[Jacob Lassin]

The atheist ideology of the Soviet Union meant that the state apparatus was officially secular and state policies often directly attacked religious institutions.  However, the Soviet Union maintained a large population of believers of many different faiths, including Christians, Jews, and Muslims. While early in Soviet history, the state engaged in aggressive attempts to  severely limit religious expression. However, it became clear that the total destruction of religious faith in the country was an impossible goal and that religious practice was going to persist in the Soviet Union and it could be used to the state’s advantage. Thus, Soviet authorities revived and institutionalized some religious practices, giving their blessing to explicit groups to administer religion. This paper focuses on one of those institutions, SADUM, the State Spiritual Directorate of Muslims in Kazakhstan and Central Asia and its successor organizations in the newly independent Central Asian states in order to better understand how the Soviet Union used official recognition as a means of weakening and atomizing the impact that religious believers could have against the state apparatus.

In order to fully understand SADUM’s role in Central Asian society one must look at the history of Islam in the region. Islam has long been part of the state apparatus in Central Asia and for centuries khans and emirs have curried favor – and even engaged in powerful marriage alliances – with a small number of highly educated, authoritative ulamas to give their reigns legitimacy (Khalid, 32). However, the majority of believers did not always support such entrenched and complacent views of Islam. The Jadidist reformers for instance greatly opposed the small cadre of elite ulamas dictating how Islam ought to be practiced and desired to increase religious instruction to the masses (Khalid, 41). This back and forth between religious elites and fundamentalist reformers did not end with the advent of the Soviet Union. The creation of SADUM, its relationship with the state, its practices, and finally its own successor organizations must be looked at as a continuation of the debates and conflicts between religious elites and reformers, which have colored Central Asian life for centuries. In fact it is possible in this light to see SADUM as reenacting the same parts that the ulamas played in their role as state actors and arbiters of “official” religion and that SADUM’s successor organizations do much the same in the independent states of Central Asia.

Orthodoxy, the other major religion in the Soviet Union was treated much differently from Islam, mostly because early Soviet leaders were much more familiar with it and the imperial state had dealt with it much longer than it had Islam. The Orthodox Patriarchate was located in Moscow and was responsible for all Orthodox believers throughout the fifteen republics of the Soviet Union.  No single organization was in charge of all Muslim belief in the Soviet Union, rather there were four different groups, one for Russia and Siberia, another for the North Caucasus, one for Transcaucasia, and finally SADUM in Central Asia. These organizations were further separated from one another due to their far-flung administrative centers and the different languages they used for administration and everyday work. Part of this division was a result of the different types of Islam practiced in the Soviet Union, the mostly Shia believers of Azerbaijan for example would not want to submit to the authority of the mostly Sunni leaders of Central Asia (Ro’i 121).

However, this does not appear to be the only reason behind the division of Muslim believers in the Soviet Union. The early Soviet leaders were children of the nineteenth century, and were  raised in a period when very little was known about Islam and believers of the faith were viewed much differently than the rest of the Russian population. Muslims lived in far off places, ate different foods, wore different clothes, and spoke different languages. Having so many people united around one organization focused on a poorly understood religion would be a great threat to Soviet power working to modernize Muslim regions and build socialism. As a result, Soviet authorities worked to minimize this threat, creating organizations that roughly approximated the divisions of Muslims created during the imperial period

SADUM was headed by a mufti, chosen by the Soviet government. Moreover, like everyone else in the Soviet Union, all those employed at SADUM were paid by the Soviet government and were ultimately responsible to the State Ministry of Religious Affairs. This situation necessitated a delicate balancing act between the employees and clergy of SADUM and the state. On the one hand, they did not want to upset the already skeptical Soviet authorities who were wary of any type of religious expression. On the other hand, those in SADUM often genuinely wished to maintain Muslim practice and tradition as much as possible without interference from the state.  The compromise often touted by the members of SADUM and the state was that SADUM followed Islam and was part of regular Soviet life as well.

What exactly constituted a fully Soviet and fully Muslim life? According to Ziyauddin Babakhan, a mufti of SADUM and the son of a mufti of SADUM, those trained in SADUM seminaries received both a rigorous religious education as well as training in secular subjects and physical conditioning (Babakhan, 71-4). By engaging with the same curriculum that other students in the Soviet Union used, the officials at SADUM hope to placate Soviet authorities. However, in reality, very few were able to receive religious education and training, and worship was severely restricted (Olcott, 23). In this way the state was able to use SADUM to strictly control who was practicing Islam and who was being trained in the religion. This also helped SADUM to cast itself in a role similar to the ulamas of the past, as Babkhan makes it very clear that SADUM deals with the authorities and brings the religion to the population through prescribed, sanctioned, and vetted conduits.

Babakhan’s discussion of SADUM as a group of fully Soviet and fully Muslim citizens continues with his descriptions of the moral strength of a qazi (republican deputy of the mufti) of Tajikistan. His near-hagiographic description of the qazi makes him out to be both a scholarly giant, tender teacher of children, and a man willing to talk with anyone with a request or question, no matter how trivial (62-3). The need for such a role model is a classic trope from Central Asian Islamic practice which often lauded the great scholars who were able to produce the proper interpretations of the Prophet’s words and the will of Allah. This makes clear that it is not a religion in which the believer makes the ultimate decision in terms of practice as the old Jadidists and latter reformers wanted, but rather a great sage is needed due to his much more disciplined and educated life.

