The most important single cultural commonality among the nations of Central Asia is the practice of Sunni Islam, which is the professed religion of a very large majority of the peoples of the five nations and which has experienced a significant revival throughout the region in the 1990s. Propaganda from Russia and from the ruling regimes in the republics identifies Islamic political activity as a vague, monolithic threat to political stability everywhere in the region. However, the role of Islam in the five cultures is far from uniform, and its role in politics has been minimal everywhere except in Tajikistan.[Source: Glenn E. Curtis, Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

A number of pre-Islamic beliefs persist. Some have their roots in Zoroastrianism. Beliefs in demons and other spirits and worries about the evil eye were widespread in traditional society. Many people in the plains were Zoroastrians before they converted to Islam while those in the mountains and northern steppes followed horsemen shamanist-animist religions.

Among the dead religions that thrived for a while in Central Asia were Manicheism and Nestoriansim. Manicheism was introduced in the 5th century. For a while it was the official Uighur religion, and remained popular until the 13th century. Nestorianism was introduced in the 6th century, for a while it was practiced by many people in Herat and Samarkand, and was designated an official religion in the 13th century. It was pushed out by Mongol and Turkic invasions.

There are a few Jews, Roman Catholics and Baptists. In the Korean community there are a few Buddhists. Orthodox Christianity is alive among ethnic Russians.

Islam in Central Asia

Most Central Asians are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. Islam was introduced by Arab invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries but was spread primarily by Sufi teachers, who wandered in the deserts, steppes and mountains. Some of those who spread Islam were of Turkic descent. Others were of Persian descent.

According to Reuters: “Islam dates back to the 7th century in Central Asia, but the region is still torn between its Soviet and Islamic pasts, with Muslim traditions often intertwined with Communist habits.” The tsars tolerated Islam and even prohibited Christians from proselytizing. Uzbeks are regarded as the most devout and conservative Muslims in Central Asia. Traditionally, Uzbeks have not been very tolerant of other religions or towards women rights. By contrast other Central Asians are "moderate, even lax” when it comes to their Islamic convictions.

Central Asian Islam incorporates many customs that have their roots in animism, shamanism and nomadic traditions. At mosques people walk under Koran stands to ensure fertility and kiss and rub venerated objects. The cult of tombs of holy men (“mazar”) is widespread. There are also shamanist "wishing trees" tied with pieces of rags, the cult of “pir” (holy men), and Mongol-style poles with horse hair tassels placed over grave of revered figures. Reportedly some Zoroastrian fire ceremonies endure.

Sufism in Central Asia

Sufism — a mystical form of Islam that has animist roots and a cult of saints — has deep roots in Central Asia and its membership in the region is on the rise. Sufis are big on shrines devoted to Sufi teachers. Traditionally, many Central Asian belonged to Sufi mystic brotherhoods. It is difficult to determine how many people belong to these organizations.

Sufism combines metaphysics, asceticism na doctrine of gradual approach to the knowledge of the God through mystical love. Sufism has greatly influenced literature, national arts and even political life. See Sufism Under Islam.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Medieval Sufism in Central Asia had all the attributes of classical mystical Islam: several competing brotherhoods, hierarchal structure, degrees of initiation, missionary activity, and so on. In the nineteenth century, however, the link with the original Sufi orders was rather weak, Sufism degenerated into Ishonism—every big ishon virtually gave rise to a separate order, headed thereafter by his descendants. The dissociation of the Sufi brotherhoods led to the situation whereby an ishon became the only authority for his disciples, the sole source of spiritual authority that, according to the demands of the Sufi doctrine, was absolute. “Thus ishons, who originally were the middle link in the murshed–murid (Sufi teacher–disciple) chain, found themselves in a unique position: they wielded great power, without having proper knowledge and education. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

See Tajikistan

Islam in the Soviet Era

For almost forty years, the Muslim Board of Central Asia, the official, Soviet-approved governing agency of the Muslim faith in the region, was based in Tashkent. 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.

