Turkmen are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi branch like most other Muslims in Central Asia. Shiite (Shia) Muslims , the other main branch of Islam, are not numerous in Turkmenistan, and the Shiite religious practices of the Azerbaijani and Kurdish minorities are not politicized. Turkmen have traditionally been very devout which runs counter to the claim that Islam has never been that important with the nomadic people and still isn't. In the past, tribal and clan loyalty was very important but one could not make the claim that it was more important than religion. But this is not so much the case today.

Although the great majority of Turkmen readily identify themselves as Muslims and acknowledge Islam as an integral part of their cultural heritage, many are non-believers and support a revival of the religion's status only as an element of national revival. They do not attend mosque services or demonstrate their adherence publicly, except through participation in officially sanctioned national traditions associated with Islam on a popular level, including life-cycle events such as weddings, burials, and pilgrimages. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996]

Turkmen traditionally did not build many mosques or madrassahs but have been devout in their religious practices at home. Great respect is directed towards mullahs, many of whom received their religious training in Khiva or Bukhara. They have traditionally regarded themselves as defenders of Sunni orthodoxy against perceived Shiite heresies to the south in Iran. The Soviets were unsuccessful in their efforts to mitigate religious beliefs.

Traditional religious practices are described in an article by Vladimir Basilov, "Popular Islam in Central Asia and Kazakhstan," which appeared in the Journal of the Institute of Muslim Minority Affairs in 1987.

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.

An Old Turkmen Muslim

On a Muslim Turkmen he met at a train station, Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “All Muslims wash before they pray. When water is unavailable, they use sand or dust to perform the dry ablution called tayammum, making an elaborate business of rubbing the hands and arms, and slowly wiping the face, massaging the eyes, the cheeks, the jaw, then drawing the hands downward. Selim went through this ritual as the train rushed across the desert, rattling the windows and the door handles.Then he prayed, for almost a full minute, his eyes closed, speaking into the stifling air of the compartment. When he was finished, I asked him what he had said. Was it a standard prayer or had he improvised it? He said that it was improvised for the occasion. “I thanked Allah for the food. I thanked the friend who gave it to us. I wished the friend blessings on his journey.” [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ~]

“The best tactic on this overnight train journey, it seemed to me, was to get along, which meant staying off the subject of religion. As I was thinking this, the old man was still talking to the student. “He asks if you believe in God.” “I have a lot of questions on this subject,” I said. “He asks, ‘But do you believe in life after death?’ ” “I don’t know about this. No one has ever come back from the dead to tell us anything, so how can we know?” “The holy Koran tells us.” ~

“The old man spoke directly to me in Turkmen and became very animated. “He says, ‘The grass grows. Then the grass turns brown. Then the grass dies. Then it grows again. It turns green and gets tall.’ ” The old man was still staring, one skinny gnarled hand in his lap, the other gripping the long gray beard attached to his chin. “He says, ‘Life is like that.’ ” “Tell him I agree. Life is like that, even where I’m from.”“ ~

Sufism in Turkmenistan

Sufism — a mystical form of Islam that has animist roots and a cult of saints — has deep roots in Turkmenistan. Sufis are big on shrines devoted to Sufi teachers. Traditionally, many Turkmen belonged to Sufi mystic brotherhoods. It is difficult to determine how many people belong to these organizations. See Sufism Under Islam

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 of Turkmen.

Sufism is widely practiced. There is a strong tradition of “ziyarat”, pilgrimages to the tombs of Muslim saints. . If anything this tradition became stronger under the Soviet because of the virtual ban of traveling to Mecca to attend the Hajj. Due to Soviet control of mullahs, many ordinary Turkmen gave their allegiance to “ishans”, secretive leaders of Sufi orders. These leaders often had close ties with certain tribes.

