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Volume 41, Number 1January/February 1990

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Islam in a Communist State

Written by Grace Halsell
Photographs courtesy of Brynn Bruijn
Additional photographs by Tor Eigeland

It was the imams in the various cities of Soviet Central Asia who told me that the Russians, alter years of attempting to eradicate Islam, are now allowing more freedom and are relaxing their previously rigid controls on mosque building permits.

In Baku, for example, Hajji Adil Zeinalov, director of the Taza-Pir mosque, told me, "Five to six thousand mosques, all with historical significance, are still standing, but not functioning. We have made more than 100 requests that the mosques be reopened. Now, thank God - and thanks to Gorbachev - it is being done."

Still, in early 1988, on the second of three trips to the Soviet Union, when I wanted to visit the Muslim central office in Tashkent, I reminded myself that I would probably not be able to interview a religious official unless both he and I had state approval for such a visit. In a communist society, the state controls all enterprises - even religion.

I went to the state travel agency, Intourist, and asked an employee to make an appointment for me with the mufti. She hesitated, then said she would - "but not today."

Meanwhile, on my own, I determined at least to find the site of the Muslim Board, the central office for all official Islamic activities in the Central Asian republics. I bought a map of Tashkent and unfolded it before a pleasant 25-year-old man in a "service bureau" in my hotel. I asked him to pinpoint the Old City. He studied the map, with all its information printed in the Russian Cyrillic alphabet, and eventually said I could take Trolley Number One. Chatting with him, I learned that he was a Russian and a native of Moscow who had lived in Tashkent for 15 years. As for the Old City, he said, "I have never been there."

Leaving the huge tourist hotel, I walked a couple of blocks and boarded a trolley. Moving through the streets of new Tashkent, I noted large, modern edifices and an array of impressive parks, so beautifully designed and maintained they make the city a showcase for the vast Central Asian region of the USSR. The trolley rolled on into an area where only Uzbek Muslims live, and I noted housing reflecting a far smaller economic outlay, with few public buildings and parks.

After 30 minutes, I disembarked at the end of the trolley line, and began walking. I passed mud-brick homes facing windowless onto narrow streets. I saw few vehicles and almost no pedestrians. Then suddenly I heard a voice, chanting the call to prayer. I searched for an edifice that might be a mosque, but I could not see one. Finally, I realized the voice was emanating from one of the look-alike houses, but it was impossible to discern which one.

I continued walking, past structures that must once have been mosques or schools, now crumbling in total disrepair. Scholars tell us that once in the land that became the USSR there were 26,000 mosques. When the communist regime came to power, especially after Stalin's absolute dictatorship began, the leaders ordered the destruction of places of worship. Many mosques not destroyed were converted to warehouses, restaurants, tea houses - even stables; only about 400 were left as functioning mosques.

Continuing to walk through a maze of twisting, abruptly ending streets, I felt hopelessly lost when suddenly I turned a corner and saw what looked like an Islamic structure. Walking closer, I saw a sign with raised letters in Arabic, Russian,, Uzbek Turkic and English: " Muslim Religious Board of Central Asia and Kazakstan." As I had surmised, I was not permitted to enter without authorization.

On another day, after Intourist had cleared me, I returned to the Board and was ushered into the courtyard of a former religious school, the Madrasa Barak-khana, dating from the 16th century. I was led to the office of Dr. Usufkhan Shakir, vice-chairman of the directorate.

There are three other Islamic boards, but because of the importance of Central Asia, where 75 percent of the Soviet Union's Muslims live, the Tashkent directorate is especially important. Dr. Shakir said their executive committee, composed of both religious functionaries and laymen, is responsible for the inspection, cleaning and furnishing of mosques, as well as the restoration of old mosques and the appointment of imams and preachers, known as khatibs. The committee also oversees the only two official madrasas in the Soviet Union: the Bukhara Mir-i Arab madrasa and the Tashkent Institute. These two academic centers train religious cadres in the essence and content of the Qur'an, the Hadith literature on the customs and practices of the Prophet, and the laws of the shari’a. They also teach the Arabic language.