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

“Wahhabism” in Central Asia

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Mohammad Abd al-Wahhab, who lived during the eighteenth century in Najd Province of Arabia, preached a ‘strictly puritanical doctrine’, gaining momentum when he made an alliance with what was to become the Saudi royal lineage. Khalid stresses that the term ‘Wahhabism’ was used mostly as a ‘polemic foil in sectarian arguments among Muslims’, including in British India, as both colonial authorities and locals used the label ‘Wahhabism’ to denounce reformists and ‘troublesome Muslim opponents’. Accusations of Wahhabism were also common in the late Soviet era. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“ Surprisingly, some analysts in the West took these agitprop invectives in good faith and enthusiastically announced to the world that ‘in some areas of Central Asia, particularly but not exclusively in central and southern Tajikistan, there has also been a resurgence of Wahhabism’. The question of how exactly the ‘puritanism and militancy of the Wahhabis’ might have become rooted amongst a population practising folk Islam characterised by broad humanism, tolerance and a liberal approach to other religions obviously never crossed their minds. For their part, Tajik academics have convincingly shown that the teachings of Mohammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, as well as radical doctrines of other Islamists such as Sayyid Qutb, are inherently alien to the majority of the eponymous population of Tajikistan.

“Khalid further notes that in the former Soviet Union ‘Wahhabism’ has ‘come into indiscriminate use to denote any and all expressions of nontraditional Islam’. In Tajikistan, the use of the term ‘Wahhabi’ as a pejorative for the Islamist opposition was used even by the mullahs who supported the government. They juxtaposed the alleged Wahhabism of Saudi origin with a local Sufi-influenced ‘national and traditional Islam’; however, a few scholars (for example, Dudoignon and Matveeva) and some local analysts have used the term as well—in a somewhat more neutral manner. For an example of a more systematic treatment, Niyazi acknowledges that a ‘very tiny section’ of the religious community in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan started to refer to themselves as Wahhabis, in particular after leaders of these groups returned from the hajj in the late 1980s and early 1990s.”

Suppression of Islam in the Soviet Era

Under the Soviets, Islam was suppressed. Muslim holidays were removed from the calendar, religious schools and Islamic courts were closed down. Muslims were forbidden to fast during Ramadan, go on the haj and pay alms, Women couldn’t cover their faces. The use of Arabic script in which the Koran is written was banned.

Under Stalin's campaign the "Movement of the Godless" in the 1930s, 15th century mosques were demolished, mullahs were arrested and executed. By the 1940s, only about 1,000 of the 20,000 mosques that once stood in Central Asia still existed; all the 14,000 religious schools were closed; and only 2,000 of about 40,000 mullahs remained alive.

After World War II, the restrictions on Islam were relaxed somewhat. Government-controlled mosques with government-authorized mufti were allowed to open and government-controlled religious boards were set up. Mullahs were trained in both Islamic and Soviet studies and then appointed to registered mosques. Religious activity not under government control was prohibited. It wasn’t until the Gorbachev era in the late 1980s that things really loosened up and madrasahs were allowed to reopen.

According to Reuters: “A resurgence of Islam and its practices in the dying years of the Soviet Union formed part of a desire to break with Communism which had tried to quash religious traditions.” Unauthorized Islam remained alive through "underground Islam" often in the form of secret Sufi brotherhood that carried on traditions and education. Unregistered mosques with itinerate mullahs and unofficial madrasahs thrived in places like the Fergana Valley

Islamic Revival in Central Asia

Since the Central Asia nations became independent in 1991 there has been a renewed interest in Islam in the region. Muslim holidays are widely celebrated. Mosques have been built. The faithful show up in force at prayer time. The Koran is 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 Central Asia 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.

In January 2001, the main mosque in Tashkent hosted a nationwide Koran recital contest, 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. In Uzbekistan, 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.

