[by John Kingery]

More than any other Christianized nation, Russia has always had a significant link to Islamic faith and culture. An awareness of Islam and its spread into Asiatic Russia was recorded in the earliest days of Rus’ history. In the late 900’s, records suggest that many Islamic customs were viewed as alien by the Rus, whose own Christian identity was still in embryonic form. However, Islamic presence has traditionally caused apprehension and fear within the Russian and Soviet state. Such apprehension was problematic for all Russians in general for “Islam was a closer presence and greater threat for medieval Russians than for Christians further west” (Keller, 1). With the incursion of the Russian Empire into Muslim lands and the later rise of Soviet power, Islam has been a continuing issue for Russian governments. The authorities have had to decide how best to treat their Muslim populations in terms of education and socio-political matters, as well as the role that Islam and Islamic customs and traditions might play within the context of imperial Russian goals and Soviet ideology. This issue became most urgent to successive Russian governments after Russia’s move into modernization. Russia would find that Islam’s societal framework would lead to the creation of a ‘religious national consciousness’ due to imperial rule (Kappeler, 234). Under the Soviets, Islam’s cultural traditions on Russia’s periphery underwent an intense transformation. Central Asian Muslims believed that Soviet rule caused the “de-Islamization of public life, created strong ethnonational identities, and made Islam an integral part of the latter, all of which produced a profoundly secular understanding of politics” (Kahlid, 201).

Prior to contact with Russia, during much of the Golden Horde‘s reign, being identified as Muslim meant being a member of a community that perceived itself as Muslim. The most important source for Muslim conduct was found in the Qur’an, although it was not expected that most Muslims would know its teachings. Instead of strict adherence to and rule by the Qur’an, many early Islamic communities “asserted their Muslim identities through elaborate myths of origin that assimilated elements of the Islamic ethical tradition with local norms and vice versa” (Kahlid, 21). One such myth which upheld Muslim identities was the conversion of mongol Golden Horde ruler, Özbek Khan, to Islam by Baba Tükles. The myth of Baba Tükles follows that he introduced Islam by “beating the khan’s court shaman in a religious contest” by divine protection (Kahlid, 22). The religious contest and the subsequent conversion of the Khan provided Muslims of pre-Imperial Central Asia with a cultural link distinct from other Muslim groups. The myth and that of the characterization of the Baba Tükles: “clearly indicates the portrayal of a figure originally associated with Islamization as a typical Inner Asian ancestor whose recollection and invocation are vital to the expression of a people’s sacred origin and thereby to the evocation of communal solidarity” (DeWesse, 516).

Furthermore, whereas most communal groups identified themselves in terms of their linguistic base, in Central Asia the Turkic language group was not as critical to their social character. Instead, their ethnic importance was located in their lifestyle and Islamic religion. Communal identity and ethnicity formed a localized mode of Islam that began to incorporate its practice into local customs of communal life. With the mixture of myths and a loose interpretation of religious scripture, customs became “sacralized and Islam was made indigenous” (Khalid, 22). Most Muslims, then, drew no distinction between localized customs and Islamic faith.

By the eighth century, Islam had firmly found its place in Central Asia. Since its establishment, Sunni Islam was always the sect professed by the local natives. The manner in which this sect of Islam penetrated the region was the result of three factors as described by historian Mehrdad Haghayeghi. He believes that the history of Islam’s emergence onto the geopolitical landscape of Russia explains the essentially moderate aspect of Central Asian Islam when compared to other Islamic nations. The first factor for this unique form of Islam is the way in which conversion was carried out. Much of the conversion process was carried out either by forced conversion or by Islamic merchants spreading the faith along their trade routes. Interestingly, “Sunni Islam was more capable of accommodated and incorporating the pre-Islamic rituals and habits of the locals, substantially nomadic population” (Roudik, 29). These two developments created stronger cultural than religious affinities with Islam, resulting in a “qualitatively different Islamic orientation which had taken root in the Arab world” (Haghayeghi, xix).

Secondly, the geographic factor played an essential part in the widespread conversion. Due to the development of two different yet interactive societies, (that of the sedentary enclaves and the tribal populations of the Steppe) the region’s appeal to Islam was unbalanced as the remoteness of the Steppe slowed its progress. This factor explains the distinct process by which the republics of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan “developed a mild proclivity toward Islam compared to Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, which have been more thoroughly exposed to its tenets” (ibid, xx).

