Islam in Tajikistan

Interview with Abdullo Hakim Rahnam
7 January 2005

From the end of the Bukhara Emirate to the post-Soviet times, an overview of the history and current situation of Islam in Tajikistan.

Abdullo Hakim Rahnamo, who has completed his education in engineering, political studies, and theology, is a professor at Tajikistan National University, where he is lecturing on world politics. He also conducts research on the role of Islamic thinking and the role of Islam in the modern political processes of Tajikistan. He has published several reports and research papers about this topic. In addition, Abdullo Rahnamo has a practical experience in this regulation process in Tajikistan.


Question (Q) – What was the situation of Islam in Tajikistan at the beginning of the 20th century, before the Soviet Union came into existence? What were the main features of Islam in Tajikistan at that time?

Rahnamo – As you know, Islam in Tajikistan has had a long history and the Tajik people have lived with Islam for quite a long time, sharing its values, its culture and life. When we speak of Islam in Tajikistan, mostly what we hear is the qualitative aspect of Islam. People say 97% of the population in the country are Muslims.

But only that does not reveal the reality and full picture of Islam in Tajikistan. During the many centuries that Islam has been present in our region, it has become a substantial part of our culture and history. Therefore Islam is regarded not only as a religion of most of the population of the country but as a substantial and organic part of the historical culture. Or, we can say, one of the constituent parts of the Tajik culture. Therefore despite the given historical moment and situation in the country, Islam has always been present in the life of the population.

As for the beginning of the 20th century, Soviet historiography as well as Tajikistan historiography point out that at the end of the 19th century and the very beginning of the 20th century are considered as a specific historical era of Islam in Central Asia. After the real outburst of culture, history and literature in the 9th and 10th centuries and late,r before the 15th century the Tajik people had given birth to many representatives of science, literature, culture and there were schools widely developed in the country, the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries in the Bukharian Emirate were characterized as semi-silence.

The end of the 19th century is characterized by the revival of cultural thinking. It is also the time when the school of enlightenment was founded. That was founded by a Tajik thinker in Boukara, Ahmad Donish (1826-1897). It is symbolical that "Donish" in Tajik means “knowledge”. That was the beginning of the revival of national, religious and political thought.

Ahmad Donish was a renowned historical scholar and a politician. I will not be speaking about the roots of his thinking because it takes time, but since my dissertation was devoted to him, I will just enumerate some of his roots. First of all, this is Islam, because he he was a Muslim scholar (theologian) and used in his writings a lot of references from the Quran, hadith, and bases most of his ideas on Islam.

The second root was the rich Tajik experience of state policy and political thinking. Donish used much Ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037), al-Farabi (870-950), al-Biruni (973-1048), al-Ghazali (1058-1111), and others.

The third root of his teachings (or ideas) was Western influence. For instance, three times at the time of the Bukhara Emirate, he was sent as a member Bukharian Embassy to Russia. And he provides many examples of Russian development in his writings. The fourth reason that moved him to create this school was the very difficult, hard, social and economic situations of the Emirate itself. So all Islamic thinking of the Tajik people at the end of the 19th and early 20th century has been connected with the name of Ahmad Donish. We call him as a Tajik Muslim reformer and his school as Tajik enlightenment (of course in the general meaning of this word).

When we speak of the situation in the Bukharian Emirate, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we can say that the general situation in the society was one of remoteness but already there were new processes taking place. Ahmad Donish created the foundation for the reforms in new thinking. Donish realized the need of deep transformations in his society: therefore he came up with a number of reformist treatise), including his famous work Regarding collaboration [literally – helping each other] and civilization. His concept of reforms, which embraced all facets of social life, was presented to the Emir [ruler] of Bukhara, who rejected them.

In the early 20th century, the Jadid school of thinking was founded. It could be called the second generation of Tajik enlighteners and reformers. The Jadid movement was characterized by organizational forms, programs, and modern approaches to the solution of social and political problems. Eminent representatives of the movement were Mahmudkhoja Behbudi (killed 1918), Abdurrauf Fitrat (killed in 1938), Sadriddin Ayni (1978-1954), Munzim, Fayzullo Khjayev (killed in 1938), Abduqadir Muhiddinov (killed in 1938), and others.

