chapter  2
21 Pages

Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia

When the Soviet empire collapsed and the former Soviet Central Asian republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – emerged as independent nation states, there was an upsurge in interest in Islam in the region. A common feature of revivalist movements in the Islamic world is the perception that the umma (community of believers) is characterized by backwardness and stagnation, and that a renewed commitment to the fundamentals of Islam, however defined, will bring about progress and development. This perception has also characterized Islamic revivalism among Central Asian Muslims. However, the Islamic revival in Central Asia has also had its unique characteristics connected with the specific shared historical experience of the Muslim populations of the former Soviet Union (cf. Rasanayagam 2006c: 219). As mentioned in the introduction, in the Soviet Union restrictions against religious practices had been a central aspect of government policies since the revolution. Accordingly, the Sovietization of Central Asia involved a massive assault on Islam: religious properties were confiscated, mosques and madrasas were destroyed or closed, the ulama were persecuted and Soviet Muslims were isolated from contacts with the rest of the Muslim world (Keller 2001; Ro’I 2000). There was some respite during the Second World War when, in order to gain popular support for the war effort, an official Muslim Spiritual Administration for Central Asia and Kazakhstan was established.1 The Muslim Spiritual Administration was charged with controlling a limited number of mosques, madrasas and clerics, with appointing imams to lead local congregations, with supervising limited access to religious education, training and worship, and with working out a limited practice of Islam which was compatible with Soviet citizenship.2

However, as Johan Rasanayagam has noted, the main part of the population was prevented from attending the official mosques: people in positions of authority such as government officials or teachers, as well as the young would have risked their jobs if they had done so. Thus, the orthodoxy that was being preached in the mosques could not extend much more widely than the official ulama themselves. For the majority of the population, Islamic learning was limited to lessons from unofficial mullahs (Rasanayagam 2006b).