Turkmen are deeply religious people; their traditional animist beliefs have been blended over centuries of time with Islam. Evidence of this is clear at mosques and mausoleums, which are often decorated with animist features such as snakes and rams’ horns. Likewise, pilgrims arrive at these sites bearing tokens such as crib models, indicating a desire for children. Sunni Islam is the state religion, though despite Turkmenistan’s constitutional guarantee of free practice for all faiths, in reality Islam and Orthodox Christianity are the only freely practised religions. Others, mainly Christian sects, have been forced to curtail their activities under government pressure, although the state-sponsored repression seen in the 1990s has eased somewhat.
Although the great majority of Turkmen readily identify themselves as Muslims and acknowledge Islam as an integral part of their cultural heritage, many are not devout practitioners. Most participate in religious traditions associated with life-cycle rituals, such as weddings, burials, and pilgrimages. Islam was spread to the Turkmen in the tenth and eleventh centuries, primarily by Sufi sheikhs rather than by strictly orthodox preachers.
These sheikhs reconciled Islam with popular pre-Islamic customs. The people often adopted these Sufis as their "patron saints"—a practice contrary to strict Islam. Among the Turkmen, there developed special holy tribes, known as ovlat, which traced their ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the ovlat tribes became dispersed. Their members attended and conferred blessings at important communal and life-cycle events and also acted as mediators between disputing tribes. The ovlat institution retains some authority today. Many of the Turkmen who are respected for their spiritual powers trace their descent from an ovlat, and it is not uncommon, especially
in rural areas, for such individuals to grant blessings at life-cycle and other communal celebrations.
Unlike some Muslim women in the Middle East, Turkmen women never wore the veil or practiced strict seclusion. During the Soviet period, wives often assumed what had been male responsibilities for certain Islamic rites so as to protect their husbands’ careers.
Many women entered the workforce out of economic necessity, a factor that disrupted some traditional family patterns. Educated urban women entered professional services and careers.
Turkmen place great value on marriage celebrations and life-cycle rituals. In rural areas especially, marriages are often arranged by special matchmakers (sawcholar), who seek potential spouses according to their social status, education, and other qualities. The bride’s parents traditionally demanded a bride-wealth payment from the groom’s family as part of the marriage contract. Turkmen rarely divorce.