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Central Asia: Region Returns To Muslim Roots (Part 1)

  • Gulnoza Saidazimova

Kazakh muslims praying Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Central Asian republics have seen a revival of Islam. The process kicked off quickly as Islam has always had deep roots in the region and missionaries and funds arrived from other Muslim countries to help rebuild schools and mosques. Nowadays, most Central Asians consider themselves Muslims. Still, many observers say that there are differences between the identity and religious practices of Muslims in Central Asia and those in other parts of the Islamic world. In the first part of a four-part series on Islam in Central Asia, RFE/RL looks at how Muslims in the region view themselves.

Prague, 4 August 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Are you a Muslim?

Most Central Asians, when asked this question, give one answer: "Al-hamdulillah, I am." The use of the Arabic phrase for "praise be to Allah" emphasizes the strength of their faith.

The reply comes as no surprise because most of the peoples of Central Asia have historically been Muslim. According to regional surveys, some 95 percent of the members of those historically Muslim populations consider themselves Muslim today.

"I have no special knowledge of Islam, but Al-hamdulillah, I am a Muslim," said one man in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe. "Islam teaches us to avoid bad behavior, to be honest, not to be drunk, respect human beings, to have an open mind and a soft heart. If we do not follow these rules, we are not followers of his excellency Prophet Muhammad."

But if Central Asians share much with Muslims elsewhere in the world, their identity is also uniquely shaped by their own cultural and political history.

As for Muslims, everywhere, the faith in Central Asians rests on the five pillars of Islam. Those are belief in the creed of "La ilaha illallah. Muhammadun Rasul Allah" ("There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet), and fulfillment of Namaz (prayer, five times daily at prescribed times), Zakat (charitable giving), fasting during Ramadan (the month of fasting) and, for those who can afford it, the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).

Yet Islam in Central Asia, which dates to the 8th century, has traditionally had a moderate cast compared to practices in Saudi Arabia or Iran, for example.

That moderation is reflected in its accommodation of originally nomadic practices like the fermentation of mare's milk into mildly intoxicating 'Qymyz' and today includes a less strict attitude toward alcohol overall than in more conservative Muslim societies.
"Islam teaches us to avoid bad behavior, to be honest, not to be drunk, respect human beings, to have an open mind and a soft heart. If we do not follow these rules, we are not followers of his excellency Prophet Muhammad."


Similarly, Islam in Central Asia accommodated the needs of nomadic Kazakh and Kyrgyz women to ride horses and work equally with men free of the "hijab" (Islamic dress) adopted by more sedentary peoples, like the Uzbeks and Tajiks.

Mona Siddiqui, head of the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, said there are other signs of moderation, too.

She noted that historically, the most widespread form of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence in the region has been the Hanafi madhab. She said that among the four schools of Sunni jurisprudence, it is the one most open to new ideas.

"Hanafi madhab is one of the four madhab from the Sunni schools of law," Siddiqui said. "They come to us as Shafii, Hambali, Maliki, and Hanafi. Hanafi is widespread amongst Asia, but also amongst Southeast Asia and also Turkey near to Europe. General discourse when we compare different madhabs seems to be that in terms of actual jurisprudence the Hanafi scholars are seem to be far more discursive and willing to debate the issues of piety, devotion, and worship in contrast to some of the other schools."

But if Central Asia has long had a special Muslim identity, it also has been shaped by other powerful and sometimes competing influences -- including long domination by Russia.

The colonization of the region by Czarist Russia beginning in the 18th century ultimately led to the creation of the officially atheist Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union.

Until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communist authorities discouraged the practice of all religions, turned many places of worship into public buildings, and stressed secular values in place of spiritual ones.

The effects in Central Asia can be seen today. As Islam has revived in the region, some have embraced it again with a fervor akin to that of new converts.

Elvira, a 26-year-old woman from the Kazakh city of Almaty, wears hijab whenever she leaves her house. She works as a cook in a restaurant.

"I consider Islam as the purest religion in the world," Elvira said. "That is why I embraced Islam. Inshalla (God willing), it is been two years, since I started doing namaz. After I became a devout Muslim, my thoughts about life changed, they are very different from what they used to be. During my Jahiliyyah (ignorance referring to the pre-Islamic state), I used to drink alcohol, my attitude toward smoking was different as well. Now I consider all these things as wrong."

But other young people see no need to give up a secular lifestyle. "We are young, of course we go to discos, we have fun, we date girls," said one young Uzbek man. "We are still young, we'll have enough time for fasting and praying when we are old."

To some observers, that sort of dichotomy suggests a region that still torn between its Islamic and Soviet pasts.

Magda Makhloof, professor of Turkish and Persian Studies at Ain Shams University in Cairo, said that Central Asians' knowledge of Islam was harmed by Soviet rule.
These days, many are afraid to speak of Islam because of what's going on with Wahhabism, for example. There are those who use Islam as a mask to cover terrorism. Therefore it's scary to speak of Islam."


"There is no doubt that the people of this region connected to Islam by their historical roots and their big contributions to Islamic culture and their thoughts are well-known," Makhloof said. "However, the region was left under communist rule for a century, or about three-fourths of a century. And there is no doubt that this period affected the true knowledge of Islamic religion in the region. At present, there are Islamic sentiments and feelings, but they lack true knowledge."

As Central Asians build new mosques --sometimes with the help of Islamic missionaries from more conservative Muslim countries -- the revival of Islam does not always sit comfortably with the region's once communist, now nationalist, governments.

Government officials, used to controlling religion in the past, regard it as a force for social change that must be regulated to assure it does not pose a danger to their own authority.

In Uzbekistan, the governments has cracked down hard on any groups that operate outside the state-approved religious establishment. Police have arrested thousands of members of such groups as militants and closed down their meeting places.

The effect has been to make many Uzbek Muslims wary of being branded extremists if they speak too publicly about their faith.

This young woman in Tashkent was braver than most in speaking about Islam: "These days, many are afraid to speak of Islam because of what's going on with Wahhabism, for example. There are those who use Islam as a mask to cover terrorism. Therefore it's scary to speak of Islam."

Wahhabism is a fundamentalist Islamic movement that arose in Saudi Arabia in the 18th century and has become the official form of Islam in that country. The term "Wahhabi" is often used by post-Soviet governments to denote militant Islamic groups ready to use force to achieve political-religious goals.

In the second part of our four-part series, we will look at how Islam is controlled by the state in Central Asia.

In the second part of our series, we will look at how Islam is controlled by the state in Central Asia.

For more on Islam, see Religion and Tolerance

For all the latest news on Central Asia and years of archived news and analysis, see Central Asia in Focus


(RFE/RL's Uzbek, Tajik, Kazakh, and Afghan Services contributed to this report).
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