Rediscovering Islam in Central Asia

In the mid 2000s, Maria Golovina of Reuters wrote: “In Soviet days, people walked past the Khoja Ahmed Yasawi mausoleum, a holy Muslim site in the steppe of southern Kazakhstan, and pretended it wasn't there. "It was as if there was nothing but empty space. People were afraid to notice it," Beisekul Aladasugirova, a middle-aged librarian, said as she pointed at the burial site of the 12th-century Sufi mystic. "But now people are making up for that. Pilgrims come here in thousands, just like in the Middle Ages," said Aladasugirova, who had travelled about 300 kilometers (to pray at the site). [Source: Maria Golovina, Reuters, June 17, 2006 ^]

“Today, the shrine with the blue-tiled facade is at the centre of an Islamic revival rolling across Central Asia. Some 15 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it is rediscovering its role as a centre for study and pilgrimage. Bearded men in robes, backpackers and scholars with copies of the Quran pray together underneath its green-and-gold dome, the largest of its kind in Central Asia. Mosques and religious schools have mushroomed across the region. Studying Islamic law and Arabic abroad - mainly in Turkey and Saudi Arabia - became popular among young people. ^

“Young Central Asians, who matured after the Soviet collapse, want a clearer division, with many seeking an end to state meddling in religious matters. Imam Esirkep Meiranbek is one of the youngest religious leaders in Central Asia. The 25-year-old says his purpose is to teach a form of Islam that has nothing to do with politics. His mosque in the Kazakh town of Kentau was opened only a month ago, sponsored by a member of parliament. A leaflet explaining why extremism is bad is posted on one of the walls. Meiranbek, wearing an embroidered skullcap, says the number of pupils at his Islamic school tripled to 90 after the opening. "We teach them how to be clean, how to eat healthy food, how to do good things. ... It's the first time in the history of our town that we have our own mosque," he said. "People come here from far away. It was worth working for... "Because this is our own little revival." ^

Limits of Islamic Revival in Central Asia

The renewed interest in Islam has not been welcomed by everyone Central Asia. Maria Golovina of Reuters wrote: “The revival does not sit comfortably with most of Central Asia's long-serving leaders who have been criticised by the West for using the Islamist threat as a pretext to clamp down on dissent and religious freedom. "After the Soviet collapse, the ideological vacuum was filled with all kinds of false teachings. It is only now that people are beginning to understand true Islam," said Muzaffar Haji, a cleric in the ancient Silk Road town of Turkestan. "Only now people are beginning to see that (Central Asia) is not just a backyard of the Soviet Union, but a region with deep historical roots ... But it's a different question whether political leaders have the same goals." [Source: Maria Golovina, Reuters, June 17, 2006 ^]

“As in Soviet days, Uzbekistan tolerates only a state-approved version of Islam. It has cracked down on all groups operating outside the system as part of its fight against Islamist militants who, it says, seek to overthrow President Islam Karimov. Karimov says Islamist "terrorists" attempted to stage a coup in the town of Andizhan last year. Witnesses estimate hundreds of unarmed people were killed when government troops opened fire on a large crowd. The government says 187 people - either Islamist extremists or police - were killed. ^

“The West has criticised Uzbekistan for using the uprising as an excuse to step up its campaign against dissent. Many Uzbeks fear they will be labelled extremists if they speak publicly about Islam. Many Muslims who have breached the tight restrictions imposed by the state have ended up in jail. "There are radicals and evil people in every religion," said Sayebek Kulmakhanbetov, a senior cleric at another holy site, the 11-12th century Aisha Bibi shrine near the Kazakh city of Taraz. "Evil forces make people commit acts of terror... Officially we have a democratic state but many people are afraid to talk."

