“I am an Atheist and a Muslim”:
Ideological Competition and Accommodation in Central Asia
Word Count: 10,189
June 9, 2016
“I am an Atheist and a Muslim”:
Ideological Competition and Accommodation in Central Asia
Why do religious and political ideologies sometimes produce social and political conflict and other times co-mingle peacefully? The answer must consider both the content of competing ideologies along with the socio-political interests of their believers. In this case study of ideological competition in Central Asia, I show how both philosophical and material concerns explain why many Muslims, while openly retaining their religious-ethnic identity, became active members of an atheistic Community Party. This phenomenon did not occur amongst Christians who necessarily discarded, at least publicly, their religious identities when becoming Communists. So while religious and political conflict openly occurred in Communist societies which were predominantly Christian, many Muslims were able to accommodate their religious convictions with Soviet Communism. In the end, the creation of “Muslim Atheists” depended on not only socio-economic differences between Muslim and Christian societies but also theological differences between Muslim and Christian religions.
“I am an Atheist and a Muslim”:
Islam, Communism and Ideological Competition
A thousand years of tyranny are better than one night of anarchy.
When do religious and political ideologies come into conflict? Political and religious systems of belief are closely tied throughout history, sometimes working in tandem and sometimes in bitter opposition. In cooperation, religious and political ideologies can meld to create powerful feelings of nationalism, but in conflict they may produce violent exchanges between political and religious institutions. Within the Soviet Union, communist elites brutally attacked religious individuals and organizations because they believed that religion was antithetical to their socialist vision (Froese 2004). In response, religious institutions often spearheaded political opposition to communism in the Soviet Union and Bloc countries of Eastern Europe, with the Roman Catholic Church most famously leading a successful assault on communism in Poland (Osa 1989). In marked contrast, Islam produced no active opposition to communism, and many Communist Party members and officials within central Asia openly retained their Muslim identities. Why were central Asian Muslims able to blend their religious identities into the communist system, while Christians either relinquished their religious identities altogether or stood in defiant opposition to communist rule? Ironically, part of the answer lies in the fact that Islam has no theological tradition which separates church and state. In addition, economic and political circumstances made Soviet Communism more attractive to many Muslim elites. In the end, the strong political aspirations of Islam actually made it possible, as Ernest Gellner (1995:65) states, “to simultaneously affirm an ancient identity and justify a strenuously Leap Forward.”
In this paper, I examine the interaction of Islam and Soviet communism through a historical analysis of religious persistence in the five Soviet Republics of central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. This study uncovers the socio-political circumstances and the unique theological characteristics of Islam which made it malleable to Soviet Communism. Islam’s ability to adapt is important to note in a world in which current events have painted Muslims as predominantly obstinate and confrontational.
Background History and Basic Concepts
The history of Western Europe provides many interesting examples of competition between religious and secular ideas. Instances of counter-religious doctrines cropped up during the “Age of Enlightenment” when rationalists proposed that human reason alone, without divine revelation, leads to an accurate understanding of not only the physical world but also morality and justice. Nevertheless, secular and religious ideologies are often quite copasetic. For instance, an individual can easily believe in Keynesian economics while also being a devoted Christian, reflecting Weber’s insight into how religious and secular worldviews are often compatible and can borrow from one another to produce compatible systems of belief. This compatibility is the result of defining the domain of a secular ideology in such a way that it does not overlap with a religious doctrine. In fact, some historians hold that religion was most successful in Western Europe after religious and secular doctrines became the specialties of separate institutions. Raedts (1997:7) persuasively argues that
A new era for Christianity in Europe began when after 1800 the churches gradually lost support of the state and had to organize themselves. And it was not until then that the new mass media and the schooling of all the population made the christianization of everyone a reality.
Struggles between religious and political doctrines in Western Europe eventually gave rise to a separation of church and state. This leads to an initial observation: religious and political ideologies can peacefully coexist and even support one another if they occupy separate domains of influence.
But what happens when ideologies share domains of influence? Communism provided the first political ideology that was not only anti-clerical but also posited a radical atheistic worldview.1 As explained by Berlin (1996:119):
What in fact was created by Marx was a new ecumenical organization, a kind of anti-Church, with a full apparatus of concepts and categories, capable, at least in theory, of yielding clear and final answers to all possible questions, private and public, scientific and historical, moral and aesthetic, individual and institutional.
