According to CIA World Factbook, Muslims make up 88 percent of the population of Uzbekistan. According to the U.S. Department of State: “Local statistics indicate that approximately 93 percent is Muslim; approximately 1 percent is Shia, concentrated in the provinces of Bukhara and Samarkand.” The great majority of Uzbeks are Sunnite Muslims of the Hanafi rite, a group noted for the acceptance of personal opinion (ra’y) in the absence of Muslim precedent.

Uzbeks are regarded as the most devout and traditional Muslims in Central Asia. The most conservative ones are found in the Fergana Valley. Traditionally Uzbeks have not been very tolerant of other religions or towards women rights. By contrast other Central Asians are regarded as "moderate, even lax” when it comes to practicing Islam. Religion was not practiced openly until 1991 when Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union.

Despite its predominance, Islam is far from monolithic, however. Many versions of the faith have been practiced in Uzbekistan. The conflict of Islamic tradition with various agendas of reform or secularization throughout the twentieth century has left the outside world with a confused notion of Islamic practices in Central Asia. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]

In a survey by the U.S. Stare Department in 2000, 75 percent of Muslims said they want Islam to play a large role in their country, 23 percent said they want religious leaders to become more politically active and 39 percent agreed that democracy and Islamic law are compatible, and 22 percent of Muslims said there should be some restrictions on men and women working together.

The Mufti of Uzbekistan, the country's highest religious leader, has his offices in the courtyard of an old madrassa in area of old Tashkent known as Hast-Imam, well off the beaten track for most visitors to this city The Samarkand-based scholar Ismail al-Bukhari (810-87) is regarded as one most important figures in Muslim scholarship. He collected many of the sayings of Mohammed used for the hadith (the second holiest book in Islam after the Koran and the source of many Islamic laws).

Sufism in Uzbekistan

Most Uzbek Muslims practice a type of mystic Sufism that is Sunni, introspective, and distinctly nonpolitical. Sufism is mystical form of Islam that has animist roots and a cult of saints. Sufis are big on shrines devoted to Sufi teachers. Sufis have traditionally pursued a spiritual experience using bodily discipline and mystical intuition. The sect also incorporates ecstatic experiences. The word Sufi comes from the Arabic word for wool because early followers wore robes of coarse white wool. In medieval times Sufis were also known as dervishes (their Persian name) and fakirs, both of which mean “poor brother."

Sufism has deep roots in Central Asia and its membership is on the rise. Traditionally, many Uzbeks belonged to Sufi tarigat (mystic brotherhoods). It is difficult to determine how many people belong to these organizations. Sufis seek a close personal experience with God and believe they have acquired a special mystical knowledge directly from Allah. Many Sufis define their belief as a “religiosity” rather than a religion because it revolves around personal experience rather than doctrine and involves contemplation, awareness and a quest for purity.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Uzbek khans tried to find alternative means to create unity amongst the clans and sponsored Sufi orders, especially Naqshbandiya, to this end. This policy backfired, however, for the dervish brotherhoods failed to engender strong bonds in the society, and at the same time these orders became substantial economic and political forces themselves, due to lavish endowments made by the rulers. [Source: “Tajikistan” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

One of the most important Sufi figures in Uzbekistan is Bakhautdin Naqshband, a 14th century woodcarver who founded of a major Sufi sect and stressed the importance of work and good deeds in living a full spiritual life.. The Naqshbandi sect today has followers all over the Muslim world today. They practice zikr (the recitation of the names of God and sacred verses), combined with breathing exercises and special postures. Many of the basmachi guerrillas who fought the Soviets in the early 20th century were Naqshbandis. The sect endured through the Soviet era and reportedly was never penetrated by the KGB.

