DUSHANBE -- When Bibi Zaynura's ex-husband's failure to pay alimony made it difficult for her to support her young children, the Muslim woman first turned to the Tajik state for assistance. But when official channels brought no results, Zaynura followed the advice of other women in her village, located just outside Dushanbe, and sought the help of a religious leader.
In consultation with the hadith and the guidance of the Koran, the imam-khatib of the local mosque spoke to Zaynura's ex-husband and reminded him of his responsibility to care for his former wife and children.
"We all live in the same village, and the mullah can speak to my husband and reason with him," Zaynura says. "It's possible that this problem was solved much faster with the mullah's help because [my husband] wanted to prevent any rumors from circulating in the mosque."
Where the state had failed, the imam provided Zaynura the solution she was looking for. And she is not alone.
Even as the Tajik government maintains tight control on religion, the majority Muslim population is increasingly turning to Shari'a law -- the sacred law of Islam, which is not sanctioned by the state -- to resolve disputes, family affairs, and personal matters.
Increase In Observance
One resident of the northern city of Khujand, Abdulqodir Khujaev, explains why his family eventually went to a mullah to help them settle a family argument over inheritance from their grandfather. Like Zaynura, the family first appealed to state authorities, but Khujaev said this nearly destroyed the family.
"If we took this issue to court, we would have to cut all our family ties," Khujaev says. "Thank God, our mullah, who is an intellectual and respectable man, solved our problem peacefully."
Following decades of suppression under the Soviet Union, religion has a prominent place among Tajiks today.
Said Ahmadov, former head of the Committee for Religious Affairs in Tajikistan, told RFE/RL in early August that there has been an increase in the observance of Shari'a law among Tajikistan's majority Muslim population since the country's independence nearly 20 years ago. A Gallup poll released in August found that 85 percent of Tajiks said religion was an important part of their lives, with only 12 percent saying it was not, making Tajikistan first among Central Asian states in terms of religiosity. Fear Of Corruption
But religious allegiance is not the only factor that leads Tajiks to let religious institutions weigh in on their problems.
Some behavioral problems in some young people happen after they are affected by 'dark forces.' We read some surahs with them and they get better.
In some cases, fear of corruption in state courts factors into the decision, with Tajiks saying that court officials sometimes request bribes in exchange for a particular verdict. In others, people prefer the personal approach of a religious leader they know to the formulaic approach of a state bureaucrat. And sometimes going the route of a religious decision is simply the cheapest alternative.
Islam "has many laws that are close to human nature and make one's life pleasant," explains Zubaidulloh Rozik, a member of the Council of Ulema of the Islamic Renaissance Party. "When we explain to them the benefit of the teachings of Islam, they understand, they agree, and they really express their satisfaction."
"As they say," Rozik continues, "going to the court has a high cost while going to see two mullahs does not cost anything." But he says people "talk, they listen to advice," and they understand that "from the method of advice their problem will be resolved."Good Or Evil?
Qobiljon Boev, leader of the Fatwa Department of the Council of Ulema of the Islamic Center of Tajikistan, says most of the people who appeal to religious leaders seek not only solutions to their problems but rulings on the good or evil of their actions from the perspective of Shari'a.
Boev says the majority of appeals brought before mullahs concern divorce cases. Often, after a couple has split up, they regret the decision and choose to live together again. He points out that while this would not contradict state law, it would be haraam -- forbidden -- under Shari'a law.
Religious officials maintain that consulting Shari'a law does not conflict with the secular law of the state and say it can be applied to many aspects of society that are regulated by secular law.
Referring to court punishments of thieves and drunks, Roziq of the Council of Ulema of the Islamic Renaissance Party argues that consulting a religious leader is more effective in changing such behavior.
When a thief or alcoholic is released from jail or a rehabilitation center, he or she will inevitably turn again to stealing or drinking, Rozik says, whereas religious intervention provides better results. "Some behavioral problems in some young people happen after they are affected by 'dark forces,'" he says. "We read some surahs with them and they get better."
Mosque Attendance Increasing
Strolling through the streets of Dushanbe, the influence of religion is ever-present. One can see young people listening to sermons instead of pop music. Religious speeches and sermons are used as ring tones and groups of students can be seen listening to the speeches and sermons of their favorite imam-khatibs out loud on their phones.
The number of people attending Friday Prayers also continues to rise, to the extent that some mosques have been required to build second or even third floors and widen the area of worship to house all the attendees.
Since he took office in 1992 following a bloody civil war that resulted in the defeat of a mostly Islamic opposition, the government under President Emomali Rahmon has prohibited polygamy, banned the wearing of the hijab in government offices and in universities, and has outlawed prayer outside of the mosque.
But Said Ahmadov, former head of the Committee for Religious Affairs, says that 70 years of living under communism has made people more focused on religion and its benefits. "Using this awareness," he explains, "they are trying to follow Shari'a law. In the meantime, this positive move disclosed many shortcomings of Tajik secular law."
"People have by now gained more knowledge of Islamic culture and Shari'a rules," Ahmadov says. "And the fact that some secular laws have not been properly implemented or are not being followed appropriately plays a role here."Potential For Radicalization
Ibrahim Usmon, dean of the journalism faculty at Tajik State National University, says there are some who are attempting to rapidly apply Shari'a law to the lives of Tajik citizens. He says that this goal, which he argues is in contradiction with the secular law of the government and more precisely with the government's policies, has the potential to lead to radicalization.
According to Usmon and other analysts, if Shari'a law continues to be implemented on the current scale, Tajikistan will little by little exchange the secular business suit for the robes of Shari'a.
But Akrami Abduqahor, a resident of Dushanbe, believes that Shari'a has become so integrated into the lives of Tajiks that the government cannot dislodge it by imposing secular laws.
"If you go to universities, you'll still see girls wearing the hijab [despite the government's ban]," Abduqahor says. "Recently, the authorities in some villages detained mullahs who taught religious classes to children. There is no guarantee that these campaigns will eliminate hijab or stop mullahs from teaching children."
RFE/RL correspondent Ella Mitchell translated and contributed to this report