A Turkmen Verse Hagiography of the Niyazov Era, by Allen J. Frank

The period following the collapse of the Soviet Union can in many respects be viewed as a golden age for the composition and circulation of Islamic hagiographies. While as a compositional genre hagiography above all must be viewed as an oral genre, connected to shrines, they can also be also closely associated with the genealogies (Ar. shajaras, Turk. shejeres) of both sacred and ‘commoner lineages’. This is particularly the case with formerly nomadic groups, most prominently Kazakhs, but Turkmens as well. It has been since 1991 that we have seen an explosion of publishing of hagiographies in Central Asia likely surpassing the production of hagiographical manuscripts and printed texts before and during the Soviet era. As evidence of the importance of continuity in this genre, the compilers of hagiographies commonly compile their narratives and shrine catalogues based on oral traditions during or after the Soviet era.

These generalisations apply equally to Turkmenistan, whose cultural history remains the least studied and the most poorly documented among the Central Asian republics. The reasons for this circumstance are complex and do not require a detailed examination here. Suffice it to say that, on the one hand, Turkmenistan’s ruling elite has not particularly encouraged scholarly inquiry into its past in the same way the other republics have. On the other hand, in its religious history Turkmenistan remains in some decrees a cultural outlier. This is particularly true in terms of its hagiographical and shrine history, where, for example, overarching narratives, such as narrative cycles concerning saints of the Yasawi tradition and their shrines among the Kazakhs, or Islamisation narratives in Mawarannahr are largely absent in Turkmenistan, particularly outside of Khwarezm.

A good example of these sorts of post-Soviet peculiarities of Turkmen hagiography is a poem composed and published evidently in the mid-1990s during the rule of Saparmyrat Niyazov (Türmenbashy) devoted to the life and deeds of the Teke saint Ak Ishan (1788-1861). Türkmenbashy belonged to the Teke tribe, which dominated the ruling class of independent Turkmenistan. In this regard, the hagiography can be viewed as a document of political legitimisation, since it not only addressed Ak Ishan’s actions as a Sufi and saint, but also his interactions with the Khan of Khiva, and later his role in the conflicts between the Akhal-Teke Turkmens and the Khivans. By implication, Ak Ishan’s subordination to the Khan of Khiva, and his subsequent actions successfully supporting the Tekes in asserting their independence suggest a parallel with Niyazov himself, who initially loyally served the Soviet Union before asserting Turkmenistan’s independence. Some readers can therefore view the hagiography as a Turkmen story, others as a specifically Teke story.

The treatise is a roughly 1,100-line verse narrative relating the biography of Ak Ishan. The author is a writer named Tatar Üyshmekov, concerning whom we possess no additional information, except that in the introduction to the work we are told Üyshmekov was a writer and an elder. The poem is divided under the following headings:

  • ‘A Leader’s Generosity’, which sings the praises of Türkmenbashy for ushering in Turkmen independence;
  • ‘Greetings to Ak Ishan’, in which Türkmenbashy is reprised again for allowing Turkmens to visit shrines, and specifically, the shrine of Ak Ishan;
  • ‘Pilgrimage to Ak Ishan’, calling on Turkmens to perform pilgrimages to the shrine of Ak Ishan;
  • ‘Ak Ishan’s Childhood’, describing the circumstances of Ak Ishan’s birth and the signs of is future miraculous powers;
  • ‘Ak Ishan’s Youth’, on his education in the Kara-Kum;
  • ‘The Groan of the Purebred White Camel’ on his first miracle involving how he saves a camel from wolves, and his traveling to Khiva to study with the pir Yazgulï Halpa;
  • ‘Ak Ishan’s Miracle’, describing his subsequent miracle chastising a halva-seller in the Khiva bazaar.
  • ‘Ak Ishan and the Khan of Khiva’, describing his service to the Khan of Khiva and his defence of the interests of the Akhal Tekes;
  • ‘Ak Ishan and Gijen Gïrïk’, describing how Ak Ishan imposed religious orthodoxy on a heterodox Sufi;
  • ‘Ak Ishan and Muham Sopï’, describing Ak Ishan’s relationship with his main disciple;
  • ‘Ak Ishan and the Visitor who took snuff’, describing the ishan’s proscription of snuff;
  • ‘Ak Ishan’s Command’, describing Ak Ishan’s testament to his people and his death and burial.

Despite the political environment in which it was published, the work nevertheless contains the classic elements of a Muslim saint’s life. Moreover, a detailed analysis of the sections of the work covering the historical events involving the Khan of Khiva and his relations with the Akhal Tekes contain extensive information relevant to the social and political history of that period.

The days passed, the months passed, the years passed
Little Akmämmät reached the age of seven.
He was literate in the Arabic alphabet
It began to resemble the work of God.

At the age of ten when the daily prayers became an obligation
He would recite the Holy Qur’an from memory.
Day and night without raising his head
He gave all his attention to this.

‘Gurbannazar Molla’s son Akmämmät
Knows the suras of the Qur’an by heart!’
This news echoed in the desert
And passed through the mountain valleys.

In the madrasas of Khiva and Bukhara
The clever boy’s name was heard.
The Sufis and students were amazed
The flame of envy flared up among a few.

Gurbannazar was pleased with his son
‘When he is twelve, let him be given to scholarship
Let him believe in God’s path body and soul
In popular customs and traditions.’

It was still the time of Ak Ishan’s childhood
He was passed to a mullah at the edge of the sands.
The modern day Ak Ishan [shrine?] was created there,
Similar to the brooch of the Kara-Kum.


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