Islam in Uzbekistan: part one.

In 2000, Jamshid Gaziev published a lengthy paper called “Islamic Revival in Post-Independence Uzbekistan” (“Praxis: The Fletcher Journal of Development Studies”, vol. XVI). Below is some of the paper’s most interesting content:

In September 1991, the Communist Party changed its name to the People’s Democratic Party and elected Islam Karimov as its chairman. In the first direct presidential elections in Uzbekistan, held on 29th December 1991, Karimov, according to Bess Brown, won a fair election receiving 86% of the total votes. The first steps of the new government consisted of conciliatory gestures toward Muslims, including returning mosques and medressas to their original Muslim practitioners, changing the old communist names of the streets and towns to traditional Muslim forms and renaming some administrative positions as they used to be prior to the Russian conquest. In 1994, out of 7,800 mosques in Central Asia, nearly half were officially functioning in Uzbekistan, and 380 medressas have been operating in the country since independence. Moreover, Qur’ans and other instructional material became widely available in Uzbek and the government went further in partially sponsoring the annual pilgrimage to Makkah.

During the first years of independence, the official policy of Karimov’s office was focused on changing the Soviet atheist mentality of the population and propagating the spiritual wealth of the Uzbek nation. Warikoo notes that, relative to the material poverty in rural areas, Karimov felt that “spiritual poverty” was of equal, if not greater, concern.

The history of Uzbekistan was reconsidered, its rich Muslim heritage was glorified and national heroes, purged during the Soviet period, were rehabilitated. New courses, such as “Spiritual Heritage of Uzbekistan” and “Uzbekistan’s Own Way to Independence and Progress”, were included in the curriculum of schools and higher educational establishments. Karimov, explaining this policy, stated “From the first days of our independence, state policy faced the significant task to revive that tremendous, precious spiritual and cultural heritage, which has been built by our ancestors.”

Near Chorsu Bazaar, Tashkent

It could be argued that, in order to succeed with this policy, the Uzbek president made a loose political alliance with Uzbekistan’s official Muslim religious leader, Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf. James Critchlow claims that Uzbek history and traditions were becoming the ideological standards which opened the door as never before to an Islamic resurgence.

Shirin Akiner criticised the official policy of the government on the grounds that “the chief beneficiary was the republican government, which was adroit enough to use Islam to strengthen its own position and to pave the way for an eventual transformation of Communist Party functionaries into nationalist leaders”. Warikoo, providing support for Akiner’s criticism, stressed that Karimov’s attitude reflected the general “tendency among the ruling elite in Central Asia to cover up their own failures by blaming Soviet policy”.

The above criticism, defining Karimov’s attempts to encourage Islam as a self-interested and politically driven undertaking, is perhaps too harsh. Karimov realised that independence could not be achieved if the people were not aware of their true history and of the detrimental Soviet legacy. This educational policy was responsible for 98.2% of the voters endorsing Uzbekistan’s independence in the December 1991 referendum.

Above all, criticism against the policy of the new government toward Islamic revival can be challenged on the following grounds. First, the government relied on state Islam as a device to help channel and control dissident Muslim forces. Second, the new policy reflected an attempt to fill the vacuum in society created by the decline of secular authority. Last, the state policy responded to growing pressures from Uzbek intellectuals to restore Islam to its rightful place in their history. Karimov, explaining his motives, maintains that “History proves that only educated and enlightened society will appreciate all advantages of democratic development [like that taking place in Uzbekistan], and vice versa, uneducated and ignorant people will accept an authoritarian and totalitarian system [like that of the former USSR].”

With regard to the legal aspects of the state’s strategy toward Islam, it can be argued that legislation and constitutional provisions were designed to define parameters of religious activities, the violations of which would give the government legal sanction to level criminal charges against individuals and religious organisations.

Khast Imom, Tashkent

The overall policy of the Uzbek authorities toward Islam has sought to provide freedom for its growth as a religion by encouraging the building of mosques and the establishment of religious schools and training colleges, but to resist any manifestation of a political voice for Islam. Diloram Ibrahim argues that it was not the state that dictated the spiritual and religious drive, but the unstable social, political and economic situation in Uzbekistan which made it necessary to seek spiritual support in religion to compensate for all the shortages in real life. It also seems to be natural that Islam, a key feature of Central Asian civilisation since the 8th century, should re-emerge vigorously once freed from official repression.

Although Uzbekistan is more uniformly religious than any other republic in Central Asia, Islam in Uzbekistan is commonly divided horizontally and vertically. The horizontal division splits Islam into Shiism and Sunnism, with further sub-divisions into Sufi orders and sects. The vertical division, stemming from the Soviet period, classifies Islam into “official” and “unofficial”.