World’s Oldest Koran in Tashkent

In an obscure corner of the Uzbek capital, Tashkent, lies one of Islam's most sacred relics — Othman Koran, the world's oldest Koran . Ian MacWilliam of the BBC wrote: “It is a reminder of the role which Central Asia once played in Muslim history — a fact often overlooked after seven decades of Soviet-imposed atheism. The library where the Koran is kept is in an area of old Tashkent known as Hast-Imam, well off the beaten track for most visitors to this city. It lies down a series of dusty lanes, near the grave of a 10th century scholar, Kaffel-Shashi. The Mufti of Uzbekistan, the country's highest religious leader, has his offices there, in the courtyard of an old madrassa.[Source: Ian MacWilliam, BBC, January 5, 2006 */*]

“Just across the road stands a non-descript mosque and the equally unremarkable Mui-Mubarak, or "Sacred Hair", madrassa, which houses a rarely seen hair of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad, as well as one of Central Asia's most important collections of historical works. "There are approximately 20,000 books and 3000 manuscripts in this library," said Ikram Akhmedov, a young assistant in the mufti's office. "They deal with mediaeval history, astronomy and medicine. There are also commentaries on the Koran and books of law. But the oldest book here is the Othman Koran from the seventh century." */*

“The Othman Koran was compiled in Medina by Othman, the third caliph or Muslim leader. Before him, the sacred verses which Muslims believe God gave to Muhammad were memorised, or written on pieces of wood or camel bone. To prevent disputes about which verses should be considered divinely inspired, Othman had this definitive version compiled. It was completed in the year 651, only 19 years after Muhammad's death. */*

“This priceless Koran is kept in a special glass-fronted vault built into the wall of a tiny inner room. About one-third of the original survives - about 250 pages - a huge volume written in a bold Arabic script. "The Koran was written on deerskin," said Mr Akhmedov. "It was written in Hejaz in Saudi Arabia, so the script is Hejazi, similar to Kufic script." It is said that Caliph Othman made five copies of the original Koran. A partial Koran now in the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul is said to be another of these original copies. Othman was murdered by a rebellious mob while he was reading his book. A dark stain on its pages is thought to be the caliph's blood.” */*

How the World’s Oldest Koran Arrived in Tashkent

Ian MacWilliam of the BBC wrote: “The story of how the Othman Koran came to Tashkent is a remarkable one. After Othman's death it is believed it was taken by Caliph Ali to Kufa, in modern Iraq. Seven hundred years later, when the Central Asian conqueror, Tamerlane, laid waste to the region, he found the Koran and took it home to grace his splendid capital, Samarkand. It stayed there for more than four centuries, until the Russians conquered Samarkand in the 1868. The Russian governor then sent the Othman Koran to St Petersburg where it was kept in the Imperial Library. [Source: Ian MacWilliam, BBC, January 5, 2006 */*]

“But after the Bolshevik revolution, Lenin was anxious to win over the Muslims of Russia and Central Asia. Initially he sent the Koran to Ufa in modern Bashkortostan. But finally, after repeated appeals from the Muslims of Tashkent, it was returned once more to Central Asia in 1924. It has remained in Tashkent ever since. */*

“Visiting dignitaries from the Muslim world often turn up to see the Othman Koran in the depths of old Tashkent, so it is odd that it is still kept in such an out of the way location. But the authoritarian Uzbek government has inherited a Soviet-era distrust of Islam, and still views much of its own Islamic history with suspicion. The mufti's official religious establishment is closely watched and takes care not to attract too much attention to itself. As a result, its greatest treasure, the world's oldest Koran, continues to sit quietly in the medieval quarter of old Tashkent.” */*

Islam in the Soviet Era

In the Soviet era, The madrasah in Bukhara was the only working madrassah in the Soviet Union. It graduated only 30 students a year. The students studied religion, Islamic law and Arabic. After graduating they returned to the oblasts to preach at local mosques.

The Tashkent-based Muslim Religious Board of Central Asia supervised the “official” religious life and institutions in Uzbekistan and was responsible for training “official” clergy. Many viewed the organization and those trained as compromised or tainted by the Communist Party. There were a large number of unofficial mullahs who often commanded more respect than the official ones. Many Muslims were reluctant to participate openly in Islamic rituals.