As such, communist ideology could not be reconciled with any religion. Lenin demanded that communist propaganda must employ
militancy and irreconcilability towards all forms of idealism and religion. And that means that materialism organically reaches that consequence and perfection which in the language of philosophy is called – militant atheism (van der Bercken 1989:123).
Militant atheism became central to the ideology of the Communist Party and “a high priority in the policies of all Soviet leaders” (Pospielovsky 1987: 1; also see Bociurkiw 1967; Luukkanen 1994; and Thrower 1983). In addition to answering the question of how society should be organized, communism advocated the destruction of all religion. Within the logic of militant atheism, convinced atheists were not only the most politically astute but also the most virtuous individuals.
Consequently, religious groups tended to be vehemently opposed to communist rule because their theologies designated a separation of church and state with atheistic communism clearly violating this principle. Protestant sects, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Orthodox Church all initially staged opposition movements with some successes and many failures. In the case of the Russian Orthodox Church, religious leaders were either executed, disillusioned or became pawns in the communist propaganda system (Ramet 1998). The Roman Catholic Church generated more successful opposition to communist rule in Eastern Europe and at the very least retained some of its autonomy (Froese and Pfaff 2001).
Interestingly, Islamic groups generated little opposition to communism. This may come as a surprise for a couple of reasons. First, the image of enraged Muslims waging a religious war (the jihad) for political purposes is a common one. Karen Armstrong (2002:158) points out that, in Islam, politics is a
matter of supreme importance, and throughout the twentieth century there has been one attempt after another to create a truly Islamic state. This has always been difficult. It was an aspiration that required a jihad, a struggle that could find no simple outcome.
But the anti-religious policies of the Soviet Union produced no jihad in the overwhelmingly Muslim regions of Central Asia. As Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay (1967:152) put it: “apart from a few peasant troubles of no great gravity on the Middle Volga, in Azerbaijan and in Central Asia, the Muslim masses did not rise up in defense of their faith.” The absence of jihad suggests that Soviet Muslims were unwilling to fight for the political ideals of their religion. In actuality, Soviet Muslims did fight for their ideals – but as with all religions, the ideals of Islam are more complex than any popular image of war-mongering Muslims suggest.
Second, Muslims were certainly numerous enough to wage a massive jihad if they so desired. Changes in the proportion of Muslims in Central Asia mask the fact that the Muslim population grew throughout the 20th Century. While the Republics of Central Asia went from 78% Muslim in 1926 to 55% in 1965, this decrease reflects the number of Russians and other Eastern Europeans which were moved into the various Central Asian Republics to farm, work in and manage factories, and administer public offices and schools (Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay 1967:169-170). Nevertheless, the number of Muslims in Central Asia grew from around 10.5 million to 16 million over 40 years (see Table 1).
[Insert Table 1 about here]
In fact, Muslims had the highest birth rate of any group in the Soviet Union (Roi 1984:79; Rywkin 1982:70). So while their proportion within Central Asia was decreasing due to the in-migration of non-Muslims their proportion within the Soviet Union was increasing due to higher Muslim fertility. The growth of the Muslim population all over the Soviet Union was such that Soviet demographers actually feared that the Soviet Union would become a Muslim-majority nation by the 21st Century (Rashid 1994:56).2
Regardless of the increasing Muslim population, the Soviet government continued to actively pursue its anti-religious agenda. Soviets shut down thousands of mosques, closed Islamic schools, and completely abolished the Islamic court system, the institutional apparatus of Shariah Law. How could the Soviets accomplish these measures without any active opposition from the enormous Muslim population? The answer lies within the political and social aspirations of Muslims within Central Asia and within the doctrine of Islam.
Brown (2000: 31) points out a key difference between Christianity and Islam,
In Islam, unlike Christianity, there is no tradition of a separation of church and state…One simple reason for this difference between Islam and Christianity is that Islam knows of no ‘church’ in the sense of a corporate body whose leadership is clearly defined, hierarchical, and distinct from the state.
Much has been made of the fact that Islam is not only a religion but also a political doctrine. This stems from the origins of the religion and the distinguished talents and vision of Muhammad, who excelled as prophet, military general, and civic leader. As Eliade (1985:77) notes,
The history of religions and universal history know of no enterprise comparable to that of Muhammad. The conquest of Mecca and the foundation of a theocratic state proved that his political genius was not inferior to his religious genius.
Muhammad created an extensive Islamic community governed by religious law – an ideal that would forever intertwine politics and religion within the doctrine of Islam.
