From Bukhara to the BRICS, searching for light in the darkness of madness

In the SCO, Russia, China, India, Iran and Pakistan sit at the same table. 

Bukhara the Noble, the « Dome of Islam », whose history goes back 2,500 years, conceals too many wonders to mention them all: from the two-thousand-year-old Ark, the fortress around which the city grew, to the 48-metre-high Kalon minaret, built in 1127, which so impressed Genghis Khan that he ordered it not to be razed to the ground. 

The elegant turquoise stripe near the top of the minaret is the oldest example of glazed tiles in the Heartland. 

According to the Persian epic Shanameh, the hero Siavach founded the town after marrying the daughter of neighboring Afrasiab. Even before the opening of the ancient Silk Roads, Bukhara thrived as a caravan crossroads, its gateways opening onto Merv (in present-day Turkmenistan), Herat (in western Afghanistan), Khiva and Samarkand. 

Bukhara’s heyday was in the 9th and 10th centuries, under the Samanid dynasty, when it became a Mecca of Persian culture and science. It was the time of al Biruni, the poet Rudaki and, of course, Avicenna: they all had access to the legendary Treasury of Wisdom, a library which, in the Islamic world, is equalled only by the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. 

Bukhara was largely razed to the ground by Genghis Khan and the Mongols in 1220 (yes: only the minaret was spared). When the great Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited in 1333, most of the city was still in ruins. 

But in 1318, someone very special was born in Kasri Orifon, a village outside Bukhara. At first, he was simply known as Mohammed, after his father and grandfather, whose origins went back to Hazrat Ali. But as history would have it, Mohammed became famous throughout the lands of Islam under the name of the Sufi saint Bahâ’uddin Naqshband. 

What’s in a name? Everything. Bahauddin means « the light of religion » and Naqshband means « hunter ». His education was enriched by several pirs (« saints ») and sheikhs living in and around Bukhara. He spent most of his life in these oases, very poor and always relying on his own manual labor, without slaves or servants. 

Bahâ’uddin Naqshband eventually founded a highly influential tariqa — Islamic school — based on a very simple concept: « Occupy your heart with Allah and your hands with work ». This concept was developed into 11 other rules, or rashas (« drops »). 

What comes out of these « five fingers »? 

A visit to the Bahâ’uddin Naqshband complex outside Bukhara, centered around the tomb of the 14th-century Sufi saint who is actually the city’s spiritual protector, is an enlightening experience: such a peaceful atmosphere envelops a soothing network of sacred stones, « wishing trees » and occasional sacrificial offerings. 

This is the essence of what might be defined as a parallel Islam that infuses so many latitudes across the Heartland, combining an animist past with formal Islamic teachings. 

At the complex, we meet dozens of brightly-dressed Uzbek women from all over the region, as well as pilgrims from all over Central, Western and Southern Asia. Uzbekistan’s extremely popular President Mirziyoyev was here at the end of last week, arriving directly from the nearby brand-new airport. 

This oasis of peace and meditation not only offers a striking contrast to the toxic turbulence of the times, but also encourages us to seek reason in the midst of madness. After all, one of Naqshband’s rashas asserts that « our way is conversation, good deeds can only be found in mutual communication, but not in isolation ».

So let’s apply Sufi wisdom to the next, perhaps revolutionary, moment that should consolidate the global majority’s path towards a more equitable and less deranged model of international relations: the 15th BRICS summit to be held in South Africa next week. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has coined a concise definition that embodies a fascinating blend of Confucianism and Sufism: « The BRICS countries are like five fingers: short and long if extended, but a powerful fist if clenched together ».

How to clench these fingers into a powerful fist was the work of a few Sherpas in preparation for the summit. But soon it will no longer be a question of a fist, but of fists, arms, legs and, indeed, a whole body. This is where the BRICS+ come in. 

Among the network of new multilateral organizations involved in preparing and implementing a new system of international relations, the BRICS are now seen as the first platform of the Global South, or the Global Majority, or the « Global Globe » (copyright Lukashenko). 

We’re still a long way from the transition to a new « world system » — to quote Wallerstein — but without the BRICS, even small steps would be impossible. 

South Africa will seal the first coordinates of the BRICS+ expansion, which could continue indefinitely. After all, large swathes of the « World Globe » have already declared, officially (23 nations) and unofficially (countless « expressions of interest », according to South Africa’s Department of Foreign Affairs), that they want to be part of it. 

The official list — subject to change — of nations hoping to join the BRICS+ as soon as possible is a veritable who’s who of the South: Algeria, Argentina, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Morocco, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Senegal, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela and Vietnam. 

And then there’s Africa: the « five fingers », through South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, have invited no fewer than 67 leaders from Africa and South Africa to attend the BRICS-Africa Outreach and BRICS+ Dialogues. 

All this points to what would be the key rasha of the BRICS, to evoke Naqshband: the full inclusion of Africa and the South — all nations engaged in profitable conversations and equally respected in asserting their sovereignty. 

The Persians strike back 

It is fair to say that Iran is in a privileged position to become one of the first members of the BRICS+. Tehran already enjoys strategic partner status with Russia and China, and is also a key partner for India in the North-South International Transport Corridor (INSTC).

The Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, has already declared that « the partnership between Iran and the BRICS has in fact already begun in certain areas. In the transport sector, the north-south transport corridor linking India to Russia via Iran is in fact part of the BRICS transport project. ».

As the BRICS+ make progress, the « five fingers » will be relatively cautious on the de-dollarization front. The sherpas have already confirmed, unofficially, that there will be no official announcement of a new currency, but more bilateral and multilateral exchanges using members’ own currencies: for now, the famous R5 (renminbi, rouble, real, rupee and rand). 

Belarusian leader Lukashenko, who coined « Global Globe » as a motto as strong as, if not more seductive than, « Global South », was the first to hint at a crucial political move that could take place later, with BRICS+ in force: the merger of BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).

Today, former South African ambassador Kingsley Makhubela, as well as numerous « World Globe » diplomats and analysts, echo Lukashenko in public: « In future, the BRICS and the SCO should join forces to form a single entity (…) Because it would be absurd for the BRICS and the SCO to operate in parallel with the same members. ».

There’s no doubt about it. The main drivers of the BRICS are Russia and China, with India slightly less influential for a number of complex reasons. In the SCO, Russia, China, India, Iran and Pakistan sit at the same table. The SCO’s focus on Eurasia can easily be transposed to the BRICS+. Both organizations are focused on the « Global Globe », are moving towards multipolarity and, above all, are committed to de-dollarization on all fronts. 

A Sufi reading of all these shifting geopolitical and geo-economic tectonic plates is indeed possible. As much as the promoters of « Divide and Rule » and the dogs of war would be bewildered by a visit to the Naqshband complex outside Bukhara, the « World Globe » could find all the answers it seeks by engaging in a process of conversation and mutual respect. 

May these global souls be blessed, and may they find knowledge as if they were revisiting Bukhara’s 10th-century treasure trove of wisdom. 

Pepe Escobar

Source: Strategic Culture Foundation 

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