Some 85 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim and 5 percent, Shia Muslim.The Pamiri population of the autonomous province of Gorno–Badakhshan is mainly of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam. About 3 percent of the population is Christian, mainly Russian Orthodox and concentrated in Dushanbe. Small groups of other Christian denominations and a small Jewish community also exist. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

In some places conservative Islam is relatively strong, but overall the Tajiks are not as religious as the Uzbeks but not as casual as the Kyrgyz. Most Tajiks follow a moderate form of Islam. Since claiming independence the Central Asia nations have revived religions long suppressed by the Soviet Union. Muslim extremist groups have been active in Tajikistan in the past but are not that active anymore. Some Tajiks consult fortunetellers, seek non-medical cures and believe in the power of evil spirits called jinn.

Islam, the predominant religion of all of Central Asia, was brought to the region by the Arabs in the seventh century. Since that time, Islam has become an integral part of Tajik culture. Although Soviet efforts to secularize society were largely unsuccessful, the post-Soviet era has seen a marked increase in religious practice. Among other religions, the Russian Orthodox faith is the most widely practiced, although the Russian community shrank significantly in the early 1990s. Some other small Christian groups now enjoy relative freedom of worship. There also is a small Jewish community. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

According to the U.S. Department of State: According to local academics, the population is more than 90 percent Muslim. The majority adhere to the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam as traditionally practiced in Central Asia. Approximately 4 percent of Muslims are Ismaili Shia, the majority of whom reside in the remote Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region located in eastern Tajikistan. There are Christians and small numbers of Bahais, Hare Krishnas, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Jews in the country. The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox; there are also Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, and Korean Protestants.

Over their long history, Tajik people and their ancestors have embraced many religions, including folk religions, Zoroastrianism, Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism and Buddhism. The ancestors of Tajik people worshiped nature and natural phenomenon, especially eagles and hawks, which still have special meaning to Tajiks and are regarded as animal totems worshiped by the ancestors of Tajik people. The Tajiks have been Muslims since the 10th century. The Tajik ethnic minority in China is the only ethnic group there who believes in Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia Islam.

According to For many people, Islam is more important as a cultural heritage than as a religion. When Islamic practices were curtailed during the Soviet era, folk Islam gained strength. Sufism, which emphasizes the spiritual side of the religion, grew during that period. An individual whose knowledge or personal qualities have made him influential becomes the religious specialist and the most respected member of the community. Religious ceremonies include funerals, periods of fasting, and weekly visits to the local mosque by men. During Ramadan, believers fast during the day. The fast is broken at sunset, when an evening feast begins. [Source:]

Religion and 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.

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.

Religion and the Government in Tajikistan

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the right individually or jointly to adhere to any or no religion, and to freely choose and act in accordance with one’s religion. The Committee on Religious Affairs (CRA) is the main body overseeing and implementing all religious laws. According to the U.S. Department of State: “There is no official state religion, but the government recognizes the “special status” of Hanafi Sunni Islam.| The Center for Islamic Studies, under the president’s executive office, monitors religious issues and helps formulate the government’s policy toward religion. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Tajikistan; International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, |+|]

“The government tightly controlled the publication, importation, and distribution of religious literature. Religious groups could produce, export, import, and distribute an unspecified “proper number” of religious literature materials. This, however, required the advance consent of the appropriate state authorities. Only religious organizations were entitled to establish enterprises that produce religious literature and materials with religious content. Religious literature and materials for religious purposes produced by religious organizations had to indicate the full name of the religious organization.|+|

“The government placed numerous restrictions on religious materials and publications. Authorities levied heavy fines on the “production, export, import, sale, and distribution of religious literature” without permission from the CRA. The law provides for violators to be for fined up to 2,800 somoni ($528) for individuals, 6,000 somoni ($1,132) for government officials, and 12,000 somoni ($2,264) for legal entities. The government charged a fee per page to “review” religious literature before granting this permission. Government-owned media outlets did not regularly publish religious literature but on occasion published copies of the Quran in Tajik.|+|