The majority of the Muslim umma in Uzbekistan are Sunni Muslims. Predominantly, the Sunni Muslims of Uzbekistan are from the Hanafi school, but some adhere to Sufi brotherhoods. The Hanafi school, founded by Abu Hanifah al-Numan in Kufa, was established in Bukhara in the early 9th century. The Hanafi school is noted for its liberal religious orientation, which allowed the pre-Islamic traditions of the native people to be incorporated into Islam. Haghayeghi found that several Hanafi principles provided flexibility and more freedom in practicing Islam for believers in Uzbekistan. The first principle postulates that if a Muslim wholeheartedly believes in Allah and the Prophet Muhammad but is neglectful toward his religious duties, he is still a Muslim, but a sinful one. Due to this flexibility, Diloram Ibrahim claimed that “In Uzbekistan Islam has become a religion of rites performed universally. The five pillars of Islam are, by and large, neglected. Uzbeks are ignorant about elementary Islamic teaching, unable to read even a simple prayer.”

Second, the Hanafi teachings place strong emphasis on the expediency and the usefulness of Islam, thus refraining from an interpretation of Islam based on absolute obedience, a characteristic associated with fundamentalist practice of Islam. Muslims are allowed to conduct the prayer in languages other than Arabic, and to choose the section of the Qur’an they wish to read. Third, the Hanafi school holds a very tolerant position toward the issues of criminal and civil punishment, divorce and almsgiving. The fourth maxim says that socio-economic necessity supersedes the need for Islamic orthodoxy. In other words, realising the inevitability of socio-economic changes, especially if the religion itself is to survive, the Hanafi philosophy advocates the postponement or alteration of the conduct of religious affairs to accommodate the needs of the believer. The final principle asserts that difference of opinion in the Muslim community is a token of divine mercy. The non-binding and liberal character of the Hanafi school facilitated its rapid spread among the majority of the Muslim umma of Uzbekistan. In addition, these features of a liberal form of Islam have affected the political beliefs of the population of Uzbekistan.

Osman Qur’an, Tashkent

There are small communities of Twelver Shiism in Bukhara and Samarkand, which have their origins during the period of Abbasid rule in Central Asia. The Shias believe that Ali ibn Abu Talib is the legitimate heir of the Prophet Muhammad, whereas Sunnis first submit to Abu Bakr and then Ali as the fourth legitimate ruler of the Muslim community.

Sufism, a mystical doctrine that aims at achieving personal union with God, has played a very important role in the Islamisation of Central Asia. Sufis were the first Muslim missionaries in the region and have influenced political affairs since the 12th century. Under the Soviet regime, Sufism preserved Islamic traditions and became very active after the revolution in Iran. In order to avoid confusion, it should be noted that some scholars classify Sufism in Uzbekistan in terms of the vertical division of unofficial Islam. Although the Sufi ishans represented unofficial Islam under the Soviet regime, they did not oppose the representatives of official Islam who co-operated with the Soviet Uzbek authorities. It is true that the Sufi orders used to function underground during the Soviet period, thus preserving Islamic traditions among the rural population of Uzbekistan; however, the Sufi brotherhoods have been recently incorporated into official Islam and the majority of them function openly today.

At present, there are two active Sufi Sunni brotherhoods in Uzbekistan: the Naqshbandiya and the Qadiriya. The Qadiriya, having a well-defined hierarchical structure, are particularly strong in the Fergana Valley, now a centre of radical Islam. The most popular Sufi fraternity in Uzbekistan, the Naqshbandiya, was founded by Muhammad ibn Muhammad Bahaudin Naqshband (1317-89) in Bukhara. Analysing its historical role in the Islamisation of the native people, Ludmila Polonskaya states that “At first, the Naqshbandiya brotherhood was urban and Iranian, but later it absorbed many traditions of Turki nomads and contributed to their Islamisation, promoting a synthesis of Iranian and Turki, farmers’ and nomads’ cultures.”


At present, the Naqshbandiya exerts significant influence in the Fergana Valley and Bukhara. Its success can be explained by a variety of reasons. First, the Naqshbandiya is extremely adaptable to changing social and political conditions. Second, the brotherhood is linguistically accessible to everyone because it has Turkic and Persian roots. Last, the Sufi order constitutes “doctrinal liberalism” that excludes fanaticism and radicalism. Another important feature of the Naqshbandiya brotherhood is its highly decentralised structure with multiple centres under the independent religious authority.

