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  • Unearthing the Liao Dynasty’s Relations with the Muslim World:Migrations, Diplomacy, Commerce, and Mutual Perceptions
  • Michal Biran

While Liao fugitives established in Central Asia a polity—the Western Liao (西遼 Xi Liao) or Qara Khitai dynasty (1124–1218)—that ruled over a considerable Muslim population, little is known about the Kitans’ earlier relations with the Islamic world. In light of the above, the present study undertakes to reconstruct various aspects of the ties between the Liao dynasty and Muslim lands. Focusing on migrations, diplomacy, and trade, it estimates the knowledge that each of these polities had of the other and the mutual impact of these presumed contacts. With this objective in mind, the paper draws on a wide array of Muslim and Chinese literary sources—chronicles along with fiction, poetry, and scientific works—as well as recent archaeological findings from both China and Central Asia. The most intriguing of these discoveries is the only extant Kitan book: a largescript Kitan text that was unearthed in Kyrgyzstan. Taken together, the ensuing analysis of these sources is certain to shed light on a highly neglected chapter in the history of the Silk Roads: the period tucked in between the halcyon days of the Tang-Abbasid exchange and the Mongol conquest.

Methodological Problems

Perhaps the primary methodological challenge of this study was how to identify both the Liao in Muslim sources and the Muslim states in Chinese sources. [End Page 221] The ties between the Liao dynasty and its Muslim counterparts have proven difficult to reconstruct, and not only due to the fractured political situation and relatively sparse documentation of Inner Asia between the tenth and twelfth centuries, which are discussed below. This is mainly because the two entities existed on the fringes of each other’s geographical and cultural worlds, and were part of a larger, rather nebulous rubric: the Kitans were often ambiguously referred to as belonging to the East (mashriq) or China (Arabic: Ṣīn or Persian: Chīn) in Muslim lands, and the latter were deemed as part of the Western Regions (Xiyu 西域) in the Sinitic world. Therefore, scholars are often hard-pressed to distinguish contacts between Liao and various Muslim entities from other east-west exchanges during this period.

The division of the Sinitic world between the Liao (907–1125), Song (960–1279), and the Xixia (982–1227) dynasties throughout most of the Liao period was paralleled by a similar lack of unity in the eastern Islamic world.1 Although the Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258) remained the nominal ruler,2 from the ninth century onwards it gradually ceded land and authority to various local powers. During the period in question, the major eastern Muslim polities were the Iranian Samanid Emirate (875–999), which ruled from Bukhara over Khurāsān and Transoxania (present-day Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and parts of Kyrgyzstan), and its two Turkic successors: the Ghaznavids (962–1187), erstwhile military slaves of the Samanids who controlled Khurāsān and Afghanistan and are famous for bringing Islam to India; and the Qarakhanids (ca. 950–1213), the first Muslim Turkic dynasty, whose territory stretched from the Tarim Basin to the Oxus. In 1040, the Qarakhanids split into the Eastern and Western Khanates; the former was centered in Kashgar and Balāsāghūn,3 while the latter established its capital in Samarqand. That same year the Seljuq Turks (ca. 1040–1158) defeated their former masters, the Ghaznavids, [End Page 222] in Khurāsān and advanced westwards. By 1055, they had taken Baghdad; and within four decades, both the Western and Eastern Qarakhanids were Seljuq vassals.

The Liao texts, like other Chinese sources, refer to the Muslim Caliphate as Dashi (大食). This term derives from the name that the Sasanians conferred upon the Arabs and was later adopted by the Sogdians. Dashi originated from Ṭayy, an Arab tribe that had dwelled in Iraq during the late Sasanian era. Members of this tribe were called Ṭāzī in Arabic, which evolved into the Persian word Tajīk (as in modern Tajikistan) and the Chinese Dashi. While originally used to denote Arabs, the purview of Ṭāzī was subsequently expanded to include all Central Asian Muslims along with their various states.4 Even...


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