Religious Laws in Tajikistan

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The law on parental responsibility prohibits persons under 18 years from participating in public religious activities, including attending the Hajj, with the exception of funerals. With written parental consent, the law allows minors between the ages of seven and 18 to obtain a religious education in their free time outside of school classes and the state education curriculum, and to worship as part of educational activities at religious institutions.| [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Tajikistan; International Religious Freedom, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State |+|]

“By law all religious groups must register with the government to operate. The CRA oversees this process. In the absence of registration, local authorities can force a place of worship to close, and fine each member from 280-400 somoni ($53-$75) for first time offenders, 480-800 somoni ($91-$151) for repeat offenders, 800-2,000 somoni ($151-$377) for religious group leaders, and 400-16,000 somoni ($75-$3,019) for illegal entities. |+|

“The religion law requires that all institutions or groups wishing to provide religious instruction first obtain permission and register with the CRA. Only central district mosques may operate madrassahs for high school graduates. Other mosques, if registered with the government, may operate religious schools for younger students. Parents may teach religious beliefs to their children in their homes, provided the child expresses a desire to learn. The law forbids religious homeschooling outside the immediate family.|+|

“The law provides criminal penalties for violating restrictions on sending citizens abroad for religious education, preaching, and teaching religious doctrines, and establishing ties with religious groups abroad without CRA consent. The law also provides penalties for religious groups that engage in activities contrary to the purposes and objectives set out in their charter, and makes the CRA responsible for handing down fines for such offenses.|+|

Religion Under the Soviets

During the course of seven decades of political control, Soviet policy makers were unable to eradicate the Islamic tradition, despite repeated attempts to do so. The harshest of the Soviet anti-Islamic campaigns occurred from the late 1920s to the late 1930s as part of a unionwide drive against religion in general. In this period, many Muslim functionaries were killed, and religious instruction and observance were curtailed sharply. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, official policy toward Islam moderated. One of the changes that ensued was the establishment in 1943 of an officially sanctioned Islamic hierarchy for Central Asia, the Muslim Board of Central Asia. Together with three similar organizations for other regions of the Soviet Union having large Muslim populations, this administration was controlled by the Kremlin, which required loyalty from religious officials. Although its administrative personnel and structure were inadequate to serve the needs of the Muslim inhabitants of the region, the administration made possible the legal existence of some Islamic institutions, as well as the activities of religious functionaries, a small number of mosques, and religious instruction at two seminaries in Uzbekistan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

In the early 1960s, the Khrushchev regime escalated anti-Islamic propaganda. Then, on several occasions in the 1970s and 1980s, the Kremlin leadership called for renewed efforts to combat religion, including Islam. Typically, such campaigns included conversion of mosques to secular use; attempts to reidentify traditional Islamic-linked customs with nationalism rather than religion; and propaganda linking Islam to backwardness, superstition, and bigotry. Official hostility toward Islam grew in 1979 with Soviet military involvement in nearby Afghanistan and the increasing assertiveness of Islamic revivalists in several countries. From that time through the early post-Soviet era, some officials in Moscow and in Tajikistan warned of an extremist Islamic menace, often on the basis of limited or distorted evidence. Despite all these efforts, Islam remained an important part of the identity of the Tajiks and other Muslim peoples of Tajikistan through the end of the Soviet era and the first years of independence. * Tajiks have disproved the standard Soviet assertion that the urbanized industrial labor force and the educated population had little to do with a "remnant of a bygone era" such as Islam. A noteworthy development in the late Soviet and early independence eras was increased interest, especially among young people, in the substance of Islamic doctrine. In the post-Soviet era, Islam became an important element in the nationalist arguments of certain Tajik intellectuals. *

By late 1989, the Gorbachev regime's increased tolerance of religion began to affect the practices of Islam and Russian Orthodoxy. Religious instruction increased. New mosques opened. Religious observance became more open, and participation increased. New Islamic spokesmen emerged in Tajikistan and elsewhere in Central Asia. The authority of the official, Tashkent-based Muslim Board of Central Asia crumbled in Tajikistan. Tajikistan acquired its own seminary in Dushanbe, ending its reliance on the administration's two seminaries in Uzbekistan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Religion in the Post Soviet Era