In contrast, no similar theocratic ideal exists in the history of Christianity. Early Christianity grew into an extensive network of religious communities which were later embraced by the Roman Empire. Since the initial rise of Christianity, Christian institutions were independent of state government, producing a church-state relationship in which religious and political spheres were autonomous even while becoming mutually dependent.
The medieval church-state arrangement and the modern idea of a secular state that is religiously neutral were both the results of working compromises. The more reasonable among the partisans of pope and emperor, just as the later the more reasonable Catholics and Protestants, seeing that doctrinal purity and logical consistency spelled continued strife, settled for a nebulous but manageable middle ground between the extremes (Brown 2000:46)
Doctrinal competition between Christianity and European rulers’ claims to legitimacy were sufficiently resolved through an understanding of separate yet symbiotic spheres of influence. Conflict between Christian institutions and political authorities occurred when either overstepped the boundaries of their domain and these boundaries shifted as religious and political elites gained or lost power. Communism created a crisis in this dynamic relationship between the state and the Christian church by attempting to build an atheist society. Powerful Christian institutions found themselves in direct competition with the communist state and had to fight for their very survival.
Unlike Christianity, Islam produced no distinct understanding of the separation of church and state. But the marriage of religious culture and political rule under Muhammad would become a lost ideal which the Muslim world would continually struggle to re-create in various ways.3 And Islamic political theory has split in how to deal with the changing conditions of the modern world. “Islamic intellectuals reacted to the West either, on the one hand, by syncretism, justified by seeing certain Western ideas as expressions of true Islam; or, on the other hand, by revivalism, going back to the sources of revelation” (Black 2001:279). Islamic revivalism takes the form of disparate fundamentalist groups which react to modernization rather than provide a means to reconcile Islamic ideals with modern realities. In turn, Islamic syncretism can take multiple forms although it also draws on the early Islamic community for legitimacy.
Indeed, observers of Muslim political thought in modern times have often noted, sometimes with patronizing sympathy, sometimes with superciliousness, that those Muslims who seek democracy argue that Muhammad was the first democrat and the early Muslim community was the first democracy, those advancing socialism depict Muhammad as the first socialist and the early community as the first socialist state, and so on as political styles change. Even certain Muslim communists went so far as to urge that Muhammad and the early community prefigured the idealized communist society (Brown 2000:49).
Because Soviet Communism preached a decidedly anti-Western doctrine, it had an interesting appeal to Muslims who were displeased with the imperialism of Western empires. Of course, communism was also anti-religious. Nevertheless, the civil war which followed the Russian Revolution placed Bolsheviks in no position to wage a war against Islam in central Asia. Therefore, Bolsheviks attempted to appeal to Muslims as allies by promising them political independence and religious freedom.4 In fact, Lenin professed an admiration for Muslims who had revolted against imperialism and saw many Islamic folk heroes as emblematic of the human struggle against oppression (Taheri 1989:142). In 1917, Bolsheviks made the following official announcement to Muslims of the former Russian Empire:
To all toiling Moslems of Russia and the East, whose mosques and prayer-houses have been destroyed, whose beliefs have been trampled on by the czars and the oppressors of Russia. Your beliefs and customs, your national and cultural institutions are declared henceforth free and inviolable. Organize your national life freely and without hindrance. This is your right. Know that your rights…are protected by the entire might of the revolution and its organs…Support this revolution and its government! (Wilhelm 1971:258)
This announcement did not go unread. In communism, many Muslims saw the possibility of Islam once again becoming a powerful force in a world that appeared to be leaving them behind.
An influential group of Muslim elites often labeled “national communists” seized the opportunity handed them by the Soviets and attempted to influence the changing political tide of Central Asia rather than be washed away by it. These forward-looking Islamic thinkers attempted to “rationalize Islam, to purify it and bring it into line with the modern era” (Badan 2001:183). Leading historical scholars on Islam in the Soviet Union, Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay, summarize the characteristics of this group as follows:
They were, generally speaking, sincere Marxists who, to begin with, accepted without reservation the programme of the Bolshevik Communist Party but remained none the less deeply imbued with the nationalist ideal…Within Marxist doctrine, they took their pick of ideas and methods, selecting those that were in keeping with their particular need; that is to say, those which could substantiate their case for a more radical struggle with the West and an acceleration of the pace of reform in Muslim society…The Moscow government gave them its blessing, regarding them as a necessary ‘buffer’ between central power and the native population, and hoping that it would be able, in the long term, to re-educate them. (Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay 1967:105)
Re-education of this group would entail the dissipation of nationalist fervor and the eradication of religious culture. But the Soviets would never successfully disentangle Islam from Marxism in the Muslim Republics. In fact, many Muslims would come to view communism as a form of Islam throughout he Soviet era; as one Muslim dignitary pointed out in 1970 at an international conference, “Soviet leaders who believe neither in God nor his Prophet nevertheless apply laws that were dictated by God and expounded by his Prophet” (D’Encausse 1972: 239).
