Revisiting the Origin Myths of the Turks

Beida posterAt a recent lecture hosted by the Centre for Research on Ancient Chinese History at Peking University (aka Beida, one of the leading research universities in China), I revisited the old scholarly claim that the pre-Islamic Turkic past had been erased by the new Muslim rulers. Before a rather large and engaged audience, I explored this argument in the framework of the historical development of Turkic identity in Central Asia.

The early expansion of Muslim polities into Central Asia incurred also substantial migrations, both voluntary and coerced, of Turks into the region. Turkic slave-soldiers were incorporated into the Muslim armies and some rose to positions of prominence and even to dynastic rule already in the tenth century CE. The assimilation of Turks into Islam often included a conversion to the new religion and a formulation of new answers to old questions, such as “who are we and where did we come from?” As one might expect, Arab and Iranian Muslims, already in the eighth century, introduced the Turks to Islamic cosmogony. Ideas of ancient Turkic descent from – or at least continued existence by – a she-wolf, à la Romulus and Remus (among others), or of ancient men springing from a tree or a mound of earth, did not square well with the basic Muslim tenets of the creation and the survival of mankind. (Devin DeWeese discusses, in a different context, some of these myths in his Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde.)

Therefore, consistent with Near Eastern monotheistic traditions in which all humans originated, after the Flood, from Noah and his three sons Shem, Ham, and Japheth, the Turks, being human (well, at least most of them; reading the early Muslim geographers one encounters all sorts of ambiguous designations), had to fit into that tradition. Almost every Muslim account of the Turks began with the story of Noah (Nuh) and his son Japheth (Yafith), the Turks’ progenitor. Although written by non-Turkic Muslims, the Turks hung on to the new stories of their origins and their pre-Islamic history was forgotten. Once they came to power, the newly converted based – perhaps paradoxically – much of the rewriting of their own past on contemporary, seemingly hostile Iranian models. At the same time, however, Turks may have inspired a change in perception regarding Yafith’s reputation and status; they added a new dimension to the story in the figure of a “native” hero-progenitor (Afrasiyab), and they emphasized a divine, Allah-ordained mandate that legitimized their existence and their actions.

Yafith and the Turks

The story that one finds in the Muslim sources early on endured through the centuries. Here’s a typical version from the middle of the seventeenth century, authored in Turkic by  Abu’l-Ghazi, Khan of Khiva (and abbreviated by me):

Nuh became a prophet at the age of 250. For the next 700 years he tried to summon the people to Islam with very limited success (only 80 converted). After the Flood, he sent Ham to Hindustan, Sam to Iran (iranzamin) and Yafith to the North (qutb-i shimal). Yafith settled between the Yayiq and the Itil rivers (the Ural and the Volga) where he would live for the next 250 years. He had eight sons. The eldest, named Turk, who became known as Yafith Oghlani (lit., “Yafith’s son”), migrated to the area of Issyk Kul and became the first tent-maker. His eldest son, Tutuk, reigned after him. He was a good ruler, and was the contemporary of Kayumars, the first king of Iran (‘ajam). [Tutuk’s descendants ruled the land, as Muslims, until we come to the story of the division of the realm between two of Yafith’s later descendants, Tatar and Moghul, but this is a topic for another discussion.]

Leaving aside the business of so many Muslims in existence centuries or even millennia before the Prophet Muhammad (there is ample commentary about this issue in the Muslim traditions), let us concentrate on Yafith’s representation. Yafith seems to have been a bit of a problematic figure for early Muslim commentators. First, like his brothers, he is not mentioned in the Qur’an by name, and therefore may have been also somewhat of an outsider. Secondly, Nuh’s two other sons, Sam and Ham, already became the progenitors of other peoples (Sam of the Arabs, more generally of the Semites, and of the Persians; and Ham – rowdy and disobedient also in the Muslim tradition – was punished to be the father of the “blacks”). Already in the eighth century, Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, an Iranian convert to Islam who became one of the originators of Arabic literary prose, mentioned Yafith as the ancestor of the Turks, but also of Gog and Magog (Yajuj wa-Majuj), the semi-monstrous beings who would destroy the earth come Judgment Day. Ibn al-Muqaffa’s take on Yafith became the standard story for most Muslim historians and geographers writing in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. Take for example, al-Tabari (d. 923), probably the most renowned among contemporaneous Muslim historians and commentators on the Qur’an, who indicated that, “Yafith begat the Turks, Slavs, Gog and Magog, in none of whom there is good.”