By 1990 the Muslim Board's chief official in Dushanbe, the senior qadi , Hajji Akbar Turajonzoda (in office 1988-92), had become an independent public figure with a broad following. In the factional political battle that followed independence, Turajonzoda criticized the communist hard-liners and supported political reform and official recognition of the importance of Islam in Tajikistani society. At the same time, he repeatedly denied hard-liners' accusations that he sought the establishment of an Islamic government in Tajikistan. After the hard-liners' victory in the civil war at the end of 1992, Turajonzoda fled Dushanbe and was charged with treason. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Muslims in Tajikistan also organized politically in the early 1990s. In 1990, as citizens in many parts of the Soviet Union were forming their own civic organizations, Muslims from various parts of the union organized the Islamic Rebirth Party (IRP; see Political Parties). By the early 1990s, the growth of mass political involvement among Central Asian Muslims led all political parties — including the Communist Party of Tajikistan — to take into account the Muslim heritage of the vast majority of Tajikistan's inhabitants. *

Islam also played a key political role for the regime in power in the early 1990s. The communist old guard evoked domestic and international fears that fundamentalist Muslims would destabilize the Tajikistani government when that message was expedient in fortifying the hard-liners' position against opposition forces in the civil war. However, the Nabiyev regime also was willing to represent itself as an ally of Iran's Islamic republic while depicting the Tajik opposition as unfaithful Muslims. *

The number of adherents to these minority religions probably decreased sharply in the 1990s because of the wave of emigration from Tajikistan in the early independence period.

Christians in Tajikistan

About 3 percent of the population is Christian, mainly Russian Orthodox and concentrated in Dushanbe. Small groups of other Christian denominations and a small Jewish community also exist. There are Christians and small numbers of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The largest Christian group is Russian Orthodox; there are also Baptists, Roman Catholics, Seventh-day Adventists, Lutherans, and Korean Protestants. [Source: CIA World Factbook, Library of Congress]

Russian Orthodox Christianity, the historical faith of many Ukrainians as well as Russians, is the largest non-Muslim religious community and and the largest Christian group in Tajikistan. A cathedral in Dushanbe, St. Nicholas, serves the Orthodox community. By the end of the Soviet era, Tajikistan also was home to small numbers of people belonging to other Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics (most of whom were German), Seventh-Day Adventists, and Baptists. There also was a small Armenian minority, most of whose members belonged historically to the Armenian Apostolic (Gregorian) Church. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Jews in Tajikistan

Some of the Jews are remnants of Central Asia’s ancient Bukharan Jews community. ,“The country’s only synagogue remained unregistered, since the Jewish community was not large enough to meet formal registration requirements. The government, however, permitted the community to worship without interference. The synagogue is located in a building the government provided in 2010, after authorities destroyed the previous synagogue to build new government buildings.|+|

According to “Bukharan and Ashkenazi minorities constitute the tiny Jewish community. Bukharan Jews have lived in the country since the Middle Ages; Ashkenazi Jews arrived after World War II, and worked mainly as engineers and in specialized occupations. In 1989, there were approximately twenty thousand Jews; after the civil war, all but two thousand emigrated.” [Source:]

According to the U.S. Department of State: “There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts. The small Jewish community had a place of worship and faced no overt pressure from the government or other societal pressures. Emigration to other counties continued. [Source: “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014: Tajikistan,” Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State *]

See Bukharan Jews Under Minorities Under Uzbekistan

Shamanism, Folk Religion and Fire Veneration in Uzbekistan

Some Tajiks consult fortunetellers, seek non-medical cures and believe in the power of evil spirits called jinn. In 1990, there were 20,000 Zoroastrians living in Tajikistan. According to The Zorastrian religion has influenced the traditions and superstitions of the people. Many people believe that supernatural forces affect their daily lives, and they wear amulets to protect themselves from evil. They may seek out fortune-tellers, or consult a witch to ward off illness or cast a spell on a potential lover.” [Source:] David Stern wrote in National Geographic: “Most shamans in Central Asian countries... 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.[Source: David Stern, National Geographic, December 2012]