Sultan Galiev was the intellectual leader of the national communists and the highest-ranking Muslim in the Communist Party between 1920 and 1923. As a leading advisor to Stalin, Galiev argued that in Islamic regions “we need to say openly, to whom it is appropriate, that we are in no way fighting against any religion, we are only conducting propaganda for our atheist convictions, exercising our right to do so” (Keller 2001b:318). But in addition to advocating religious tolerance, Galiev made a more dangerous political move in advocating an independent communist state in Central Asia. In 1918, Galiev wrote that “we must unite the Muslim masses in a communist movement that shall be our own and autonomous” (Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay 1967:114). This placed Soviets in a difficult position; a grass roots communist movement was occurring within Central Asia but was taking on a nationalist and Islamic spirit referred to as “SultanGaliyevism”.
By the late 1920s, Stalin decided that central Asia needed to be purged of SultanGaliyevism. This decision demonstrated the insincerity of promises made to Muslims by Bolshevik leaders concerning national autonomy and is supported by numerous earlier writings by Lenin and Stalin who expressed a desire to eliminate Islam while recognizing the importance of recruiting potentially supportive Muslims to their cause (Wilhelm 1971). Once Stalin had secured power, he began a famous series of purges in a pro-active measure to destroy any political competitors. In Central Asia, Galiyev was arrested and sentenced to penal servitude; he was eventually executed in 1940. And between 1927 and the 1939, supporters of Galiyev and his brand of Marxism were purged from the Party.
No longer would Soviets urge Muslims to “build your national life freely and without hindrance.” (Bethman 1957:10) This insincere proclamation enticed Muslims to support a communist regime at a time when Soviet power was still precarious within Russia. The idea for a united Muslim Republic lasted until around 1924 when Soviets thought it prudent to divide it into distinct states. While the motivation to split Central Asia into individual republics may be linked to an attempt to weaken any emerging Islamic unity, Central Asian scholars argue that it was essentially “based on Stalin’s personal doctrine of nationalities” (Bennigsen and Broxup 1983:44).5 Essentially, the divisions were an attempt to section off groups based on crude ethnic linguistic distinctions.
The division of Central Asia was met with resistance from militant Muslims who had initially sided with the Bolsheviks and wished to keep a united Muslim Republic called Turkestan. Those actively opposed to the new Soviet policy in central Asia were eventually liquidated in the 1930s as traitors to the communist movement (Bennigsen and Broxup 1983:43).
By killing off many leading Muslims communists, Stalin created a political dilemma. Replacing Muslim communist leaders with Russian communists would insure that Islamic nationalism would not impact communist ideology in Central Asia, but loyal Russian communists were urgently needed in the newly formed Russian Republic and few had knowledge of the Islamic society they would be asked to rule. Nevertheless, many elite positions in central Asia were given to Russians. But Muslim communists were still needed to advise these leaders and often held leadership positions themselves. The Board of Muslims was created for the edification of Russian communists concerning Islamic society and many Communist Party members in central Asia were self-identified Muslims; in 1918 half of the Communist Party of Turkestan was Muslim and in 1924 the Bukhara Communist Party was 70% Muslim (Trofimov 1995:15). Under these circumstances, Soviet elites had to come to terms with the fact that Muslim communists were a reality that could not be wholly eliminated.
By the 1940s Soviet Islam had lost the leadership of Sultan Galiev but it solidified into a network of Muslim Boards which were allowed to meet at a Central Muslim Religious conference to discuss the state of Islam and its relation to Soviet Communism. Representatives of the Central Muslim Board showed support for the Soviet government and were often used to promote Soviet propaganda to Muslim citizens. During World War II, the Central Muslim Religious Board was employed quite extensively to unify Muslims against Germany. But an interesting balance existed within the Board to reconcile Soviet rule with Islamic law. In 1942, the Central Muslim Religious Board sent Stalin the following salutation: “hearty greetings in the name of Muslims of the USSR to you…champion of the liberation of oppressed peoples and a man ever attentive to the need of the peoples…May Allah help you bring your work to a victorious end.” (Wilhelm1971:265). As this message demonstrates, representatives of official Islam showed respect and allegiance to the Soviet government while also explicitly establishing the importance of their religious identity and the purpose of the communist project in relation to a higher power. The message clearly suggests that Stalin would not accomplish his goals without the assistance of Allah.