The Jadids realised that the Emir of Bukhara would never respodn to the direct call to political reforms. That is why they focused on the young generation. The upbringing of the new generation, which would think in another way, was possible through education. Meanwhile, the leadership of the emirate did not perceive education system reform issue as direct threat to the political system of the Emirate.

Therefore for Jadids considered the establishment of new method schools as their the first step. Thus, the core problem in the early 20th century became the problem of education. There was a conflict between traditionalists and followers of the Jadid movement. Later educational conflict turned into a big political conflict, which in its way led to bloodshed. With regard to the reform of education, there was disagreement even within the government, which led to the conflicts in the government itself. Sadriddin Ayni, a member of the Jadid movement, who deeply studied the history of the Jadid movement, stated that the main issue of the Bukhara revolution was the issue of education.

Though this Jadid reformative movement was destroyed we can still see that early in the 20th century all conditions were created so that Islam could enter a new era. As in other Muslim countries, the Muslim population of Maveraunnahr (or Transoxania, the historical name of Central Asia) started to view the world with new eyes. And then it came to the Soviet power.

Q – When did the Bukhara revolution take place? And what was the role of Jadids in the Bukhara revolution?

Rahnamo – The Bukhara revolution is a debated question in our historiography. On the eve of the overthrow of the Emir by the Bolsheviks, the Jadid movement divided into a few wings. Those Jadids who supported the idea of overthrowing the Emir established two political parties: the Communist Party of Bukhara and the Party of Revolutionary Bukharian Youth. Fayzullo Khojayev was the leader of the latter. These parties were the first political ones in the history of Tajiks. They assisted Bolsheviks in overthrowing the Emir on September 1, 1920, and contributed to the establishment of the Soviet power.

This coup was named the "Bukhara revolution". There was no revolution in the classical sense as a process. But since Ayni had to use Soviet terminology, he couldn’t use any other word. His book is called Materials of Bukhara Revolution.

In the end, I would like to say that this process of transformation of religious thinking and its modernization as well as the reform of the education system (already mentioned before) was actually stopped by the "Bukhara revolution". And a new period in the history of Islam started.

Q – At that time, on the territory of what is today called Tajikistan, some of the Muslim reformers welcomed to some extent the revolution. But other people identified Islam as a way of resisting the Soviet system. Could you please explain what happened in the years after the Soviet system took root in Tajikistan and how different trends emerged, including Muslims resisting Soviet power?

Rahnamo – People lived under very hard conditions in the Bukhara Emirate and many of them recognized it was not an ideal place for the people to live. In 1992, at the first meeting of the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan, Muhammadsharif Himmatsoda, who was at this time chairman, asked the participants not to confuse them with followers of Bukhara Emirate because they also recognized that it had not been a just State.

Therefore Bolsheviks approached their process of Sovietisation of the population from a social perspective. They wanted to present the Soviet power as a just power that gave land and power to the people, bread, food and everything. In spite of all of this, it took time for the Soviet power to establish itself in Central Asia. There was a civil war that continued until 1925. Local struggle and activities aginst the Soviet power even continued until 1930. This was called the Basmachi revolt.

Soviet historiography regards the Basmachi revolt as a negative element. But from the point of view of those days, it was a fight between the local population and the intruders: it could be viewed as a patriotic movement for freedom. Therefore the process of establishing the Soviet power in Tajikistan was as a long political and military struggle. For opponents to the Soviet power, Islam was the main source of inspiration of this struggle. The idea of national self-consciousness within the people was very weak. Even the Bukhara Emirate did not possess a national self-consciousness, since it consisted of Tajiks, Ouzbeks, Turkmens, Kirghizs – so it was more a regional Muslim state.

So the first decade of Islam in the Soviet state was a decade of military resistance to the new power. But, by 1930, the Islamic movement was suppressed. This marked the beginning of wide repression against religion. It was a process of removal of any Islamic element from society; this was manifested in all aspects of life. Our past in literature and science was presented as something dark and something people should be ashamed of. Islam, as part of this past, was also pushed away. In Soviet history, it is called nigilism, which means “negative attitude to the past”.