History of Islam in Turkmenistan

Islam came to the Turkmen primarily through the activities of Sufi shaykhs rather than through the mosque and the "high" written tradition of sedentary culture. These shaykhs were holy men critical in the process of reconciling Islamic beliefs with pre-Islamic belief systems; they often were adopted as "patron saints" of particular clans or tribal groups, thereby becoming their "founders." Reformulation of communal identity around such figures accounts for one of the highly localized developments of Islamic practice in Turkmenistan. [Source: Library of Congress, March 1996 *]

Integrated within the Turkmen tribal structure is the "holy" tribe called övlat . Ethnographers consider the övlat, of which six are active, as a revitalized form of the ancestor cult injected with Sufism. According to their genealogies, each tribe descends from the Prophet Muhammad through one of the Four Caliphs. Because of their belief in the sacred origin and spiritual powers of the övlat representatives, Turkmen accord these tribes a special, holy status. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the övlat tribes became dispersed in small, compact groups in Turkmenistan. They attended and conferred blessings on all important communal and life-cycle events, and also acted as mediators between clans and tribes. The institution of the övlat retains some authority today. Many of the Turkmen who are revered for their spiritual powers trace their lineage to an övlat, and it is not uncommon, especially in rural areas, for such individuals to be present at life-cycle and other communal celebrations.

In the Soviet era, all religious beliefs were attacked by the communist authorities as superstition and "vestiges of the past." Most religious schooling and religious observance were banned, and the vast majority of mosques were closed. An official Muslim Board of Central Asia with a headquarters in Tashkent was established during World War II to supervise Islam in Central Asia. For the most part, the Muslim Board functioned as an instrument of propaganda whose activities did little to enhance the Muslim cause. Atheist indoctrination stifled religious development and contributed to the isolation of the Turkmen from the international Muslim community. Some religious customs, such as Muslim burial and male circumcision, continued to be practiced throughout the Soviet period, but most religious belief, knowledge, and customs were preserved only in rural areas in "folk form" as a kind of unofficial Islam not sanctioned by the state-run Spiritual Directorate.

Turkmenistan Government Policy Towards Islam

According to the U.S. Department of State: “The government used some aspects of Islamic tradition to define a national identity. Despite its embrace of certain aspects of Islamic culture, the government expressed concern about foreign Islamic influence and the interpretation of Islam by local believers. The government promoted an understanding of Islam based on local religious practices and national traditions. The government reportedly feared that Islam from outside the country was “Wahhabist” or “extremist.” The government’s stated policy was that it banned only extremist groups that advocated violence. However, it categorized some Muslim groups advocating theologically different but nonviolent interpretations of Islamic religious doctrine as “extremist” and continued to ban such groups. [Source: International Religious Freedom Report for 2014: Turkmenistan, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, U.S. Department of State, ^]

Members of the theology faculty in the history department at Turkmen State University in Ashgabat were the only university-level faculty members allowed to provide Islamic higher education. Reports indicated that potential student candidates had to be vetted by the Ministry of National Security before gaining admission to this program. There was no possibility of studying theology subjects other than the state-approved Islamic theology. Women were banned from the program.^

The government approves the appointment of all senior Muslim clerics and requires senior clerics to report regularly to the CRA. Some Muslims expressed concern about the quality of training and changes of appointed Muslim leaders. The CRA required that its officials stamp all religious literature, including Bibles and Qurans, to authorize each copy of the text. While the Quran was practically unavailable in state bookstores in Ashgabat, most homes retained one copy in Arabic or a Russian translation from the Soviet-era. Few translations were available in Turkmen.

In October 2014, the government sponsored 188 pilgrims to travel to Mecca for the Hajj. As was the case in 2013, self-funded pilgrims were reportedly allowed to make their own arrangements to participate in the Hajj. In November the government reported that there were no restrictions on who could participate in the Hajj.

Islam Under Niyazov

After claiming independence the Central Asia nations have revived a religion long suppressed by the Soviet Union. Muslim extremism has not found a very receptive audience in Turkmenistan.Former Turkmenistan President Saparmurat Niyazov opened mosques and revived Islamic practices.

The huge mosque planned by Niyazov in part as a monument to himself was inaugurated in his birthplace, Kipchak, a village Ashgabat, in 2004. The 190,000-square-foot mosque, large enough to hold 10,000 worshipers, was built for $100 million by the French construction group Bouygues. The mosque's marble walls are inscribed with verses from the Koran alongside extracts from Niyazov's spiritual guide, the Rukhnama. [Source: AFP, October 23, 2004]

Mullahs and imam deferred to Niyazov. Niyazov’s book “Rukhnama” (“Spiritual World”) was required reading in mosques.