While Muslims of Central Asia were certainly denied national autonomy under communism, many of the initial goals of “SultanGaliyevism” came to fruition. Muslim communists had wanted to modernize Central Asia and Soviet Russia was providing them with the resources to do it. Therefore, Islamic nationalism did not automatically find itself opposed to communist interests. In contrast, nationalism throughout Eastern Europe was at odds with the communist agenda from the beginning and developed into the main expression of anti-Communist convictions. This is mainly due to the fact that Eastern Europe was more industrialized than Central Asia; consequently, communists sought different goals in these regions. Eastern European communists wanted to unite the proletariat of all countries and shift the control of industry into the hands of its workers. But Central Asia had no industry to speak of and Muslim communists hoped to industrialize their regions in order to “catch up” to their western counterparts. The act of modernizing Islamic society was closely linked to its empowerment in the world economy and therefore communism became an unintended means to realize this pre-existing nationalist goal. In fact, “many high-ranking [Central Asian communist] officials saw no contradiction between Islam and Communism” (Haghayeghi 1995: 38).
Certain Islamic leaders actively argued that Muslim home rule would be best achieved through participation in the Soviet project. For instance, the journal of the Tashkent Spiritual Directorate advises
‘Believers who are good Muslims…must take part in building a new life and a new society in their own country.’ This Directorate also encourages children to participate. For example, one Muslim leader in a sermon attacked a Baptist ban on Baptist children joining the Pioneers, he concluded: ‘They are wrong. Our children must be Pioneers, members of the Komsomol and then of the Communist Party. Everywhere they must play a leading role.’ (D’Encausse 1972:14)
Unlike Christian churches in Eastern Europe which demanded an exclusive membership that could not be reconciled with Communist Party membership, many Muslim leaders viewed participation in communist and even atheist organizations as a way to strengthen Muslim power.
In line with Muslim nationalist goals, Soviets offered something which had not previously been available to Muslims – free public education on a massive scale. At the end of the Tsarist regime less than 3,000 Muslim children attended public school, but the Soviets prioritized the educational system to the extent that by 1921 over 84,000 Muslim children were enrolled in state public schools (Bethmann 1957:16). In time, all Muslim children attended free Soviet schools and by most accounts received instruction similar to that of more modernized regions of the Soviet Union.
Muslims certainly took advantage of the educational opportunities offered by the Soviet government. Central Asians were some of the least educated people in the Soviet Union in the 1920s but by the 1950s they were receiving secondary educations at a rate comparable to the other Soviet republics (see Table 2).
[Insert Table 2 about here]
The Soviet government also industrialized Central Asia at an impressive rate. A comparison to other Central Asian countries reveals the industrial progress made by the Central Asian Republics (see Table 3). By 1965, the Central Asian Republics had at least 8 times more per capita output of electricity than Iran, Pakistan, or Turkey. In addition, the Central Asian Republics had substantially more tractors, doctors, and newspapers in circulation per capita than Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey combined. Finally, nearly 90 percent of Soviet Central Asians could read by 1965 while only 30 percent or less of Iranians, Pakistanis, or Turks were literate in 1964. These achievements were actively sought and encouraged by leading Muslims who wanted to improve their lives and economic strength (D’Encausse 1972).
[Insert Table 3 about here]
By 1970, Central Asian Republics had established industries and an educational system; in turn, the need for foreign skilled workers and managers was no longer pressing. The Muslim population became more technologically advanced and urbanized to the extent that they began to fill elite roles within the Central Asian Republics. This is evidenced by a study of technological and scientific workers in Uzbekistan between 1960 and 1975. The percent of doctors in science, doctoral candidates in science, and “scientific elites” who are Uzbek dramatically increased within the 15-year period of the study (see Figure 1). While only 35% of all doctors of science were Uzbek in 1960, 60% are Uzbek in 1975. In turn, the percent of scientists in Uzbekistan who were Russian was shrinking.