From the 1930s to 40s we had to do with repression and physical elimination of clerics as well as elimination of all religious literature. The alphabet was changed. The bearers of intellectual Islam were either eliminated or had to leave the country. 1937 and 1938 can be called a climax of repression. Most of mosques and medresses were closed. So, by 1940, it was all quiet about Islam. Any one who mentions this period should remember Jadids’ tragic fate. Bolsheviks widely used knowledge and experience of the Jadid movement while establishing the Soviet State. However, after having strengthened their position, they conducted the purge of Jadids. In 1937-38, almost all Jadids were physically destroyed (killed), including their leaders such as A.Fitrat, A. Muhiddinov, F. Khojayev who had been prominent persons in the Soviet establishment.

With the beginning of the Second World War in 1941, German propaganda called Muslims to do away with the Soviet Union. The Soviet State felt it was time to soften the religious policy. In autumn of 1943, the first meeting of Stalin with religious leaders of the Soviet Union took place and he said, “We are going to change our policy. Ask what you want”. At the same meeting, he gave permission to reopen some of the churches and mosques.

So we can say that the early 1940s was the time of a break or a general turn in the religious policy of the Soviet Union. At this time, after ten, fifteen years, mosques and churches started to reopen. For example, the most famous Sheykh Mosleheddin Friday Mosque in Khojand was reopened in 1947. I talked to some very old people who witnessed the ceremony who said they couldn’t believe their eyes. They were crying from happiness that this mosque would be reopened.

To regulate its relations with religions, the state created a so-called spiritual office. In Central Asia, a Spiritual Board of Central Asian Muslims (SADUM) was created. Its centre was in Tashkent and the representative of the Directorate in Tajikistan was called kazi. During Kruchev’s time, much better conditions for the development of religions were created. There was a special element in Soviet policy, that was called “face to the East”. It was very helpful for Islam in Tajikistan because it was aiming at attracting the attention of Eastern countries. In this regard the anti-religious image of the former Soviet Union was standing in the way. Therefore the authorities wanted to make central Asia a display window of Soviet power and its attitude towards religion. Many delegations from Arabic and other eastern countries came to Central Asia and they were shown medresses and mosques. They pretended that Islam is really free in this country. For example, at the time the Indonesian leader, Sukarno, was expected to visit, the tomb of Imam al-Bukhari was restored in a very short time.

That was the time that religious education started to develop both on the formal level and the informal popular, unofficial level.

The last ten years of the Soviet Union, Gorbachov’s time, let’s say the early 1980s, can be called the time of Islam revival. We have done specific research on the Islam situation in the early 80s. It was just the time of widespread development in the educational network: only around Duchanbe alone, there were dozens of private religious schools where many people got religious education.

An example can give us a very good picture of the role of these schools. In the Silk Factory quarter of the capital city of Duchanbe, there was a private school led by Hojji Muhammadjan Hindustani (1895-1989). He was repressed during Stalin’s time and then he came back in the 1950s. He had received full religious education, including education in India, at the Deobandi Madrassa. He organized a school, which mostly targeted those people who had already got primary religious education.

If we make a list of his disciples, we will see that all leaders of Tajik political and traditional Islam were his students. Among them are Said Abdullo Nouri and Muhammadsharif Himattsoda, leaders of the Islamic Renaissance Party. A number of leaders of traditional Islam such as Domullo Hikmatullo, Ishani Nuriddin, Makhsumi Ismoil and others are also found among his disciples. Therefore we can say his school played a great role in the formation of model Islamic movements. He trained many Islamic leaders in his private school.

Q – Several Western scholars have claimed that a leading role in the survival of Islam in the underground during the Soviet period was played by Sufi brotherhoods, such as the Naqshbandiya or Qadirirya. You didn’t mention them. What role did they play during the Soviet period?

Rahnamo – I did a historical run-through and I was mostly speaking about historical and administrative events in the history of Islam during the Soviet era. Those factors that contributed to the preservation of Islam itself are a very important issue. The first factor is that Islam is part of our culture. It’s also a part of our everyday life, since it regulates the norms of everyday life. Therefore the private life of people took place in this Islamic environment, starting with the birth of a child and then all the ceremonies including marriage and the final ceremony of the funerals. Even well-known people, such as politicians, were buried according to Muslim traditions but secretly. They went through the whole traditional process before there was a general gathering.