On the veneration of fire and water in Boysun District, a Tajik area in Uzbekistan, Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “The veneration of earth, water and—— especially—— fire is very apparent throughout the region of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and the other Central Asian republics. These ancestral spiritualities, which up until today inform the beliefs and taboos of the peoples of these lands, share common aspects but also exhibit differences in detail. The veneration of water and fire can be seen among the old of both sexes in all areas of Boysun: they insist, for instance, that (running) water is not to be dirtied, a bride and groom are to walk around a fire, and votive candles are to be lighted. The young, however, influenced by everyday modern culture, are gradually consigning these rituals to oblivion. [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry. This article was originally published in Mardumgiyoh 5(1-2): 154-63 (1997/1376), in Perso-Arabic and Cyrillic scripts. Mardumgiyoh (“mandrake”) is a journal of folklore published in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, founded and edited by Dr. Rahmoni ]

“In any case, we will give a few examples of behavior associated with the veneration of water and fire. In the village of Pasurxl, a young man suffered for months from depression and listlessness. His mother went to consult a soothsayer (fol-bin),who told her that her son might have urinated in running water. She and the other wise women deduced that the water fairies and sprites (jin~u pan) had afflicted him with this state. Accordingly they took the youth to the bank of the supposed stream, set alight some twisted cotton wicks, recited some prayers, and “burned” the evil spell, thus breaking it. I have actually witnessed several cases where the relatives of a sick (especially a mentally sick) person consulted the folk physicians, who immediately prescribed some medicinal use ot hre or water, as being sacred entities.”

Solomon’s Lamp

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “One ancient custom in which the sacred nature of water is paramount is known as “Solomon’s lamp” (“carogi Sulaymon”). A brief description of this procedure is merited here. “Solomon’s lamp is applied to someone whose behavior has become erratic or who is in mental distress. In the form in which I observed and recorded it in Pasurxl village,an old woman (Noreul Qosimova by name, born 1922, illiterate) came to see the patient and asked the head of the household to bring a napkin and a water-jug, a branch of a fruit-tree bearing fruit, some [raw] cotton, seven strands [of straw or twigs] from a broom, three lengths of yarn colored yellow, red, and blue, three old rags colored white, blue and black, some flour, some rice, some sweets, a cup of water and a bowl of grease. [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry ]

“When I asked her, she told me the symbolic significance of each of these objects, as follows. The napkin represents a veil, personal honor, a full belly, well-being and fortune; the ewer represents King Solomon’s water, lest the patient has polluted any water; the branch bearing fruit symbolized progeny; the cotton is to make a wick with which to light the sacred fire, called the “lamp ; the seven strands from a broom symbolize pollution and disaster, around which is bound the cotton wick, so as to drive away with its flame the Ahrimanic powers [jin, pari, and dev). The three yellow, red, and blue threads represent the maleficent demons and sprites of those same colors; these threads are tied to the broom strands with the cotton. The three white, blue, and black rags are to arive away fear; flour symbolizes whiteness, i.e., purity; rice symbolizes infinity, i.e., eternal life; sweets represent a sweet life; the cup of water is to be poured over the ashes of the sacred fire, and the bowl of grease is to be rubbed on the seven tapers made from the strands of the broom.

“Next the old woman (known as bibi-mullo,or in some villages qusnoc) prepared seven tapers. To three of these she tied a string twisted from the yellow, red, and blue threads. Two tapers were left white, and the remaining two she smeared with soot from the kettle. Next she covered the patient’s head with a white cloth. She passed the tapers three times over the patient’s head, his shoulders, the small of his back, and his knees, pronouncing forms of exorcism such as “O villain, o evil one, begone! Come forth! Depart!” to banish the evil powers. Then she greased the white, blue, and black rags that had been plaited together, picked them up with the tip of the fruit-bearing branch and set light to them; she waved them in a circle around the patient’s head and body, so as to burn and thus drive away the noxious powers that plagued him. When the rags had almost burned out, she poked the fruit- bearing branch into the spout of the ewer, picked up the smoldering rags with it, and placed beneath them the cup of water, so that the ashes of the sacred fire would fall into the water. With that, the ceremony ended.