The Tashkent Board is the only office where Muslims may officially publish Islamic material but no one there was willing to cite numbers of publications or the size of press runs. Since the state officially sanctions only small quantities of Islamic religious material, little or none gets into the hands of the average Muslim. Soviet authorities have authorized only limited printings of the Qur'an, a limited number of Hadith collections and a few reference books on the shari’a, the Islamic law.

Dr. Shakir said the Tashkent Board also publishes an official organ, Muslims of the Soviet East. Printed in Uzbek, Arabic, English, French, Farsi and Dari (a language of Afghanistan), the journal offers editorials on religious themes, detailed historical articles and legal texts. Most of its circulation, however, is abroad.

After my talk with Dr. Shakir, a guide showed me the Tillya-Shaikh Jami mosque and introduced me to Imam Madurshid-kari. Together we looked at rare Qur'ans and other treasured Islamic books in a new and impressive library, designed and built by Uzbeks. Since my visit, the Uzbekistan government turned over to this Muslim library a reputed seventh-century Qur'an of Caliph 'Uthman.

Later, I was introduced to Muhammad Sadiq Mamayusupov, the rector of the Tashkent Institute. It had been cloudy, but now the sun was shining. The rector and I stood in the garden, just outside the classrooms of the institute, named for Ismail al-Bukhari, whose compilations of the savings of the Prophet are one are the most revered texts in the Islamic world, after the Qur'an. The rector, 36, had a serious, even stern face, yet compassion, warmth and modesty seemed evident in his manner of speech. He had traveled in the United States, and among the five languages he's mastered, he speaks fluent English.

"I was born into a religious family in the Andizhan region, and I received my primary religious education from my father," he related. After finishing at the Mir-i Arab madrasa in Bukhara, he graduated with highest honors from the Tashkent Institute. He then studied for four more years in al-Baidha Theological University in Libya.

As I chatted with Mamayusupov in the garden, I could not have guessed that he would shortly be named mufti of the religious board. His appointment came in 1989 after 10,000 Muslims marched in Tashkent's streets demanding the removal of his predecessor, whom they accused of immoral conduct. The Fourth Central Asian Muslim Congress, meeting in Tashkent, unanimously named Mamayusupov as mufti, and in Moscow, the Council of Religious Affairs approved the choice. Attached to the Council of Ministers of the Soviet Union, the non-Muslim Council of Religious Affairs oversees all "official" religious matters throughout the Soviet Union.

In addition to the Tashkent Board, the Soviets established an Islamic Religions Hoard for Siberia and European Russia, another for the North Caucasus, and a third for Transcaucasia. All Boards are Sunni except the one in Transcaucasia, which is mixed Sunni-Shi'i because the majority of Transcaucasian Muslims are Shi'ites.

The Soviets established the Boards in 1943 and 1944 to gain Muslim support for the battle against the Nazis -support seen as critical to offset the tens of thousands of Central Asians who had defected from the Soviet Army to the German side, preferring to tight against the irreligious communists and, at the same time, tempted by hopes of independence if Germany won the war.

I asked one Central Asian how the rank-and-file Muslims feel about the official religious boards. "We often are not trusting them," he replied, "because we know the boards are government-controlled." He added, "Because we cannot or do not trust them completely, many Muslim communities in villages and towns organized or built praying places in private homes, and organized classes for children on Sundays. The Soviets do not condone such non-official Islamic activities."

Traditionally, anyone who is educated in the Islamic religion and law is one of the 'ulama, or the learned. However, to be an official member of the 'ulama in the Soviet Union, a religious leader must be appointed by one of the Boards.

Obviously the few mosques, the two small madrasas and the limited number of official 'ulama - the number was reduced from 45,000 earlier to an estimated 1,000 in 1989 - do not meet the needs and demands of the masses of Muslims in the USSR. In literally thousands of towns and villages, there are no mosques and no official imams or 'ulama; the people thus turn to illegal, unofficial Muslim functionaries. Unless they did so, they could not conduct a religious marriage or honor their dead with a Muslim burial.

