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. These Pamiri groups generally speak Iranian but not Tajik languages. A smaller portion are devotees of the Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) sect of Shia (Shiite) Islam. The vast majority of the non-Tajik population of Tajikistan is composed of peoples who were also historically Sunni Muslims (Uzbeks, Kyrgyz, Tatars, and Turkmen). [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.

The U.S. Department of State reports: 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.”

Identification with Islam as an integral part of life is shared by urban and rural, old and young, and educated and uneducated Tajiks. The role that the faith plays in the lives of individuals varies considerably, however. For some Tajiks, Islam is more important as an intrinsic part of their cultural heritage than as a religion in the usual sense, and some Tajiks are not religious at all. [Source: Library of Congress]

Tajikistan has traditionally not has had as many madrassahs, mosques and educated Muslim clerics as Uzbekistan. As a result there are many informal cleric running around, Sufi brotherhood and half Sufi-half shaman and ordinary Muslims are well informed through their own study.

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.

Shamanism and Islam in Tajikistan

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.

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Shamans in Tajikistan, called parikhon and folbin, are omnipresent; almost every mahalla in a village or city can boast at least one man or woman who is believed to have a special relationship with spirits and can thus: a) diagnose and cure illnesses; b) impose or lift a curse; c) interpret omens and forecast the future; and d) find missing objects and people. People’s belief in ajina, chiltan, miros and other supernatural creatures—hardly compatible with Orthodox Islam—has found its reflection in a Tajik saying: ‘Khudo zada bosh, arvoh zada—ne’, which means ‘If God strikes you—let it be, but don’t let the spirits’. In rural areas there still exist whole dynasties of self-styled medics who specialise in treating infertility or pneumonia through exorcism. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Generally, in modern times, ‘the shamans have never experienced restrictions in their practice and coexisted peacefully with the clergy. There has emerged a sort of cooperation: shamans would send the ailing to mullahs, and mullahs would advise them to go to shamans’. Quite often, particularly in remote areas such as Yaghnob, one person combines the responsibilities of a mullah, hereditary Sufi leader and shaman. Common people in Tajikistan usually do not bother themselves with the fine demarcation of these terms and tend to refer to anybody with religious charisma, obtained through position, training, inheritance, divine intervention or otherwise, as ishon—a word that originally carried a strictly Sufi connotation.”

Sufism in Tajikistan

One form of Islam that has traditionally been popular in Tajikistan is Sufism — often described as Islamic mysticism and practiced by individuals in a variety of ways. The most important form of Sufism in Tajikistan is the Naqshbandiyya, a Sufi order with followers as far away as India and Malaysia. The first Sufi brotherhoods or orders headed by pirs and ishans were established In the 11th to 12th centuriess. Some of these orders still exist. The most well-known Sufi orders are Naqshbandiyya, Kubravia, Kadiria and Yasaviya.

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 ]

“In Tajikistan, the surviving members of traditional status groups (sayids, khojas, mirs and tura) are often treated as ishons. In the early 1990s, a certain police lieutenant in Mastchoh, who was also a tura, acted as ishon for a group of people living in neighbouring Uzbekistan and collected sadaqa (alms) from them in this capacity. It is difficult to draw a dividing line between a collectivity of murids, an extended patriarchal family and a solidarity network coalesced around representatives of a traditional elite stratum. It appears, however, that purely religious murshed–murid dyads are quite rare in Tajikistan. In modern times the most prominent Sufi teacher in the republic was hazrat Pirmuhammad Sangi Qulula, who died in 1968 in the village of Olimtoy near Kulob. His funeral was attended by thousands of people from all over Central Asia, including several dozen high-ranking party officials. He was not, however, the only eminent Sufi sheikh in Tajikistan. Other well-known sheikhs were active throughout the country in the late Soviet era.

Mazors and Sacred Trees in Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Mazors, or holy places, in Tajikistan, in a contradistinction with the situation in other Central Asian countries, are not necessarily linked to a burial place of some real or mythical Sufi saint. The number of such shrines in the republic is relatively small; the two most revered are the mazor of mavlono Yaqubi Charkhi near Dushanbe, and the mausoleum of khoja Ishoq ‘Makhdumi Azam’ in Hisor (both date to the sixteenth century). [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

The bulk of the mazors in Tajikistan, however, are related to the primordial cult of trees, springs and stones, which are believed to harbour evil and benign spirits. It is not infrequent that the trunk of a ‘sacred tree’ constitutes the minaret of a village mosque. In rural areas every avlod has at least one mazor, and the living members of the family pay homage to them regularly, usually on Fridays and Sundays, to placate the souls of the dead.