Thus far, the erasure of older stories and the emerging negative perceptions of Turks among their neighbors seem evident. But Yafith’s reputation began to change, perhaps because of the Turks’ stronger position in the world of Islam in later centuries. More and more peoples were added to the list of his progeny and he was receiving kinder treatment, not only in the official commentaries and histories, but also in the emerging genre of the Qisas al-anbiya’ (Stories of the Prophets). We read in al-Kisa’i, compiler of many of the stories and legends about the prophets, probably around the twelfth century, that when Nuh had cursed Ham to be the father of all the “black slaves,” he also said that Sam would be the forefather of prophets and Yafith – the forefather of kings and heroes. [This neat “division of labor” for descendants of famed men repeats itself also in other circumstances in Central Asian history. For instance, in a prophetic dream reported in Timurid Persian historiography, Chinggis Khan’s descendants were destined to possess the throne (takht-i khani) and Timur’s descendants – to hold the reigns of the military and administration (shamshir va hukmrani).]

So much has Yafith’s position changed over the centuries, that in the late fifteenth century, Mir Ali Shir Nava’i, statesman, author, poet, and celebrated architect of Turkic literary language, stated about Yafith, in Turkic: “Historians all agree that he wore the crown of prophethood and was therefore superior to his brothers.” For Nava’i and many of his fellow Central Asian Turks, Yafith was a prophet, just like his father, and was superior to his brothers (who were not). By the way, the aforementioned Abu’l-Ghazi Khan was more careful. He stated that, “some say Yafith was a prophet and some say he wasn’t.”

Afrasiyab and the Turks

The rise to power of Turkic dynasties – the Ghaznavids, Saljuqs, and Qarakhanids, for example – also brought about new literary endeavors (although, perhaps not as many as one might expect).

The Kutadgu Bilig, “the oldest monument of Turkic Islamic literature,” by Yusuf Khass Hajib, a native of Balasaghun, was completed in the city of Kashghar ca. 1069 CE and was dedicated to its Qarakhanid patron, Tavghach Bughra Khan. In this didactic work, a long poem in the genre of advice literature, the Turks were celebrated as descendants of Yafith, but also of the great Turkic prince, Tonga Alp Er, “whom the Iranians call Afrasiyab, the same who had seized and pillaged their realm.”

Both the Qarakhanids and the Saljuqs claimed descent from Afrasiyab, as Bartol’d, Togan, Frye and other scholars had observed long ago. This evocation of Afrasiyab was interpreted by some (C. E. Bosworth, for instance) as a political ploy by the new dynasties meant to secure the loyalty of their Turkic tribal men (i.e., the military). While other ruling houses in the Arab-Persian sphere sought to establish an association with the Caliphs by attaching themselves to Arab aristocracy, to the Prophet or to his companions, the Turks – ostensibly unburdened by loyalty to Arabs or Persians – needed to cultivate the support of their own constituencies. Sustaining a lineage to a great “national” hero, so the argument goes, could do the trick. Such reasoning points to a conscious, premeditated decision on the part of the Turkic rulers. One is tempted to visualize a gathering of notable Turks in some gilded tent on the shores of Issyk Kul – or in the halls of a captured Baghdad palace, in the Saljuq case – where names of (supposedly) ancient heroes were drawn and conjured up and Afrasiyab’s emerged triumphant…  

Even if we accept this or a much less dramatic scenario, why choose that particular character? Granted, Afrasiyab was a well-known figure in pre-Islamic Iranian traditions, but the historic Afrasiyab (presuming there was one) was, in fact, at least partially, if not wholly, Iranian. He was a descendant of Tur son of Faridun, the mythical Iranian warrior, physician, and vanquisher of dragons. Furthermore, Afrasiyab mairya (“the deceitful”), who had lived in a cavernous iron citadel, was acting as agent of the evil Ahriman and, using his ability to withhold rain, often spread misery and desolation. In some sources he is described as a demon. He treacherously assassinated Siyavush; he had failed in his efforts to secure Iranian “glory,” and he was eventually killed, in revenge, by Kay Khusraw. Was this the great champion that so appealed to the Turks? Why not pick someone else, an undefeated conqueror perhaps, one who would succumb only to old age, as later generations opted for a Chinggis Khan or a Timur?

