Kyrgyz are not regarded as very devout or conservative. They drink a lot and don’t regularly pray towards Mecca. In many communities you don’t see mosques or hear muezzins. In the Fergana Valley, however, which is shared by Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, there is strong conservative Muslim movement. Muslim extremist groups have been most active in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan but they have caused some serious problems in the Fergana Valley and the mountains of southwest Kyrgyzstan .

Islam has never been that important with the nomadic people and still isn't. You don’t see that many mosques nor hear the muezzin in Kyrgyz areas. This is due to their nomadic lifestyle, animist traditions, distance from the Muslim world, close contacts with Russians and Chinese and the suppression of Islam under Stalin and the Chinese Communists. Scholars have said the lack of strong Islamic sentiments is because of the Kazakh code of honor and law—the “adat”— which was most practical for the steppe than Islamic sharia law.

The vast majority of today's Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school of law, but Islam came late and fairly superficially to the area. Kyrgyz Muslims generally practice their religion in a specific way influenced by earlier tribal customs. The practice of Islam also differs in the northern and southern regions of the country. Kyrgyzstan remained a secular state after the fall of communism, which had only superficial influence on religious practice when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic. Most of the Russian population of Kyrgyzstan is atheist or Russian Orthodox. The Uzbeks, who make up 12.9 percent of the population, are generally Sunni Muslims. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In traditional Kyrgyz society, women had assigned roles, although only the religious elite sequestered women as was done in other Muslim societies. Because of the demands of the nomadic economy, women worked as virtual equals with men, having responsibility for chores such as milking as well as child-rearing and the preparation and storage of food. In the ordinary family, women enjoyed approximately equal status with their husbands. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Islam in Central Asia

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.

Introduction of Islam to the Kyrgyz

Islam was introduced to the Kyrgyz tribes between the ninth and twelfth centuries. The most intense exposure to Islam occurred in the seventeenth century, when the Jungars drove the Kyrgyz of the Tien Shan region into the Fergana Valley, whose population was totally Islamic. However, as the danger from the Jungars subsided and Kyrgyz groups returned to their previous region, the influence of Islam became weaker. When the Quqon Khanate conquered the territory of the Kyrgyz in the eighteenth century, the nomadic Kyrgyz remained aloof from the official Islamic practices of that regime. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, most of the Kyrgyz population had been converted to at least a superficial recognition of Islamic practice. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Knowledge of and interest in Islam are said to be much stronger in the south, especially around Osh, than farther north. Religious practice in the north is more heavily mixed with animism (belief that every animate and inanimate object contains a spirit) and shamanist practices, giving worship there a resemblance to Siberian religious practice. *

Some Kyrgyz belong to the Ismaili sect of Shiite Islamic. They practice ground burials and celebrate Muslim holidays. A few never became Muslims and practice shamanism or Tibetan Buddhism.

By the first half of the 18th century, most Kyrgyz in Xinjiang, western China believed in Islam. Those in Emin (Dorbiljin) County in Xinjiang and Fuyu County in Heilongjiang, influenced by the Mongols, followed Tibetan Buddhism, while retaining some Shamanistic legacies: Shamanistic "gods" were invited on occasions of sacrificial ceremonies or illnesses and the Shamanistic Snake God was worshipped. [Source: |]


Sufism has traditionally been very strong in Kyrgyzstan as it has in all of Central Asia. The four Sufi brotherhoods (“tariqas”, literally “paths of God”) that brought Islam to Kyrgyzstan are still active today. These are: the Naqshbandiya, based in Bukhara and very popular and powerful; Qadiriya, an ancient brotherhood; the Yasawiya, a southern Kazakhstan brotherhood; and the Kubrawiya, a Khorezm brotherhood,

Two indigenous orders sprang out of the Yasawya brotherhood. One of these, the Order of Lachi, was formed in the late 19th century and was sharply critical of the other orders. It was oppressed by other Muslims and by the Soviets and went underground in the early Soviet period and was not discovered into the 1950s. It is very strong in some village in the Osh area.

The other order, the Hairy Ishans, was formed in the 1920s. It was strongly anti-Soviet and brutally attacked in the mid 1930s and again in the 1950s. Several of its leaders were killed. Unlike other Sufi orders it allowed women to participate in “zikh” (prayers) and form their own female-only groups.

