First Among Equals? The precarious relationship between Islamic scholars and philosopher-kings in 18th-19th century Bukhara

By James Pickett
Submitted to Session P4887 (Fashioning Philosopher-Kings in the Post-Mongol Persian Cosmopolis, 13th-19th Centuries (II), 2017 Annual Meeting
Central Asia;
Islamic Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In the centuries following the Mongol conquest of Eurasia, monarchs increasingly fashioned themselves as mystical scholar-kings with direct access to the divine. Bukhara and the neighboring amirates of the early modern and colonial periods were no exception in this regard. Central Asian rulers were characterized by foreign and local observers alike as pious and enlightened, sources of emulation for their community. However, Islamic scholars never fully accepted even the most erudite of philosopher kings as their equals, instead asserting their independent mediation of the monarch's sacred authority. This paper examines the ulama's continued suspicion of the very powers upon which they relied for livelihood and prestige. It complicates depictions of Islamic scholars as "quietist" and subservient by contending that the ulama's longstanding insistence on their moral independence from the ruler persisted even when monarchs claimed direct access to divine knowledge. The relationship between Islamic scholars and the monarch was symbiotic, but a struggle simmered beneath the surface as both sides claimed ultimate authority to speak for religion.