Trans Eurasia travel

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An undertow of apostasy has pervaded Central Asia always. The Uzbeks carried traces of shamanism into the Sunni orthodoxy of their settled lives, and a countervailing underworld of Persian demons had been throbbing for centuries beneath the surface of the great caravan-cities. Twenty feet beneath the floor of the Attari mosque I saw the stones of a Zoroastrian fire-temple; and fire, I was told, is still carried like an ancestral memory at the head of some Moslem wedding processions here. With a twinge of suspicion now, I remembered meeting years ago in Jerusalem the last of a sect of Bukhariot Sufis, who contemplated God by staring into flames.

Water too: the holiness of springs proved ineradicable. The pagan veneration of a deep well under the city walls was long ago sanctified by an enfolding mosque. It became the Spring of Job (a prophet adopted by the Moslems) who was said to have struck water from the ground to succour the parched inhabitants. The Russians turned the shrine into a museum, and I found it lined with vitrines illustrating the triumphs of Soviet irrigation. But nobody was looking at them. Instead, a party of peasant women was heaving up ice-cold water from the well among the showcases, splashing it over their wrists and heads with little mewling cries, and carrying it away in phials.

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron

ISLAM - Communism was supposed to supplant religion during the Soviet period, but attempts to secularise Uzbek society were less successful than in other parts of the USSR. Many people retained their faith in private even if they publicly claimed to be atheist, and the post-independence years have seen a marked rise in religious practice, including mosque building, which has caused some concern amongst the political elite lest it provide cover for religious extremism and challenges to the state.

With the exception of rapidly shrinking communities of Jews and Russian Orthodox Christians, small minorities of Roman Catholics, Baptists and evangelical Lutherans, and a few Buddhists among the Koreans of the Fergana Valley, nearly everyone from the Caspian Sea to Kabul is Muslim, at least in principle. The years since independence have seen a resurgence of a faith that is only beginning to recover from 70 years of Soviet-era ‘militant atheism’.

Some 90% of Uzbekistan's population is nominally Muslim, though there are great breadth in both the degree of religiosity and in the form of Islam practised.

Islam arrived in Uzbekistan with Arab invaders in the 8th century. It spread through the work of missionaries, and was popularised following the conversion of the ruling elite. Bukhara, and later Samarkand, became important regional centres of Islamic learning, their mosques and madrassas heavily patronised by the likes of Timur.

There was a severe clampdown on all religious practice during the Soviet period, but particularly on Islam as it was feared that pan-Islamism, if allowed to develop, could challenge communism and even the USSR. The 65 registered mosques that were allowed to continue were overseen by the Muslim Board of Central Asia, and those working within them were screened for their political reliability. Other mosques were closed, many Muslims were victims of mass deportation, and the government sponsored numerous anti-religious campaigns.

Islam returned to the public sphere following independence in 1991, and though adherence is growing, particularly amongst the young, surveys suggest that personal understanding of what it means to be a Muslim remains limited or distorted. Self-defining as Muslim appears to be more of an attempt to align oneself with Uzbekistan's cultural heritage than a confirmation of belief in Islamic doctrine.

CHRISTIANITY Around 5% of Uzbekistan's population are Christians, the vast majority of them being members of the Eastern (or Russian) Orthodox Church, with small numbers of Roman Catholics, Protestants and other groups. Prior to the arrival of Islam the country had a sizeable population of Nestorians and Jacobites, though these were largely killed or converted by Timur. Christianity returned with the arrival of the Russians in the 1860s.

There is significant concern amongst the international community about the persecution of Christians in Uzbekistan, despite a constitutional right of freedom of religion. New parishes cannot register themselves, the printing of unauthorised religious books (including the Bible) has been prohibited since 2006, participants in unregistered services have been detained and beaten, and Jehovah's Witnesses have been imprisoned for teaching religion.

JUDAISM Uzbekistan once had more than 90,000 Jews, most of them living in Bukhara, though now only a fraction of these remain. Ancient texts imply they may have come to Uzbekistan as far back as the 10th century bc, though most trace their ancestry to exiles from the Assyrian Empire in the 7th to 5th centuries bc. In any case, they have been cut off from the rest of the Jewish world for around 2,500 years. The German eccentric Josef Wolff visited the Bukharan Jews in 1843 while searching for the lost tribes of Israel.

The 20th century saw several significant Jewish migrations. Some Bukharan Jews fled Uzbekistan for Palestine during the purges of the 1920s and 30s, but the population then swelled with Ashkenazi Jews fleeing the Holocaust. The third wave of migration took place following independence: almost all of Bukhara's Jewish community emigrated then to Israel or the USA. Daniel Metcalfe's Out of Steppe contains a fascinating account of those few Jewish families who remain.