The last factor regarding moderate Islam in Central Asia is, as Haghayeghi states, “the essential characteristics of the dominant Islamic doctrine on the one hand, and the Islamic doctrinal diversity on the other” (ibid, xx). This stems from the educational norm within the Islamic communities prior to Russian intervention. The Hanafi school is distinct in its emphasis on liberal theology. This school of thought emphasizes that opinions pertaining to the organization and interpretation of Islamic principles remain private while a public consensus I reached. This approach to the practice of Islamic faith has met with heavy opposition from its more conservative followers. Furthermore, the complex nature of Central Asian Islam is further revealed by the emergence of Sufism in the region. Sufism is “a mystical movement that emphasizes the development of a personal spirituality and an internal comprehension of divinity” (Roudik. 29). In particular, nomads of the steppe were drawn to the appealing aspects of Sufism dealing with the movement’s rejection of complex rituals found in Orthodox Islam.

Muslims came into contact with the Russian state with Muscovy’s initiation of its policy of ‘Gathering the Lands of the Golden Horde’. With the ‘Gathering of the Lands,’ Muscovy came to possess territories with significant Muslim populations. Subordination of the new Islamic subjects was expected through tribute payments. Russian expansion was also a function of practical imperialist ambitions. Seeking new lands and advancing military power in order to catch up with European superpowers, Orthodox Russia found itself overseers of Islamic subjects. Under the expanding imperial regime, Islam and Muslim subjects met with various repressions, from the conquest of Kazan’ and into the reign of Peter the Great. In fact, Peter’s responded to Muslims by trying to convert them to Russian Orthodoxy, to bring them into line with his view of the Western ideals of civilization. However, Russian tsars found it difficult to impose their authority on their new subjects. To the imperial regime, “service to the state was the ultimate measure of loyalty and the source[s] of privilege,” and they found their repression tactics inadequate (Khalid, 36). A period of cooperation with the Muslim population followed in order to ensure social peace. Tsarist authorities engaged in “agreements with local religious scholars, guaranteeing to uphold their authority and that of other Muslim institutions” (Roudik, 87). Entering into these agreements meant that elders were required to deliver the loyalty of local Muslims.

A turning point was reached with the rise of Catherine II, whose enlightenment policies sought to end repressive acts against Muslims and establish religious toleration over her lands. Even though her decrees on religious toleration further advanced Islam, her aims were not completely without Russian self-interest in mind. Her Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly, for example, was a unique feature for the Islamic world at the time. The Assembly was “an attempt by the state to impose an organizational structure on Islam” (Khalid, 36). For the most part Catherine’s religious reforms remained on paper until the 1917 revolution. Alexander II reversed or abandoned a number of her, revealing a change in Russian views about Islamic culture and Central Asian Muslims.

Even during the reign of Catherine, views concerning fundamentalist aspects of Islam weighed heavy on the minds of Orthodox Russians. Even with the conversion of many Muslim elites to the Orthodox faith, the Russian government was still harbored a “view of Islam as a conspiratorial religion extremely hostile to Russia, Europe, and the entire west was based on the experience of French and British rule of Muslims” (Roudik, 88). So St. Petersburg essentially ignored the existence and practice of Islam, as long as the religion did not interfere with the progress or interest of the Russian state. State funds were denied to Islamic institutions and Muslim officials were barred from administrative positions. In other words, Islam was denied a voice and resources to practice. However, this policy was intended to undermine the very fabric of the religion by diminishing its influence. In early 1900, even after a century of chipping away at the Islamic clergy’s influence and financial autonomy, the Russian state still regarded Islam as a threat. Russian Prime Minister, Pyotr Stolypin, stated that “Islam is the strongest threat to the security of the state; however, the Muslim issue is not dangerous itself” (ibid, 88).