[Insert Figure 1 about here]
The relationship between Islam and Communism was a growing process of give and take. Muslim leaders saw the long-term advantages of modernization and Central Asia quickly became the most technologically advanced region in the Islamic world.6 But while many Muslims sought entry into the economic and political structure created by the Soviet Union and succeeded in becoming part of the ruling and educated elite, they were simultaneously loosing their Islamic traditions.
In 1929, the Soviet Union passed the “Law on Religious Associations” which outlined how state officials were to monitor and control all religious groups. In Central Asia, communists dissolved all Islam courts; these courts oversaw criminal justice by upholding both customary law (‘adat) and Koranic law (Shari’at). Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay (1967:145) point out that this assault was relatively easy because it was supported by Muslim elites who viewed the Soviet reform as “merely one more engagement in the long war of the jadids to modernize the juridical structure of Islam.” In this case, the communist anti-Islamic policy realized what some Islamic nationalists had hoped to accomplish as long ago as the early nineteenth century. While the loss of Islamic courts was clearly not supported by all Muslims, it is important to note that some Islamic thinkers saw communism as a means to settle centuries long conflicts within the Muslim community. As one Muslim scholar noted, Islam can justify even “the rule of a usurper as a means of assuring the public order and the unity of all Muslims” (Brown 2000: 55). By the mid-1920s Islamic courts ceased to have any official impact in criminal cases or civil suits and Soviets had established communist state courts throughout Central Asia. A record of functioning Islamic courts in Uzbekistan from 1922 to 1927 shows their rapid elimination (see Figure 2).
[Insert Figure 2 about here]
In turn, Islamic studies were no longer an element in the edification of Muslim youth, a deficiency which would have powerful implications for the practice of the Islam throughout Central Asia. For instance, Soviet schools reformed the instruction of indigenous languages and “through the so-called language and alphabet reforms, Central Asian youths were denied access to the very rich Islamic religious literary traditions written in the Arabic alphabet” (Shahrani 1995:278). And approximately eight thousand Islamic primary and secondary schools were in operation in Central Asia before the Russian Revolution; by 1928, none remained (Bennigsen and Broxup 1983: 48).
In Islamic communities, schools and mosques were mainly supported by revenue generated by waqf (clerical property) (Bennigsen and Broxup 1983). Without this independent resource, schools and mosques became dependent on Soviet officials who closed both en masse. Islamic schools did not survive the assault and official mosques were depleted in great numbers. “In 1917, there were 20,000 mosques in Central Asia, but by 1929 fewer than 4,000 were functioning and by 1935 there were only 60 registered mosques in Uzbekistan [the largest of the Asian Soviet Republics with over half of the Muslim population of Central Asia]” (Rashid 2001:47). Without (waqf) clerical property, imans and mullahs were unable to financially support themselves and the number of official clergy dropped dramatically to the point where many regions were without any registered imans or mullahs. In addition to loosing resources to support themselves many Islamic clergy were arrested and imprisoned during Stalin’s first purges (Keller 2001a:226). While unofficial clergy continued to minister to Muslims, official clergy were effectively driven from their positions by financial necessity. By 1936 Keller (2001a:230) finds that there were no registered Islamic clergy in the urban centers of central Asia, although unregistered clergy certainly continued to practice.
Finally, Soviets attempted to alter the Islamic clan structure at the village level. The extended patriarchal structure of Islamic families throughout central Asia was crucial in the transmission of local customs and daily rituals. Marriages were largely arranged and married women were sent to live with the families of their husbands. Resources were shared within this family unit with the eldest male overseeing the distribution and application of finances. The introduction of communism to local regions had mixed success in altering this family system. Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay (1967:186) explain:
The Soviet regime struck heavily at the large joint family, causing it to lose all economic significance. In spite of that, this type of family survived ….in a modified form but still preserving its traditional characteristics in the formerly nomad districts. Here the large joint family persists more as an ethical than as a functional unit, in the sense that a number of customs survive despite prohibitions; but these are nevertheless gradually disappearing.
The massive in-migration of non-Muslims also impacted the Islamic family system simply by introducing Muslims to new levels of ethnic and religious diversity. The 1959 Soviet census shows that the percent of interfaith marriages (which they call “mixed” marriages) in central Asian Republics was quite high, between 14 to 18 percent of the population in urban centers (see Table 4). The number of interfaith marriages indicates that local Islamic customs were commonly broken by the 1950s and the traditional Islamic family system was in crisis.
