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Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia

Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia

by Adeeb Khalid

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How do Muslims relate to Islam in societies that experienced seventy years of Soviet rule? How did the utopian Bolshevik project of remaking the world by extirpating religion from it affect Central Asia? Adeeb Khalid combines insights from the study of both Islam and Soviet history to answer these questions. Arguing that the sustained Soviet assault on Islam destroyed


How do Muslims relate to Islam in societies that experienced seventy years of Soviet rule? How did the utopian Bolshevik project of remaking the world by extirpating religion from it affect Central Asia? Adeeb Khalid combines insights from the study of both Islam and Soviet history to answer these questions. Arguing that the sustained Soviet assault on Islam destroyed patterns of Islamic learning and thoroughly de-Islamized public life, Khalid demonstrates that Islam became synonymous with tradition and was subordinated to powerful ethnonational identities that crystallized during the Soviet period. He shows how this legacy endures today and how, for the vast majority of the population, a return to Islam means the recovery of traditions destroyed under Communism.

Islam after Communism reasons that the fear of a rampant radical Islam that dominates both Western thought and many of Central Asia’s governments should be tempered with an understanding of the politics of antiterrorism, which allows governments to justify their own authoritarian policies by casting all opposition as extremist. Placing the Central Asian experience in the broad comparative perspective of the history of modern Islam, Khalid argues against essentialist views of Islam and Muslims and provides a nuanced and well-informed discussion of the forces at work in this crucial region.

Editorial Reviews

Journal Of Contemporary Asia - Johan Saravanamuttu
“Khalid’s work is an important contribution to an understanding of the increasingly plural character of Islamic societies and how political Islam should be understood in particular regional and societal contexts.”
Intl Journal Of Middle East Stds (Ijmes)
“Clear and well-researched. . . . Khalid’s book is a very helpful aid in understanding the complexities of today’s Central Asia.”
The Muslim World Book Review - Ruqaiyah Hibell

"Thoughtful, insightful, and reflective."

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Islam After Communism

Religion and Politics in Central Asia
By Adeeb Khalid

University of California Press

Copyright © 2007 The Regents of the University of California
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-520-24927-1

Chapter One

Islam in Central Asia

In 1805, Eltüzer Khan, the reigning khan of Khwarazm, the oasis principality at the mouth of the Amu Darya, commissioned a history of his dynasty that would "place our august genealogy on a throne in the divan [chancery] of words and to set the names of our glorious ancestors into the seal of history." The resulting work was undertaken by a court historian by the name of Sher Muhammad Mirab Munis, and continued after his death by his nephew Muhammad Riza Agahi, who carried its account down to 1828. The work bore the appropriately grandiose title of Firdavs ul-iqbâl (The Paradise of Felicity) and gave an appropriately grandiose account of the achievements of the dynasty. The hefty text contains an enormous amount of information about the history of Central Asia, but perhaps more important is what it tells us about the mental universe of its author and intended audience and about the literary tradition from which it emerged. Like all traditional Muslim histories, it begins with an account of the origin of the community whose history it recounts. In this case, an account of Creation is followed by a short first chapter recounting the Muslim version of the descent of Adam to earth, his reconciliation with Eve, and the Flood. After the Flood, Noahhad three sons, who later propagated the human race. The eldest was Japheth, from whose eight sons sprang all the peoples who inhabited Inner Asia (Turânzamin). The eldest of the eight was Turk, the eponymous ancestor of the Turks. The Turks lived peacefully under the sons of Turk, a series of model rulers, until corruption set in during the reign of Alanja Khan. "The children of Japheth had been Muslims from the time of Noah until this time," but now they fell off the true path and ceased to be Muslims. Events came to such a pass that if a father heard of Islam, his son murdered him, and if a son understood anything of the faith, his father killed him. Then was born Oghuz Khan, who could speak at the age of one and whose first word was "Allah." He rebelled against his father, eventually slaying him, before embarking on a series of conquests that brought Islam to all of "Transoxiana and Turkestan." He ruled for 116 years, before passing away to the afterworld, whereupon his descendants split up. Eventually, one descendent called Jurliq Markan produced Qonghirat, who was the forebear of the Qonghirat tribe that ruled Khiva in the nineteenth century. Jurliq Markan's younger brother Tusbuday sired Qorlas, whose line ultimately produced Genghis Khan. Qorlas's descendants conquered the children of Qonghirat well before Genghis Khan appeared, and the children of Qonghirat were active participants in the rulership of Genghis Khan and his descendants. But during this time, the sons of Qorlas had fallen off the path of Islam again, until they were reconverted. Then the mystic Sayyid Ata, accompanied by Naghday, a Qonghirat notable, went to the court of Özbek Khan, the ruler of the Golden Horde, and brought him into the fold of Islam.