“Tajikistan, where Islamists and President Imomali Rakhmonov's Moscow-backed government fought a civil war in the 1990s, is the only Central Asian state with a registered Islamic opposition group. In Turkmenistan, President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov tightly controls all aspects of life and tolerates no dissent. His book "Rukhnama" - a collection of his thoughts and quotes - is kept alongside the Quran in state mosques. Absattar Derbisaliyev, Kazakhstan's chief mufti, is a former member of the Soviet Communist party.” ^

Failure of Islam as a Unifying Force in Central Asia

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: At the beginning of the twentieth century, Barthold wrote that a Central Asian ‘feels he is first a Muslim and second a resident of a specific town or location’. While identifying as a Muslim may be important for some when interacting with a non-Muslim, does an Islamic identity have much relevance in Central Asia when locals interact with each other? Muriel Atkin stresses that while there is some ‘strength’ in the Islamic identity for Central Asians, it does not mean that the identity is accompanied by some ‘supranational’ Islamic unity as embodied in the idea of the umma, the idealised concept of a unified community of all Muslims. Others have argued the opposite. For example, Roland Dannreuther has pronounced that in Tajikistan radical Islam also has the attraction of combining radical political objectives within an outwardly traditional framework … For people used to the all-encompassing and intrusive ideology of Marxism-Leninism, it can be reassuring to find a more authentic replacement which provides a similarly comprehensive interpretation of the world with the backing of a global internationalist brotherhood. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“This eloquent generalisation may be too far-reaching; it is somewhat doubtful whether members of a mosque-gapkhona-men’s club somewhere in Qarotegin would be interested in any universalistic interpretation of the world—Marxist, Islamist, or otherwise. Traditional communal life is a self-sufficient microcosm for them, and it is unlikely that any ideas coming from any ‘global internationalist brotherhood’ could move any significant mass of them to action.

“Concerning Central Asians’ interactions with the broader Muslim world community, while Central Asians may see Russian models as unsuitable, they are also not interested in replicating the Muslim societies of their neighbours. Schoeberlein-Engel argues that greater exposure to the outside Muslim world since the mid 1980s has, for Central Asians, confirmed to them a ‘sense of its being alien to them’. This viewpoint is echoed by Nazif Shahrani, an Afghan-American anthropologist; however, instead of blaming increased awareness, he points to ignorance. He found during his fieldwork in Central Asia that: In general the peoples of former Soviet Central Asia are very poorly informed, especially about the Muslim countries to the south and west. What the post-Soviet Central Asians say about these areas is often negative and demeaning and always accompanied by an exaggerated sense of their own progress and modernity.

“According to these views, Central Asians do not feel any strong sense of unity with the outside Muslim world. For a quantitative example, a survey of Uzbeks and Kazakhs in 1993 asked respondents to name the countries that Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan should keep the greatest distance from. While Israel was listed at number four, the top three answers were Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

“Additionally, there is no Islamic unity between Central Asians themselves (even discounting sectarian divides such as Sunni versus Ismaili) when measured against other categories of identity. Nancy Lubin, remarking on the results of the abovementioned survey, concluded that there are ‘schisms as much within Central Asian and Muslim communities as between them and others’ and that ‘divisions among nationality groups in Central Asia run deep’. Talib Saidbaev argues that secular social categories often prevail over religious categories. He stresses that economic interests are a more important factor than religious ones. Issues of agricultural resource access, employment and other material interests are assigned more importance than the ideal of Islamic unity. A sign of the primacy of non-religious factors is the fact that it is common for the different ethnic groups in the towns of Central Asia to have their own Muslim clergy and their own mosque. Sergei Poliakov gave a similar description of separate communities within a larger rural community having their separate mosques; however, he notes that it was the mahalla that had its own mosque, rather than ethnic groups (this would also be a de facto ethnic segregation if the mahalla is mono-ethnic). Roy also noted the primacy of kinship over Islam in the collective farms where kinship groups who feel marginalised start a secondary, ‘oppositional’ mosque. These marginalised kin-based groups ‘thus tend to identify with Islam as one way of consolidating their opposition to others—although of course everyone would claim to be Muslim’. In a case study undertaken in an Uzbek village in Tajikistan, Sergei Abashin found that the contestation between competing religious authorities was referred to by the locals in ‘terms of kinship’. This is just one anecdote Abashin provides in his article, wherein he argues that at the local (rural) level ‘religious conflicts are often submerged within the dynamics of local political, kinship and economic relations, with each Muslim community containing its own interest groups and means of legitimacy’.

