‘Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia’ is a well-researched book authored by Maria Elisabeth Louw, who is a Danish anthropologist served at University of Aarhus. The 220 page book explores Islam in Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan, as a vital force that has a lot to do with day to day affairs of the people of the region. It is based on an arduous and comprehensive fieldwork conducted by the author.
Louw’s extensive research shows that Islam, as a religion, not only remains pretty much relevant in Central Asia but its understanding in the masses with respect to their everyday life, is way different from those who pitch a more stringent version which is normally referred to, in the western academia, as fundamental Islam. The book also shows that despite decades of suppression of Islam in Central Asia, in general and Uzbekistan in particular, the religion continues to contribute to the shaping of political culture and moral structure of the society.
The book sheds light on the new Muslim identity of the post-Soviet Central Asia, based on how the society has evolved and enhanced the understanding of Islam. The introductory chapter deals with an overview of Islam’s relevance in Central Asia in the Soviet era. The dissolution of Soviet Union opened the discussion regarding recognition of Soviet Muslims which now had states to govern, while at the same time, there was very little known about Muslims of Central Asia because of the ‘Iron Curtain’.
Notwithstanding the fact that the Soviet regime suppressed Islam in its era and promoted atheism in most of region which now regarded as Central Asia, the religion continued to have great relevance in private lives of the public and even Soviet government officials working on behalf of Soviet Union. The introductory chapter shows that Islam’s presence in the day to day affairs of the public of Central Asia, was diminished, but could not be eradicated. Islamic rituals pertinent to birth, marriage and death remained widely practiced during the era. Collective fasting in the Islamic month of Ramadan, in the Central Asian states, was also a common observation. Soviet academia agreed that Islam preserved in the region to a significant degree in everyday life and argued that it was primarily because of relatively more conservative nature of social consciousness compared with social being.
The Soviet assault on Islam involved destruction of mosques, religious seminaries and persecution of religious scholars of today’s Central Asia region. Due to these strict policies, the Soviet Regime succeeded in cutting the Muslims of the region from the rest of the Muslim World. For this very reason, Islam had become more like a cultural and traditional force
The book shows that most of the Western scholars argue that the Central Asian societies managed to preserve Islam in their everyday life because of their struggle to protect their customs and traditions against the Soviet regime which aimed at modernizing the people of these regions both culturally and psychologically. These efforts of Modernization included the introduction of Islam run by the Soviet state itself in these regions, with hopes to reform, in order to keep public far away from any fundamental Islamic discourse which could threaten the existence of Soviet Union. As an immediate consequence to the Soviet move regarding projection of a state-run religion for the people, a ‘parallel’ Islam, more incorporative of the cultural traditions and more leaned towards spiritual awakening, was adopted by the public, which was essentially anti-Soviet in its nature as well as anti-modernism.
The Soviet assault on Islam involved destruction of mosques, religious seminaries and persecution of religious scholars of today’s Central Asia region
The soviet assault on Islam included confiscation of religious seminaries and properties, mosques were destroyed and religious scholars were persecuted. As a result of these harsh measures against Islam, the Muslims of Soviet Union were virtually disconnected from the Muslims of the rest of the world. For this very reason, Islam remained more of a tradition than an ideology in the Central Asian region. The seven decades of suppression of Islam largely changed the meaning of being Muslim in Central Asia.
In the last years of Gorbachev regime, state’s tolerance towards Islam in Central Asia saw a boost and this was also seen as an indicator of a change in how center interacted with the periphery by many. When Central Asian Republics got independence, a new era of Islamic resurgence began to be witnessed. During these times, propaganda against Islam disappeared and Islamic buildings including mosques, seminaries and centres began to be rehabilitated and restored.
A chapter deals with Sufism in Central Asaia, which is largely taken as the spiritual dimension of Islam by majority of the Muslims across the globe. The author explores the influence of mystic and esoteric practices in the day to day affairs of the masses of the region. People strongly believe in spiritual symbols indicated by dreams and certain feelings.
The book sheds light on Sufism’s clash with the scholars in Islam, which is evident in Central Asia too. The scholars always abide by parameters and do not allow practices like veneration of saints in certain manners. They also do not accept the idea of having direct communication with Allah.
In the Post-Soviet government order, Naqshbandiyya order of Sufism, has been awarded great significance as the tradition is capable of incorporating local traditions and is also deemed fit for incorporation with the government’s ideology. The government has been encouraging the Naqshbandiyya order as a replacement for fundamental Islam. Various shrines of Naqshbandiyya saints called ‘Avliyo’ have been reconstructed and the teachings of the order have been projected as Uzbek Muslim identity in support with the government.
Shrines have always been central in preservation of Islam during Soviet era as well as these days as they provide the Muslims an opportunity to gather and unite. The author quotes certain stories, of real people given fictional names by her, which show that the Central Asia people strongly belief in evil eye and its damaging effects. Jealousy towards other peoples’ belongings or possessions can cause misfortunes and losses according to the concept of evil eye or glance.
When Central Asian Republics got independence, a new era of Islamic resurgence began to be witnessed. During these times, propaganda against Islam disappeared and Islamic buildings including mosques, seminaries and centres began to be rehabilitated and restored.
The author argues that ‘Muslimness’ in Uzbekistan, which is the identity of being Muslim, has always been there in the subconscious of the people and special significance is given to Islam by people who believe that the essence of their religion is unchangeable, but with that they do believe that it needs revival.
The book discusses some new approaches towards Islam in the Central Asian region, on interpreting the belongingness to Islam. These approaches depend largely on the mixture of two basic elements which are ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’. These new understandings of Islam highlighted the split existing between modernity and tradition with regards to Islam in the Central Asian region.
The book makes a convincing argument regarding Islam’s status in the region which has been referred to as the moral code undergoing various phases of evolution and negotiation for decades in the region. It rejects the argument of Islam being a ‘remnant of earlier forms of social consciousness’, or a ‘defence against modernization’.
The author concludes the book with a remark made from anthropological lens, which she believes, guides towards the fact that Islam is not taken as a world view, in other words an ideology or ‘ideational order’, rather it stands as force which is strongly embedded in the daily lives of the people of Central Asia, particularly Uzbekistan.
The book is an excellent read, particularly because of its in-depth research and analysis on Islam’s agency within the Central Asian society in the post-Soviet order. The most interesting aspect of the book is that it sheds light on various interpretations of Islam, particularly the spiritual dimension, which is largely shaping the contours of the collective morality of Central Asian communities. The evolution of Islam in Central Asia is still on the go and is attaching new understandings of ‘Muslimness’ in Central Asia, which will always be vital in understanding the socio-political structure and context of the region.
About The Author
Abubakar Farooqui is the brains behind Rationale 47. He Studied International Relations at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. His areas of interest include National Security of Pakistan and International Politics, particularly of Afghanistan and Middle East. He tweets @AbubakarTweets
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the original author and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views of Rationale-47.