Maneuver in the narrative space: Lessons from Islam Nusantara
January-March 2018
By: C Holland Taylor

This gradual evolutionary process of “deposition” and “erosion” within the “narrative space terrain” (cf, Brian L Steed, “Maneuvering within Islam’s narrative space”) was temporarily disrupted, in Central Asia, by the tectonic shift that accompanied the Arab conquest, which the indigenous Persian-speaking population fiercely resisted throughout the Umayyad caliphate (661-750). This military and cultural resistance to Arab domination may explain why the Abbasid caliphate, which came to power with the support of an army composed of Arabs, Persians and Turks “carrying black flags from Khurasan” (ie, Central Asia), launched an era of scientific, philosophical and spiritual creativity that Dr Frederick Starr has described in his book, “The Lost Enlightenment,” as “Central Asia’s golden age.” He writes: “By far the most conspicuous feature of Central Asia’s crossroads civilization was its pluralism and diversity. This did not end with the Arab conquest but, as we shall see, continued to thrive for nearly four centuries after the arrival of Islam. Conversion proceeded very slowly. Indeed, Muslim theologians themselves acknowledged that many people of other faiths nominally embraced Islam but did not abandon their prior faiths. The British classicist Peter Brown speaks of Islam resting ‘lightly, like a mist’ over the highly diverse religious landscape. Only in the combative eleventh century did pluralism come to be seen as an evil and as a threat to the prevailing orthodoxy. By the time such a view took hold, the Age of Enlightenment was already approaching its end.”

Ultimately, Central Asia’s tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance fell victim to a combination of erosional and tectonic forces that overwhelmed the long-dominant Persian culture of the region. One was the spread and gradual entrenchment of religious formalism. Another closely related factor was the rise to military and political supremacy, throughout the Middle East, of Turkish tribes that tended to embrace those narratives, within Islam, that legitimize conquest and the subjugation of infidels. To this day, the name Mahmoud of Ghazni is employed by Hindu nationalists to evoke the cruelty of Muslim armies that laid waste to northern India during the 11th century, massacring and enslaving Hindus on a scale that far exceeds anything yet accomplished by the Islamic State (ISIS).

Less than two centuries later, a Turkic army destroyed the renowned complex of Buddhist monasteries at Nalanda, in eastern India, which had served as a hub of international Buddhism, linking the maritime and overland Silk Roads, for nearly eight centuries. Turkic warriors burned the ancient libraries and slaughtered monks who had not fled the approaching army. Although erosional forces had long been at work, it was a profound tectonic event that brought the Buddhist narrative to a close in its very birthplace, along the Gangetic plain of northeast India. A third, decisive factor in the eclipse of Central Asia’s “age of enlightenment” was the Mongol conquest, which depopulated much of the region and systematically wrecked the vast and highly complex irrigation system upon which an ancient civilization depended for its agricultural productivity.

As we shall see, the tectonic forces that devastated Central Asia also led to the Islamization of the East Indies, more than 700 years after the initial appearance of Muslim traders and proselytizers in the Malay archipelago, during the reign of Caliph Umar bin Khattab (634-44 CE).

The Mongol armies that destroyed Central Asia (1219-21) and the Abbasid caliphate (1258) also conquered China. Kublai Khan, who founded the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368), brought hundreds of thousands of Central Asians to China, where they served as a military and administrative interface between the Mongol overlords and their ethnic Chinese subjects, whom the Mongols did not trust. Marrying locally, these Central Asians came to form a major component of a distinct ethnic group within China known as Hui Muslims, whose prominent role within Chinese government was soon to have a profound influence on the sociocultural and political dynamics of Nusantara (East Indies) civilization.

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