This relatively short, but substantial overview on Islamic sainthood in Central Asia begins with a short critic of the dominant scholarly approach of sainthood as an essentially syncretic phenomenon, and with a recall of the evolution of doctrinal formulations on the awliya—from the Bukharan ‘alim al-Kalabadhi’s mainstream defence of the saints in the tenth century CE till still unexplored writings by later Central Asian Sufis (for instance, the basic treatises of the early fifteenth-century Naqshbandi shaykh Khwaja Muhammad Parsa). However, the principal doctrinal issues and controversies regarding the awliya are still traced from the main place where they are found, i.e. from hagiographical narratives in varied polemical contexts—for example on the silent or loud dhikr (through the sixteenth-century Yasawi Sufi Qasim Shaykh of Karmina); on the equivalence between “shaykh” and “saint” (through the sixteenth-century Yasawi shaykh Sayyid Mansur). Outside the silsila principle that emerged by the fifteenth century as the definitive mark of legitimacy, we find in hagiographical traditions many other sources of legitimacy and authority.
The late twelfth – early thirteenth centuries are showed especially productive of saints whose public memory has endured down to the present through (1) the Yasawi, Naqshbandi, and Kubrawi Sufi mystical paths; (2) the great saints’ putative natural descendants; (3) their respective shrines. The fifteenth century is introduced as the beginnings of the flowering of hagiographical literature linked with the rise of the great silsila-based Sufi paths, and sponsored at the Timurid court of Herat. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, a rich tariqa-based hagiographical literature offers important perspectives on the role of the wali in society, by tracing the political and economic activity of Sufi shaykhs. Female saints are well represented in modern Central Asian shrine traditions, though they are less often the subject of hagiographical accounts.
The most public venue for encountering the awliya remains the shrine. The veneration of saints at their shrines had by the fifteenth century at least become a central and accepted part of Islamic religious life. Equivalents of the term awliya, with the plural used here as a singular, in modern Central Asian languages often refer simply to a shrine, indicating the popular understanding of the saint’s continued presence at the site. The shrines were—they still remain—the setting at which the awliya’s intercession was—and still is—sought, not only for private needs, but also for communal solidarity. After the pressures endured until 1986 during Soviet anti-religious campaigns, shrines are enjoying a remarkable revival throughout Central Asia.
This no less remarkable synthesis, illustrated by numerous examples and factual data, provides the reader a quick overview of an exceptionally complex and still poorly explored history, allowing him/her to get in touch with the most recent epistemological reappraisals. Some data of the exceptionally rich bibliography provided at the end of the article ought to be qualified due to the rapid evolution of research in the field (e.g., on the inexistence of substantial studies on shrine-veneration on Russian-dominated Central Asia before or after the end of the Soviet period—suffice to mention on this topic the respective, substantial works in progress by Sergei Abashin, Jo-Ann Gross, Hamada Masami, Maria Louw, Ashirbek Muminov, V. N. Ogudin, Bruce G. Privratsky, Edmund Waite, Thierry Zarcone, etc.