Islam in the Soviet and Post-Soviet Eras

The Soviet anti-religion campaign included the publication of 69 anti-religion titles between 1948 and 1975 and 45,000 anti-religion lectures given in 1975 alone. Anti-religion propaganda found it ways into television shows, operas, radio programs and theater events. There were even motor clubs formed whose mission was to spread the anti-religion message in isolated parts of the country. These groups not only drove to remote, isolated areas they built the road to get there.

Repression drove religious groups underground and made them very secretive. Sufism was particularly repressed, so much so that silent “zikh” replaced chants said aloud. Reforms in the 1980s made open religious activity possible.

Since claiming independence the Central Asia nations have revived a religion long suppressed by the Soviet Union. Some new mosques have been built that “strangely combines Arabic domes and Soviet-style prefab concrete.” In the Soviet era there were four mosque. By 2005 there were 50. Mosque attendance is increasing in the north. By the mid 2000s, the Central Mosque in Bishkek was attracting crowds of more than 5,000 people for Friday prayers, more than the mosque could hold.

Currently, interest in religion in the country has increased significantly. If there were only 39 mosques in the Soviet period, while in the 2000s the number of mosques increased to 1338. An Islamic center established in Bishkek in 1991 regulates activities of Muslim organizations in Kyrgyzstan and deals with issues such as education and enlightenment. [Source:]

In 2009, the Kyrgyzstan government banned head scarves banned from schools. Reuters reported: “Kyrgyzstan, a predominantly Muslim country, has banned head scarves from schools to protect children from religious influence, an official said. “We are a secular state,” the official, Damira Kudaibergenova of the Education Ministry, said. She added that some pupils were missing their Friday classes because of prayers. [Source: Reuters, March 3, 2009]

See Political Parties

Islam and Northern and Southern Kyrgyzstan

The Kyrgyz practice a version of Islam influenced by earlier beliefs and practices and by the nomadic nature of earlier Kyrgyz society. This combination is most prevalent in the north; the Islam practiced in the southwestern population centers (where the Uzbek minority is concentrated) resembles more closely that practiced elsewhere in Central Asia.

The Fergana Valley in the south, which is shared with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, is more Islamic that the more Russified north. The most religious people are the Uzbeks around Osh. A number of mosques ad madrassahs have been built in Osh and the Fergana Valley in part because of the presence of the Throne of Suleyman, an important Muslim shrine that earned Osh the title of the “second Mecca.”

By contrast, Islam was slower penetrating into northern Kyrgyzstan and never penetrated that deeply. Traditional beliefs, including shamanism, and totemism, coexisted with Islam rather than being supplanted by it.

Repression of Muslim Groups in Kyrgyzstan

On July 10, 2014 the Supreme Court upheld a January 2013 ruling denying the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community Mission the right to register as a religious group. Because Ahmadis were denied registration, members could not legally congregate, pray, or hold any ceremonies. The Open Viewpoint Foundation stated that certain religious communities complained that authorities used discrepancies in existing legislation as an excuse to avoid registering them or to force them to reregister, which was typically a lengthy process. As a result, some groups reportedly abandoned the effort to register. [Source: International Religious Freedom - US Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor,]

Law enforcement officials classified 302 persons as members of religious extremist organizations in Bishkek: 144 as HT members and 158 Salafis. Law enforcement authorities arrested 145 members of groups which they deemed extremist and investigated 181 crimes considered committed by extremists. Forty-eight percent of investigations took place in the South. Twelve percent were in Bishkek.

The government continued to restrict the activities of Muslim groups it considered threats to security. For example, it classified the banned HT as extremist, although the group’s philosophy professed nonviolence and its members committed no violent acts. Membership in HT as well as any activity on behalf of the group remained illegal and authorities used their powers broadly to enforce the ban. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) estimated there were 3,000 HT members and 20,000 supporters in the country. Human rights activists and attorneys noted a sharp rise in the first half of this year in arrests and investigations of suspected HT members. The MOI reported that arrests of HT members increased by 20 percent compared to 2012 when authorities arrested 1,822 HT members, detained 40 HT members for trial, and sentenced 23 to prison terms. HT members were mostly active in the South, where 70 percent of the arrests of HT members occurred. The authorities also observed HT activity in Talas and Chui Provinces.

Attorneys handling HT cases stated that members of the State Committee on National Security arrived at homes claiming to have a search warrant, which they did not, entered the home, located or “planted” printed material promoting HT, and arrested the suspect. Overall, law enforcement officials seized 719 electronic texts, 1,202 pieces of “extremist” literature, and more than 2,000 leaflets.

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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