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Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus:

Islam came to Central Asia and the Caucasus not long after its birth in the seventh century. The Arab conquest spanned roughly the period 600-800 CE, with further penetration via traders until 1200. The Mongol empire threatened Islam in the thirteenth century, but the faith withstood this and expanded as Russian conquests dominated the region in the sixteenth through nineteenth centuries. The Bolshevik Revolution and the subsequent antireligious campaign slated Islam for extinction; it again persisted and was freed to develop anew when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Islam in the different regions of Central Asia even today displays characteristics traceable to the agents and means of its original diffusion. For example, Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus, imposed during the Arab conquest, tends to be conservative and traditionalist. By contrast, Islam in the middle Volga region, especially among the Kazan Tatars, is modernist and liberal, reflecting its purveyance by merchants and diplomats. In the North Caucasus, which received Islam largely through the efforts of Sufi brotherhoods (tariqahs), it is radically conservative and occasionally militant.

History. In the middle of the seventh century CE conquering Arabs imposed Islam on eastern Transcaucasia. Azerbaijan fell in 639, and Daghestan first in 642. Despite opposition from Georgian Christians and Jewish Khazars in the region, islamization continued rapidly, so that by the eighth century the majority of the population was already Muslim. In the impenetrable mountains of Daghestan islamization took until the twelfth century, when resisting Christians and Jews for the most part disappeared. Central Asia at this time was divided among Buddhists, Manicheans, and Nestorian Christians. Arab conquest of the region south of the Syr Darya was complete by 716, and by the middle of the tenth century Islam was virtually the only religion in this territory.

A peaceful period of Islamic expansion into Central Asia and the Caucasus followed the violent Arab conquests. From Boo to 1200 Islam came with merchants along the famous fur and silk trade routes. The first ran from north to south along the Volga and the second from west to east from the Black Sea to China. The Bulgar Kingdom of the Middle Volga, presentday Tatarstan, received Islam as early as the ninth century from traders and Arab diplomats. Already by the middle of the tenth century, the world-famous fur trade that originated there was mostly a Muslim activity. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries Islam spread into the Urals through the territory of present-day Bashkortostan. As Muslim merchants moved north from the Syr Darya to the steppes of Kazakhstan and the mountains of Kirghizia (modern Kyrgyzstan) and finally to Eastern Turkestan (presentday Chinese Xinjiang), Islam took root, although somewhat more slowly among the nomads, whose islamization took until the eighteenth century.

The thirteenth century was a particularly dark one for Islam in Central Asia because of the Mongol invasion. At the beginning, Mongol rule had a strong anti-Islamic character, as many Mongol leaders were Buddhists and Nestorian Christians. Islam survived largely through the efforts of the Sfifi brotherhoods, which proselytized extensively among the masses. Eventually important Mongol rulers of the Golden Horde and the Chagatai Khanate would become Muslims themselves. By the middle of the sixteenth century, Crimea, the southern Russian steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas, the Kazakh steppes, and western Siberia had joined the Islamic world. Islam was brought to the North Caucasus in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries by the Nogai Horde, the Crimean Khanate, and the Ottoman Turks.

By the middle of the fourteenth century, the centralized Muscovite state began to throw off its Tatar yoke and push back the remnants of the Golden Horde. In the process, important Muslim territories were brought into the expanding Russian empire: Kazan (1552), Astrakhan (1556), and western Siberia (1598). By 1700, the Russians had reached the North Caucasus. Russian occupiers expelled Muslims from all the important cities and from the best land along the rivers. Under Ivan the Terrible and the first Romanovs, Muslims were treated as Russian subjects and denied the rights given to Christians. The Muslim aristocracy (especially in the Caucasus) was coopted and encouraged to convert to Christianity. In some regions Muslim religious leaders were expelled to the countryside and mosques destroyed. Sometimes Muslims were subjected to forcible conversion.

Still, Islam advanced, especially under Catherine the Great, who considered Islam a better civilizing influence on Asia than Christianity. Catherine guaranteed Muslims important rights-particularly regarding religious practice-sponsored the building of mosques, and created Islamic institutions with broad authority over the Muslim population of the Russian empire. Ironically, under her reign the first Naqshband! Sfifi missionaries arrived in the North Caucasus, where they laid the foundations for the most militant resistance to Russian expansion in that region.