[Insert Table 4 about here]
While interfaith marriages were on the rise, certain clan or tribal relationships survived communism amazingly well. In fact, leadership roles based on clan hierarchical systems tended to reproduce themselves within the Communist Party. “The tendency for kinship to permeate Soviet institutions was not confined to the local level but appeared at the highest tiers of authority such that the tribal structure has ‘in some bizarre fashion fused with the party structure to form a single indissoluble whole” (Glenn 1999:97).
In terms of institutional change, the secularization project appears to have had very mixed results in Central Asia. On the one hand, Soviets were quite successful at eliminating Islamic courts and schools, decreasing the number of active mosques, and weakening the Islamic family with a rise in interfaith marriages. On the other hand, the Communist Party became merged with Islamic tribal structures making “most party members, Komsomol, and Znanie sympathetic to the Islamic and nationalist causes and thus reluctant to vigorously [attack the beliefs of Islam]” (Haghayeghi 1995: 38). Institutionally and philosophically, the political arm of Islam reconciled itself to the doctrine of communism. But to what extent did Islam loose its religious content due to this accommodation?
Perhaps in central Asian, the term “Muslim” is solely an ethnic identifier and therefore lost its religious essence when used during the Soviet era. But the same could be said of being “Catholic” in Poland or “Orthodox” in Russia; these religious terms are similarly used to evoke national and ethnic identities in these regions. Nevertheless, a Communist in Poland could not be a Catholic, and a Communist in Russia was not also Orthodox. This important difference between the persistence of religious identifiers under communism depends mainly on theological differences between Christianity and Islam.
Because Islam dealt with severe persecution in the past there are specific religious rules regarding how Muslims should react to religiously hostile environments. Normally, individuals are required to follow the five “pillars” (rukns) of Islam in order to be Muslims; however, these requirements can be waived under special circumstances. Dar ul-Islam is a form of Islam in which a believer does not practice Islamic rituals or customs because doing so would endanger themselves. As Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay (1967:182) explain:
[D]ar ul-Islam, faith without religious observance, is perfectly possible and even common, and that Islam, like Judaism, is a religion where the part played by spiritual leaders and religious institutions is only secondary, and therefore it is better able than Christianity to resist outside pressure.
Of special interest is that this type of Islam is theologically considered a form of resistance. By giving up religious observance the Muslim can retain his or her faith in secret and thereby withstand the extermination of Islamic belief. Dar-ul Islam became a real and popular option for Central Asian Muslims who were predominantly Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school. This school represents one of the most liberal religious orientations within Islam. Mehrdad Haghayeghi (1995: 80) explains:
Several Hanafi principles have been instrumental in providing a flexible framework for the practice of Islam, hence offering more freedom to the Central Asian believer. First, and perhaps the most critical aspect, is the qualitative distinction that has been made between faith (iman), and work or practice (amal). The Hanafis argue that if a Muslim wholeheartedly believes in God and the prophethood of Muhammad, but is negligent in performing his religious duties, he is not an infidel.
Through this theological distinction between faith and practice, religion can easily remain personal and internal and never needs to manifest itself as a social or political movement. In Central Asia, Soviet officials destroyed the institutional basis of Islam without opposition, but Hanafi Muslims claim to have retained their religious integrity through dar-ul Islam, a form of religious expression which is wholly unobservable and exists only in the heart of the individual.
This fact makes the doctrine of Islam very different from most Christian theologies. Islam “depends less for its survival on the regular conduct of religious ceremonial worship by qualified clergy than the various Christian sects” (Wheeler 1969:188). The theological system of Islam provides much greater freedom to religious believers to privately proclaim faith without relying on professional clergy or a system of rituals to validate it. In contrast, the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Church must sanction rituals and rites preformed in its name. But Muslim communities throughout central Asia were theologically free to improvise and create local solutions to get around government regulations on religion. Let me mention some of the more common occurrences.
Officially, mosques were closed in great numbers throughout central Asia. But unofficial mosques were consistently created and maintained in villages. Often old or condemned mosques were utilized in place of officially closed mosques which were frequently re-occupied for use by communist officials. Another religious space utilized by Muslims is called a “mazar”, a locale imbued with spiritual power; many times graveyards serve as mazars which were often marked by piling stones into pyramid shapes. Interestingly, mazars are often “deliberately made to look neglected so that local officials (financial inspectors are especially feared) will take the mazar to be non-functioning.” (Poliakov 1992: 102). Shoshana Keller (2001a) compiled a detailed list of unregistered houses of prayer in 1936 from local records throughout central Asia. Her results show a tremendous number of unregistered mosques in both rural and urban areas (see Table 5).