The non-official Muslim leaders, however, serve at grave risk, since any unsanctioned religious activity, especially when it is performed by a group, can be a crime under Soviet law. Thus, one Muslim told me, this "parallel" Islam is so covert that "those bent on eliminating Islam don't know how to find its practitioners." And, he added, because it lies beyond the control of the Muslim religious boards and therefore of the Soviet authorities, it often proves to be "more dynamic than official Islam. "To their credit, the official leaders of the Islamic community have always refused to condemn parallel Islam as heretical or unorthodox, because, 1 was told, "it has served as a haven for Islamic practices."

The Russian-Muslim relationship goes back several centuries. In 1552, Ivan the Terrible occupied the Khanate of Kazan. Ivan, married to the daughter of a Tatar Muslim, tolerated Islam. After his death, however, his successors forcibly Christianized the land. They destroyed mosques and confiscated Muslim land and property; in response, the Muslims went underground.

In contrast to her predecessors, Empress Catherine II had the highest regard for Islam, considering it "a reasonable religion." In 1782, she created the Muslim Spiritual Assembly of Orenburg, which later moved to Ufa; it was a precursor of the Boards established by the Soviets during the Second World War.

It was in 1928, after Joseph Stalin's sweeping victory at the 15th Communist Party Congress, that the massive destruction of mosques began throughout the Muslim regions of the Soviet Union - a destruction that lasted until World War II. Despite all obstacles, however, the Central Asian Muslims maintained their devotion to Islam, learning the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet from their parents and grandparents and in turn teaching their children.

Now, however, as the 1990’s begin, Soviet Muslims are hoping that the new tolerance recently experienced by Soviet Jews and Christians will also be extended to them. They cite the fact that Christians were recently allowed to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of Christianity in Russia. And, indeed, in Baku, orders have come through granting permission to reopen 60 mosques, Zeinalov said, and each renovated mosque will have its own imam.

Baku will also have a new madrasa, Zeinalov added. "Formerly Shi'a Muslim students from Azerbaijan traveled to either Bukhara or Tashkent, both oriented to Sunni Islam, for higher education. Now they can stay here for their studies."

In Bukhara, Abdurrahim Tadjiakhmatov, deputy director of the Mir-i Arab madrasa, told me, "We will get a new madrasa here, too. Our capacity will increase from 84 to 200 students, with a new class entering every year."

In Tashkent, the chief mufti said, "We will build a new institute here. We will increase the capacity from 50 to 120 students." The new institute will be built at a cost of more than four million dollars, and nearby will be new facilities for international seminars, for all the Muslim leaders 1 spoke with agreed that meeting their co-religionists from around the world was rewarding. Imam Zeinalov spoke of his great satisfaction in learning, during a Baku conference, that "an American |Muslim| had prayed the same prayer I had prayed."

The Tashkent mufti said conferences there had attracted Muslims from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, as well as other countries. "We have five or six conferences annually in Tashkent, and we are hoping for more."

Forty mosques in the Tashkent jurisdiction have been restored, and more will be reopened, I was told. "Formerly, if one put in a request to reopen a mosque, it took three years to get a reply," the mufti said. "And the reply could be a 'No'. Now it only takes one month to get a reply - usually 'Yes.'" He added that "the highest authorities had ordered the granting of permits.

In Kazakstan, as of 1989, there were only 30 to 40 working mosques; I found only one in Alma Ata. But there too a permit has been granted for another. And to the south, near the border with Afghanistan, the Tajiks in Dunshanbe are building a madrasa; it will be only the fourth Islamic school of higher learning in all of the USSR.

What else do Central Asian Muslims hope for in a changing world? In addition to more mosques, more madrasas and more ‘Ulama, they want more control over their observance of Ramadan, the holy month of day-time fasting; broader availability of the Qur'an; and visas for more pilgrims to make the Hajj to Makkah.