Sufi brotherhoods have been an important element of Islamic civilization in the Russian Empire from the earliest days. At the time of Russian conquest four brotherhoods were active in Central Asia-the Naqshbandlyah, Yasawlyah, Qadirlyah, and Kubrawiyah. The Nagshbandiyah was founded in Bukhara in the fourteenth century and is in most respects the most prestigious tariqah in the region. Most of the greatest Turkestani poets were members of the Naqshbandlyah, including `All Shir Nava’!, `Abd al-Rahman Jami, Mahtum QuII, and Zalif. The Yasawlyah brotherhood was founded in the twelfth century in the northern part of Mavarannahr. It played an important role in the islamization of the nomadic tribes, then became inactive. It emerged again in the twentieth century under Russian and Soviet rule, and one of its offshoots, the tariqah of the “Hairy Ishans,” became one of the most radical in Central Asia. The Qadirlyah brotherhood was founded in the twelfth century in Baghdad and was introduced to Central Asia in the Middle Ages. The Kubrawlyah was founded in the twelfth century in Khorezm (Khwarazm), and it played an important role in the islamization of the Golden Horde’s nomadic tribes. Today it has little influence in Central Asia.

The Naqshbandiyah and the Qadirlyah also penetrated the North Caucasus, where their influence has been central. While Sfifi activity in Central Asia has been generally less militant and radical, the brotherhoods in the North Caucasus provided active leadership in the struggle against Russian domination. The Qadirlyah in particular has given birth to several militant Sfifi organizations that forcibly opposed Russian rule until the disintegration of the Soviet Union, treating the struggle as a jihad. [See also Sufism, article on Sufi Orders; Naqshbandiyah; Qadirlyah.]

Russian conquest of Central Asia and the Caucasus continued throughout the nineteenth century; by 1900 it was complete. With the exception of the protectorates of Khiva and Bukhara, Central Asia was ruled by the Russian governor general of Turkestan from Tashkent. Russian policy toward the vast Muslim population of the empire returned to one of religious and cultural assimilation, although with more subtle techniques. These techniques became known as the “Il’minski system” after the Kazan missionary who espoused them.

Islam nevertheless continued to expand in the Russian empire at least until the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and even until the Soviet antireligious crackdown of 1928 and beyond. Lenin and most Bolsheviks were unremittingly hostile to all religions, including Islam, but their precarious political position, their need for political and military allies-especially among nonRussians-and their desire to bring the Russian Empire fully under Soviet control led them alternately to tolerate religion and to repress it.

Under Soviet rule, Islam faced seven distinct policy periods. The first was the period of the “cavalry raids,” which lasted from 1917 to 1919. This period marked a general offensive by local Bolsheviks against all religious institutions, including Islam. The second period, 19i91928, is that of Muslim National Communism, the creation of a number of innovative Muslims, especially the Kazan Tatar Mir Said Sultangaliev, who had joined the Bolshevik movement to pursue largely nationalist goals. Sultangaliev and others synthesized nationalism, socialism, and Islam into a doctrine that gave priority to the distinctly national and Islamic concerns of Russia’s Muslims. In this paradigm Islam was the chief bulwark against russification. Despite the Muslim National Communists, or perhaps because of them, Communist Party authorities worked assiduously to reduce the power of Muslim clerics by outlawing waqfs (the basis of clerical economic power), suppressing the shari`ah and `adat courts, and eliminating the mekteps and medressehs (Ar., maktab, madrasah).

The third period, a frontal assault by Soviet authorities on Islam, lasted from 1928 to 1g41. In 1912 there were 26,279 registered mosques in the Russian empire. Communist authorities now closed or destroyed thousands of these, and Muslim clerics were shot and imprisoned. In the fourth period, during World War II, Soviet authorities relaxed this policy to attract full cooperation with the Russian war effort against Germany. Nonetheless, thousands of Muslims defected to the Germans and actively fought against Russia. The fifth period, a time of relaxed official pressure on Islam, occurred in the immediate postwar period. In the sixth distinct period, Nikita Khrushchev launched a new antireligious campaign in 1959. Over the next five years Soviet authorities closed the majority of working mosques. In 1958 there were approximately 1,500; by 1968 the number had dropped to fewer than 500.

In the final period following Khrushchev’s ouster, the Soviet leadership abandoned the open offensive against Islam as counterproductive. Beginning in the 1940s, some Soviet strategists had begun advocating the use of Islam as a diplomatic weapon in the struggle with the West. To this end, the Soviet leadership created special Islamic organizations in the USSR that played an important role in Moscow’s efforts to woo the Islamic third world and served as diplomatic links to important Islamic countries, especially in the Arab world, with whom Moscow had no official diplomatic relations. This policy continued throughout the Brezhnev years until the Iranian revolution, which gave the Soviets unprecedented opportunities to cultivate an anti-American policy among Muslim countries; the subsequent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, caused the Soviet pro-Islamic policy abroad to suffer a serious, albeit temporary, setback.

