- A Peculiar Islam
With the revival of academic and political interest in Central Asia, the vacuum of thought about the region, formerly contained by the firm structure of the Cold War, has been filled in recent years by a surfeit of predictions about its future. Many of these derive from historical extrapolation (the “new Silk Road” and the “new Great Game”); others from a peculiar fascination with natural resources (the “next Saudi Arabia”). All emphasize the linkage between West and East that is Central Asia’s geographical destiny.
One image that is difficult to banish when considering “West” and “East” is that of the struggle between Christianity and Islam. It is the latter faith, with its mullahs, fatwas, and strict sharia, that some observers feared would surge into Central Asia as Soviet power faded, creating an Islamic revival in an area of economic interest to the West. One crucial point these predictions fail to take into account, however, is that to have a revival, there must be something to revive.
In her study Islam inKazakhstan: History, Ethnicity, Society, Alma Sultangalieva makes it abundantly clear that in this former Soviet Republic, Islam is not only more of an historical peculiarity than an historical force, but also an intra-ethnic phenomenon rather than a defining societal characteristic. The main determinants of Islam in Kazakhstan are time, social structure, and geographical isolation. [End Page 282]
A Peculiar Islam
Islam was introduced to Kazakhstan over an eight-hundred-year period, from the eighth to the sixteenth centuries. It came not in one zealous wave but in a gradual current. Islam, therefore, never conquered other pre-existing faiths in the Kazakh steppe, such as Turkic animistic beliefs and Zoroastrianism. Instead it became synthesized with them. Moreover, the influence of Sufism, an unorthodox, mystical branch of Islam brought to the region by missionaries from Bukhara, became an important element of the local faith. Sultangalieva points out that “in contrast to a number of other Muslim regions, [the inhabitants of the Kazakh steppe] did not consider the Sufi brotherhoods as heretical....” 2
Islam in Kazakhstan was further diluted by the peculiar practice of “Genghism,” a system of belief introduced after the Mongol invasions, that placed particular emphasis on a genealogical connection with Genghis Khan. More to the point, Genghism existed alongside Islam while blatantly refuting Islam’s central tenet: there is no god besides Allah.
According to Saltangalieva, something resembling a Kazakh society did not begin to coalesce until the sixteenth century. Even so, it was a society divided along geographical lines, separating the settled farmers in the southeast from the nomads in the north and west. Society was further divided by ethnicity, with the result that local identity remained more important than any other collective identity, including Islam. This, along with the gradual introduction of the faith and its fusion with pre-Islamic and Sufi beliefs, meant that Islam never manifested itself as a political force in Kazakhstan.
This held true even in later periods: Islam never became a facet of opposition to Russian colonization or Soviet rule. Although in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Central Asia, and especially the Caucasus, there was a revival of Islamic consciousnesss (albeit one infused with a strong Western, secular perspective), its impact in Kazakhstan was small. 3 Indeed, it was a strong, secular influence emanating from an educated, Western-looking elite that led to the establishment of a sort of Kazakh national consciousness in this period.
The Russian approach to Islam was a two-stage one. The first stage was characterized by tolerance and a certain degree of cooperation: the Islamic clergy was courted in order to smooth the process of colonization. The second stage—the Soviet period—was [End Page 283] characterized by repression: Islam was seen initially as a threat and then as an enemy of the people. With the Soviet thaw, there was a toning down of official opposition to religion and certain state-sanctioned sects were allowed to operate. 4 Interestingly...