The khanates of Bukhara and Khiva had much in common, but depictions of their relationship with one another vary dramatically between historical sources. Some accounts convey deep rivalries between them, while in other sources they appear as easily traversable sub-regions within a broader, socially and culturally integrated landscape. How might we explain these wildly divergent images? This essay considers a wide range of sources to forward one simple argument: our understanding of the relationship between Bukhara and Khiva is fundamentally shaped by textual genre. Some genres—such as chronicles and legal writing—were well equipped to articulate rivalry and difference. Others—such as Sufi hagiography or chancellery documents—contained the tools for transcending these two polities. Since all of these genres were predominantly written by a single social group (the ʿolemā), this contradictory imagery was not the product of discrete constituencies with different viewpoints, but rather a single milieu performing diverse genres.
This essay argues that recent theoretical literature on the archive contains critical insights for studies of Islamic documents, while also pushing to move beyond some of the core assumptions of that same literature. There is no question that the fundamental concerns of an “archival turn” are every bit as relevant to studies of Islamic societies, past and present, as they are to European-dominated ones. Yet investigating Islamic “archives” presents the challenge of coming to terms with a concept—the archive—and an attending set of assumptions and theoretical baggage derived almost exclusively from European history. To address this challenge, we propose that employing the term “cultures of documentation” offers a way of having one’s cake and eating it too. In deploying this expression, we signal that there existed multitudes of textual practices and record-keeping activities in the pre-industrial Islamic world, and that it is possible to move away from “archive” as a term without abandoning the core insights and questions of the historical literature built around it.