The first decade of the Soviet period in Central Asia saw considerable religious ferment. With Soviet institutions still quite weak, preexisting reform currents came to the forefront. Their struggles were primarily with conservative Muslim elites rather than with the Soviet state, which often tended to see reformers as allies in its battle against “backwardness.”
the longest serving mufti of SADUM (1957-1982). Born in Tashkent in a family of ulama who traced their lineage to Ahmed Yesevi, Babakhan studied at the Mu-yi Mubarak madrasa, where his father was mudarris. Among his other teachers was Shami Domla, who in the 1920s presided over regular gatherings of local ulama where hadith was discussed. Shami Domla posited the supremacy of hadith over all other sources of authority in questions of theology and law. The teachings of Shami Domla were to have a lasting influence of Babakhan’s thought. Babakhan’s father, Ishan Khan ibn Babakhan (Uzb., Eshonxon ibn Boboxon) was elected mufti of SADUM when the latter was established in 1943. Ziyauddin was its secretary and the officially recognized qadi. He spent 1947-48 studying in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Ziyauddin Babakhan succeeded him upon his death in 1957, although he had de facto been in charge already for several years. Over the years, Ziyauddin Babakhan issued numerous fatwas that were marked by their radical departure from the Hanafi consensus of the ulama of Central Asia. In their radical denigration of customary practices, and their appeal to the Quran and hadith, these fatwas were indicative of the influence of Shami Domla, but also of broader scrupturalist currents common in the Muslim world at the time. The fatwas were also in a direct line of descent from the strident modernism of the Jadids. Babakhan was also the face of Soviet Islam to the rest of the world. He traveled widely and hosted delegations from all over the world. In 1980, he hosted an international Islamic conference in Tashkent to mark the advent of the fifteenth century of the Islamic calendar. He died in 1982 and is buried next to his father near the mausoleum of Abu Bakr Kaffal-i Shashi.
Since before the revolution, different schools of reformers had argued for a “purification” of Islam through the elimination of many customary practices and traditions. These included customary feasts marking life-cycle events (births, male to nationalism and progress. The two groups found much in common and often cooperated circumcisions, weddings, and funerals); visits to saintly shrines; and almost the entire complex of Sufi practices. Here, they had much in common with many modernist movements in the Muslim world that have sought to “purify” through an appeal to scriptural sources of Islam and greater emphasis on rigor in ritual and observance. Reformers also called for the institutionalization of Islamic courts, regulation of waqf properties and of educational institutions.
The impulse for such reform came from two overlapping sources. A new current of rigorous adherence to the Qur’an and hadith as the only sources of authority gained adherents among the ulama and led them to advocacy of the extirpation of traditions from local society. The appearance of a Lebanese scholar, Sa’id ibn Muhammad al-Asali at-Tarablusi as-Shami, known locally as Shami Domla (the Syrian Professor), is usually credited with introducing this rigorous current, which was later to be known as Wahhabism. The Jadids agreed with this critique of custom and tradition, but they wedded religious reform.
But the Soviets were not interested in the reform of Islam. As radical Marxists, they saw religion a mask that covered up the exploitation and oppression of the world with the ideological salve of divine mercy and the promise of life after death. They set out to accomplish nothing less than the abolition of religion from society and from the consciousness of the new individual. The campaign against Islam in Central Asia began in 1927. It began with the closure of all non-state schools. Qazi courts were similarly suppressed quickly, and waqf property nationalized. Mosques and shrines began t be closed as well.. A few mosques had been closed earlier in the decade and their buildings given over to “socially useful” purposes, but the years between 1927 and 1929 saw a sustained campaign of closures and destruction directed against them. This brutal assault transformed the religious landscape of Central Asia. The assault targeted both traditionalist and reformist Muslims — the latter had come to be seen as “bourgeois nationalists,” and hence more dangerous to the Soviet cause than the merely “backward” traditionalists. Indeed, two waves of persecution (in 1929-31 and 1937-38) carried off most Jadid leaders, who were executed as “enemies of the people.” Modernist reform had been largely destroyed.
By the mid-1920s, the Soviet Union had receded into isolation from the rest of the world. Private individuals could travel abroad only with official permission, and the import of publications was greatly restricted. This isolation marked Soviet Islam in significant ways, for it cut Soviet Muslims off from the rest of the Muslim world. The establishment of SADUM in 1943 opened up new possibilities for Islamic reform. One of SADUM’s tasks was to issue fatwas that would provide Islamic justification to the actions and legislation of the Soviet state. SADUM was staffed by traditionalist ulama, many with Naqshbandi Sufi connections, but it took many radically modernist and reformist positions, especially in its fatwas. Such modernist interpretations of Islam fit the needs and desires of the Soviet state, to be sure, but they clearly marked a departure from the historical consensus of the ulama of Central Asia. To an extent, the positions taken by SADUM harked back to the reformist trends of the 1920s, but a more immediate source was the time the second mufti of SADUM, Ziyovuddin Khan ibn Eshon Babakhan spent studying in Saudi Arabia in 1947-48. The Sunni puritanism favored in Saudi Arabia had in common with Jadidism a hostility to customary practices and traditionalist interpretations of Islam. Some of these fatwas were unusual also in their form, which resembled that of a lecture or a comment than the simple response to a question, as fatwas usually are.
