The large majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but the religious practices of Turkmens have always incorporated strong pre-Islamic elements, some drawn from Zoroastrianism and Shamanism. The attachment of Turkmens to amulets and talismans, the important place of ancestor worship, including visiting the graves of ancestors, and traditions such as the 'swinging away of sins' during the Kurban Bayram festival, are all examples. The influence of the mystical Sufism movement in Turkmenistan is particularly strong, probably because it appeared to enable the fusion of Islamic worship with traditional practices. Local Sufi leaders often incorporated music, even dance, into their rituals, and their tombs have become some of the most highly venerated places of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan.
The constitution declares Turkmenistan to be a secular state, but President Niyazov has tended to identify Islam as part of the national heritage of Turkmenistan, and the Islamic religion as an integral part of Turkmen identity. Niyazov's speeches frequently emphasise the freedom to practise Islam recovered following independence, comparing the four mosques which remained open during the Soviet period with the more than 300 built since 1991. Niyazov himself made the hajj in 1992, the first leader of one of the newly independent states of Central Asia to do so. Islamic marriage and funeral traditions are practised openly.
The government, however, concerned about the possible emergence of radical or political Islam, has taken steps to ensure that the state exerts control over religious structures, for example through the establishment of a Council for Religious Affairs, reporting to the president. The state controls the selection of clergy, often favouring local elders with limited formal theological training. Madrasas and other religious schools have not been permitted to operate. The annual hajj delegation from Turkmenistan is typically of around 188 people: this figure represents the capacity of one of Turkmenistan Airlines' Boeing aircraft. The state decides on the delegation and pays for the flight. Turkmens traditionally have no strong tradition of attendance of mosques, usually praying at home and at shrine pilgrimage sites. The largest of the mosques built since independence, including those at Geok Depe, Gypjak and the Ertogrul Gazy Mosque in Ashgabat, owe their grand designs more to the requirements of the regime than to those of the local religious communities.
Freedom of religious expression is enshrined in Turkmenistan's constitution but, under restrictive legislation passed in the mid-1990s, only Sunni Muslim and Russian Orthodox communities were able successfully to secure the necessary registration. In 2004 and 2005, following a relaxation of the rules surrounding registration, several further religious communities have secured it, including Baha'is, Seventh-Day Adventists, Hare Krishnas and Baptists, though reports of various forms of harassment of minority religious communities continue.
Other Religions - Approximately 11% of the population adhere to religions other than Islam. Most of this segment is ethnic Russians who belong to the Russian Orthodox Church. A small Jewish community of approximately 2,000 people is concentrated in Ashgabat. In addition, there are also Armenian Apostolic Church followers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Pentecostals, and other Protestant groups.