“At a higher level, Abdujabar Abduvakhitov expressed his doubts in late 1991 about the possibility of Islam as a politically unifying factor: [During perestroika] Islamic activists in the Muslim community began their social activity with an appeal to the Muslim umma. Their appeal excluded the growing sense of nationalism. Pan-Islam, as practised in the Muslim world, was not a power that could unite millions … In the Central Asia republics, where people have for many years been united by the Muslim community, the national identity of the different peoples has limited this factor of pan-Islam. The activist movement, which includes Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, Kyrghyz, and others, must preserve itself from a growing nationalism. Tribalism and regionalism also remain strong in Central Asia. Thus it is difficult to see how pan-Islam can be a uniting factor in the political life of Central Asia. Similarly, Aziz Niyazi noted the splits along regional and political lines amongst the ‘Islamic clergy’: ‘There have never been any disputes on strictly theological questions amongst these groups; schisms have occurred chiefly as a result of political affiliation and regional allegiances. Tajik Islamic thought has thus not formulated many clear ideas about a desired state structure and social order.’”

Orthodox Christianity in Central Asia

Sebastien Peyrouse of the Woodrow Wilson Institute wrote: “In all of Central Asia, Orthodoxy remains the most established of the Christian denominations. The Russian Orthodox Church has official status and many recognized places of worship, and the Orthodox hierarchy gives its support to the political authorities through its assertions that the rights of the Russian minorities enjoy full respect. [Source: Sebastien Peyrouse, “Russian Minority in Central Asia: Migration, Politics, and Language”, Woodrow Wilson Institute, 2007 ^^]

“Though it legally depends on the Patriarch of Moscow, the Orthodox Church refuses to be perceived as a pawn of Russia. It has developed recurrent themes concerning its autochthonism in Central Asia and its respect for the independence of the states of the region. For this reason, it has publicly separated itself from movements considered political and joined only with those that advance a cultural or folk vision of life in the Russian community. It has not ceased in its affirmation of the intrinsic bond between “Russianness” and Orthodoxy, but this discourse gets a weak reception from the population. The Orthodox Church did not succeed in becoming the premier social bond among the Russian minority. ^^

Shamanism in Central Asia

A number of pre-Islamic beliefs persist. Some have their roots in Zoroastrianism. Beliefs in demons and other spirits and worries about the evil eye were widespread in traditional society. Many people in the plains were Zoroastrians before they converted to Islam while those in the mountains and northern steppes followed horsemen shamanist-animist religions.

Central Asian Islam incorporates many customs that have their roots in animism, shamanism and nomadic traditions. At mosques people walk under Koran stands to ensure fertility and kiss and rub venerated objects. The cult of tombs of holy men (“mazar”) is widespread. There are also shamanist "wishing trees" tied with pieces of rags, the cult of “pir” (holy men), and Mongol-style poles with horse hair tassels placed over grave of revered figures. Reportedly some Zoroastrian fire ceremonies endure.

David Stern wrote in National Geographic: “Most shamans in Central Asian countries, such as Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan, where Islam predominates, regard themselves as devout Muslims, and their rites are infused with the mystic traditions of Sufism. Swathed in virginal white smocks, they conduct their rituals at Muslim holy sites, and every ceremony includes extensive prayers from the Koran. In Siberia and Mongolia, shamanism has merged with local Buddhist traditions—so much so that it’s often impossible to tell where one ends and the other begins. [Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012]

See Uzbekistan, Mongolia

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.

Last updated April 2016

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