With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his policy of glasnost’, religious expression among all groups in the USSR burst into the open and could no longer be constrained. In Central Asia in particular, the Islamic spillover effect of the war in Afghanistan became evident in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan by the mid-1980s. By August 1991 at the time of the coup against Gorbachev, unofficial Islamic organizations had come into the open in most of the Muslim regions of the USSR and in some cases were openly competing for political power. With Gorbachev’s eclipse and the official demise of the Soviet Union as a unitary state, Islam again emerged in full bloom. As of the beginning of 1993, thousands of mosques and hundreds of new Islamic schools were being opened in all post-Soviet Muslim states as well as in Muslim territories still part of the Russian Federation; the leaders of these new states, even those who came up through the ranks of the Communist Party, espouse Islam as the national religious creed, both from sincere belief and from political necessity; and ties between the new Muslim states and the Islamic world abroad have been established, including fully accredited embassies and membership in exclusively Islamic economic associations.

Organization and Practice. Most Muslims of Central Asia and the Caucasus belong to the Sunni creed and to the Hanafi school (mazhab). In Daghestan, the Shafi’i school prevails (the Nogais are an exception). The Ja`fari rite of Shiism, adhered to in most of Iran, is also practiced by about 70 percent of Azeris, the Ironis of Central Asia, the Tats of Daghestan and Azerbaijan, and an undetermined number of citydwellers. These Azeris numbered approximately 6.8 million in 1989; the other groups probably number no more than 250,000 collectively. The Isma’ilis of the Nizari rite, or followers of the Aga Khan, include the Pamirian peoples (Mountain Tajiks, Vakhis, Yazgulams, Ishakashimis, Shugnans and Bartangs), who probably number no more than 160,000 today. Finally there are the Baha’is, mostly descendants of emigres from Iran and mostly citydwellers in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Russia (Astrakhan); they probably number no more than 60,000. Soviet statisticians often listed the Yezidis (“devil worshipers”) among Muslims of the empire, but this is in error; their religion is a syncretist creed of Manichean origin. [See Isma ‘iliyah; Baha’is,

Demographics. According to the Soviet census of 1989, forty-one traditionally Muslim groups exist in the new states of the former empire (see Table I). Whatever its shortcomings, the Soviet 1989 census is the best practical source on the Muslim population of the postSoviet states. The borders of the former USSR were political borders, not ethnic ones, and many of the groups represented here also live in states adjoining the former Soviet Union. Azeris in Iran, for example, may number as many as 20 million, and many representatives of nationalities related to the Caucasian peoples live in Turkey. A conservative estimate would place approximately 12 to 13 million people of Central Asian nationalities outside the borders of the former Soviet Union. Even these figures are in dispute: the Uighur and Kazakh scholars of Chinese Xinjiang, for instance, dispute the official Chinese census figure for their populations as being as much as So percent too low.

The majority of the Muslims of Central Asia and the

Caucasus are Turkic peoples and speak Turkic languages. The major exception is the Tajiks, who are ethnically and linguistically Indo-Iranian. The smaller Muslim nationalities of the North Caucasus belong to a variety of Turkic, Iranian and Caucasian linguistic groups. There is thus an almost unbroken Turkic continuum from Chinese Central Asia to Turkey.

Present Practice. The Soviet attitude toward Islam was self-contradictory. On one hand, within the USSR Soviet authorities repressed Islam and subjected Muslims to an unremitting process of antireligious sovietization in hopes that Islamic consciousness could eventually be eliminated altogether. On the other hand, Russian strategists viewed Islam in the Soviet Union as a useful instrument for pursuing specific strategic interests in the larger Islamic world, and to this end they created a variety of “official” Islamic institutions in Soviet Muslim territories to serve as conduits for Soviet propaganda. Many Western scholars were thus seduced into concluding that Soviet social engineering was successful, and that Islam was little more than folklore among Soviet Muslims, dead as a religion and dying as a culture. Many foreign Muslims concluded just the opposite-that Islam in the USSR was thriving and freealthough these notions were usually dispelled during personal visits. The judgment of both groups was seriously in error.

‘ Probably So percent of Ossetians are Christian.               b Central Asian and Caucasian Gypsies are Muslim. Source: Ann Sheehy, Report on the USSR, 19 Jan. 199o.