Islam (History & Schisms)

In AD 612, the Prophet Mohammed (SAV), then a wealthy Arab of Mecca in present-day Saudi Arabia, began preaching a new religious philosophy, Islam, based on revelations from Allah (Islam’s name for God). These revelations were eventually compiled into holiest book, the Quran.

Islam incorporates elements of Judaism and Christianity (eg heaven and hell, a creation story much like the Garden of Eden, stories similar to Noah’s Ark) and shares a reverence for many of the same prophets (Abraham/Ibrahim, Moses/Musa, Jesus/Isa), but treats these prophets simply as forerunners of the Prophet Mohammed (SAV). While Jews and Christians are respected as People of the Book (ahl al-Kitab), Islam regards itself as the summation
of and last word on these faiths.

In 622 the Prophet Mohammed (SAV) and his followers were forced to flee to Medina due to religious persecution (the Islamic calendar counts its years from this flight, known as Hejira). There he built a political base and an army, taking Mecca in 630 and eventually overrunning Arabia. The militancy of the faith meshed nicely with a latent Arab nationalism and within a century Islam reached from Spain to Central Asia.

Succession disputes after the Prophet’s (SAV) death (632 AD) soon split the community. When the fourth caliph, the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali, was assassinated in 661, his followers and descendants became the founders of the Shiite sect. Others accepted as caliph the governor of Syria, a brotherin-law of the Prophet, and this line has become the modern-day orthodox Sunni sect. In 680 a chance for reconciliation was lost when Ali’s surviving son Hussain (Hussein) and most of his male relatives were killed at Kerbala in Iraq by Sunni partisans.

About 80% of all Central Asians are Muslim, nearly all of them Sunni (and indeed nearly all of the Hanafi school, one of Sunnism’s four main schools of religious law).


Before the arrival of Islam, Central Asia sheltered pockets of Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Judaism, Nestorian Christianity and an ancient tradition of Buddhism. In the 8th century there were even Nestorian bishoprics in Herat, Samarkand and Merv.

Devout Muslims express their faith through the five pillars of Islam. Devout Sunnis pray at prescribed times: before sunrise, just after high noon, in the late afternoon, just after sunset and before retiring.

Just before fixed prayers a muezzin calls the Sunni and Shiite faithful, traditionally from a minaret, nowadays often through a loudspeaker. Islam has no ordained priesthood, but mullahs (scholars, teachers or religious leaders) are trained in theology, respected as interpreters of scripture, and are sometimes quite influential in conservative rural areas.

The Quran is considered above criticism: it is the direct word of God as spoken to his Prophet Mohammed (SAV). It is supplemented by various traditions such as the Hadith, the collected acts and sayings of the Prophet Mohammed (SAV).

In its fullest sense Islam is an entire way of life, with guidelines for nearly everything, from preparing and eating food to banking and dress.

The percentage of practising Muslims in the ex-Soviet republics ranges from 47% in Kazakhstan to 75% in Kyrgyzstan, 85% in Tajikistan, 88% in Uzbekistan and 89% in Turkmenistan.

Five pillars of Islam:


The original Sufis were simply purists, unhappy with the worldliness of the early caliphates and seeking knowledge of God through direct personal experience, under the guidance of a teacher or master, variously called a sheikh, Pir, ishan, murshid or ustad. There never was a single Sufi movement; there are manifestations within all branches of Islam. For many adherents music, dance or poetry were routes to trance, revelation and direct union with God. Secret recitations, known as zikr, and an annual 40-day retreat, known as the chilla, remain cornerstones of Sufic practice. This mystical side of Islam parallels similar traditions in other faiths.

Sufis were singularly successful as missionaries, perhaps because of their tolerance of other creeds. It was largely Sufis, not Arab armies, who planted Islam firmly in Central Asia and the subcontinent. The personal focus of Sufism was most compatible with the nomadic lifestyle of the Kazakh and Kyrgyz in particular. Although abhorred nowadays in the orthodox Islamic states of Iran and Saudi Arabia, Sufism is in a quiet way dominant in Central Asia. Most shrines you’ll see are devoted to one Sufi teacher or another.

When Islam was itself threatened by invaders (eg the Crusaders), Sufis assumed the role of defenders of the faith, and Sufism became a mass movement of regimented tariqas (brotherhoods), based around certain holy places, often the tombs of the tariqas’ founders. Clandestine, anticommunist tariqas helped Islam weather the Soviet period, and the KGB and its predecessors never seemed able to infiltrate.

The moderate, non-elitist Naqshbandiya tariqa was the most important in Soviet times, and probably still is. Founded in Bukhara in the 14th century, much of its influence in Central Asia perhaps comes from the high profile of Naqshbandi fighters in two centuries of revolts against the Russians in the Caucasus. In 1944 large Chechen and Ingush communities were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan. When, after Stalin’s death, the survivors were permitted to return to their homeland, they left behind several well-organised Sufi groups in Central Asia. A number of well-known 1930s basmachi (Muslim guerrilla fighters) leaders were Naqshbandis, as were several of Afghan’s mujaheddin.