Imperialist Russia sought only to infiltrate Muslim culture and project a positive image of Russification that would ensure its popular appeal in Central Asia. The Russian authorities did not intend to obliterate Islamic culture. Mosques continued to serve the faithful and the religion continued to spread. However, the policies of tsarist officials assumed that the region’s successful Russification would simply mean that “the ‘inferior’ and archaic Islam would wither away” (Haghayeghi, 10). As October 1917 approached, however, Islam faced a more direct ideological challenge. The philosophical bases which served as the foundation of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party were the writings and teachings of Marx and Engels. These teachings argued that religion was a primitive holdover from the past, and an impediment to man’s reason. The anti-Islamic campaign was developed in the early days of the revolution by Lenin and his Bolshevik Party, and its goal was to substitute Islamic education with Soviet communist education. The eventual replacement of Islam would, the Bolshevik leaders hoped, produce Muslim comrades fully devoted to Communist goals. However, a majority of Muslims were virtually ignorant of Bolshevik platforms and even of the end of the tsarist regime. The extent of their knowledge rested on Lenin’s nationalistic stance prior to 1917. Indeed, non-Russian nationalities played a key role in Lenin’s seizure of power. Lenin appeal directly to Muslims of the former Russian Empire:

Muslims of Russian, Tatars of the Volga and Crimea, Kirgiz and Sarts of Siberia and Turkistan, Turks and Tatars of Transcaucasia, Chechens and mountain Peoples of the Caucasus, and all you whose mosques and prayer houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs and customs have been trampled upon by the Tsar and oppressors of Russia: Your beliefs and usages, your national and cultural institutions are forever free under the mighty protection of the Revolution and its organs, the Soviet of Workers, Soldiers and Peasants ( Haghayeghi, 16).

From 1917 to 1920, this was the platform on which the Soviets treated the non-Russian Muslim. For Islam, this protection was a sign of cooperation and participation that had not been available to many members of Islamic society, and especially the clergy, under the tsar. As the Soviets worked towards ending the conflict between the Reds and Whites, Muslims saw the opportunity to address questions regarding Islamic dogma. Different sides of the Islamic community emerged with opinions and solutions concerning the essence of Islam and what it meant to identify oneself as Muslim. Prominent among these groups was the ulama, whose primary concern was “to safeguard the boundaries of their community from erosion in the new universalist order unleashed by the revolution” (Khalid, 52). Cooperation with the Russian authorities was crucial for these goals. For the ulama, the Communists would have to recognize the “cultural peculiarities” of the Muslim regions while acknowledging ulama authority over Islamic practices (Khalid, 52).

The Jadids, on the other hand, saw the revolution as a chance to take action to modernize Islam through educational reforms. To modernize Islam, in their view, was to introduce liberal interpretation of scripture into educational programs, while maintaining Muslim traditions. Obviously this was looked down upon by the conservative ulama who gain considerable power over Islamic education in the beginning of the revolution. However, the Jadids saw their religion as the basis for a Muslim nation. As Soviet control began to assert itself into the 1920s and 1930s, Muslims started to identify themselves less as ‘Muslims of the Russian empire’ and more as Muslims of individual regions. Many Jadids desired the introduction of a ‘Muslim language,’ a language that was rooted in the historical traditions of Islam. “The nation was rooted historically,” writes Khalid, “it is significant that history taught in…schools of Turkestan was that of Islam, not Turkestan or Turks” (Khalid, 190).

The Party encouraged the groups and their platforms for a few years after the revolution. Lenin gained Muslim support by granting them Party membership and allowing mosques to remain open. Meanwhile, Communists, embracing Marxist theory, saw Islam as an “antisocial, antifeminist, intolerant, and xenophobic religion with barbaric and unhealthy customs” (Haghayeghi, 22). Communists intended to promote international socialism and to bring Russia out from its ‘backwardness,’ in part by eliminating all religious faith. After a period of Muslim assimilation into the new order, Lenin attacked Islamic institutions presiding over Shariah laws and customs and attempted to ‘unveil‘ Muslim women. Islamic courts were eliminated and the Islamic clergy ruined financially. Finally, the power of the clergy over central Asian education was taken away by Soviet authorities. These early attacks on Islam meant that there no longer existed a means of communicating the essentials of Islamic faith. For the thirty million Muslims of the U.S.S.R, the observance of cultural practices and traditional rites was forced underground.