There is now no doubt that Islamic consciousness on Soviet territories-both religious and cultural-could not be expunged by subtle or brutal methods. Although religious observance among Muslims of the former USSR is imperfect owing to their isolation from the larger Islamic world for nearly eight decades, their sense of belonging to that world is strong and growing. Popular Islamic consciousness is clearly on the rise. In several new countries (e.g., Tajikistan and Azerbaijan) substantial political groups have called for the establishment of “Islamic republics.” In all cases, the leaders of the new countries routinely pay obeisance to the Islamic component of their own political power. Thus the debate over Islam’s survival is over; the debate over its future in Central Asia and the Caucasus is just beginning, as the extent of its potential political, cultural, and religious power among peoples so long deprived of their Islamic heritage is just now becoming known.

[See also Azerbaijan; Bukhara Khanate; Central Asian Literatures; Crimea Khanate; Kazakhstan; Kazan Khanate; Khiva Khanate; Khoqand Khanate; Kyrgyzstan; Tajikistan; Turkmenistan; Uzbekistan.]


A great deal of Western scholarship on the Islamic peoples of the former Soviet Union has been produced in recent years. Unfortunately, much of it is characterized by erroneous judgments on Islam’s persistence in these lands. The following are among the better sources available in English.

Allworth, Edward. The Modern Uzbeks, from the Fourteenth Century to the Present. Stanford, Calif., 1990. History of the largest Muslim nationality of Central Asia.

Altstadt, Audrey L. The Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Soviet Rule. Stanford, Calif., 1992. Comprehensive modern history of the most populous Muslim region of the Caucasus.

Baddeley, John F. The Russian Conquest of the Caucasus. London, 1908. The Rugged Flanks of the Caucasus. 2 vols. London, 1940. These two works contain more information on the history and customs of the Muslim peoples of the Caucasus than any other source in English.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay. Islam in the Soviet Union. London, 1967. Classic work on the subject. Includes a good history of the origins, development, and treatment of Islam in the Russian empire and an excellent bibliography.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide. London and Bloomington, 1985. Comprehensive reference work on demographic, linguistic, social, and religious information. Includes an extensive bibliography of sources in many languages.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union. London, Berkeley, and Los Angeles, 1985. Complete treatment of the origins and practice of Sufism in the USSR and its successor states.

Broxup, Marie, ed. The North Caucasus Barrier: The Russian Advance towards the Muslim World. London, 1992. Breaks new ground in this little-known area. Deals with both nineteenth- and twentiethcentury developments.

Carrere d’Encausse, Helene. Islam and the Russian Empire: Reform and Revolution in Central Asia. Berkeley, 1988. Study of the nationalist awakening among Central Asian Muslims in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Central Asian Survey. London, 1982-. Quarterly journal, published by the Society for Central Asian Studies in London, the only one of its kind devoted exclusively to Central Asia and the Caucasus. Fierman, William, ed. Soviet Central Asia: The Failed Transformation. Boulder, 1991.

Hayit, Baymirza. Islam and Turkestan under Russian Rule. Istanbul, 1987. Summation of a lifetime of scholarship by an Uzbek scholar who defected to the West during World War II.

Henze, Paul B. “Fire and Sword in the Caucasus: The NineteenthCentury Resistance of the North Caucasian Mountaineers.” Central Asian Survey 2.1 (1983): 5-44. Concise history and analysis of Muslim resistance to Russian encroachment in the North Caucasus by one of the West’s leading specialists.

Henze, Paul B. “Turkestan Rising.” Wilson Quarterly 16.3 (Summer 1992): 48-58. The best current analysis of Central Asian political dynamics since the disintegration of the USSR.

Poliakov, Serge!. Everyday Islam: Religion and Tradition in Rural Central Asia. Armonk, N.Y., 1992. Study based on many years of fieldwork in Central Asia by a Soviet ethnographer who deplores the persistence of Islamic values, but provides a vivid and detailed description of Islam in Central Asian society.

RFE-RL Weekly Report. Newsletter published by the RFE-RL Research Institute, a division of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty in Munich, containing up-to-date analyses of developments among the Muslims of the post-Soviet states. The work of Ann Sheehy (on Central Asia and Islam generally) and Elizabeth Fuller (on the Caucasus) are particularly noteworthy.

Rorlich, Azade-Ayse. The Volga Tatars: A Profile in National Resilience. Stanford, Calif., 1986. Comprehensive work on the most numerous Muslim nationality still within the Russian Federation. Rywkin, Michael. Moscow’s Muslim Challenge: Soviet Central Asia. Armonk, N.Y., and London, 1982. Excellent summary and analysis of the Soviet treatment of Islam in Central Asia and the Muslim response.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/islam-central-asia-caucasus/

  • writerPosted On: June 2, 2014
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