The Awakening of Central Asian Islam


Most Soviet Muslims lived in Central Asia; they were the first to adopt Islam from the chronological point of view (7-9th centuries). There are two things that characterized Central Asian Islam:

  1. The unofficial clergy in the region has always been very influential, having emerged from Sufistic orders; it opposed the official clergy that also possessed great political and economic power.
  2. Pre-Islamic beliefs have always been popular in the region. With time, the Sufism of Central Asia turned into Ishanism that absorbed traits of many pre-Islamic cults: the traces of paganism, the belief in magical rituals. In some cases, the ideas of Islam overlap with pre-Islamic ones (the legends combining the cults of saints with the pagan beliefs in gods; female goddesses replaced by Muslim holy women; the Islamization of Navruz).

The number of Shiites

The number of Shiites (called “Ironi” in the region) is very small (50-60 thousand). From the linguistic point of view, Ironi includes Tadjuk- (Darvaz, Kulyab, Bukhara) and Turkic-speaking (Samarkand, Dzhizak, Kamashi) peoples. Ironi-Shiites did not isolate themselves from the population; their influence grew and caused the displeasure of Sunnites resulting in pogroms. The boundaries between Ironi and the rest of the population blurred during the Soviet period, but after the break-up of the USSR, the process stopped, although the future of the group remains unclear.

The relationship between the Islam clergy and Russian authorities

The relationship between the Islam clergy and Russian authorities has always been complicated. About 20% of the population of the USSR consisted of Muslim people. Their support was important for the authorities during WW II. USSR ideology opposed any religion, but in the 60s the state allied with Islam countries of the Arab East. Since the “perestroika” period Islam has been awakening in Central Asia. The number of Muslim Institutions has been growing, which is the result of the work of the official clergy. The unofficial clergy chose to form Islam parties (first founded in 1990) though its story is that of violence and extremism. Despite the period of “silence” during the Soviet era, Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia has stayed a political force that has to be acknowledged.

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