Soviet authorities did not prohibit the practice of Islam as much as they sought to coopt and utilize religion to placate a population that often was unaware of the tenets of its faith. After its introduction in the seventh century, Islam in many ways formed the basis of life in Uzbekistan. The Soviet government encouraged continuation of the role played by Islam in secular society. During the Soviet era, Uzbekistan had sixty-five registered mosques and as many as 3,000 active mullahs and other Muslim clerics. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

For almost forty years, the Muslim Board of Central Asia served as the official, Soviet-approved governing agency of the Muslim faith in the region. The grand mufti who headed the board met with hundreds of foreign delegations each year in his official capacity, and the board published a journal on Islamic issues, Muslims of the Soviet East . However, the Muslims working or participating in any of these organizations were carefully screened for political reliability. *

Furthermore, as the Uzbekistani government ostensibly was promoting Islam with the one hand, it was working hard to eradicate it with the other. The government sponsored official antireligious campaigns and severe crackdowns on any hint of an Islamic movement or network outside of the control of the state. Moscow's efforts to eradicate and coopt Islam not only sharpened differences between Muslims and others. They also greatly distorted the understanding of Islam among Uzbekistan's population and created competing Islamic ideologies among the Central Asians themselves. *

Islamic Revival in Uzbekistan In the Post-Soviet Era

Islam, traditionally practiced in individualized forms in Uzbekistan, and has experienced a rebirth and resurgence in the post-Soviet era. In Uzbekistan the end of Soviet power did not bring an upsurge of a fundamentalist version of Islam, as many had predicted, but rather a gradual reacquaintance with the precepts of the faith. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Since independence there has been a renewed interests in Islam in the Central Asia nations. Muslim holidays have re-established themselves on calendars, mosques have been built, people have showed up in force at prayer time, and the Koran has become a bestseller. Itinerant mullahs have become public prayer leaders. Anti-religious organizations have largely been closed down. In 1989 there were 80 mosques and two religious schools. By 2004, there were 2,500 mosques and a dozen religious schools.

There was a short-lived flowering of Islam in the early 1990s. Thousands of mosques opened and hundreds went on the haj after the break up of the Soviet Union. Madrasahs were built and Korans and other Islamic literature were distributed for free, often with the help of Iranian, Pakistani, Turkish and Saudi money. The conservative Wahhabi sect from Saudi Arabia made inroads in the Fergana Valley. But still, madrasahs and mosques aren’t exactly humming with activity. The Soviet era left generations without much exposure to Islam. There is little tradition and people don’t seem to know where to start. Many people drink vodka.

In the first years of independence Uzbekistan saw a resurgence of a more secular Islam. According to a public opinion survey conducted in 1994, interest in Islam was growing rapidly, but personal understanding of Islam by Uzbeks remained limited or distorted. For example, about half of ethnic Uzbek respondents professed belief in Islam when asked to identify their religious faith. Among that number, however, knowledge or practice of the main precepts of Islam was weak. Despite a reported spread of Islam among Uzbekistan's younger population, the survey suggested that Islamic belief were still weakest among the younger generations. Few respondents showed interest in a form of Islam that would participate actively in political issues. Thus, the first years of post-Soviet religious freedom seem to have fostered a form of Islam related to the Uzbek population more in traditional and cultural terms than in religious ones, weakening Karimov's claims that a growing widespread fundamentalism posed a threat to Uzbekistan's survival. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In January 2001, the main mosque in Tashkent hosted a nationwide Koran recital contests, the first of its kind in more an a decade. The entrants were judged on the basis of both quality and quantity. The winner got an all-expenses-paid trip to Mecca for the Haj. The event seemed to be more of a show than a true willingness on the part of the government to tolerate religious expression.

Islam Under Karimov

Karimov eased Soviet restrictions on Islam but cracked down on Muslim militants. Religious activity is overseen by the State Committee on Religion. All religious leaders and their sermons must be approved by this organization. You don’t see that many mosques nor hear the muezzin in Uzbekistan. Only a handful of Muslims are allowed to make the haj each year. The only sermons allowed are state-sanctioned Friday prayers. Religious leaders are required genuflect in front of an image of Karimov.

One of the main religious leaders in the 1990s was Sheik Mohammed Sadyk Yusuf. He served as a grand mufti during a period of religious tolerance in the early 1990s but was forced to flee in 1993 when the government began cracking down on religion. Yusuf has returned to Uzbekistan and served as a major spokesman against Muslim extremism and terrorism in the 2000s, encouraging “good” Islamic values and discouraging “bad ones. His book Religion: There is a Proper Way was a bestseller in Uzbekistan. He appeared on television condemning terrorists and groups like Hizb ut-Tahrir.