Muslim belief holds that Adam and Noah were the first among a vast number of messengers that God sent to humanity as bearers of divine guidance. They were thus Muslims, part of a chain of divine intervention in human life that culminated with Muhammad, the "seal of the prophets." In Munis's account, then, the Turkic peoples of Central Asia appear as having always been Muslim. They might have fallen off the correct path, but local heroes always brought them back to it. Remarkably, the history makes no mention of the Prophet, the rise of Islam in Arabia, or the Arab conquest of Central Asia. In the text, Islam becomes completely indigenized, an innate part of the genealogical heritage of the Turkic peoples of Central Asia. It is also intertwined with rulership: the Qonghirat dynasty that Munis and Agahi served bears an august lineage that goes back, through Oghuz Khan and Japheth, to Adam himself.

The story is obviously "legendary," and it is very easy to dismiss it as nonsense. But it tells us a great deal about how Central Asians related to Islam. For Munis, the origins of the community, and of the dynasty that ruled over it, were not a matter of explication through profane history. Rather, the origins were sacred, and only sacred history could explicate them. Other myths of origins connected cities and towns in Central Asia directly to the origins of Islam. The celebrated thirteenth-century Arab geographer Yaqut quoted a hadith in which the Prophet reportedly said, "There shall be conquered a city in Khorasan beyond a river which is called the Oxus; which city is named Bokhara. It is encompassed with God's mercy and surrounded by His angels; its people are Heaven-aided; and whoso shall sleep upon a bed therein shall be like him that draweth his sword in the way of God. And beyond it lieth a city which is called Samarqand, wherein is a fountain of the fountains of Paradise, and a tomb of the tombs of the prophets, and a garden of the gardens of Paradise; its dead, upon the Resurrection Day, shall be assembled with the martyrs." Numerous other hadiths connected lesser cities and towns to the Prophet and the very origins of revelation. Such hadiths might be considered unsound by Muslim scholars of hadith and by modern historians, but they were a true measure of the Islamization of Central Asia, for they allowed local identities to be imagined in Islamic terms. Such accounts of divine or Prophetic intervention in local histories dissolved time and space and connected Central Asia to the core of the Islamic tradition. The local and the global were thus intertwined.

* * *

Before the Russian conquest, for the bulk of the population, being Muslim meant being part of a community that saw itself as Muslim. It had little to do with the mastery, by every individual, of the basic textual sources of Islam. The Qur'an is central to Islamic ritual: its recitation is a pious deed, its verses can serve as protection from misfortune, and the use of selected phrases from it in appropriate social contexts is the true measure of "comprehension." However, it was not central to the everyday conduct of Muslims. Not even the learned were expected to be able to explicate given passages of the Qur'an. Rather, communities asserted their Muslim identities through elaborate myths of origin that assimilated elements of the Islamic ethical tradition with local norms and vice versa. The account of sacred origins of local Muslim communities provided by Firdavs ul-iqbâl was replicated in other, more "popular" accounts. One of the most commonly disseminated myths was that of Baba Tükles, who converted Özbek Khan, the Genghisid ruler of the Golden Horde, to Islam by beating the khan's court shaman in a religious contest.

The legend goes as follows: Four Muslim holy men arrived as Özbek Khan participated in a drinking ceremony at a sacred burial ground. In the holy men's presence, the presiding shamans lost their miraculous powers. Impressed, the khan ordered the shamans and the Muslims to "debate with one another ...; whoever among you has the religion that is true, I will follow him." The two parties agreed to a trial by fire: one member from each party would enter an oven fired with ten cartloads of tamarisk, and "Whoever emerges without being burned, his religion will be true." When the time came, Baba Tükles, one of the Muslim saints, volunteered for the ordeal. He walked into the oven, reciting the Sufi zikr (remembrance) and survived; his counterpart, however, had to be forced into the oven and was instantly consumed by the fire. Seeing this miracle, the khan and all those present became Muslims.