Since the demise of the USSR, the Sufi orders have enjoyed more freedom in their religious activities. The local authorities are very careful in dealing with the Sufis. On the one hand, they realise that the popularity, influence and widespread structure of the Sufi orders can be of use in gaining popularity and propagating the official policy of the government. On the other hand, the Sufi sects’ code of secrecy and sophisticated organisational framework have the potential to mobilise Muslims and build a “political infrastructure”. Bearing these factors in mind, the government seeks to build friendly relations and place the Sufi orders within the framework of official Islam, which will provide greater control over the Sufis’ activities.

However, due to its liberalism, the Naqshbandiya has enjoyed special attention from the government. The Islamic complex at the shrine of Bahaudin Naqshband in Bukhara was refurbished, and the anniversary of Naqshband’s birthday was grandiosely celebrated in 1992. The new mufti of Uzbekistan, Mukhtarkhan Abdulayev, was the imam of the Naqshbandi mosque near Bukhara. It has been argued that he was elected for his Sufi background, which assisted in boosting Karimov’s popularity since 1992.

The vertical division breaks Islam into official and unofficial. This division, which emerged as a result of Soviet anti-Islamic policy, is more complicated than the horizontal. Official Islam is a state-instituted system, which includes Islam in the framework of society. Presently, official Islam is represented by the Spiritual Board of the Muslims of Maverannahr. In legal terms, religious groups or organisations can be registered and function officially only if they meet the requirements contained in the law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations in Uzbekistan dating from May 1998.

Registan, Samarkand

After independence, the ruling elite sought to maintain control over the religious establishments of official Islam by the constant monitoring of, and interference with, the religious affairs of the clergy. In response to this policy, a large number of Muslims gathered in front of the Uzbek Council of Ministers in Tashkent on 3rd February 1989. The demonstrators demanded the resignation of the Soviet-appointed Mufti, Shamsuddin Babakhanov, and the nomination of Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf, director of the Tashkent Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute. This demonstration was less an act of fundamentalism than a political act, one through which the people demanded a voice in the decisions affecting the religious life of their communities.

A reflection of Islamic revival and the growing power of the people in the state’s policy toward Islam can be seen not only in the election of the new mufti, but also in the election of seven religious leaders as people’s deputies to the national parliament. Gradually, state policy has shifted from confrontation to co-optation as a pattern in dealing with Islam. The coalition of religious clergy and the government was exemplified in the “peace-making” efforts of the Mufti Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf when he helped restore peace and order following ethnic turmoil in the Fergana Valley in 1989. In his public statements he emphasised that “danger to interfaith and interethnic harmony could come not from mainstream Islam, but from the splinter groups”. To prevent the radicalisation of the splinter groups, official Islam has undertaken to co-opt members of the Islamic opposition, even offering them high religious posts. Despite the coalition between state policy and mainstream Islam, the official clergy continues to challenge the ever-increasing involvement of government in religious affairs.

Some observers have claimed that such a close alliance of the official clergy and the state, reminiscent of subservience of the former to the communist government, has accelerated the growth of unofficial Islam’s popularity among the people. Expressing himself on this issue, Graham Fuller suggested that “The institutions of established Islam in Central Asia – long dominated by the communist state – do not enjoy the prestige and respect of the people as a result of their too cosy relationships with the state. Unofficial Islam or Islamic movements then inevitably fill the vacuum, gain adherence and legitimacy among the people, and can often impose powerful demands upon the state itself and threaten its legitimacy.”

It would be sensible for the Uzbek authorities to provide more freedom to the official clerical establishments to enable the latter to compete with a strong and diverse unofficial Islam. Since the number of religious and political parties has mushroomed in the political arena in Uzbekistan, the government’s legitimacy has significantly suffered. The reason for this is that the political opposition parties, being constantly harassed by the government, have tried to find unifying grounds with unofficial Islamic groups against the common enemy. Although an alliance between the national democrats and unofficial religious groups is improbable due to differences in their methods of ousting the current government, the real danger to the state is hidden in the Islamic slogans, which are expressed to achieve political objectives.

Registan, Samarkand

Some of the active influential unofficial religious organisations in Uzbekistan are Islam and Democracy of Uzbekistan, the People’s Front of Uzbekistan, Adolat (Justice), the Islamic Democratic Party, Islam Lashkari (Army of Islam) and the Islamic Renaissance Party. The objectives of these parties can be classified into two main trends, the moderate and the radical. The moderate parties demand a return to the purity of Islam, the spiritual cleansing of the people from immorality and the preaching of the democratic principles of the Qur’an. The radical movements generally advocate the establishment of an Islamic state, but they disagree on the form of the state and the methods of achieving it. Due to the clandestine nature of unofficial Islam, it is difficult to carry out thorough research on their form, hierarchy and goals.

