Khoja Ahmet Yassawi

22 October 2019

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Khoja Ahmet Yassawi was a renowned Turkic Sufi leader, poet and thinker. He founded the first Turkic Sufi order which quickly proliferated throughout the Turkic-speaking world. Yassawi is widely credited with helping to spread Islam in Central Asia.

Born to a Sufi mystic at the end of the 11th century in the ancient city of Sayram in the south of what is now modern-day Kazakhstan, Yassawi was raised by a local spiritual leader, Arystanbab. His personality becoming is associated with the city of Turkestan, once known as Yassy, hence his name. Yassawi studied Sufism in Bukhara alongside several prominent Arab and Central Asian Islamic scholars but returned to Turkestan when he quickly developed a tremendous following. His disciples helped to propagate Yassawi’s teachings in Turkestan, across the Volga River, Khorasan, Azerbaijan and further in Asia Minor. Yassawi retired to a life of contemplation aged 63 by digging himself an underground cell where he spent the rest of his life until his death in 1166.

The importance of Ahmed Yassawi cannot be overestimated. He set a new direction for the development of new Islamic civilization among medieval Turkic people by imbuing Islamic rituals with ancient Turkic practices and customs.

Yassawi helped to turn the city of Yassy, already one of the most important commercial and political hubs along the Silk Roads, into a major center of learning of the Great steppe. He was the earliest known Central Asian poet who composed poetry in Middle Turkic whose literary dialect flourished during the rule of the Karakhanid dynasty. In his poems Yassawi combined elements of Islamic mysticism, shamanism, and early Turkic cultural traditions of Tengrianism and established a new form of religious folk poetry that shaped the Central Asian literary and folk traditions. His extant work, “Divan-I Hikmet” (“Book of Wisdom”), which preached honesty, justice, goodwill and patience, and was heavily sourced from shamanic songs of Turkic nomads, resonated among Central Asians and was passed on by word of mouth, down for generations. Today “The Book of Wisdom” is a common heritage of all Turkic-speaking nations.

Tamerlane the Great, a Turco-Mongol Persianate conqueror and the founder of the Timurid Empire, erected an architecturally elaborate mausoleum on the site of Yassawi’s grave. Located in the north-eastern section of the city of Turkestan in southern Kazakhstan, the Yassawi’s mausoleum has emerged as a symbol of Kazakh national identity and remains one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for Muslims.