These beliefs that SADUM was merely a puppet of the state were reinforced through some of the other actions of SADUM. Babakhan proudly speaks of the fatwa issued after a devastating 1966 earthquake in Tashkent exhorted Muslims to stop sacrificing animals to appease Allah, but to join in the recovery effort organized by the Soviet authorities (62). Now, while this may seem laudable and progressive, especially in the eyes of the Western audience for whom Babkhan is writing, to believers in Tashkent the fatwa could potentially have been seen as an affront to traditional practices in times of crises. The issuance of fatwas was now done for any position the state favored, moving SADUM towards highly modern stances (Khalid, 111). The results of having an official religious organization beholden to the state for funding and support is that the brand of religion practiced and permitted to be spread is one that supports state goals and policies, not one that is in line with tradition or custom. However, one should not simply believe that tradition and custom were immutable in times before the Soviet Union, rather amenable clerics allied with any ruler would often make fatwas which suited the ruling parties and preserve their own role. The Soviet co-optation of religious leaders and their authority is nothing new in Central Asian Islam and once again started a cycle of resentment against the elite cadre of religious leaders which brought fundamentalist movements at the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to Central Asia.

This resentment reached new levels as SADUM also had to play the parts of religious diplomats for the Soviet state. The Soviet Union maintained a keen interest in the developing world, looking for potential allies in the Cold War fight against the West. Some of the countries the Soviet Union courted were in the Middle East and other areas of the Muslim world. As a result SADUM was used to prove that Muslims were equal members and active participants in Soviet life and that there were no limits on freedom of worship in the Soviet Union (Khalid, 111). This only increased sentiments both at home and abroad that SADUM was merely doing the state’s bidding.

Of course SADUM was not the only organization of Muslims operating in Soviet Central Asia. As the Soviet system began to collapse in the 1970s and 1980s, more and more residents of Central Asia began to look for a more traditional form of Islam and reconnect with tradition. This involved a type of “parallel Islam” emerging to counter the “official” Islam of SADUM (Atkin, 251). However, despite the surface opposition between SADUM and what were known as the reformers, behind the scenes there was some collaboration between the two groups. In the libraries of underground madrasahs, one could find many volumes borrowed from SADUM libraries and many SADUM officials privately acknowledged their support for the reformers and other groups wishing to spread a more traditional version of Islam (Olcott, 34). This back and forth demonstrates the diversity of Muslim belief in Central Asia which is often overlooked due to lack of knowledge about the area or a desire to categorize all Muslims together in the West. However, while there was some cordiality between the two groups and a modicum of cooperation, competition was still great and, like the struggles between “official” and “popular” Islam from previous periods, there would be a great struggle for which expression of Islam would win out. This is evocative once again of the struggle between the ulamas and the Jadidists a generation earlier, both conflicts were not between “secularists” and “Islamists” but between two groups working to define how Islam should be practiced and how Muslims should live (Khalid, 48).

The end of the Soviet Union meant an end to the strict controls over religious life imposed by the Soviet government. That has not meant however that the newly independent states of Central Asia have desired free religious expression in their countries. While there have been some overtures made to Islam in Central Asian politics, such as state leaders like Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbaev making the pilgrimage to Mecca. Their policies towards religion have had a clear goal of mitigating the effects and scale of religion in public life. As a result the branches of the former SADUM in these countries have been co-opted by the state like the Directorate of Muslims in Uzbekistan (DMU). Just as SADUM did before it, DMU issues fatwas that the state demands and controls the printing of religious literature as SADUM did under Soviet rule (Khalid, 171). These successor organizations are used much the same way that SADUM was, creating an “official” Islam and controlling religious education and worship. Once again there has been a move by the state authorities in Central Asia to control religious life, putting it squarely under the authority of the state. This is the same pattern that originated with the ulamas and emirs into SADUM and the Soviet period.

Even the people leading these successor organizations are employees of the former SADUM, seemingly all that has changed has been the names on the outsides of the buildings (Naumkin, 88). Officially sanctioning these organizations means that all other Islamic groups are viewed and oppositional and “unofficial” by default. The results have been much the same as during the Soviet period, with a few sanctioned people and institutions dictating what constituted Muslim religious life in Central Asia and the rest of the faithful torn between respecting tradition and custom and not running afoul of the state.

In the final analysis SADUM’s role and legacy can be viewed much like previous reform movements and state versions of religion that preceded it. Much like the traditional ulamas who derived their livelihoods from khans in exchange for the ulamas providing religious blessing for the khans’ governments, so too did SADUM, its leaders, clergy, and faithful enter into a pact with the Soviet government as means of preserving their religion and gaining state favor and benefit when they could. This tradition was not unknown to the religious leaders in SADUM or its successor organizations and their behaviors often resembled or directly copied those of their predecessors, the ulamas and the role the ulamas played as intermediaries between the state and public.


Works Cited:

  • Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).
  • Ziyauddin Babkhan, Islam and the Muslims in the Land of the Soviets (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980)
  • Vitaliy Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia (Oxford: Rowman and Littlefield, 2005).
  • Muriel Atkin, “Islam as Faith, Politics, and Bogeyman in Tajikistan,” in The Politics of Religion in Russia and the New States of Eurasia, ed. Michael Bourdeaux, 247-72 (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1995).
  • Martha Brill Olcott, “Islam and Fundamentalism in Independent Central Asia,” in Muslim Eurasia: Conflicting Legacies, ed. Yaacov Ro’I, 21-40 (Essex: Frank Cass & Co., 1995).
  • Yaacov Ro’I, Islam in the Soviet Union: From the Second World War to Gorbachev (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).