Islam under Joseph Stalin underwent a dramatic alteration. Virtually isolated from other Islamic nations, Islam was losing its influence over the peoples’ faith, yet its customs and practices were growing stronger. With the rise of Stalin came the complete dismantling and closures of mosques. Anyone associated with the ulama or the Jadids was subject to repressive laws and arrest. Muslim elites and members of the clergy found themselves in labor camps by the thousands. Central Asian Muslims were left without an Islamic voice to convey religious messages. However, with the outbreak of World War II, the Soviet regime reopened the mosques for the duration of the war. The state even allowed the establishment of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (SADUM). The purpose of SADUM was to mobilize the Muslim population for the war effort. The organization was of course justified by military and Great Russian needs and not in response to any appeals from Islam, and the idea of separation between church and state was strictly enforced: “The regime hoped that by allowing limited religious activity under bureaucratic oversight, it could prevent it from going underground and be able to monitor and control it” (Khalid, 78). For the Central Asian republics and Muslims, the Soviet state’s creation of regions or nations on the basis of ethnic or linguistic characteristics was an alien idea. This concept was a means to justify territorial shifts along with “the eminently artificial, manipulatory and strategic nature of which has been well documented. More importantly, these identities were not matched by the existence of nationalism, even embryonically: the ‘ethnic groups’ intermingled with each other, and were distributed more according to ecological and socio-economic criteria than by territory” (Roy, 3).

The Soviet attack on Islam in Central Asia had profound consequences. The traditional methods of passing on Islamic education were destroyed. With the publishing ban on religious texts, the source for Islamic knowledge was limited to local affiliations. Furthermore, the purges of the ulama decimated Central Asia Islamic communities, as many of those not sent to labor camps left for Afghanistan or went underground. The ulama purges also “badly damaged the networks of learning and discipleship that had been the carriers of Islamic learning in the region…the persecution destroyed the status and prestige of the ulama as a class (Roy, 81). Closures of mosques damaged the social atmosphere in the region, as places of worship which acted as a community’s social center closed overnight. The completion of the Soviet attack on Islam came in 1930 with the complete isolation of Central Asian Islam. All contact and exchange of ideas, culture, and faith with other Islamic nations were cut off leaving Islam in Soviet territories in the dark.

Throughout the remainder of the Soviet period, Islam in the Central Asian was violently transformed. Having been declared incompatible with Communism, much of the period saw the continuation of persecutions and corruption. The Islam that emerged after the Soviet assault was unlike anything seen in other Muslim areas. First, Islam was restricted to the home and family and was identified as on a par with traditional and cultural practices. Due to the fact that no Islamic text or mosques were available, the responsibility for spreading Islamic teachings fell to the individual home. This produced a deep change in Islam as “religious knowledge was vastly circumscribed … [and] a considerable homogenization of Islam, as differences in approach and interpretation were erased” (Roy, 82). Similar to this idea, Dale Eickelman introduced the ‘objectification’ of Islam or the “emerging perception of Islam as a coherent, systematic, and self-contained set of beliefs and practices, separate and separable from worldly knowledge, which came to displace previously held understandings of Islam as embedded in everyday social practices and as something irreducible to a textbook exposition” (Kahlid, 11).

Second, Islam entered into a state of de-Islamization regarding matters of public discussion and debate. Disputes in the moral principles or ethical teachings were forbidden. Islam still existed in the five Soviet republics, but it was identifiable with Islamic practices. Essentially, till the years of perestroika, Islam in Central Asia was “cut off from its own past and from Muslims outside the Soviet Union, became a local form of being rather than part of a global phenomenon” (ibid, 83). The very meaning of being Muslim changed and also became a means to distinguish foreigners from locals. Furthermore, Islam had “became deeply intertwined with local and cultural practices and with the new ethnic and cultural tradition being defined by the Soviet regime itself” (ibid, 83).


Works consulted

  • Hélène Carrére d’Encausse, Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988).
  • Devin DeWeese, Islamization and native Religion in the Golden Horde: Baba Tükles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994).
  • Mehrdad Haghayeghi, Islam and Politics in Central Asia (New York: St. Martin’s Press).
  • Shoshana Keller, To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign Against Islam in Central Asia, 1917-1941 (Westport: Praeger, 2001).
  • Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
  • ________, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).
  • Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgences of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1994).
  • Peter L. Roudik, The History of the Central Asian Republics (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2007).
  • Olivier Roy, The New Central Asia: The Creation of Nations (New York: New York University Press, 1997).