Tashkent, 16 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The leader of Uzbekistan's Muslim community, Mufti Abdurashid Qori Bahromov, says Uzbek youth need both Islamic and secular training if Uzbekistan is to progress.
In a wide-ranging interview in Tashkent early this month, the mufti told RFE/RL that he also supports the principle of equality for all religions contained in Uzbekistan's legal code.
Bahromov has been chief mufti, or supreme religious authority, since his election by the leaders of Uzbekistan's Muslim community a year ago. His appointment has won the approval of the country's secular government as he has shown himself a moderate who rejects Islamic fundamentalism or calls for an Islamic state.
On a recent Friday between prayers, the mufti received our correspondent in his high-ceilinged, wood-paneled office in the Spiritual Directorate -- an office which houses both Islamic and state symbols.
His shelves are filled with numerous books on Islam in several languages, but there is also an Uzbek flag and a picture of Uzbekistan's president. There is traditional food on the table for the meeting, grapes and bread, but also Coca Cola.
He explains that because this interview is with an American he has substituted the Coca Cola for more traditional tea.
Bahromov began by speaking about events last year in Uzbekistan's troubled Fergana Valley. In December, several police officers were murdered and the government has blamed the deaths on an Islamic fundamentalist group known as the Wahhabis.
He says this group had gained religious knowledge primarily from religious literature smuggled into the country. But he stresses that they had no formal training in Islam and that their crimes were abhorrent to all true Muslims.
In his words: "A true Muslim neither by words nor deeds hurts an innocent person."
Bahromov also talked about the growth in the number of mosques in Uzbekistan since independence. In the first years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 4,000 mosques were opened there. But unfortunately, he says, Uzbekistan does not have enough qualified Imams and Mullahs to service that many.
The Uzbek government is now trying to regulate the situation by requiring at least 100 worshippers to be listed for each mosque to receive official registration. At present there about 700 registered mosques in Uzbekistan.
The mufti also mentioned that a huge mosque, able to accommodate 20,000-25,000 people, is being built in Samarkand and it is common knowledge another huge mosque is near completion in Tashkent.
He said he hopes the day will come when, instead of sending religious students to other Muslim countries to study Islam, the re-emergence of ancient centers of learning in Bukhara and Samarkand will again attract students from around the Islamic world to come to Uzbekistan.
Bahromov responded to a question obviously of great personal concern to him: the image of Islamic leaders as tools of the government. He admitted the image is difficult to shed following the Soviet period, when Moscow appointed a single mufti for all its Central Asian republics in a blow to their individual Muslim identities.
The mufti stressed that while he obeys the laws of his country, he gives first priority to the laws of Islam and the spiritual needs of Muslims.
That is an arrangement, he said, which he is prepared to discuss with anyone. "We refuse no one here. All are welcome," he said.
Following the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, Bahromov is a modest man who declined to speak about himself.
But, instead, his assistant provided some details about the mufti's remarkable life. Bahromov, now 50 years old, studied Islam in Tashkent and worked in a mosque there for 25 years. The son of a pious Muslim, Bahromov bears the title "Qori" as a sign he can recite the Koran from memory. His father was such a person, as are his brothers and sons.
At the end of the Soviet period, Bahromov was a member of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate for Central Asia and Kazakhstan. His aide suggested he was elected Uzbekistan's chief mufti primarily because he was not viewed as closely associated with any particular group or clan.
Bahromov now travels Uzbekistan to read the Koran at as many of these mosques as possible. His assistant said that there are those who follow the mufti around the country.
As an example, the assistant said that the Friday this interview was given he himself had been unable to enter the mosque because such a large crowd had already gathered.
The development of Islamic culture among the Muslims of Uzbekistan was a priority for the government when it attained independence in 1991. But it was tempered by fears that too much enthusiasm for the religion could be turned against a government. Particularly in the first few years after independence there was reason for concern. Muslims, long denied the opportunity to learn about the religion, seized the new chance to do so. In the passion for reacquainting themselves with Islam there were those, though few, who openly supported an Islamic state based on Shari'a.
Now the challenge for moderate Muslim leaders, and particularly for Bahromov, is to overcome the country's Soviet past and guide the Muslims of Uzbekistan back to an authentic knowledge of their heritage --all the while balancing their ancient religion with the realities of contemporary life.