“Some mazors are devoted to animistic deities (for example, bibi Seshambe, the patroness of maternity, and bibi Mushkelkusho, the spirit of good fortune), or even Zoroastrian religious symbols, such as a rather popular temple of the sun, ‘Shokambar Oftob’, in Vakhan. The pre-Islamic elements in Tajik Sufism (and wider Islamic rites) form an enormous subject in themselves, however, it appears that in everyday religious practice a thick layer of traditional beliefs is barely covered by Muslim rites, distorted as they are almost beyond recognition from their canonical versions.

Tajik-Style Sufism

According to Bennigsen and Wimbush: “[P]arallel Islam is represented in Tajikistan by the adepts of some Sufi brotherhoods (mainly of the Naqshbandiya) which are more structured than in the other Central Asian republics … The representatives of parallel Islam control numerous holy places which, in absence of working mosques, tend to become the real centres of religious life.” [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

These same authors, however, made quite a different assumption in their earlier work: In Tajikistan … Sufi brotherhoods are less active and play a relatively minor role in the preservation of the religious feelings of the population. In this republic the holy places are less numerous and enjoy but a moderate prestige among the believers and the unbelievers. The religious life of the Tajiks is less dependent on parallel Islam and for this reason the role of the holy mazors is lesser than in Turkmenistan and Kirghizia.”

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: ““This issue may indeed be confusing, so long as popular Islam in Tajikistan is viewed as an extension of official Islam par excellence, which has become important mainly due to the atheistic onslaught of Soviet authorities. It is reasonable to adopt the approach whereby popular Islam represents a certain way of life in its wholeness, far beyond the confines of a religious creed, and as such cannot be measured quantitatively. The statement that ‘there is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that Soviet Muslims have ever been less (or more) devoted to their faith than they are now’ then makes perfect sense.

“There is much truth in the conclusion that for Tajikistan ‘the most important dimension of Sufism is not the sophisticated mysticism practised by the Sufi adepts but the Sufi embodiment of folk Islam’. Furthermore, popular Islam incorporates people’s ancient beliefs, vestiges of magic and elements of folklore culture. Thus this is a national phenomenon and [is] perceived by many as such … The non-conflictual co-existence of various, often directly opposite ideas, is characteristic of it … Popular Islam is loyal to the authorities and calls for the rejection of political struggle. “With this in mind, it would be easier to avoid the temptation to explain the retention of traditional customs as a manifestation of religious zeal aimed against the secular state—a theme favoured by some Western scholars from the time of Soviet rule to the present day.

Shiites and Ismailis in Tajikistan

About four or five percent of the population of Tajikistan are Shia (Shiite) Muslims. The Pamiri population of the autonomous province of Gorno–Badakhshan is mainly of the Ismaili sect of Shia Islam. These Pamiri groups generally speak Iranian but not Tajik languages. A smaller portion are devotees of the Ithna Ashari (Twelvers) sect of Shia (Shiite) Islam. The Tajik ethnic minority in China is the only ethnic group there who believes in Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia Islam.

Tajiks were originally Sunnis. In the beginning of the 18th century, some changed to Nizari Ismaili sect of Shia (Shiite) Islam. The followers of Shia Islam — Shiites recognize the fourth caliph Ali — son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad — and his descendants as the lawful heir of Prophet Muhammad. In their turn Shiites are subdivided into several branches. For example, Ismailis, who live mainly in the territory of Gorno-Badakshan. The name originated from Ismail, the son of Jafar as-Sadik, the sixth imam, and the head of Shiite community. The present head of Ismaili community is Prince Karim Aga-khan IV (born in 1936 in Geneva). Unlike Shiites, Sunnis do not recognize intermediation between God and people after the death of Prophet Mohammed and deny the idea of special origin of Ali and his and his descendants' rights to be religious authorities.