Another important Sufi sect in Central Asia is the Qadiriya, founded by a teacher from the Caspian region. Others are the Kubra (founded in Khorezm) and Yasauia (founded in the town of Turkistan in Kazakhstan). All these were founded in the 12th century.

Islam in Central Asia

Islam first appeared in Central Asia with Arab invaders in the 7th and 8th centuries, though it was mostly itinerant Sufi missionaries who converted the region over the subsequent centuries.

Islam never was a potent force in the former nomadic societies of the Turkmen, Kazakhs and Kyrgyz, and still isn’t. Islam’s appeal for nomadic rulers was as much an organisational and political tool as a collection of moral precepts. The nomad’s customary law, known as adat, was always more important than Islamic sharia.

The Central Asian brand of Islam is also riddled with pre-Islamic influences – just go to any important holy site and notice the kissing, rubbing and circumambulation of venerated objects, women crawling under holy stones to boost their fertility, the shamanic ‘wishing trees’ tied with bits of coloured rag, the cult of Pirs (saints) and the Mongol-style poles with horse-hair tassels set over the graves of revered figures. Candles and flames are often burned at shrines and graves, and both the Tajiks and Turkmen jump over a fire during wedding celebrations or the Qurban (Eid al-Azha) festival, traditions that hark back to fire-worshipping Zoroastrian times. The Turkmen place particular stock in amulets and charms. At Konye-Urgench Turkmen women even roll en masse down a hillside in an age-old fertility rite.

There is also a significant blurring between religious and national characteristics. The majority of Central Asians, although interested in Islam as a common denominator, seem quite happy to toast the Prophet’s (SAV) health with a shot of vodka.

The Soviet Era

The Soviet regime long distrusted Islam because of its potential for coherent resistance, both domestically and internationally. Three of the five pillars of Islam (the fast of Ramadan, the haj and the zakat tax) were outlawed in the 1920s. The banning of polygamy, child marriage, the paying of bride price and the wearing of the paranja (veil) possibly pleased many women but the banning of Arabic script, the holy script of the Quran, was much less popular. Clerical (Christian, Jewish and Buddhist as well as Muslim) land and property were seized. Medressas and other religious schools were closed down. Islam’s judicial power was curbed with the dismantling of traditional sharia courts (which were based on Quranic law).

From 1932 to 1936 Stalin mounted a concerted antireligious campaign in Central Asia, a ‘Movement of the Godless’, in which mosques were closed and destroyed, and mullahs arrested and executed as saboteurs or spies.

By the early 1940s only 2000 of its 47,000 mullahs remained alive. Control of the surviving places of worship and teaching was given to the Union of Atheists, which transformed most of them into museums, dance halls, warehouses or factories.

By 1940, after Stalin’s attacks on religion, only 1000 of Central Asia’s 30,000 mosques remained standing and all 14,500 Islamic schools were shut.

During WWII things improved marginally as Moscow sought domestic and international Muslim support for the war effort. In 1943 four Muslim Religious Boards or ‘spiritual directorates’, each with a mufti (spiritual leader), were founded as administration units for Soviet Muslims, including one in Tashkent for all of Central Asia (in 1990 one was established for Kazakhstan). Some mosques were reopened and a handful of carefully screened religious leaders were allowed to make the haj in 1947. But beneath the surface little changed. Any religious activity outside the official mosques was strictly forbidden. By the early 1960s, under Khrushchev’s ‘back to Lenin’ policies, another 1000 mosques were shut. By the beginning of the Gorbachev era, the number of mosques in Central Asia was down to between 150 and 250, and only two medressas were open – Mir-i-Arab in Bukhara and the Imam Ismail al-Bukhari Islamic Institute in Tashkent.

Perhaps the most amazing thing though, after 70 years of concerted Soviet repression, is that so much faith remains intact. Credit for any continuity from pre-Soviet times goes largely to ‘underground Islam’, in the form of the clandestine Sufi brotherhoods (and brotherhoods they were, being essentially men-only), which preserved some practices and education – and grew in power and influence in Central Asia as a result.

Islam Today

Since independence, Central Asia has seen a resurgence of Islam, and mosques and medressas have sprouted like mushrooms across the region, often financed with Saudi or Iranian money.

Most Central Asians are torn between the Soviet secularism of the recent past and the region’s deeper historical ties to the Muslim world, but few have a very deep knowledge of Islam. Only the Fergana Valley regions of Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan can be considered strongly Muslim, and only here do women commonly wear the hijab (headscarf).

All the Central Asian governments have taken great care to keep strict tabs on Islam. Only state-approved imams (preacher or religious leader) and state-registered mosques are allowed to operate in most republics.