginning of the 20th century, Persian/Tajik served as the main language of Bukhara and Samarkand, as the region’s lingua franca, and as the chief vehicle for administration and literature. In many of the smaller towns and farming communities, however, “Persianified” (or “Iranized”) Turkic dialects prevailed.
Thomas Lessman's Map of 1500, Showing Uzbek KhanateIn a social environment in which bilingualism was common, the distinction between those who spoke Persian and those who spoke a Turkic language was generally of little significance. What mattered more was mode of life. The main distinction here was that between settled people, whether city-dwellers or farmers, and pastoral nomads. Those with a sedentary lifestyle were generally called “Sarts,” both by outsiders and themselves, regardless of their mother tongue. In contrast were the Turkic peoples who largely retained a pastoral way of life, most notably the Kazakhs, Kirghiz, and Turkmen. Included in this group were the original Uzbeks, a group of historically nomadic people, ultimately of Mongol origin, who had forged a powerful state the 1500s, the Shaybanid—or Uzbek—Khanate. The relatively non-Persianified Uzbek language of this group (known as Kipchak Uzbek) was, and is, much more closely related to Kazakh and Kyrgyz than it is to the Turkic dialects of the settled Sarts (which are most closely related to Uyghur in northwestern China).
Wikipedia Maps of Three Turkic Language Sunfamilies In the 1920s, ethnic affiliations were transformed by official decree across was then became Soviet Central Asia. Following Lenin’s nationality policy, certain groups were elevated to national status, affording them a measure of cultural autonomy within their own Soviet republics. After lengthy deliberation, Soviet cultural engineers decided that “Sart” was a derogative term that had no linguistic content and thus did not denote a real ethnic group . As a result, they split the Sarts into two nationalities, each of which received its own republic. Those who primarily spoke Persian were deemed Tajiks, while those who spoke Persian-influenced Turkic dialects were placed in the Uzbek category, despite the fact they bore little relationship to the people who already carried that name. The new standardized Uzbek language that resulted does not even fall in the same linguistic sub-family as the original (Kipchak) Uzbek language, as the former is placed in the Southeastern (or Eastern, or Uyghur) group, the latter in Northwestern, or Kipchak, branch.  (And if that were not enough complexity, a third dialect of “Uzbek”, Oghuz Uzbek, falls into yet a different division, the Southwestern branch of the Turkic language family.) The linguistic terminology used today does not clarify the issue, as the old “Kipchak Uzbek” tongue is now classified merely as a minor dialect of “Uzbek.”  Even the linguistically rigorous Ethnologue uses this classification scheme. Yet it makes little sense from a strictly logical point of view: how can two dialects of the same language simultaneously belong to different branches of their larger linguistic family? Political expedience, it seems, can trump linguistic realities.
The artificially constructed distinction between Uzbek and Tajik continues to generate political problems in the former Soviet Central Asia, as we shall see in the next GeoCurrents post.

The Complex and Contentious Issue of Afghan Identity

Nigel Allan's Map of Babur's Use of the Term "Afghanistan"“Afghanistan” is an oddly constructed place name. It is usually said to be a Persian word meaning “land of the Pashtuns.” The widely used suffix “stan” is Persian for “place of” or “land of,” cognate with the English “stead” (as in “homestead”) and ultimately with “stand.” “Afghan” is usually considered synonymous with “Pashtun.” From the Pashtun perspective, “Afghanistan” is an exonym, a geographical term of foreign origin. For Pashto-speakers to call their country “Afghanistan” would be a bit like Germans calling their country not Deutschland but Germany, or the Japanese calling theirs Japan instead of Nihon or Nippon. But Pashtun-speakers in Afghanistan, unlike German speakers in Germany, do not form the majority linguistic community. In Persian (or Dari), the country’s most widely used language, “Afghanistan” is native term, but one that refers to a different people and to some extant a different place. (In Pashto, the official name of the state is Da Afġānistān Islāmī Jomhoriyat, translated into English as “the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan”; in Persian it is Jomhūrī-ye Eslāmī-ye Afġānistān.)

The identification of “Afghan” with “Pashtun,” however, turns out to be a knotty issue. Geographer Nigel J. R. Allan of the University of Nevada at Reno has examined this subject in detail. The earliest use of “Afghanistan” that he has found is in the Baburnama of the early 1500s, the autobiographical story of Babur’s creation of the Mughul Dynasty of northern India. In this account, “Afghanistan” denotes a limited area south of Peshawar in what is now northwestern Pakistan. Subsequently, “Afghan” came to denote a handful of Pakhtun/Pashtun tribes living in and around the Vale of Peshawar. The designation was gradually generalized to cover all Pashtun people, but the idea lingers that the “real Afghans” are still those of Peshawar, arguably the most important Pashtun city (although the multi-ethnic metropolis of Karachi now has the largest Pashtun population). With the creation of the modern state of Afghanistan, “Afghan” was extended to cover all residents of the country, regardless of their language or ethnicity. Allan associates this usage with 19th century British imperial agents. As a place name, “Afghanistan” is thus both exonymic and geographically displaced, having originally denoted an area outside of the borders of the modern country of that name.