Baba Tükles was a "friend of God." Islam does not have officially canonized saints, but early on, Muslims came to accept that certain individuals have an intimate relationship to God and may intercede with him on behalf of ordinary Muslims. This cult of sacred persons replicated patronage networks that existed in society. Friends of God could be recognized as such in their lifetimes, and after their deaths, their mausoleums became shrines, places of pilgrimage, and foci of communal identity; their disciples, connected to them through chains of initiation, provided a living link to sacred origins. Many of these bringers of Islam were of foreign origin (usually they were ascribed Arab origins), but they were also fully indigenized as ancestors. Their successors were the living links to the community's sacred origins, whereas their shrines made the landscape itself sacred. It was these locally esteemed figures and their shrines that provided local communities with their links to Islam and to the rest of the Muslim world.

And the identity was communal. It was played out through the communal celebration of august ancestors, annual holidays, and life-cycle events. In turn, the community acquired a sacral aura, and its customs and traditions became "Islamic" in their own right. The veneration of shrines, codes of social intercourse rooted in local societies (showing respect for elders, the position of women, which could vary greatly across time and space, and obedience to those of higher social rank), or political authority could all be understood as Islamic. This dual process of localizing Islam and Islamizing local traditions led communities to see themselves as innately Muslim. Local customs were sacralized, and Islam was made indigenous. For most people, there simply could not be a distinction, let alone a contradiction, between Islam and local customs.

Such local ways of knowing Islam or being Muslim are hardly unique to Central Asia or to the past. Over the past few decades, anthropologists have created a substantial literature documenting cases of "local Islam" in many places, from Bosnia to the Comoro Islands, from Morocco to the Philippines. The diverse ways in which Muslims relate to Islam tests our assumptions about the unitary or homogenous nature of Islam. Conventionally, there are two ways in which such diversity is explained. One explanation posits the existence (in this case) of a "Central Asian Islam" that is allegedly moderate or liberal. This Islam stands in contrast to a harsher and less tolerant (but perhaps "more real") "Arab Islam." This view thus connects the diversity of Islam to national or ethnic categories and makes it subordinate to them. However, these national categories are themselves of modern vintage, and in no case is each "national" version of Islam internally homogeneous. Instead, such categorization of Islam transposes ethnic for religious essentialization (thus, not all Muslims think or act alike, but all Central Asians or all Uzbeks do). As we shall see in chapter 7, current repressive regimes in Central Asia are quite fond of such arguments and put them to brutal use.

Another way of making sense of Islam's diversity is to argue that Islam "sits lightly" on communities where Islam is thus localized, and indeed, that Muslims who identify with Islam in this manner are not "real Muslims." Implicit in this argument is the notion that "true Islam" exists and that it may be seen in practice in certain Middle Eastern societies. This position is canonized by many Western experts. Bernard Lewis thus writes, "Great numbers of Muslims live outside the Middle Eastern Islamic heartlands-indeed, by now the Muslims of South and Southeast Asia vastly outnumber the Arabic-, Persian-, and Turkish-speaking Muslims of the Middle East. But they have developed their own political and other cultures, much influenced by those of the regions in which they live." The assumption that certain societies lack any culture other than "Islam," whereas others have only local culture with a coloration of Islam is highly dubious. Ethnographies of Middle Eastern societies, for instance, show the same kind of melding of the local and the global that I describe for Central Asia above. Asserting that Middle Eastern societies exhibit "real" Islam in its purity renders Islam synonymous with a narrow part of the spectrum of its diversity and mischaracterizes this global phenomenon. The Middle East represents only a small proportion (between a fifth and a quarter, depending on one's definitions) of the total Muslim population of the world, most of which resides in Pakistan and points east. Finally, Lewis's argument echoes that of the more exclusivist groups of modern Muslims, for whom "real Islam" is a prescriptive, rather than merely a descriptive, tool.

Neither of these arguments helps us understand Islam as a phenomenon of this world. Islam takes many local forms, but none of them is stable or internally homogeneous. Perpetual tension exists within Islam, and all forms of Islam are open to challenge on "Islamic" grounds, from within the Islamic tradition. "Customary" or "local" understandings of Islam are countered by more "normative" versions of Islam that draw their authority from greater adherence to injunctions or strictures elaborated by scholars who specialize in fiqh or other aspects of Islam's normative tradition. This tension between different ways of understanding Islam creates the most characteristic inner dynamic in Muslim societies.

