Islamic Rebirth In The C I S

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Columnist Dr AZMAT HAYAT KHAN analysis the re-birth of ISLAM in the central Asian Republics after the fall of the SOVIET UNION

Following the demise of the Soviet Union, which had broken up as a multiethnic empire in the western rather than oriental parts of the country, the abrupt prominence of unknown regions created scope for geopolitical conjecture. In the Western perception, Turkey was vying with Iran for the souls of the oriental peoples of the disintegrated empire, an Islamic arc of crisis was extended to the gates of Moscow to include "Eurasia", and Algeria was projected to Tadzhikistan.

After the initial journalistic drum-banging on the stage on international politics over the return of the "forgotten Muslims" had subsided the topic was discussed in a more differentiated manner in numerous publications on Soviet and post-Soviet Islam. The picture of the so-called Islamic "rebirth", however, remains imprecise. Reliable information is missing on the membership figures and structures for Islamic movements in countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The determination of the ideological character of these movements strongly depends on the viewpoint of the observer. Now and again, attempts are made to quantify the religious character of fundamentalist threat potential by merely counting the number of mosques.

The terms "rebirth" contributed to the sensationalism regarding Islam. It moved close to a further unclear term, that of "re-Islamisation" , which, in modern Islam, describes anti-secularist currents and movements aimed at re-institutionalising the Shari’a, the religious law, and which, falsely assumes a prior "de-Islamisation" of the countries concerned. In the disintegrating Soviet Union, dozens of informal organizations and national movements had taken up the cause of "rebirth". The terms described processes of national self-identification, cultural self-ascertainment, and the striving of colonialised peoples to return to their own regional civilization - a process which has provoked mis-understandings. The latter include the notion that, in the field of foreign policy, the ex-Soviet Muslims would be preferentially integrated into their Islamic neighbourhood and that they would have to decide between the Turkish and the Iranian way, between antagonistic models which were compatible or incompatible with modernisation and Westernisation.

Opinion polls conducted in Central Asian CIS states tested inter alia the attitude of the population towards their country’s foreign policy orientation. Respondents who expressed approval of foreign influence and the model effect of foreign models hardly looked to the countries of the Middle East for their orientation. Among the younger age groups the options favoured were: USA (44%), Japan (40%), Europe (37%), Muslim countries (31%), Turkey (26%), Russia (20% in the younger age groups, but roughly 50% of the over-60s). Of the countries from which respondents felt their own state should dissociate itself Afghanistan was mentioned most frequently, followed by Iran and Pakistan. They viewed their own "geopolitical environment" as discomforting. Turkey, a partner on account of its ethnic kinship, did not figure as strongly as expected in the light of popular notions of a pan-Turkish renaissance in Central Asia and in the Caucasus at the beginning of the Nineties, and the common religion was also not a significant criterion for foreign policy orientation. According to the survey findings, Islam did not form the primary outside world of the new Muslim states, which had not only integrated into the Islamic Conference Organisation but also into the OSCE and regional cooperation systems such as the ECO.


How many "Muslim" live in the CIS ? Figures hover around 60 million. It is fair to assume the existence of over 50 smaller and larger Muslim peoples and six "Muslim" CIS countries at a state level, although this term only applies to a very limited degree to a country such as Kazakhstan. The term "Muslim" does not denote a denominational but ethnocultural categorisation, indicating the affiliation to ethnic groups which were Islamised at different times. The overwhelming majority belongs to the Sunnite branch of Islam and the Hanefite school of law (madhhab) . Only the majority of Muslims in Azerbaijan are Shiites. In Central Asia the Shiites account for hardly more than one percent.