Under the Soviets, the predominantly Ismaili population of the Pamirs was prohibited from sending annual tribute to their spiritual leader, the Aga Khan in India, and his representative in Tajikistan, ishon Seid Yusofalisho, was arrested in 1931. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013]

Most of the of the 215,000 people in the Gorno-Badakhshan and Khorog region of the Pamirs belong to an Islamaili sect of Shiite Islam led by the Aga Khan. In the Pamirs, people set up small roadside shrines in which people stop and ask for blessings and leave offerings of money or bread. Ismaili Shiites in Badakhshan recite religious poetry called madah; these poems are sung in Persian.

See Pamiri Tajiks Under Minorities.

Endurance of Islam in Tajikistan

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “Islam was another traditional institution that proved to be extraordinarily resistant to the policies initiated by the communist state. While there is little doubt that in Soviet Central Asia ‘political institutions and political processes have been completely freed from the influence of religion’, Islam retained its position as a source of identity, a transmitter of cultural tradition and, more generally, as a way of life. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“In regards to the ‘survival’ of Islam in the Soviet Union, scholars have remarked on the importance of the large ‘network’ of unsanctioned mullahs who, despite the existence of the officially endorsed clerics of the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (SADUM), ‘established Qur’an schools, preserved shrines, presided at burials, weddings and other rituals and, in the urban Muslim settings at least, monitored the observation of “traditions” [that is, in the mahalla]’ during the Soviet era. Religious practice was not, however, confined to just the ‘unofficial’ mosques. For example, as noted in one village at the very end of the Soviet era, religious practices centred on the village mosque ‘represented a small proportion of the total religious activity in the village. For alongside this mosque-based activity, there also existed a whole range of less visible religious practices which were centred either around the household and/or groups of women.’

As Yaacov Ro’i has observed: “[E]ven if at first a departure from religion was imposed upon them by force, in the course of time, this population became basically secularised from conviction, education and/or force of habit. This did not mean that it renounced its Muslim identity, seeing no contradiction in declaring itself at one and the same time Muslim and atheist or non-believing.’Similarly, one anthropologist argues that the Tajik villagers she studied ‘appeared to recognise a tacit division of labour’ between communism and Islam: Communism, in the eyes of many villagers, was seen not so much as an ideological doctrine but as a raison d’être for a certain type of administrative system … It was not, in general, perceived as a source of personal morality. Islam, by contrast, was seen as the basis of morality and ‘belief’—but not as the basis for a state administrative system.”

Islam and Tajik Identity

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “One survey conducted in 1985 showed that 55.6 per cent of Tajik communists regarded themselves as true Muslims. Many people in Tajikistan were able to reconcile Islam and communism, as neither was treated as incompatible, but rather as flexible practices. Some took the flexibility of Islam and communism even further and stressed their similarities (equality, justice, and so on). As one brigadier stated, ‘[e]verything Lenin said is written in the Koran’. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“Apparently, even Bobojon Ghafurov, former first secretary of the CPT CC, made a pilgrimage to Mecca after retirement, for he was ‘a son of a pious Muslim and sincerely yearned to visit the Qa’aba’. Much later, in the late 1980s, first secretary Mahkamov would publicly declare that he was an atheist; but by this time there would be criticism of even those at the highest level. The Qozikalon of Tajikistan, Akbar Turajonzoda, in his role as the highest officially sanctioned Islamic leader in the republic, responded that Mahkamov would not be accorded Muslim burial rites upon his death.

“In the mid 1980s the Soviet government conducted a sociological survey of religious practices in the Muslim areas of the Soviet Union: Its findings showed a comparatively extensive practice of [Islamic] traditions, festivals and rites among all socio-demographic groups of the population, including the young, which indicates not only a relative stabilization of the level of religiosity, but also … a mass basis for Islam’s continued existence in the USSR. The results of the survey refuted the widely held opinion that Islam was becoming ‘increasingly ritualistic’ (obriadovyi) and demonstrated that the ‘preservation and reproduction’ (vosproizvodstvo) of religiosity were ‘ensured by the existence of a still fairly significant number of believers characterized by a uniformity of religious consciousness and religious conduct.’ The survey revealed the importance of an Islamic-mandated morality in family life, as well as a high level of observance amongst those with high school and university education.