Certain roles were really played in Tajikistan by Sufi brotherhoods. The Naqshbandi branch of Sufism has always been very popular in our country. But in some parts of the country the Qadiri order is also very important. Today prominent religious figures such as Ishani Turajan, Ishani Abdulhaliljon, Ishani Nuriddin and others are followers of Qadiriya. The followers of Naqshbandi are Domullo Mukhammadi, Domullo Hikmatullo, Makhsumi Ismoil and others. Since the Sufi movements had fewer conflicts with the policy, they could survive even the Soviet repression. Of course during a certain period of time, they were also suppressed and their representatives were sent to Siberia. For instance, in the 1940s, all members of Turajanzoda family were sent to Siberia. Part of them died there and the others returned only after Stalin’s death. Sufi orders had the biggest authority among the population especially since people didn’t have any respect for the formal, state-laced clericals. Sufi for them personified true Islam.

If we look at the Southern part of the Republic, it is all divided into spheres of influence of various Sufi families. I produced a map of the zones of influence of various Sufi families in the Republic. It is interesting, because we understand Sufis not only in the traditional way with all their paraphernalia. We lost a lot with regard to Sufism, theological and philosophical Sufism is very weak in Tajikistan, but practical and ritual parts of it were preserved, especially the moral side of Sufism.

During the Soviet times they managed to preserve Islam. All modern Islamic leaders like Nouri and Turajansoda admit that Sufis really kept this historical legacy alive and passed it to the hands of the contemporary leaders. They really played a key role and even today they have a very big influence.

Q – The 1990s were the time of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, but also of civil war in Tajikistan. So the maze of Islam becomes quite complex. We have Islam as a political movement, on the other hand revival of Muslim practices, probably the opening of new mosques, and so on. Could you describe a little bit what were the feelings during those years?

Rahnamo – The first years after independence and the years of the civil war was the most difficult period in the history of Islam in Tajikistan. Tajik Islam, at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, was characterized by some modern movements; there were attempts to clean Islam from some non religious elements. For instance, many nontraditional ceremonies, such as the obligation to distribute money among people attending funerals, expensive funeral meals on 3rd, 7th, 20th, and 40th days, emphasis on magic power of some saints’ graves and amulets etc… were treated by clerics as traditional. The new generation of clerics considered they should be eliminated. So we can speak of a diversity of ideas within Islam. In the Kurgan-Tyube area, for example, there were cases in which Islamic innovators were beaten. Followers of traditional Islam sometimes pushed away from mosques the followers of reformers.

When time came for political struggle, political authorities used this diversity of opinions in Islam. They called reformers Wahhabi, though according to their positions on the sharia, they had nothing to do with the Wahhabi movement. The authorities just used this opportunity to sell this idea to masses that this new movement was Wahhabi and alien to traditional Islam. The representatives of this movement during the years of civil conflict were called vovchiks, that was short for Wahhabis, also easier to understand by the people. So one part of their fighters was called vovchiks. I don’t want to speak about what they were, but the main thing was really just symbolics in the use of those words.

In the civil war, we can say religion was involved from the very beginning and religious feelings of the population were used. One side was presented as a threat to our traditional religion. Those who opposed it really believed that the opposition was destroying traditional Islam. This aspect of the civil war also needs to be studied – we are not now speaking of outside factors, political factors, economic factors, it goes without saying. It was also the time for the appearance of a political Islamic organisation on the political scene. On one hand, part of the Muslims welcomed the political organisation, on the other hand, some of them were accused of being Wahhabis and it creates very fertile ground for this clash. So we can say that during the years of the civil war, Islam really suffered a lot.

Q – When was the Islamic Renaissance Party founded?

Rahnamo – There is also a problem here. According to Party leaders themselves, the Party was created about thirty years ago in 1972: in 2002 they celebrated their 30th anniversary. But they also say that in those years the party was acting as a kind of a circle or club of thinkers. Of course for political security reasons, they tried to leave no traces of their activities. Therefore there is no fixed moment at which the existence of the Party in those years can be proved.