But authoritarian Uzbek government has inherited a Soviet-era distrust of Islam, and still views much of its own Islamic history with suspicion. The mufti's official religious establishment is closely watched and takes care not to attract too much attention to itself. According to the U.S. Department of State: The government funded an Islamic university and the preservation of Islamic historic sites. The government continued to control the muftiate, which in turn controlled the Muslim hierarchy, the content of imams’ sermons, and the volume and substance of published Islamic materials. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

“The government provided logistical support, including charter flights, for a limited number of selected Muslims to participate in the Umrah and the Hajj pilgrimages, although pilgrims paid their own expenses. The government limited the number of Hajj pilgrims to 5,200, or less than 20 percent of the country’s allowed number of pilgrims. Local mahalla committees, district administrations, the NSS, and the state-run Hajj Commission, controlled by the CRA and the muftiate, reportedly were involved in vetting potential pilgrims. According to reports from sources in the human rights community in the Fergana Valley and Karakalpakstan, it was exceedingly difficult to participate in the Hajj without resorting to inside contacts and other sources of facilitation.” *^*

Government-Sanctioned Islamic Education in Uzbekistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law allows only those religious groups with a registered central administrative body to train religious personnel. Registration of a central administrative body requires registered religious groups to be present in eight of the 14 administrative units (including Karakalpakstan and Tashkent city). Nine specialized Islamic training schools (including two for women), an Orthodox and a Protestant seminary, as well as the Tashkent Islamic Institute may officially train religious personnel. The government did not permit training of Shia imams inside the country and did not recognize such education received outside the country. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

“The law limits religious instruction to officially sanctioned religious schools and state-approved instructors. The law does not permit private religious instruction and imposes fines for violations. The law also prohibits the teaching of religious subjects in public schools. The law prohibits the wearing of “cult robes” (religious clothing) in public places by all except those serving in religious organizations. *^*

“Eleven madrassahs, including two for women, provide secondary education on a full range of secular subjects. The Cabinet of Ministers considers diplomas granted by madrassahs equivalent to other diplomas, enabling graduates of those institutions to continue their education at the university level. In addition, the Islamic Institute and Islamic University in Tashkent provide higher education religion programs, although the Islamic University in Tashkent is a secular institution. There is no other officially sanctioned religious instruction for individuals interested in learning about Islam.” *^*

Conservative Islam in Uzbekistan

In light of the role that Islam has played throughout Uzbekistan's history, many observers expected that Islamic fundamentalism would gain a strong hold after independence brought the end of the Soviet Union's official atheism. The expectation was that an Islamic country long denied freedom of religious practice would undergo a very rapid increase in the expression of its dominant faith. President Karimov has justified authoritarian controls over the populations of his and other Central Asian countries by the threat of upheavals and instability caused by growing Islamic political movements, and other Central Asian leaders also have cited this danger. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the early 1990s, however, Uzbekistan did not witness a surge of Islamic fundamentalism as much as a search to recapture a history and culture with which few Uzbeks were familiar. To be sure, Uzbekistan is witnessing a vast increase in religious teaching and interest in Islam. Since 1991, hundreds of mosques and religious schools have been built or restored and reopened. And some of the Islamic groups and parties that have emerged might give leaders pause. *

Available information suggests that Islam itself would probably not be the root cause of a conflict as much as it would be a vehicle for expressing other grievances that are far more immediate causes of dissension and despair. Experts do not minimize the importance of Islam, however. The practice of the Islamic faith is growing in Uzbekistan, and the politicization of Islam could become a real threat in the future. *

Repression of Islam in Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan has a secular government which represses anything that smacks of Muslim extremism. Islamic radicals are often referred to as Wahhabis. This term has been expanded to included prayer leaders and people who teach their children to read the Koran. Muslims not associated the terrorists groups or extremist groups who simply want to practice their religion in ways not sanctioned by the Uzbekistan government have suffered. Campaign against terrorism and extremism have included the closure of mosques and restrictions on expression of devout Islam.