[Insert Table 5 about here]
Keller notes the many limitations of her data and one can assume that more unregistered mosques existed than were recorded. Nevertheless, the fact that the number of both registered and unregistered mosques in 1936 is a fraction of the number of mosques in existence before 1917 indicates that unofficial mosques could not fully replicate the extensiveness of Islamic houses of prayer in pre-communist times. Of course, further closures of mosques occurred after 1936; the most drastic assault happened under Khrushchev when 3,567 mosques (mostly unregistered) were closed between 1961 and 1963 in Uzbekistan alone (Anderson 1994: 384). Therefore, one can assume that many Muslim communities went without mosques or houses of prayer during communist era.
And unofficial clergy served many Muslims. Keller (2001a) also tracked the number of registered and unregistered imams and mullahs. Here she does not provide a comparison to pre-communist times but one gets a clear sense of how greatly unofficial clergy outnumbered official clergy (see Table 6). Unofficial clergy were often young students or conversely retirees from traditional clerical families but “the majority of such mullahs did not know dogma, the canonically approved rituals, or the prayers [of Islam]…” (Poliakov: 1992: 107). Nevertheless, Poliakov (1992:107) argues that these untrained clergy served “Islam very well on the daily level, because they know very well what their people need.” While it seems possible that the spiritual needs of Muslims were being served on some level, the Islamic character of this spiritualism is unclear. In an ironic twist, the League of Militant Atheists in Tashkent actually wanted to translate the Koran into Uzbek so that more Muslims would know the Koran so that they could subsequently be shown its fallacies (see Keller 2001b:328).
[Insert Table 6 about here]
The glaringly idiomatic aspects of unofficial Islam lead one to question to what extent was it simply a collection of various forms of spiritualism which were not necessarily Islamic in any substantial theological sense. When Muslims have little or no knowledge of the writings, teachings, and rituals of Islam, are they still Muslims? Certain scholars point out that one can not assume that Islam is dependent on mosques and clergy for survival because Islamic theology only requires Muslims to remain faithful to a higher power. Kolarz’s (1961:445-6) summation of the study of Islam under communism illustrates this point:
If one glances back over the many years during which the Soviet communists have fought Islam one easily discovers that much of the fight has been concentrated on the secondary aspects of the Moslem religion; the veil of the Moslem women; the pilgrimage to a sacred tomb, often of doubtful historicity; the wasteful ways in which Moslems feasts are celebrated; circumcision often carried out in unhygienic conditions….[But] Communism is not concerned with the abolition of certain practices but with the extermination of religion itself….The real target is the central idea and message of the Koran, that there is one God.
Therefore, the success of communism might be measured in terms of how many atheists it could produce. This is a tricky outcome to assess in Central Asia for a number of reasons.
The Soviet League of Militant Atheists reported tens of thousands of members in the Central Asian Republics in the 1930s and a miraculous growth rate comparable to other Soviet republics (see Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay 1967:150). But these reports are highly unreliable (see Peris 1999) and the League of Militant Atheists was rendered defunct by 1940. Independent reports show that the proportion of atheists in Central Asia by 1970 are equal to that of the Soviet Union as a whole (see Figure 3) but there is no way to determine if these atheists were ethnically Russian, Ukrainian, or native to Central Asia.
[Insert Figure 3 about here]
In sum, atheist recruitment was certainly not more successful in Islamic regions than elsewhere and there is qualitative evidence to believe that it was actually less effective than elsewhere. First, atheist proselytizers encountered something new in the recruitment of Muslim people – they were accustomed to attempts of Christian missionaries to convert them to a new faith. In Eastern Europe, Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers had never really encountered active attempts to convert them to a different faith. These churches enjoyed a monopoly influence over their populations and were assisted by the state in dispelling religious competitors. While Islam was certainly a majority religion in central Asia, Muslims had encountered Russian missionaries and were familiar with their tactics. The head of the League of Militant Atheists, Yaroslavsky, was aware of this phenomenon and saw it as a potential problem for atheist recruitment. Yaroslavsky warned atheists in central Asia that
A careless approach to the matter of antireligious propaganda among these people can call up memories of this [Tsarist] oppression and be interpreted by the most backward and the most fanatical part of the Muslim population as a repeat of the past, when Christian missionaries reviled the Mohammedan faith. (Keller 2001a:156)