In the Western picture of Islam the idea prevails of a closed Islamic world, of a cultural monolith. More recently, however, it has given way to a more differentiated perception. The Islamic civilization extends from Senegal in the west to Indonesia in the east, encompassing a population of 1.3 billion people and 52 states, which are grouped together in the Islamic Conference Organisation. It is obvious that such extensive area subdivides into regional subcivilizations and local cultures: apart from the Arab core area, to which the majority of Western publications on Islam and Islamic fundamentalism relate, into Turkish, Caucasian, Central Asian-Persian, African, South and Southeast Asian, and European subdivisions. Irrespective of this diversity, Islam as a world religion is characterised by institutions, symbols, beliefs, and customs which establish or seek to establish unity. Following the suspension of the caliphate in the 20th century, there have been and are different agents of this idea of unity, pan-Muslim congress, supra-regional educational institutions, such as Al-Azhar University, Islamic movements. The "Islamic world" or the "world of Islam", therefore, must be assessed with reference to both aspects, unity and diversity.


In all Islamic cultural areas, "classical Islam", a "scholarly" or "high Islam" should be distinguished from popular Islam. "High Islam" stands for familiarity with the classical Islamic literature; "popular Islam" for traditions which often have little to do with Islamic norms, for non-written religious traditions and communication.

Among the former Soviet Muslims, high Islam was reduced to a minimum by the Soviet power. Islamic science, the knowledge of which ensured the scholarly status of ulama as opposed to ordained clergy, was forcibly limited to minute remnants. In the pre-Soviet past, Central Asian cities such as Bukhara and Samarkand had been Islamic educational centres, where students from many parts of the Orient undertook studies of the Koran, of the Arabic language and of other Islamic disciplines at hundreds of educational institutions. In another ex-Soviet Muslim region, in Dagestan in the northeast Caucasus, Arab literature had particularly deep roots. Up until and even during the early Soviet period Arabic had been the high language of the elites in this ethnically and linguistically highly differentiated region. Especially the Tatars along the Volga and in the Crimea and in what is now Azerbaijan were also significant for high Islam in the Russian sphere of rule.

Before 1917, a discourse had taken place among Russia’s Muslims between a traditionalistic and a reformist wing of the ‘ulama’, in contact with the literature of Islamic theology and philosophy. Particularly in Russia, a significant scion of religious enlightenment within the context of high Islam, (Jadidism) flourished at the turn of the 20th century. Among the Tatarian Muslim intelligentsia, which had emerged as a movement for the reform of the Muslim Educational System, it had spread into other regions of the Tsarist empire and also into Persia and Turkey and had finally taken on forms of political and national movements. After 1917, a polarisation between the Muslim reform movement took place in Russia. Part of the movement opposed the Soviets, above all in Central Asia and in the northern Caucasus, whereas another part sympathised with the Bolsheviks and was actively involved in the reorganisation of the structures of rule in Khiva, Bukhara and Turkestan. Many leading Jadidists could be found in the leadership of the Communist parties in Central Asia and other Muslim regions of the former Soviet Union and fell victim to the Stalinist purges at a later date. In Soviet sources, this reformist current of high Islam was subsequently branded as "reactionary" and treated as taboo. Under the conditions of perestroika and glasnost it was then rediscovered and reinterpreted.

There are, however, Muslim areas in the CIS which only very marginally belonged to high Islam or not at all, such as the nomadic cultural areas Kazakhstan, Kirghizistan and Turkmenistan. Here, the term "rebirth" hardly makes any historical sense with respect to this stratum of Islam, It does make sense in the Islamic core area of Central Asia, in the historic "Mavarannahr" (Arabic for the territory between Amu-Darya and Syr-darya), since it was displaced here by forcible reduction. In one region which made a substantial contribution to the Islamic civilization in the Middle Ages the Islamic pounding of the population after seventy years of Soviet rule is viewed as meagre. According to one of the most famous religious leader in Tadzhikistan, which is often emphasised as being particularly Islamic, only three percent of the Muslims there master the correct practice of the namaz, ritual prayer. Kazi Turajshon-Zada, suspected of beings a "fundamentalist", has repeatedly pointed out that the religious educational prerequisite for an "Islamic state" is missing here. The rediscovery of high Islam was a process of several generations. A Turkish Islamic publication recently asked the rhetorical question: What is easier, to squeeze water from a rock or to explain Islam in Central Asia?