“The most important thing is not to let the remains of the “lamp” spill onto anywhere unclean, but rather to toss them into running water. Noteworthy, too, is that although these rites have nothing to do with Islam, the old women who perform them always recite a few verses of the Koran for good measure. I asked the old woman why they called this “Solomon’s lamp.” I was told, “Because these rites have come down to us from our forefathers; we use fire; fire is a powerful thing, it cleanses a person’s surroundings of calamities.I often heard people swearing by fire, as for instance “May the fire prove that I am innocent,” or “If I am lying, may I burn up in this fireplace”.

Fire Rituals in Boysun District

Ravsan Rahmoni of Tajikistan State University wrote: “The rites of Bibi Sesanbe (Lady Tuesday) and Bibi Muskilkuso (Lady Problem-solver) are still practiced today with faith and devotion in Bukhara, Samarkand, Dushanbe, Khujand, Tirmiz, Hisor, and many other places. These rituals, which are more closely related to Islam, will not be discussed here; but a common feature of their performance is the use of wicks or tapers (pilta, in some places called nuke a) ^ or candles, for the sacred fire. In the villages of Boysun district, the burning taper is placed upon the qayroqsang (a long, polished stone of about 20—30 centimeters, used as a whetstone) and care is taken not to let it go out before the end of the ceremony. [Source: “Traces of Ancient Iranian Culture in Boysun District, Uzbekistan” by Ravsan Rahmoni, Tajikistan State University, translated by J. R. Perry ]

“Twenty or twenty-five years ago, the villagers of Boysun district used to live in two seasonally specialized locations, one of which (called qisloq) was appropriate to late autumn, winter, and early spring, and the other (called bog) to late spring, summer, and early fall. At bog they would plow and sow and gather the harvest. At the end of fall they would load their essential possessions on donkeys and migrate to qisloq. Whenever they set off from one location to the other they would always light a handful of straw or a few sticks of firewood and drive the loaded donkeys over it. The transhumants would follow the animals across the fire, so that it would burn up harm and ill fortune and they would not be carrying it with them to their new home. Nowadays, with the increasing population, people live in one place. I have been told by people over fifty that fifty or sixty years ago fire was something holy that accompanied people at every significant juncture of their lives.

“The custom of venerating fire can be seen today in the rituals of weddings, circumcisions, navruz [the Iranian New Year’s holiday at the vernal equinox, 21st March] and similar rites of passage. As in other parts of Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan, it is still alive among the Tajiks of Uzbekistan, including those of Boysun. In general there is no ceremony in Boysun at which traces of ancient culture are not evident. Even funerals, if examined carefully, exhibit some non-Islamic elements. For instance, in Pasurxl village, on the death of a close relative, the women of the bereaved household let down their hair, tie a kerchief around their waists, raise their arms high and clap their hands, lacerate their heads, faces, and bodies, and jump up and down singing a lament. Usually the mourning period (for women) lasts for one year, during which time they wear turquoise blue {kabud) clothing. At Pasurxl, the women’s mourning costume is actually sky-blue, or at least a blue floral print on a white field.

“In Boysun district, wrestling, likewise an ancient custom, is still very popular. Even today, at a wrestling meet, they will sometimes light a small campfire and dance or play around it before the formal bouts. The wrestlers (pahlavon) after limbering up will stretch out their hands toward the fire and then rub its warmth over their faces, as if praying to the fire for victory.

“In Ferdawsi,s immortal Sohnoma (Shahnama) we read the following verses, which show parallels to the above: “Down from the throne he came, lamenting/ Rending his body to pieces with his nails” Or again: “They dressed all in turquoise blue,/ Their eyes full of blood, their faces ashen.” According to Ferdawsi,our ancestors stayed in mourning for the departed for one year (a custom still observed among Tajiks everywhere, including those of Boysun): “They sat thus grieving for one year; The behest came from the Judge, the Creator.” Otherwise, a lamp is kept burning for forty days after a death in the house where the body lay (or if a lamp is not available, a candle or taper), as can also be seen in all parts of Central Asia.

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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