“People may be initially lured by the fundamentalists because of their vast funds and their message of revolution, but the beauty of Islam in Uzbekistan is that it is rooted in culture and philosophy and, above all, tolerance. This cannot be wiped out in a hurry.” Safarbai Kuchkarov, a prominent Sufi in Djizak, Uzbekistan.

Most scholars agree that Islam has become one of the major characteristics of Central Asia, but their opinions on whether Islam will take the radical or the moderate form differ. Some argue that, due to the long-term Slavic experience in the region, the people have become secular and, even though they consider themselves Muslims, do not want Islam to be involved in politics. Others believe that Islamic fundamentalism is inevitable in Uzbekistan due to a combination of political, economic and social determinants.

In accordance with Haynes’s findings, there are four types of Muslims: nominal, traditionalist, mainstream and radical. The nominal Muslim is defined as such because he is born to Muslim parents. As discussed earlier, this Muslim believes in the convergence of Islamic and national self-identity in Uzbekistan. The traditionalist is concerned with the observance of the five pillars of Islam and is not involved in political activities. The mainstream Muslims, or “Islamic liberals”, as defined by Ayubi, perceive Islam as “broad and flexible enough to be able to accommodate itself effectively to the changing requirements of time and peace”.

The official politicisation of Islam has caused several side effects. It has created strict borders between the ideology of state-sponsored Islam, followed by the majority of the nominal and the mainstream Muslims, and the fundamentalist ideology of Islam, supported by those disappointed in official Islam – Islamic reformers, traditionalist and radical Muslims. The refusal of the government to introduce Islamic education in government schools has, for example, resulted in the spread of unofficial schools. The lack of freedom to achieve their radical objectives through the ballot box has made the Muslim radicals attempt to achieve them by force. In addition, the radical Muslims have proliferated due to the vacuum created by the lack of leadership from the official Islamic hierarchy.

Registan, Samarkand

The radical Muslims, according to Ayubi, observe the three Ds: Islam as a dunya (way of life), a din (religion) and a dawla (Islamic state). In Uzbekistan, in an attempt to achieve a dawla, the fundamentalists have divided into the moderates and the radicals. The moderates advocate a return to the purity of Islam and want people to live according to Islamic norms. One of the moderate active Islamic organisations is the Islamic Democratic Party led by Dadakhan Hassanov, a famous composer and performer of traditional Uzbek music. Set up by Uzbek intellectuals in August 1990, the Islamic Democratic Party demands the imposition of sharia with eventual transformation to an Islamic state. However, they want to fulfil their aims through a non-violent Islamic revolution in Uzbekistan. The radical parties in Uzbekistan are the Islamic Renaissance Party, Islam Lashkari and Adolat. The political objective of these parties is to establish an Islamic state through any means. These parties are most popular in the Fergana Valley and Samarkand. They were accused of extremism and have been subsequently banned.

Threatened by the civil war in Tajikistan and encouraged by Western states, the Uzbek government increased its authoritarian drive against fundamentalism. The official clergy supported the government’s campaign against Islamic fundamentalism. In one of his speeches, then-Mufti Muhammad Sadiq Muhammad Yusuf said “There were attempts to form a Muslim party. The official clergy object to it. We consider that Islam by itself is a party which has existed for over 1,400 years already.”

This state strategy was often criticised on the grounds that, instead of supporting moderate Islam and legalising Islamic parties, the rulers drove political Islam further to the wall, giving Islamic militants reason to accuse the rulers of being crypto-communists and unbelievers. Graham Fuller suggests that only tolerance of the emergence of other legitimate opposition parties will diminish the Islamic monopoly on opposition politics. Another consequence of banning Islamic parties and movements is that such authoritarian policies almost invariably strengthen the legitimacy of the fundamentalists, while at the same time adversely affecting the legitimacy of the government.

A number of factors could contribute to the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Economic and financial instability, combined with widespread corruption and strangling bureaucratic regulations, are a source of tension. Additionally, the poverty of the majority, as opposed to the wealth of the minority of “new Uzbeks”, and the absence of a middle class, improves the odds in favour of Islamic fundamentalism. On the other hand, developments in Tajikistan and the Taliban factor have highlighted the risks of militant Islam. For instance, the Fergana Valley, with the highest level of Islamic activism in Central Asia, has the highest population density in Central Asia and one of the lowest economic standards. Recognising the explosive atmosphere in the valley, efforts to industrialise the region and raise the standard of living have been undertaken by the government. Research carried out by Polonskaya showed that Islamic fundamentalism is most popular among students, rural dwellers, young men who have recently come to the towns from the countryside, representatives of the traditionalist intelligentsia and middle or lower sections of the clergy.