To be sure, Allan’s narrative would be challenged by a few Afghan nationalists, who see earlier versions of “Afghan” in historical place names such as “Abgan.” A few have gone so far as claim a geo-historical essence for the Afghans and their country. In 1969, Abdul Hai Habibi argued that, “The word Afghan … represents an indivisible unit under all historical, economic and social conditions in the heart of Asia … with a historical background of one thousand and seven hundred years.” Yet, as usually the case, such an insistently nationalistic interpretation twists the past in accordance with modern-day dreams of national unity. The result leans more toward wishful thinking than scholarly analysis.

Allan’s finds similar complexities with other ethnic designations used in Afghanistan. Most texts and maps divide the country into roughly a dozen ethnicities. As the Wikipedia puts it, “The ethnic groups of the country are as follow: Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara, Uzbek, Aimak, Turkmen, Baloch, Pashai, Nuristani, Arab, Brahui, Pamiri and some others.” The term “some others” indicates uncertainty, which is indeed warranted. Following the Ethnologue and Erwin Orywal, Allan discerns forty-five languages and fifty-five ethnic groups in Afghanistan. Several conventional groups turn out to be composite units composed of distinct peoples speaking separate languages; “Nuristani,” for example, encompasses five languages. “Tajik” is an especially a fraught category. It too is foreign, derived from the Turco-Mongol term for “non-Turk.” Although it has long been used by Persian speakers for self-designation, “Tajik” retained pejorative connotations until recent decades. The institutionalization of the term has been linked to the Soviet manipulation of ethnic categories in Central Asia. As Allan shows, most of the current ethnic designations of Afghanistan were imposed by outsiders on the basis of limited knowledge. The resulting scheme ignored the indigenous concept of manteqa, used to divide most of Afghanistan into ethno-geographical units. As the Wikipedia puts it, “In Afghanistan, the Tajiks … refer to themselves by the region, province, city, town, or village they are from; such as Badakhshi, Baghlani, Mazari, Panjsheri, Kabuli, Herati, Kohistani.”

            As a term of self-designation, “Pashtun” stands on stronger grounds than “Tajik. “Pashtun identity tends to be pronounced, and is often a source of considerable pride. But the mere fact that this ethnic group spans the border challenges the national formations of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Pakistan also signals a claim to Pashtun territory by way of the word “Afghan.” The “A” in “Pakistan”—an acronymic country-name—refers to “Afghania,” just as the “P” refers to Punjab, the “K” to Kashmir, and the “S” to Sindh.

Map showing different definitions of the term "Pashtunistan"The Pashtun people themselves have on occasions hoped to break out of this geopolitical bind, proclaiming their own separate nationality and agitating for the creation of a new state. The proposed boundaries of an independent Pashtunistan, however, vary significantly, as can be seen in the maps posted to the left. In one version, Pashtunistan would be limited to the Pashto-speaking areas of both countries; in another it would add Pakistani Balochistan and a few other areas; in another it would encompass all of Afghanistan as well as the western half of Pakistan; and in yet another it would include only the western half of Pakistan. Although the idea of Pashtunistan is often considered dead, some maintain that the fear of its revival pushes policy in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. As stated recently in the anti-militarist World War Four Report, “Kabul and Islamabad both feel the need to appease Pashtun tribal leaders, fearing the specter of an independent ‘Pashtunistan’—which would take a critical chunk of both states’ territory, and widen the war yet further…”

As a final note, it has long seemed odd to me that Afghanistan is usually portrayed in the U.S. media as a Pashtun-dominated country, even though most of its residents belong to other ethnic groups, and even though Persian is more widespread and more prestigious than Pashto. Nigel Allan links this habit to U.S. diplomatic and military maneuvering in the region. In the 1950s and 1960s, almost all American developmental projects in Afghanistan focused on Pashtun areas. In the 1980s, the U.S. military embraced a “southern strategy” based on alliances with Pashtun militias aimed at expelling Soviet forces from the country. This Pashtun focus, Allan argues, stemmed in part from the British imperial designation of the Pashtun people as one of South Asia’s “martial races.” Whether the U.S. reliance on such Pashtun leaders as Hamid Karzai has been an effective strategy is a different matter altogether.

For more information, see Nigel J. R. Allan, “Defining Place and People in Afghanistan.” Post-Soviet Geography and Economics, 2001, 42(8), 545-560. (Note: the journal is now called Eurasian Geography and Economics.)