How Religious Are Tajik Muslims?

Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer wrote: “There are few reliable data on the religious affiliation and observance of the eponymous population of Tajikistan. A survey conducted in the Qurghonteppa region in 1989 revealed that 81 per cent of those polled ‘were under the influence of Islam, its traditions and rituals’. Another survey showed that Islamic mores affect broad sections of Tajik society and are successfully reproduced in younger generations. In 1991, the percentage of weddings conducted with the presence of a mullah was 86.5 per cent in Tajikistan. Similarly, 55 to 82 per cent of polled women consider Islamic funeral ceremonies necessary, while ‘in fact a much higher percentage (approximating 100 per cent of population, including atheists and non-believers) practices them’. Still, such attitudes and shared understandings cannot be regarded solely as products of Islamic belief; they are part of a wider cultural order or the ‘Great Tradition’, and are ‘so deeply rooted that they flow almost automatically’. Moreover, Islamic mores appear to be highly particularistic, especially in the area of marital arrangements—for example, Quranic views on exogamy are strictly observed amongst Tajiks whose ancestors had migrated from Herat (Heroti), whereas mountain Tajiks by and large ignore them. [Source: “Tajikistan: Political and Social History” by Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer, Australia National University, 2013 ]

“In modern Tajikistan the dividing line between adat and shari’a is rather blurred. Under conditions where the society retains strong elements of patriarchy and where the stratum of carriers of orthodox Islam is thin, the job of interpreting the principles of common good and establishing codes of honour and decency—the privilege of the ulama in most Muslim countries—is inevitably relegated to traditional communal leaders: heads of avlods, elders in the mahalla committees, patrons of solidarity networks and members of ascribed prestigious status groups. On the whole, Islam of any form or description in Tajikistan has failed to impose a set of universalistic values on the society, and thus can hardly be seen to play an overarching integrative and mobilisational role today.

“Popular Islam in Tajikistan had several important characteristics that made it different from similar phenomena in the other republics of the former Soviet Union. Its ideological core—that is, the ‘popular knowledge of Islam’—was always more pronounced for the simple reason that the corpus of Muslim literature that embodied not only ecclesiastic texts but also classic medieval lyrics, stories and anecdotes inherited from the past, had been written mostly in Persian. On the other hand, it would be an exaggeration to say that adherence to the main tenets of Islam or understanding of its theoretical dogmas are stronger among Tajiks in comparison with other Central Asian nationals. Data collected in the field in Tajikistan corroborate the general observation made for Central Asian Muslims by Nancy Lubin in the early 1990s: ‘more than three-quarters of those who said they are Islamic believers do not pray at all, and three-quarters say they never fast.’ In regards to the private lives of Central Asians and their leaders, life-cycle rituals such as those for births, deaths and marriages continued to retain their ‘Islamic’ characteristics throughout the Soviet era. Popular Islam in Tajikistan is centred on a seemingly endless succession of ceremonies and rituals, most of which date back to pre-Muslim times. Births, coming of age, marriages and funerals are the landmark events for every Tajik family and kinship or neighbourhood community. Their proper commemoration according to Islamic or, to be more precise, local cultural, tradition is vital for every individual, or any given social group, in terms of maintaining their social status. But even the day-to-day life of Tajiks is largely regulated by a set of beliefs that they perceive as Muslim. In reality, much of it has more to do with ancient fertility cults and various agricultural rites, to which the existence of a thriving institution of shamans testifies.”

Funerals in Tajikistan

Funerals are conducted according to Islamic rules. People who attend funerals tie a strip of white cloth around their waist, and women wear a piece of white cloth on their heads. The dead person's children are expected to stay in mourning for seven days. On the 40th, 70th and 100th day of the person's death, imams are invited to chant scriptures and perform a memorial service.

According to A deceased person is prepared for burial on the day of death. Islamic law forbids autopsies. The body is washed and wrapped in white material and placed in a box. It is carried in a procession to the cemetery, where it is removed from the box and placed in the ground. Mourners wearing traditional clothing wail and lament and sometimes dance in a slow, solemn rhythm. Osh is served to guests after three days, and memorials are held after seven days, forty days, six months, and one year. [Source:]


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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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