The situation is different with respect to popular Islam. Popular religion had shown itself to be pretty resistant against the anti-religious policy of the Soviet power and had extended well into the circles of party nomenclature. In its syncretistic form, which comprises many non-Islam elements, it already had roots in Central Asia and in the Caucasus in the pre-Soviet past.

The population retained certain allegedly religious customs, even though they were not or only weakly legitimated by Islamic norms, and thus dissociated itself from what it felt to be the Western "Soviet Culture" These included circumcision, wedding and burial rites, and pilgrimage to "holy places". The central symbol of this popular Islam is ‘Mazar’. It stands for the variety of places of pilgrimage and local shrines whose significance for the population could neither be suppressed by high Islam nor by the Soviet power. Such places were worshipped long before Islamisation. They are natural phenomena such as rocks, stones and trees, which are reputed to have healing powers, and which were Islamically reinterpreted and associated with the life of the Prophet or with the works of Sufi Sheikhs. The most frequent form of local shrines are the tombs of real or mythical figures of religious life. In the northern Caucasus, these are often heroes of the "holy war" against the Russian colonial power. They were also very popular during the Soviet period. Ex: Goke Tappe in Turkmenistan, where a mosque has been built, and people go and offer ‘Nazrana’ there.

In popular Islam, the dividing line between religious and ethnic identity is fluid. There can be no talk of "rebirth" in this sector, since its traditions could not be interrupted during the Soviet period, indeed they even tended to be strengthened in the service of ethnic self-ascertainment. Gorbachev made a last-ditch effort to combat popular Islam in his speech in Tashkent in November 1986, in which he threatened party punishment for local Communists who took part in its rites.


In his article on "multiple identities" in Islam, a Turkish author deals with this stratum, which is highly significant for the non-Arab area. He claims that it was typical for societies on the periphery of Islamic civilization. In such societies with their alien denominational environment an individual who professed his support for Islam through clothing and eating habits gave "a public statement about his ethno-political identity". The example cited include the Hui in China, the Moros in the Philippines, and the Muslims in Bosnia.

Especially in the Islamic part of the Soviet Union there was a connection between the "national heritage" and religious tradition. Islam was able to survive in an environment hostile to religion because it had been handed down as the "legacy of the ancestors", as a national criterion of demarcation, and as an "ethnic marker".

Among the Muslims of the Tsarist empire the already mentioned reformism or Jadidism tried to safeguard the cultural survival of Islamic peoples in the Russian Empire towards the end of the 19th century. It is reputed to have played a decisive role in the formation of a political awareness of the Muslims in the Russian Empire, and Ernest Gellner refers to the role assumed elsewhere by nationalism. The Jadidists paved the way for a modern Turkish-Muslim national awareness, which was bound to clash with the intentions of the Bolsheviks. They based their activities among other things on a fabricated saying by the Holy Prophet hallowing the love of one’s native land: love of the fatherland comes from faith (hubb al vatan min al iman).

This saying has been rediscovered for post-Soviet nation and state formation. It can be found in Uzbekistan among the slogans displaced on the streets. Islamic symbols and practices are included in the formation of the independent nation-state.

The fact that public buildings and streets are named today after famous Islamic theologians and philosophers from one’s own region reflects the search for symbols with which the process of national state formation can be supported. This process is not guaranteed and must make use of every resources at its disposal. Especially in Uzbekistan, a certain "nation-stratification" of Islamic Central Asian Cultural symbols is taking place which does not really have a national but transnational significance and which cannot be described as "Uzbek".

The symbols of national self-ascertainment, however, are definitely not or not primarily being sought in the field of religious culture. In Kirghizistan the greatest focus of national celebration was a mythical hero, Manas, who stands for the pre-Islamic past of the Kirghiz tribes, in Kazakhstan it was Abai, a writer who embodies mediation between Russian, Kazakh and Islamic culture, in Turkmenistan the national poet Machtumquli, and in Uzbekistan "Amir Temur", the founder of the empire Timur Leng and his successors, who stand for a system of rule which fostered science against the opposition of narrow-minded mullahs.