In the political arena, it first appeared in the 1986; Mr. Nouri was detained and spent 18 months in jail. Then people started speaking of the existence of an anti-Soviet, anti-government organisation. But it wasn’t called a party at that time. As a party, it first presented itself at the Soviet Union level.

Adjusting to the situation of that time, it started as the Islamic Party of the Soviet Union. Part of the leaders consisted exactly of the Tajik leaders of the Party: Saidibrohim Gadoyev, Dawlat Usmon… But after the break-up of the Soviet Union, this party could no longer exist and a local party was created. And in 1991 the question of allowing the first meeting of the Islamic party was raised. As a legal political party, it appeared exactly in those days. Its first meeting took place in 1991 and since then it has been a reality in our life.

Q – Could we describe the civil war as a confrontation between Muslim groups on one side and secular groups on the other side? Or should we describe it as a struggle between different regional groups?

Rahnamo – I cannot say this was clearly an ideological war between the religious side and the secular side. There was no ideological edge to this war because part of the clerics were on the side of their government and the secular side, while some democratic forces, like the Democratic Party and nationalist movement Rastokhez, joined the Islamic side.

Judging from the representatives of the different sides, you can say that both were highly represented. It was a real civil war. Of course there were regionalist components in mobilization, legitimization. Parties needed to put a disguise on them.

We only notice the secular/religious conflict in the last stages of the war. The ideological level manifested itself a bit later, especially by 1997 and 1998, when both sides hurled accusations at each other. At the early stages of the war, political and clan attitudes were more obvious. Then with the political maturity on both sides, they got some political and ideological attitudes. And the climax of ideological argument was in 1997 and 1998. The years 1993-94 were years of blind murder. In 1997 and 98 they already accused each other with ideological arguments.

If you follow the dynamics of these years, you see that there has been a modification of civil war. The war was changing its disguise and by the end it acquired some ideological elements. In the beginning there had really not been that strong ideological controversy. So we cannot do anything with it. Everything related to secular became the weapon of one side and everything related to religion became the weapon of the other side. To be secular provided the support of Western countries, or of secular countries, of all the secular world; while the Islamic side got its support from the Islamic world. In reality, both sides were not as secular or as Islamic as it was told. It’s a very delicate issue.

Q – The case does not seem to be a unique one. If you say: “I am Tajik nationalist, I fight for Tajik independence”, who would be willing to support you? There is not a large Tajik diaspora abroad. If you say, “I am fighting for Islam”, you have one billion people in the world saying, “We should help our brothers”. Obviously it creates a wider network of solidarity.

Rahnamo – This disguise we adopted ourselves prevents us from coming together now. Therefore it is so necessary to de-ideologize our relations. Ideological compromise is always more difficult. Though we have lots of opportunities for uniting, for co-existence, because we are Tajiks, we come from one land, speak one language, have the same history, and have the same religion. By softening our ideological situation, we can come closer, we can relate to each other. If we are not doing it, it will make our situation more difficult. There is nothing, objectively speaking, that separates us. Political struggle was a phenomenon that exists in all societies. But psychological, ideological struggle was really very dangerous for us.

Q – Could we say there is today a wide support for an Islamic political project in Tajikistan? Or, according to you, is support limited to some section of the population? What percentage of votes does the Islamic Renaissance Party receive?

Rahnamo – After the war, we can say we find ourselves in a quick changing movement. First there was war and suddenly we came to a peaceful life again. This didn’t take us long, as it usually does. So for us this situation was probably too quick to perceive.

The second problem is the improvement of the electoral system. Therefore I would estimate the chances of the Islamic Party based on these two realities. And the third factor for identifying the percentage is the attitude towards traditional Islam, because most of the population still sticks to traditional Islam. Most of the electorate would regard this Islamic Party as a political phenomenon. Its success will depend very much on its political activities and programs, though the Islamic element is a plus. As a political party with developed programs and positions, it is weak today. I don’t know anything about percentage but I can say this is one of the most influential political forces in our society.

Q – Despite being weak?

Rahnamo – Political parties here are all weak as political parties. There are other factors that make the force of this or that personality. Still in circumstances of social, economic, moral crisis, the chances of this party are growing.