There are no muezzins in Uzbekistan. Mullahs have to praises the government in their services. Men arouse suspicion if they grow a beard or belong to a religion family. Women are kicked out of universities for covering their faces. People have been arrested for wearing religious clothing. Men have been ordered to shave off their beards. Fear has caused mosque attendance to drop. Some people don't wear a seatbelt because they think police will interpret this as a sign they are Muslim terrorists.

The grand mufti of Tashkent has a large portrait of President Karimov in his office and defends the government position on the crackdown of Muslim extremists. His staff distributes the sermons read in every mosque in Uzbekistan on Friday. A popular Muslim leader from the Fergana Valley named Abduquddus Mirzoev was arrested in Tashkent while trying to fly to Moscow for a conference, He reportedly was imprisoned because he refused to genuflect to an image of Karimov.

Crackdowns on Muslim Activity in Uzbekistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: There were reports that security services continued their surveillance of religious communities. Human rights activists and the press reported that filming participants in Friday prayer services at local mosques was becoming standard practice. Mosques often installed cameras, citing security concerns, but human rights NGOs stated the government also used cameras for surveillance purposes. Authorities closely observed social gatherings where religious issues were discussed, particularly among men, with several arrests based on participation in such discussions reported in media articles. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

“The government and local imams discouraged some public displays of religion considered to be foreign influenced. In the Fergana Valley, authorities questioned women wearing the hijab and encouraged them either to remove it or alter it to reflect the more traditional Uzbek style of tying the scarf at the back of the neck. According to Forum 18, local authorities told members of the Toshkuprik Mosque in Samarkand region’s Pakhtachi District that one of their members could not lead prayers in the absence of their Muslim Board-appointed imam, even on a short term basis. As a result, the mosque was unable to hold weekly Friday congregational prayers. *^*

“Authorities continued efforts to discourage children from practicing religion. Several media reports of government interference with the religious practice of Christian and Muslim groups stressed the presence of children during services as a further incriminating factor. Local officials reportedly continued to pressure imams to prevent children from attending Friday prayers. Some local officials, teachers, and police officers reportedly turned students away from Friday prayer services. School officials discouraged both Muslim and Christian parents from sending their children to mosque or church services, and some school officials questioned students about their religion and why they attended services. *^*

“According to human rights activists, teachers and doctors from various districts of Tashkent city reported that from mid-August until the independence day holiday September 1(when the government commonly tightens security), on the instruction of city authorities, they were mobilized to help police identify school-aged children attending mosques in Chilanzar, Yashnabod, and other districts, and to prevent them from participating in prayers, especially Friday prayers.” *^

Laws Restricting Islamic Proselytizing in Uzbekistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government tightly controlled access to Islamic publications and required a statement in every domestic publication (books, pamphlets, compact discs, and movies) indicating the source of its publication authority. Generally, books published under the Muslim Board’s imprint contained phrases indicating official approval, as did other religious works published under the imprint of the state-owned Sharq and Tashkent Islamic University publishing houses. A few imported works in Arabic occasionally were available from book dealers, but literature that would be considered controversial by the government generally was not available in the marketplace. [Source: “Uzbekistan: 2014 Report on International Religious Freedom Report”; Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *^*]

“Those in possession of literature by authors the government deemed to be extremists or of any literature illegally imported or produced were subject to arrest and prosecution. In April Forum 18 reported the arrest of Zoirjon Mirzayev at a Tashkent train station. Custom officials found Mirzayev, who returned to Uzbekistan from Russia after nine years, to be in possession of 29 recordings in his mobile phone of Muslim sermons, which the CRA deemed extremist. On April 8, Mirzayev received a five-year prison term. *^*

“There were widespread reports that authorities imposed fines for illegally possessing or distributing religious materials. Customs officials detained Ikhtiyor Yagmurov, who was travelling from Russia’s Kaliningrad Region to Tashkent, at the Tashkent airport and prosecuted him for carrying “illegal” Muslim religious materials on his phone. On March 27, he was fined 20 times the minimum monthly salary (1,922,000 soum, $781). Three other passengers, who were each detained for three days in February following the discovery by officials of Islamic sermons on electronic devices in their possession, were released without charge. *^*

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated April 2016

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