Central Asia in broader perspective

The rest of the Muslim world, for all its immense diversity, does not share the following features of the 20th-century experience of Central Asia:

The substantial destruction of the infrastructure of Islamic learning.  The anti-Islamic campaigns of 1927-1941 physically destroyed large parts of the infrastructure of the transmission and reproduction of Islam — mosques, madrasas, shrines, and Sufi lodges were destroyed, Islamic education largely vanished.  While the campaign of destruction largely stopped after 1941, nothing was ever rebuilt.
The curtailment and marginalization of religious knowledge and religious observance from society.  Three generations came of age in the aftermath of this destruction.  This meant a serious shrinking of religious knowledge.  People had less knowledge — and by this I mean as much “cultural” knowledge as book knowledge — of Islam than elsewhere in the Muslim world.  The number of people who observed the basic behavioral injunctions of Islam was likewise much smaller than anywhere else in the Muslim world. Observance was often assigned to discrete groups in society — people from august lineages, the elderly, women.  This was a form of “proxy religiosity” well known throughout the Muslim world, but which has been receding in many parts of the Muslim world.

The displacement of the moral authority of Islam and the de-Islamization of public life.  All public discourse took place in the realm of the secular, understood as anti-religious, and no moral claims could be derived from Islamic values, howsoever defined.  The state and religiosity came to be seen as inherently opposed and inimical.  The state stood completely outside the discursive framework of Islam.  This is unlike the situation in any other part of the Muslim world (with the exception of Albania and the former Yugoslavia).  Even in Muslim countries with strident state policies of strident secularism — Kemalist Turkey, Pahlavi Iran, Ba‘athist Syria and Iraq, South Yemen — the curtailment of the public presence of Islam and its carriers did not approach this extent.

From 1941 to 1989

The persecution of religion was halted in 1941. Once Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, the Stalinist regime mobilized all sources of support for the war effort, and even religious dignitaries had a role.  In 1943, the state established the Spiritual Administration for the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (known as SADUM after its Russian initials), with the aim of both administering and controlling Islamic religious activity in Central Asia.  Three similar administrations were established for Muslims in other parts of the USSR, although SADUM remained the most prominent. For the rest of the Soviet period, the state sanctioned the existence of the following four organizations:
              • Spiritual Administration for the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (Tashkent)
              • Spiritual Administration for the Muslims of European Russia and Siberia (Ufa)
              • Spiritual Administration for the Muslims of Transcaucasia (Baku)
              • Spiritual Administration for the Muslims of the Northern Caucasus (Makhachkala, Daghestan)

The Baku administration catered to the Shi’i population of Azerbaijan and its head called a shaykh ul-Islam.  The other three administrations were Sunni and headed by muftis.

These spiritual administrations occupied a nebulous legal space.  Ostensibly, they were a voluntary organization of “Muslim believers,” but in reality they were official bodies, responsible to the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and tasked with both regulating and facilitating religious observance in the region. 

Once the Soviets launched a diplomatic drive in the decolonizing world in the mid-1950s, SADUM was prominent in various Soviet foreign policy initiatives, especially those aimed at Muslim countries.  SADUM exchanged delegations with foreign Muslim countries.  SADUM was allowed to open a limited number of mosques at the request of local communities of “believers,” and to take care of certain other religious buildings (such as shrines).  It also received permission to reopen a madrasa for the training of “servants of the cult,” i.e., imams and muftis.  From 1948, therefore, the Mir Arab madrasa in Bukhara operated as the only legally recognized institution of Islamic learning in the whole of the USSR.  (It 1971, a higher Islamic institute was also opened in Tashkent.) It could only cater to a small number of students, and competition for admission was quite intense.  SADUM also was called upon, from time to time, to issue fatwas (legal opinions from the point of view of Islamic law) to back up given Soviet practices or policy initiative.  SADUM operated in an officially sanctioned public space allowed to Islam in Central Asia.

That space was always narrow and tightly demarcated. Despite what all Soviet constitutions claimed, there was no separation of religion and state in the USSR.  The state might have stood outside of the parameters of Islamic discourse, but it felt it necessary to control it.  This it did through the bureaucratic structures of the spiritual administrations, inherited from Tsarist Russia.  The fact that the state occasionally asked for fatwas to give additional backing to some of its policies did not mean that it saw Soviet law based in Islam.  The permitted public discourse remained resolutely secular and anti-religious.  Religious life existed in clearly marked spaces, and public observance of religious ritual was bad for one’s career [see document here].  Nevertheless, the vicious campaigns of destruction of the 1927-41 period were seldom repeated.  Only at times when reformist tendencies gained the upper hand at the center (such as during Khrushchev’s ascendancy and briefly during Gorbachev) were “illegal” mosques closed or shrines desecrated.

SADUM’s position was always ambiguous in another way too.  Bureaucratic institutions such as this are alien to the Islamic tradition, which does not recognize the authority of officially appointed figures to make pronouncements on matters of belief or practice.  SADUM’s authority was therefore never accepted without question by Muslims, but it nevertheless was able to train a small number of religious scholars and even to send some of them overseas for higher religious education.

From 1989 to 1991

Glasnost’, Gorbachev’s policy of “openness,” arrived belatedly in Central Asia in 1989, and led to the easing of many restrictions on religious observance, education, and travel.  Islam returned to public life as people searched for a “return” to moral certainties and older cultural moorings.  Mosques reopened or new ones were built, religious texts reappeared in print, and people were able to travel abroad for the hajj and other pilgrimages.  Yet, this was not a return to the status quo ante, or a complete re-Islamization of society.  The state might have become more lenient toward religious observance, but it did not alter its basic secular stance or its position on law.  Indeed, many Soviet understandings of religion and its relationship to the rest of society and to politics outlasted the Soviet Union.