We should not assume, however, that "normative" Islam is any more stable or homogenous than "customary" Islam. Muslims can use the resources of the Islamic tradition to take any number of positions, including diametrically opposed ones, on questions that confront them. The absence of a churchlike hierarchy in Islam, which might have a monopoly over the determination of what is normative, complicates the situation further. The answer to the question of who speaks for Islam is that any Muslim may speak on behalf of Islam. Indeed, at any time in any society, there are competing claims to authority based on Islam. Ultimately, it is this contention over competing interpretations that defines Muslim politics. Totalizing statements about Islam, therefore, grossly misrepresent this reality. Characterizations that present Islam simply as wicked or tolerant are equally incorrect. Muslims can draw any number of lessons from Islam. The tradition is much too rich and diverse to be reduced to a single evaluative adjective.

The analytical task, then, is not to ask what Islam is or whether it is good or bad but to ask why certain interpretations of it are more compelling to some groups in society than to others and how views change over time? And we can answer these questions only by asking how religious authority is constituted around Islam in a given society, how it interacts with other kinds of authority (that of the state, or of science or progress, and so on), how religious knowledge is produced and transmitted, and by whom. What "Islam" or "real Islam" are and what they ought to be are thus questions not primarily of theology, but of cultural and social politics. The political implications of these debates depend on what historically contingent forces play a role (which groups in society have what vested interests) and by the historical baggage these groups bring with them. The burden of the past is absolutely crucial in defining the parameters of debate.

* * *

Islam arrived in Central Asia with Arab armies at the dawn of the eighth century. Arab expansion had brought the armies of the caliphate to the banks of the Oxus (or Amu Darya) by the middle of the seventh century. "The land beyond the river"-Mâ warâ al-nahr in Arabic, Transoxiana in English-boasted an old sedentary civilization, Iranian in speech and predominantly Zoroastrian in religion, that sat at the crossroads of trade between India, China, and the societies of the Mediterranean. Although Arab armies had been raiding the region since the 670s, it was only in 709 that they captured Bukhara and incorporated it into the Umayyad caliphate. The conquest led to the conversion of many local inhabitants, although we have few concrete facts at our disposal about the pace of conversion. The Arab conquerors considered new converts to be their clients, mawâlî, whose conversion freed them from taxation but did not lead to equality with the Arab conquerors. The ethnic nature of the Umayyad polity changed with the coming to power of the Abbasid dynasty as Islam transformed into a universal religion, and the rate of conversion of the sedentary population probably picked up. By the ninth century, Muslim geographers considered Transoxiana to be an integral part of the Muslim world. Over the next two centuries, its cities became connected to networks of Muslim culture and of Islamic learning. Indeed, some of the most important figures in Islamic civilization came from Transoxiana. Sunni Muslims hold six compilations of hadith to be authoritative. Two of the six compilers, Abu Isma'il al-Bukhari (810-70) and Abu 'Isa Muhammad al-Tirmidhi (825-92) were from Transoxiana. The influential jurists Abu Mansur Muhammad al-Maturidi (d. ca. 944) and Burhan al-Din Abu´l Hasan al-Marghinani (d. 1197); the great scientist Abu Nasr al-Muhammad al-Farabi (d. ca. 950), known as "the second teacher" (after Aristotle); and the rationalist philosopher Abu 'Ali Ibn Sina (980-1037, known in the West as Avicenna)-figures of absolutely central importance in the history of Islamic civilization in its so-called classical age-were all born in the region. They were part of broader networks of travel and learning, which served to make the cities of Transoxiana part of the heartland of the Muslim world. This position was cemented by the emergence, at the end of the tenth century, of Bukhara as the seat of the independent Samanid dynasty, which patronized the development of "new Persian" (i.e., Persian as a fully Islamized language) as a literary language.


Excerpted from Islam After Communism by Adeeb Khalid Copyright © 2007 by The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Khalid's work is an important contribution to an understanding of the increasingly plural character of Islamic societies and how political Islam should be understood in particular regional and societal contexts."—Journal of Contemporary Asia

"Clear and well-researched. . . . Khalid's book is a very helpful aid in understanding the complexities of today's Central Asia."—
Intl Journal of Middle East Stds (Ijmes)

Meet the Author

Adeeb Khalid is Jane and Raphael Bernstein Professor of Asian Studies and History at Carleton College. He is the author of The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia.

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