Hazrat-Hizr Mosque, Samarkand


There are major impediments to the radical Islamisation of Uzbekistan. The liberal Hanafi tradition of Sunni Muslims, which co-exists with a secular state, has a strong hold. The tolerant Islam of the Sufi sects is also widely adhered to, particularly in rural areas. The unwillingness of numerous ethnic minorities to join radical movements led by the ethnic majority makes it difficult for Islamists to unify the population under the Islamic banner and overcome ethnic clashes. Widespread regionalism in Uzbekistan would pose a similar impediment to mass mobilisation for jihad. High literacy levels, the continuing impact of Slavic and now Western cultural influences, the growth of a free market economy and the chaos that Tajikistan and Afghanistan have descended into under Islamic regimes will remain important factors in dissuading people from joining such movements.

Recent political developments in Uzbekistan have shown that the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, though unorganised, should not be underestimated, particularly that of a radical sect called the Wahhabis. The Wahhabi movement in Uzbekistan has been receiving sizable financial support from the Saudi Arabian movement, Ahl-e Sunnah. Wahhabism is well known for its puritanical views and because it denounces the conceptualisation of the four main schools of Sunni Islam – the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Shafi and the Hanbali. The Wahhabis consider the Qur’an and the Hadith as the only authoritative sources for the conduct of the Muslim umma’s behaviour. The Wahhabi movement is particularly strong in the Fergana Valley. According to the Russian Fpapers, which sought to analyse the Fergana riots in 1989, the Wahhabi movement is rapidly gaining strength in the Fergana Valley and enjoys considerable prestige among different strata of the population, from elite literary circles in Tashkent to teenagers in schools. The latter are especially impressed with the Wahhabis’ contempt for money, their rejection of remuneration for the religious rites they perform and their nationalist fervour.

The Wahhabis, due to their ideological and political beliefs, condemn other fundamental-ist groups like the Islamic Renaissance Party. An important Wahhabi leader said “The IRP wants to be in parliament. We have no desire to be in parliament. We want a revolution.” Moreover, they condemn Shias and other minority Muslim sects. Many scholars argue that the Wahhabi insistence on a narrow and highly sectarian view of Islam will bring them up against not only the government, but also other Islamic groups in the future.

In December 1997, the Wahhabis began using force in an attempt to establish an Islamic state in the country. The government claims that a number of Wahhabis have received military and terrorist training in Pakistan. At the beginning of December 1997, the Wahhabi sect was officially blamed for the murder of four policemen in Namangan in the Fergana Valley. A few days later in the same region, a group of masked men killed a highly placed official of the GAI (the Automotive Inspection Committee) and decapitated him. The government suspected the Wahhabis of all the December 1997 killings and sent troops from elite security units to keep peace in the Fergana Valley. In addition to the militant response to the Wahhabi threat, the Uzbek parliament enacted On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organisations in Uzbekistan in May 1998. The law creates extremely restrictive regulations for the registration of religious organisations, bans religious activities and education other than within official Islam and prohibits the activities of foreign missionaries in Uzbekistan.

Bibi-Khanym Mosque, Samarkand

Abdumannob Polat, chairman of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, claimed that, following May 1998, a large number of religious leaders were arrested or fled the country. Furthermore, at least 120 people imprisoned in the Fergana Valley were jailed on what are likely fabricated charges of narcotics and weapons possession. The situation has become worse after a terrorist act on 16th February 1999 in Tashkent, which killed 16 and wounded more than a 100 people. In his speech in the parliament of Uzbekistan, Karimov highlighted two factors which caused this tragic event: “Firstly, some extremist forces beyond the borders of our country, using the sacred values of Islam, attempt to turn Uzbekistan from the path of democratic and secular development, and secondly, there are some forces that feel hostility toward our independent policy and try their best to dominate and dictate their own policies to Uzbekistan.”

Meanwhile, Karimov has introduced a strategy of development in the 14th session of the Oliy Majlis, which includes the liberalisation of political and economic life in the country, further spiritual renovation of society, the creation of a clever human resources policy, a progressive increase in material prosperity for the people, improvement in the social protection of the population and reform of the national army, frontier and internal forces to maintain peace in the country. It can be seen from this strategy that the government seeks to eliminate all possible grounds for the successful development of radical Islam in Uzbekistan.


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