It seems that the Turks knew only parts of Afrasiyab’s old history. Different versions of his tale may have developed independently, but most of the Turkic reworking of the story relied on reinterpretations rendered by numerous Muslim (non-Turkic) authors, such as al-Tabari, al-Mas’udi, al-Tha’alibi, al-Biruni and others. In these new accounts, Afrasiyab was usually displayed as a great leader and as the consummate champion, celebrated as the illustrious representative of the Turks and symbol of the deep divide between Iran and Turan. More than any other source, Fedowsi’s portrayal of Afrasiyab in his Shah-nama (Book of Kings), completed roughly in the same era (ca. 1010 CE), brought back the now-Turkic Afrasiyab to Turkic attention. I say ‘brought back,’ because it seems that Ferdowsi’s version was also nurtured by diverse oral traditions that may or may not have been Turkic. The Shah-nama must have been accessible to Yusuf of Balasaghun (since he emulates Ferdowsi’s style and meter), as may have been other sources.

Claiming Afrasiyab as the Turks’ progenitor continued later also in Jamal Qarshi’s account. Jamal Qarshi was the nickname of Abu’l-Fadl Jamal al-Din Muhammad (b. 1230/1), a scholar and official in East Turkestan in the 13th century. His work, written in Arabic, featured the first full narrative about the conversion to Islam of the Qarakhanid ruler Satuq Bughra Khan, probably in the middle of the 10th century, and relied on the now lost  Tarikh-i Kashghar.

QarshiIn a chapter entitled “Mention of the famous among the Turkic Khaqans in Mawarannahr and its environs during the Islamic period,”  Jamal Qarshi detailed the genealogy of Satuq Bughra Khan, shown here to the right, going back to Afrasiyab (the first name that I circled in red) and down to Yafith son of Nuh (the third encircled name). But in this account, Afrasiyab was more than just a link connecting the Turks to the Islamic model of decent from Yafith b. Nuh. He was also of the lineage of the aforementioned Tur son of Faridun (or Afridun, the second red-encircled name). In both pre-Islamic and Islamic sources, Faridun is said to have divided his realm among his three sons, giving Rum to Salm, Turkestan to Tur, and Iran and India to Iraj. Since Turkestan had been identified with the Turks and was Tur’s possession, it seemed only natural to depict Afrasiyab as heir to that territory. When one recalls that Yafith and his sons were also beneficiaries of that part of the world, we have here a double inheritance, if you will. Interestingly, Turk son of Yafith is not mentioned.

Equally famous – in this context – was Mahmud al-Kashghari’s Diwan lughat al-turk (Compendium of Turkic Dialects) (1072-1077 CE). Kashghari was writing in Baghdad, in Arabic, for an Arab-Muslim audience. His was a Turkic language guide for Arab administrators working to expand the boundaries of the caliphate. Kashghari reverted to the idea of the Turks’ origins from Yafith. He wrote, “The Turks are, in origin, twenty tribes. They all trace back to Turk, son of Yafith, son of Nuh, God’s blessings be upon them… Each tribe has branches whose number only God knows.” But, the origins of the term ‘Turk’ were also divine. “I state,” wrote Kashghari, “that at-Turk is the name given by God,” and he proceeded to quote the following hadith attributed to the Prophet: “God, exalted and mighty, says, ‘I have a host whom I have called at-Turk and whom I have set in the East; when I am wroth over any people I will make them sovereign above them.’”In this account, the Turks had a very specific role to play in the divine plan. Much like, in later centuries, the Mongols were considered by some Muslim authors to be the instrument (or scourge) of God, the Turks in al-Kashghari’s Diwan were God’s “own army” whose conquest and rule indicated God’s disappointment in and anger toward the Arabs. The new Turkic political dominance was therefore also an act of fate.


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