After breakfast, we were driven the few kilometres to the Shrine of Bahaudin Naqshband, the founder of the Naqshbandi Sufi Order. Many people were visiting the complex and the vast majority were Muslim Uzbeks, Kazakhs or Tajiks rather than Christian (nominally at least) Russians (all the visitors appeared to be citizens of Uzbekistan. If nothing else, our trip to the shrine confirmed that Uzbekistan is an ethnically diverse nation state).
The complex has a delightful collection of buildings, an extensive cemetery and gardens with water features. The day of our visit, girls and women were as numerous as boys and men, but females were forbidden from entering one of the mosques. We were told that the Naqshbandi Sufi Order emphasises conformity with the sunnah, the traditional social and legal custom and practice of the Sunni Muslim community, which is based solely on the content of the Qur’an and the Hadith, the latter being words and deeds attributed to Muhammad, his relations and his closest companions, often long after he and they had died. This means that the Naqshbandis deem as acceptable only that declared acceptable in the Qur’an and/or the Hadith. This marks out the Naqshbandis as a Sufi order atypical of the Sufis more generally insofar as the Naqshbandis discourage innovation and the adoption of beliefs and practices from outside the parameters defined by the content of the Qur’an and the Hadith.
Within the complex is a water tank. At one corner of the tank the trunk of a very old tree lies on the ground with part of it overhanging the water. Here, girls and women gather to encircle and/or crawl under the trunk without any part of their body getting wet. Some people say girls and women do this simply to prove that they can; others say that they hope it will make them more fertile. However, because this is a practice that neither the Qur’an nor the Hadith refer to, the rather stern and austere men who dominate the Naqshbandi Sufi Order want to suppress it. The order is therefore in danger of losing one of the few remaining aspects of “folk” religion that empower and provide delight to the marginalised girls and women within the movement. Additionally, the order is in danger of losing an aspect of practice which people in many other expressions of religion can easily relate to. I was beginning to appreciate why the Naqshbandis are regarded with grave suspicion in many parts of the world. For example, Sikhs regard the Naqshbandis with suspicion because of the role they played in India when Guru Arjan Singh was the Sikhs’ spiritual leader. At the time, the Naqshbandis had considerable influence over Jahangir, the Mughal emperor, and sought to suppress expressions of religion that did not conform with their vision of an Islam shaped solely by the sunnah. Jahangir ordered the arrest of Guru Arjan Singh, who was told to convert to Islam. This he refused to do and, as a consequence, was tortured and executed in 1606. Persecution of the Sikhs preceded the guru’s execution and continued for long thereafter, and the Naqshbandis played a key role in such persecution, sometimes through direct action, but also by giving expression to contempt for those who did not subscribe to the sunnah.
Some distance from the fallen tree trunk, under a roof supported by columns, a blind hafiz (a person who has learned the whole Qur’an by heart) recited a few qur’anic verses to groups of about sixty males and females. All those who had gathered to listen faced the hafiz, but in most cases in a seated or kneeling position so they were a little below him (he sat for most of the time on a wide wooden structure raised above the ground covered with carpets and lengths of brightly coloured fabric). Many in the audience closed their eyes or lowered their heads so they looked toward the ground. Some people held both hands in front of them as if reading from the Qur’an itself. The recital over, some of the people in the audience pressed forward, thanked the hafiz, left him some money and/or took a small gift of food. Ten minutes later another recital began with a new audience.
Because the number of foreign tourists was so small the day of our visit, we were objects of considerable curiosity for the local Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Tajiks. Many people wanted to briefly chat and the older girls and women were keen to be photographed next to us.