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KAZAKHSTAN. Sunni Islam of the Hanafi School was introduced to the territory of what is now Kazakhstan in the late eighteenth century on the order of Catherine the Great, with the intention of civilizing and pacifying the pastoral nomads with whom her expanding empire was coming into increasing conflict. Her missionaries of choice were Tatars from Kazan, who began to spread the faith among the northern and western Kazakhs; in the south, missionaries from the Khoqand Khanate voluntarily took the opportunity to begin proselytizing on behalf of a much more conservative brand of Islam than that brought by the Tatars.

The nomadic Kazakh lifestyle made proper religious training difficult, however, and the Russians soon had second thoughts about the wisdom of permitting the spread of Islam, and so the Kazakhs were only superficially converted. Travelers’ accounts from the 1820s and 1830s indicate that there were few clergy and that the Kazakhs had little knowledge of dogma. By the middle of the century Islam was making inroads among the Kazakh aristocracy, and by the 186os there were Qur’anic schools in some Kazakh cities. By the end of the nineteenth century Islam was solidly established among the Kazakhs; in 1900 there were sixty-one mosques in the town of Ak-mola, and by 1910 five hundred people a year were requesting Russian visas in order to go to Mecca on the hajj.

By this period Islam was sufficiently well established among the Kazakhs to be a part of their identity. Traditional Kazakh society was shattered, however, from the time of the general Central Asian Uprising of 1916, to the end of the Civil War in 1922, and then during the Soviet collectivization drive of 1929-1934 In those eighteen years 3.3 million Kazakhs died and another 1.3 million were driven into exile, reducing the population to about one-third of what it had been in 1916. Prominent among the victims were the clergy, who from the late 192os until World War II were imprisoned or killed during the Soviet authorities’ aggressive antireligious campaigns, which also closed madrasahs, mekteps (Ar., maktabs), and mosques throughout Central Asia.

In 1943 the antireligious pressure was eased somewhat as part of Stalin’s effort to ensure that the Soviet people would fight against the Nazis. An official Ecclesiastical Administration of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (SADUM) was established to give an appearance of religious independence for Muslims, whose practice in fact remained severely restricted.

Soviet antireligious pressure all but eliminated doctrinal Islam, but it had virtually no impact on rural practices in Kazakhstan or elsewhere, which remained a mixture of Islamic and pre-Islamic cultural rituals. By 1989, when Soviet authorities finally relaxed their opposition to religion, virtually all Kazakhs identified as Muslims as part of their ethnic and linguistic heritage, and many retained vestiges of Islamic practice within families or communities, at least for life transitions such as birth, marriage, and death. Very few Kazakhs, however, had any religious training or knowledge of Arabic, and almost none had access to Qur’ans or other liturgical material.

Since relatively unhindered religious practice has become possible, Islam has enjoyed a resurgence of attention in Kazakhstan. Particularly since independence (declared 16 December 1991) there has been considerable religious activity, with many mosques and religious schools opening and new buildings begun, some financed by Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, and others, and some by contributions from local believers. Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, created a state basis for Islam in Kazakhstan in 1990, when he removed his republic (then still part of the USSR) from under the authority of Tashkent-based SADUM to create a separate Kazakh muftiate. The republic’s constitution, adopted in January 1993, specifically guarantees freedom of religious worship, and programs have been initiated to send young Kazakhs to Turkey for training, both secular and religious.

Despite these supportive attitudes, in modern Kazakhstan the potential spread of Islam has a serious political dimension of which the current leadership is acutely aware. Kazakhstan is an arbitrary geographic creation of the Stalinist period in which 40 percent of the population (of about 17 million) is ethnic Russian, heavily concentrated in the industrial north and west of the nation. The allegiance of this possibly irredentist population to the Kazakh-dominated state is fragile at best and would disappear entirely if Kazakhstan seemed about to become more Islamic.

In order to preserve this fragile detente the state constitution not only forbids adoption of a state religion but also bars the creation of political parties that seek to impose any “ideology”-including religion-on the state. Unlike those of other Central Asian states, Kazakhstan’s constitution makes no mention of an Islamic dimension to the nation’s past or identity. President Nazarbayev, a Kazakh and thus a Muslim by heritage, is obviously aware of the potential for investment and aid represented by the Muslim countries of the Middle East, and he has visited Iran and Turkey. However, Nazarbayev prefers to cast Kazakhstan as a bridge between Muslim East and Christian West and has therefore initially accepted only observer status in the Economic Cooperation Organization, the other members of which are Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and the other Central Asian states. Unlike his fellow presidents in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, Nazarbayev has not made the hajj and has not permitted any of the Muslim holy days to become state holidays. The government has refused to allow the most Islamic of the Kazakh nationalist parties, Azat, to be legally registered. Further, it has actively prosecuted a group of activists who tried to force the removal of Kazakhstan’s first official mufti, Ratbek Haji Nysanbaev, accusing him of financial irregularities, religious mispractice, and collaboration with the Soviet and later Kazakh state security apparatus.

Opposition to the centrist policies of the Nazarbayev government and hostility to the huge Russian presence has stimulated nationalism among the 40 percent of Kazakhstan’s population who are ethnic Kazakhs-but only for some does that national identity include a companion interest in doctrinal Islam. The 25 to 40 percent of the Kazakh population (estimates vary) who are urbanized and sovietized, or even russified, tend to find Islam as alien and as threatening as do the Russians. President Nazarbayev typifies many of the present Kazakh elite when he stresses his own atheism and his belief in the necessity of creating a secular Kazakhstan.

[See also Islam, article on Islam in Central Asia and the Caucasus.]


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Allworth, Edward, ed. Central Asia: A Century of Russian Rule. New York, 1967.

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Demko, George J. The Russian Colonization of Kazakhstan, 18961916. Bloomington, 1969.

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Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/kazakhstan/

  • writerPosted On: July 20, 2014
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