Turkish Islamic Schools in Turkmenistan

In the 1990s political Islam entered Turkmenistan by way of Turkey. A group led by a Turkish missionary named Fetullah Gulen opened up 14 Turkmen-Turk magnet schools in the country. The schools had commuters, teachers trained in Turkey and much better facilities than local schools. [Source: Ilan Greensburg, New York Times, January 5, 2003]

The journalist Ilan Greensburg visited done of these schools and was welcomed by children singing the Beatles “Yesterday” and turning to each other and applauding. Greensburg wrote in the New York Times, “Although these schools are financed with Turkish money and the classes are taught mostly by Turkish teachers, the classroom walls are covered with aphorisms taken from the “Ruhnama” (albeit in English), and a shrine to the president’s book takes center stage on the school’s lobby.”

“The schools also, very covertly, proselytize their version of militant Islam, which includes advocating the need for Islamic law.” One graduate of a Turkmen-Turk school told the New York Times. “Being religious wasn’t compulsory, but it was coerced. After a couple of months boys stopped looking at girls. I always tried to argue with their views, to not be a zombie about things. But they wanted to pray five times a day, and they noticed who didn’t. People would talk about making the country Islamic.”

Turkmen Islam: Wine and Mosques with Dragons

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “We had passed a number of state-owned vineyards. One of the oddities of Turkmenistan—which first encountered Islam in the seventh century and is now almost ninety per cent Muslim—was its vigorous wine industry, both for export and for local consumption. Turkmen Muslims, at least the ones I met in Ashgabat, were for the most part moderate in their faith and had a surprising taste for wine. Turkmenbashi himself, who had made the hajj, was also a notorious boozer. [Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007 ==]

“At the edge of the desert, we approached some rising ground, more a mound than a hill, on which there was a broken structure of mud bricks. This was Anau, the ruins of a fifteenth-century mosque, which strangely showed a Chinese architectural influence. In its bright mosaics, there was imagery that I had never seen before in Islamic art, and over the archway of the entrance were some fragments of a still sinuous dragon. ==

“But the dragon on the mosque was a reminder that this part of Turkmenistan had also been on the Silk Road, the route to China, and that some of the toughest travellers of history, some of the boldest generals, and the largest armies had passed this way. The mosque was still a place of pilgrimage, because its grounds contained the tomb of Seyyed Jamaluddin, the father of a local governor from the fifteenth century. A dozen people, most of them women with children, were praying at the pile of broken bricks that was his grave. “They come because he has good communication with Allah,” Mamed said. ==

Turkmen Islam: Sheep Bones and Praying for Houses

Paul Theroux wrote in The New Yorker: “There was another grave, the Tomb of the Unmarried Woman—Gulnara said that “unmarried woman” could also be translated as “virgin.” Young women were praying here. Hundreds more had left behind requests to be granted. Small carved cradles indicated a woman’s wish to be blessed with babies. Gulnara said that the sheep bones, carefully piled, indicated a wish for children, too, since bones were used as toys by Turkmen children. A hairpin meant that a girl was desired, as did patches of colored cloth; a toy car indicated a wish for a boy.”[Source: Paul Theroux, The New Yorker, May 28, 2007]

Women at some pilgrimage sites pray and tearing up pieces of clothing and dolls, in the hopes that the ritual with help them conceive a child. If a long-awaited firstborn child does not due in due course, a woman used to put on a dress with a small slit on the hem with decorative embroidery. The slit symbolized an "open" road for a baby. If people saw a woman in such a dress they wish ed her : "May she have a heir! "

Theroux wrote: “About forty feet from the ruined mosque was another mound, on which there were hundreds of toy huts made of broken clay tiles. It looked like a miniature city. A squatting man in a smock and a woman with a blowing head scarf were building one as we watched. “People praying for houses,” Gulnara said.”

Funeral customs in Turkmenistan are usually in line with Islamic traditions. Special remembrance feasts are held 40 days and one year after death. The deceased have traditionally been buried in cemeteries built around the tomb of an Islamic saint or Owlad tribesmen, who are seen as guides and helpers in the afterlife.

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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