Many foreign observers dubbed the SADUM and its counterparts “official Islam. During the Cold War, SADUM and the other spiritual administrations were called upon to support Soviet foreign policy initiatives in the Muslim world [see document here]. Its leaders traveled on missions abroad and received delegations of Muslims from foreign countries to showcase the official Soviet claim that Muslim “believers” enjoyed full freedom of conscience and worship in the USSR. They highlighted all religions’ commitment to peace and friendship [see document here] and also issued proclamations aimed at “believers” in the USSR in support of Soviet policies, foreign and domestic. SADUM, as the most prominent of the four spiritual administrations for Soviet Muslims, could even publish a magazine, Muslims of the Soviet East. Aimed primarily at a foreign audience, it was published in English, French, Arabic, and Dari.
Yet it would be simplistic to see SADUM and the other “spiritual directorates” as simply pliable tools of the state. They occupied a difficult place in the Soviet scheme of things, seeking to eke out a space for the observance of Islamic ritual and the reproduction of Islamic knowledge in hostile conditions, but also to reform Islamic practice. Although SADUM did not survive the fall of the Soviet Union, its counterparts exist in all countries of the former Soviet space, and as such, SADUM’s legacy lives on.
Much of the practice of Islam and Islamic ritual remained beyond the control SADUM. Local communities supported numerous unregistered mosques and shrines using various kinds of subterfuge. The vast majority of boys were circumcised, large numbers of weddings were solemnized in a religious ceremony in addition to the civil registration, and most people, including many communists, continued to be buried according to Islamic rites. Sometimes the rites were conducted by official ulama affiliated to SADUM, but far more commonly by an elder esteemed locally for his knowledge. In addition, the ritual life-cycle events also featured recitation of the Qur’an and other sacred texts. These were usually done by women, known variously as otin-oy, bibi-otin, or xalfa, who specialized in this task. As carriers of religious knowledge and holiness, otins were a feature of Central Asian life before the revolution. Traditionally, they came from learned families and many of them taught basic religious knowledge to the girls of the neighborhood or the village. In the Soviet period, otins stood liable to the usual charges of cultural backwardness, if not antirevolutionary activity and parasitism, but they nevertheless survived. Some became teachers in the new Soviet schools, while others continued to teach children in secret, but their role as reciters of prayers as life-cycle events became central. Older otins transmitted their knowledge and their status in private to their daughters or daughter-in-law, but their existence was a well known secret. As long as tradition demanded the fulfillment of life-cycle rituals, there was a demand for otins.
Many other traditional practices likewise continued, especially in the countryside. Shrines and holy places, whether the graves of holy men or natural features deemed sacred for some reason, were a traditional feature of local Islamic practice. Many of them were destroyed in the anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s, and official Soviet propaganda heaped scorn on the very notion of shrine worship as a form of superstition. Nevertheless, many holy places survived or were restored, while new ones continued to crop up, and all continued to attract pilgrims. Pilgrimage sites ranged from a humble grave site or a clump of sacred trees, where people would tie strips of cloth as votive offerings, to major sites, such as the mountain known as Takht-i Sulayman, Solomon’s Throne, in southern Kyrgyzstan, where some gatherings of pilgrims in the 1950s were reported to have numbered in the tens of thousands.
During the Cold War, Western observers saw “unofficial Islam” as completely antithetical to “official” Islam —oppositional, not pliant. The relationship between “official” and “unofficial” Islam was more complex. The two streams of Islam interacted quite a bit. With religious publishing not possible, Islamic texts could only come from outside, and the only conduit for them was SADUM, which often shared those texts with Muslims not attached to its organizations.
Ultimately, “unofficial Islam” was largely apolitical. In part, it had to be. Local party elites might look the other way at unofficial Islamic activity, but they had absolutely no patience with challenges to their position. Any political claims made on behalf of Islam would have represented a challenge to the power of local political elites and threatened to rock their relationship with the center. Any expressions of Islam that went beyond the narrow, apolitical bounds defined by custom were persecuted. But this was not the only reason. Although Western observers of unofficial Islam assumed that Islam has to be political, this was far from the case. Central Asians tapped into the long local Hanafi tradition that disavowed political involvement. The basic instinct was to try to preserve elementary Islamic ritual in a harsh political climate. Islam was now intensely localized, a form of local pride, a part of the heritage of the nation, but also something limited to the domestic sphere. Since the rituals and customs associated with Islamic observance were part of the culture of a given nation, they were largely immune to criticism on grounds that they contravened Islamic injunctions, for such criticism laid the critic open to claims that he was not really a member of the nation, that stricter observance of ritual were the product of foreign (Arab) culture.