Q – Regarding the general situation of Islam in Tajikistan, a good indicator of how religion is growing or not growing in a society, is how young people relate to it. Do you have the feeling that the young people we come across in the street in Dushanbe, in Khojand, in Kurgan-Tyube are people who feel attracted or committed to Islam, not just as a cultural heritage, but people who will also keep some of the commandments of Islam? Are we able to measure, in the way social studies would do, the influence of Islam among young people in Tajikistan today? Is it increasing, decreasing? What are the academic assessments - insofar as there are some?

Rahnamo – Just before the civil conflict, we already noticed that there was a tendency among young people to turn to religion. In those years, I was a student and I can say there was an interest, because the students had special classes, not formal classes, where they invited some cleric on their own initiative.

In my opinion, compared to the situation in the late 1980s and early 90s, the interest of the young people in religion is much lower now. And I connect that to three reasons. Since the civil war, Islam has been involved in the conflict. This left a negative psychological effect. The second factor is that the hard social economic situation pushed Islam away for now, because first of all people are thinking about how to survive and how to make ends meet. The third factor is very much related to the position of Islamic clerics. Since we do not have intellectual Islam and we don’t have a well-educated Islamic intelligentsia with a modern clerical education, they could not meet the modern spiritual requirements of young people who view everything in a more modern way. That’s why these young people do not find answers to their questions with these clerics. I would like to make the point that this does not relate to Islam itself, but to these undereducated clerics.

Q – Your research also showed that there is a blossoming of unofficial teaching of Islam. It means people are going to a local cleric and asking for religious education. So is it another aspect of current reality of Islam today in Tajikistan? Is it the multiplication of small groups of students around a mullah, around a master? Does that take place all over the country or specifically in some regions, in some areas?

Rahnamo – It is going on in all regions. It is everywhere, though to different extents. If you look at the Northern part of the country, for instance Isfara, it is one of the centres of private religious education. Also Mastchah, in Northern Tajikistan as well. In Southern and Central Tajikistan in Duchanbe, Kofarnikhon (Vahdat), Qarotegin, Fayzabad. And also in the south, Kulyab and Kurgan-Tyube. In all those areas, traditional forms of religious education can be found.

Q – As I went to some places in Tajikistan, for example Hissar, I visited a big, newly built, very nice mosque. I would like to understand where the money for building such mosques comes from? Does it come from local people, who donate either money or work? Does the government support them? Do outside Islamic organisations support the building of such new mosques in Tajikistan?

Rahnamo – According to the law, the government does not fund religious organisations. Mosques and medresses are religious organisations. At the same time, the law does not prohibit outside investments in constructions that are not politically associated, like mosques and medresses. Funding for building mosques and medresses can come from private citizens as well as from outside sources.

Some are funded by private donations. For example, the mosque you saw in Hissar was built with private donations. Sometimes wealthy private people give money. Businessmen can donate money. This mosque is under control of a prominent religious figure Makhsumi Ismail, some murids (followers) of whom are wealthy.

Q – I have seen in Dushanbe an increasing number of missionaries of Christian organizations coming from Korea, from the United States and other places. So it means there is a new element in the religious landscape of the country. How do the local Muslims react to those proselytizing attempts by religious organizations newly arrived in the country?

Rahnamo – This is one of the big problems in our new society. We are facing a dilemma. On the one hand it is necessary to provide freedom of faith; on the other hand, there is the need to preserve national stability and security. Therefore this problem remains open.

There are many negative reactions by the population and clerics, due to the fact that the propaganda of those newly arrived movements is often conducted in a very aggressive way. In one night, groups such as Hare Krishna or Christian groups can put up a lot of their posters.

In the other hand, we cannot prohibit the religious activity of these believers. Since this question is now discussed at a very high level, we will soon come to some kind of a resolution. The issue is that the country is going through an economic crisis and missionaries very often use this weak point, providing some material assistance. As a believer, I think the person who, for a half a sack of wheat flour sold his religion, for a full sack of flour will change tomorrow to a third religion!

The interview with Abdullo Rahnamo took in Dushanbe. He was interviewed by Jean-François Mayer. The tape recording was transcribed by Nancy Grivel-Burke. The transcript was revised by Prof. Rahnamo in 2004.


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