One Muslim pointed out that in the USSR, state ownership or control of all workplaces and factories and - above all - a demanding system of production quotas make it virtually impossible to observe Ramadan. In factories, and more especially in agriculture, production goals often require workers to labor from dawn to dusk, often with no weekends tree. To abstain from food and drink during those same hours is enormously difficult.

Still, as Imam Parpiev of Andizhan said, "Those who can, observe Ramadan by fasting." Margelan's Imam Khatib Shaykh Sabirjan Eminev told me, "We read the Qur'an during night prayers. We translate the Hadith, the sayings and customs of the Prophet, into the Uzbek language. And we speak of the duties of the people during Ramadan." Recognition of those duties by factory and cooperative managers would be welcome.

The Tashkent mufti, soon after assuming his position in 1989, made a strong plea to the Soviet government: "There must be more copies of the Qur'an." Until now, the Qur'an has been officially printed in the USSR only in Arabic: No translation is available iii the modern script and language of any Soviet Muslim nationality. The Tashkent mufti requested that Qur'ans be printed in three editions: in the original Arabic, in Uzbek-Turkic using the Cyrillic alphabet, and in Uzbek using the Arabic script that Muslims in Central Asia have used for 1400 years. An Uzbek scholar, the late Altinchan Tora Terazij, who died in 1988 at the age of 90 in Medina, spent three decades translating the Qur'an into the Uzbek Turkic language, using Arabic script. His work was published in Saudi Arabia, but is not available in the USSR.

The scarcity of Qur'ans was made clear to me when, seated in a Baku mosque interviewing the director, I asked if the Quran were readily available. "Certainly," he assured me, and handed a large key to an assistant, who brought from its safekeeping an old and well-thumbed copy of the holy book. Having thus demonstrated how readily the Qur'an was available, he asked the assistant to replace it in the locked cabinet.

In Tashkent, I asked an official how many Qur'ans had been printed. "It's been printed six times in the past 35 years," he told me - but he did not know how many copies each printing comprised, except for the last edition in 1977 That was an edition of 10,000 copies.

Because so little Islamic literature is available through official channels, Muslims have repeatedly turned to underground publishing to produce more of it. The scale of such illegal activities is not easy to judge, but in 1985, Soviet papers reported ambitious efforts by a number of groups using clandestine presses to print Islamic publications, some in Arabic, which were distributed from Namangan to Samarkand. At least one of these operations was big business, with tens of thousands of rubles in sales.

A few months earlier, an Ashkabad newspaper reported that the authorities had discovered an increased distribution of audio cassettes of religious programs. And in 1987a Tajik newspaper told of Soviet officials apprehending Tajiks who were printing religious literature and prayer books. Several unofficial Muslim 'ulama were arrested in that case and imprisoned for terms of two to 10 years. And in Samarkand, a 45-year-old woman and her father were arrested for selling Islamic literature; they were part of a larger network, with headquarters in Namangan.

Few Muslim families in the Soviet Union own a Qur'an. In 1980, the black-market price of a Qur'an was $300. Soviet soldiers thus found it profitable to smuggle Qur'ans back from Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of that country; they brought in enough copies to lower the black-market price to $75 a copy by 1989.

All imams with whom I talked expressed the hope that more Soviet Muslims would be permitted to go on the Hajj, the sacred pilgrimage to Makkah, which every Muslim who is physically and financially able is supposed to make at least once in a lifetime.

Before the 1917 October revolution, 30,000 to 40,000 Russian pilgrims went on the Hajj each year. Then in 1930, the Soviet government prohibited all Muslims from making the pilgrimage. It was only in 1945 that the authorities again began permitting a well-screened few only 18 to 20 people - to go to Makkah each year. Indeed, in each instance when an imam told me he had been on the Hajj, he had been one of a small delegation of 18, 19, or 20 pilgrims: I did not hear of a delegation since 1945 that comprised more than 20 people. In comparison, China, with fewer Muslims, permitted 2000 of its citizens to make the Hajj in 1988.

