Built up of a selection of classical or best-seller synthesis works in English and Russian languages, this posthumous work by the late James Thrower (d. 1999) skims through the history of religions in Central Asia from the origins to our days. The book is unequally divided between periods prior to the Arab conquest, and the Islamic era. The latter, much more developed, is organised on a classical historical basis, and marked out with the usual chronological ruptures attested in modern historical literature: the Arab conquest itself, the Samanids and the Persian revival, the beginnings of Turkic (here “Turkish”) Islam, the Mongol conquest and its aftermath, Russian expansion in Central Asia, nineteenth-and early twentieth-century reformist trends, and the Soviet period, plus distinct chapters on Islam in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region of China, and a text in an appendix about Jews in Central Asia (based notably on Michael Zand, “Bukhara vii: Bukharan Jews,” in E. Yar-Shater, ed., Encyclopaedia Iranica, London – New York: Routledge, 4, 1990: 530-45).
Written in a clear and accessible language, the text provides a brief and convenient account of twelve centuries of the history of Islam in Central Asia. In a classical ‘orientalist’ spirit, numerous well-informed and interesting notations are offered on varied aspects of Islamic classical learned traditions, and on their modern reappraisals. However, given the wide area and large chronological framework of this study, the author’s relatively narrow bibliographical basis brings him to approximations, the text being not deprived of deplorable cut-and-dried formulas detrimental to the book’s overall authority (ex: “The Arab conquest was ruthless, bloody and prolonged ,” or: “Shiite Islam [made] no serious inroads into Turkish Islam, either in Central Asia or elsewhere ,” or still: “The contribution of the Qarakhanids to Islamic civilisation is not one that need detain us ,” etc.). More deplorable perhaps, from the eleventh century onwards, the history of Islam proper appears only in a surreptitious way, in the interstices of a rather conservative historical narrative, centred on dynasties and battles, and informed mostly by synthetic works. Legends are often confused with facts—for instance on the Hindus’ execrable retrospective representations on the reign of Mas‘ud of Ghazna (to be definitely preferred to ‘Glazna’, as sometimes spelt in the book). Among numerous other interpretations that would have deserved more development, the historical weight of Sufism in Central Asia in explained (125) by its compatibility with the religions of the steppe, and with Buddhism—nothing being said of other Central Eurasian regions, the Caucasus for instance, where the development of Sufism has nothing to do either with a steppe ecology, or a Buddhist past. As to the nineteenth and early twentieth century, maktabs and madrasas are confused (see for instance p. 188 on the school built by ‘Abd al-Qadir Shakuri in Samarqand). Last and least, the poor editing work granted by the publisher achieves to undermine the credit of the overall work: Different orthographies can be found for the same names, sometimes in the same paragraphs, if not the same sentence, and few Abbasid caliphs or Central Asian towns have their names correctly spelt—a pity indeed for a reference work. These reserves notwithstanding and whatever may have been his text’s achievement at the date of its author’s untimely death, James Thrower’s ultimate book is undoubtedly a useful contribution to the permanent rediscovery of Central Asian religious past, and provides a seductive overview for readers without a familiarity with Central Asia, though it would have showed more such if better published, its poor edition being the worst possible service that could have been rendered to the memory of a deceased scholar.