One Muslim said he resented the fact that the Soviets permit medical doctors and supervisory agents to go for other than religious reasons, whereas there are millions of devout Muslims who want to make the Hajj but are denied permission. Also, he said, some in "official" Islam go repeatedly. The former mufti in Tashkent had made the pilgrimage 14 times.

I asked one Central Asian Muslim, "What would the Russians have to do to make you and other Muslims happy?" He replied, "Just give us the ability to make some of the important decisions for ourselves." Then he added, "Gorbachev obviously has been attempting to do this."

According to some students of Soviet ideology, the communists have steadfastly striven toward the creation of a nation of citizens adapted to the Soviet system - what has been termed a "Soviet man" or Homo sovieticus. But Helene Carrere d'Encausse, author of Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia, says there is also Homo islamicus, who remains unassimilated, unrussified, unadapted and distinct.

The Muslim of the USSR, she says, is not necessarily a dissident, "but simply by his existence, by his presence in the whole area where the Muslim civilization has existed, he bears witness that ... the human prototype that socialist society intended to shape does not exist - or does not exist everywhere."

D'Encausse asserts that the existence of Homo islamicus demonstrates that, while it is "relatively easy" to change the general structures of a society, "it is extremely difficult to alter minds."

What seems clear is that despite Communist attempts to eradicate Islam, it has not only survived, but is beginning to flourish again. In Tashkent, Abdulghani Abdulla, a deputy chairman of the religious board there, made it clear what he thinks of Islam and the future: "We are the fiber of life here," he said. "We were here in the seventh century and I can assure you that even more of us will be here tomorrow - and the day after that."

Writer Grace Halsell and photographer Brynn Bruijn independently submitted the idea of a special issue of. Aramco World on the Muslim peoples and provinces of the Soviet Union at about the time we were covering the region in another context, for our earlier special issue "Traveling the Silk Roads" (September-October 1988). Some two years later, as television and newspapers report dramatic changes in the crescent of Muslim republics across the southern USSR, this issue - produced by the contributors named below - has become more timely than we anticipated. We hope it illuminates the present and the future as well as the past

From the Cradle to the Grave
Written by Grace Halsell

Here in the Ferghana Valley," an Uzbek told me, "we maintain centuries-old traditions connected with birth, circumcision, marriage and burial."

When a child is born, a Central Asian Muslim asks the local imam or another member of the religious establishment to officiate at a name-giving ceremony. When a son is circumcised - often at age four, five or six - the father asks a member of the 'ulama to officiate. "Circumcision has a special Islamic significance among Central Asians," an imam said. "It means that a young boy becomes a member of the universal community of Islam, that he is one with his fellow Muslims around the world."

Jamila, the woman I met in the Ferghana Valley cotton fields, told me that when she and her husband were married, they had not only a civil ceremony, but a Muslim religious one as well, in the mosque in Ferghana. "Without a religious ceremony, we do not consider any couple married," jamila said.

Later, when I inquired of Ali, our Uzbek guide, how many couples have the Islamic religious ceremony when they marry, he said, "All do" Later he amended that to say that in the Ferghana Valley, "ninety-nine percent have the religious ceremony." And, what, I asked, if they are Communist Party members?

"They sometimes will ask the imam to come to the home anyway, for a religious service, but everyone keeps quiet about it."

I happened to be visiting with imams in two cities, Namangan and Ferghana, when, in each place, the imam said he had to excuse himself to conduct a wedding ceremony. In each instance he added, "You are welcome to come along."

In Ferghana, I followed Imam Abdul Vali, 35, to a nearly room. I wondered if the couple would be nervous with a stranger in their midst, but the young bride and groom and their two witnesses gave no indication they felt me to be an unwelcome intruder.

The bride was wearing a long white gown, while the groom was in a business suit. They listened attentively as the imam read certain verses from the Qur'an, and when Imam Vali asked the bride if she accepted the groom as her husband, she gave a soft but audible affirmative reply. The groom gave her a gold ring, and as to their vows, the imam asked the two witnesses if they had heard. Each replied in their Uzbek Turkic language, "Yes, I heard."

When the ceremony was over, the bride and groom invited me to have photos taken with them. They were as open and warm to me as if I had been family.

The wedding party, Ali said, was the biggest family event in the Muslim's life. "The previous day, women arrive at the home of the bride's parents and begin chopping carrots, maybe 100 to 200 kilos, that will go into a huge pilaf. Several sheep arc slaughtered. Perhaps 400 to 500 guests will come to the celebration, mostly old people who are not tied to a regular job. The host will serve two or three meals in one day. He will have hired actors or other entertainers, and there will be music and dancing.

"The first night the married couple sleep in their clothes, they do not consummate their vows. On the second night, they do." Ali said that the practice of hanging out sheets to show the community that the bridegroom had won a virgin was still widely practiced, at least, he added, "here in Ferghana Valley"

In Andizhan, I was talking with Imam Mohammed Sulli Parview in the 111-year-old Derone Bay mosque when he told me that a couple was waiting for him to perform the marriage, ceremony, "and you are welcome to attend." With Ali, the guide, I followed the imam into a nearby room, where we saw a bride of 18 and a groom a few years older. The bride had her head, and both bride and groom seemed extremely shy and nervous. Ali again interpreted what the imam was telling the couple.

"He is saying that if the husband travels far, he must provide for his wife in advance of his leaving. He is emphasizing respect for each other and for one's parents, and he is telling them that they should bring up children in the proper way. Work is good; live the honest way; do not steal."

After the couple left, I asked Ali if the groom was expected to pay a dowry to the bride in cash. He insisted that this was no longer done. "The groom may need to furnish 100 kilos of rice, one cow, two sheep to the parents of the bride, but it is now uncommon to give money."

In the case of the third most important IsIamic ceremony, a religious burial, I witnessed two services, the first in the Khoja Akra mosque in Samarkand. 1 was standing, admiring the 17th-century mosque, when I noticed the strange quietness and grief-stricken faces of Muslims Muslims sitting nearby. Looking behind me, I saw a mass of people moving toward the mosque in silence. Those in front were carrying the dead person at shoulder height on a bier, covered by a white sheet. I learned she was a woman, 60 years of age.

The ceremony was brief. A guide explained what the imam was saying: "This is the work of God. Some day every one of us will die. Don't cry so much, but give thanks to God." Afterward, the same delegation of about 200 persons accompanied the body to the cemetery, where the woman was put into the earth. No coffin is used in such an Islamic burial.

In Bukhara, I had walked with a guide to the Khoja Zainudin mosque, built in 1530, where in the courtyard a burial ceremony was about to begin. Without hesitation, one of the religious to functionaries ushered us into the office of the imam. We met Abdulgafor Razakov, 35, who explained the the funeral service was for a 70-year-old man and his grandchild, who by coincidence had died at about the same time.

The imam left to conduct the ceremony, and from that his office I could see the grieved faces of the relatives, who sat near the bodies.

All the mosques in the Ferghana Valley are filled to capacity for Friday prayers. In Kokand's Norbuta Bey mosque, built in 1798, for example, as many as 10,000 people attend Friday prayers, In Margelan, 3000 to 5000 come to the Mestchit khanaka mosque, built in 1558. In Namangan, 7000 go to the Sheikh Imam mosque and in Andizhan, 5000 to 6000 go on Fridays to the 19th-century Derone Bay mosque. These streams of people testify that, despite 50 years of official repression and co-optation, Islam flows proper as visibly - and as nourishingly - as a river the lives of Central Asian Muslims

Writer Grace Halsell and photographer Brynn Bruijn independently submitted the idea of a special issue of Aramco World on the Muslim peoples and provinces of the Soviet Union at about the time we were covering the region in another context, for our earlier special issue "Traveling the Silk Roads" (September-October 1988). Some two years later, as television and newspapers report dramatic changes in the crescent of Muslim republics across the southern USSR, this issue - produced by the contributors named below - has become more timely than we anticipated. We hope it illuminates the present and the future as well as the past.

This article appeared on pages 32-43 of the January/February 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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