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Martha Brill Olcott, Kirill Nourzhanov
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Islam was introduced to the territory of what is now southern Kazakhstan during the late eighth and early ninth centuries. While those in cities such as Otrar and Sayram on the Silk Road quickly embraced the new religion, the conversion of nomads inhabiting the vast steppes to the north proved to be a gradual and protracted process. The peripatetic Ṣūf ī order established by Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Yasavī (1106–1166 CE) played a particularly important role in the Islamization of Turkic tribes. The Yasavī tradition successfully blended Islamic religious practice with local traditions steeped in animism, shamanism, and the cult of ancestors. The grip of Islam on nomadic Kazakhs remained weak, so much so that in the sixteenth century the ʿulamāʿ of Bukhara condemned them as idolaters.

The final affirmation of Sunnī Islam of the Ḥanafī school across the territory of present-day Kazakhstan toward the end of the eighteenth century was the result of proselytizing efforts from the Emirate of Bukhara, the Khanate of Khoqand, and the Russian Empire. The Empress Catherine the Great used Muslim Tatar subjects to pacify the pastoral nomads with whom the expanding Russian state came into increasing conflict.

The nomadic Kazakh lifestyle made proper religious training difficult, 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 properly trained mullahs and that the Kazakhs had little knowledge of dogma. By the middle of the nineteenth century, Islam was making inroads among the Kazakh aristocracy, and by the 1860s there were Qurʿānic schools in some Kazakh cities. By the end of the century, Islam was solidly established among the Kazakhs; in 1900 there were sixty-one mosques in the town of Akmolinsk (present-day Astana), and by 1910 five hundred people a year requested visas to go to Mecca on the ḥajj.

By the twentieth century Islam was sufficiently well established among the Kazakhs to be a part of their identity. Traditional Kazakh society was shattered in 1916, from the time of the widespread Central Asian Uprising to the end of the civil war in 1922, and then again 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 mullahs, who were imprisoned or killed during the aggressive anti-religious campaigns of the Soviets from the late 1920s until World War II. These campaigns also closed madrasahs, mekteps (Kazakh adaptation of Arabic, maktab), and mosques throughout Central Asia.

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

In 1961, Kazakhstan had only twenty-five registered mosques with approximately forty thousand regular attendants. None of the twenty-five imams had tertiary Islamic qualifications. The same year, authorities reported sixty-six unregistered mosques and 521 “itinerant mullahs” who had no proper education and did not answer to SADUM.

While Soviet anti-religious pressure all but eliminated doctrinal Islam, it had little 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, 40 percent of Kazakhs identified themselves as Muslim believers and many more retained vestiges of Islamic practice within families or communities, at least for rites of passage such as birth, marriage, and death. Very few Kazakhs, however, had any religious training or knowledge of Arabic, and almost none had access to Qurʿāns or other scriptural material.

By the end of the twentieth century, relatively unhindered religious practice had become possible and Islam has enjoyed a resurgence of attention in Kazakhstan. Since the declaration of independence on December 16, 1991, there has been considerable religious activity; many mosques and religious schools have opened and new building has begun, some financed by Saudis, Turks, Egyptians, and others, and some by contributions from local Muslims. By 1999, the number of official mosques in Kazakhstan exceeded one thousand, with four thousand more operating without proper registration. In 1998, four hundred Kazakhs went on pilgrimage to Mecca.

Since the early 1990s, the proportion of Kazakhs identifying themselves as Muslims has doubled, surpassing the 80 percent mark. At the same time, this figure represents quantitative rather than qualitative growth. The number of Soviet-era atheists has dropped, but piety and observance have not increased dramatically, especially at the individual level. In 2000, over 60 percent of nominal Muslims in Kazakhstan practiced Islamic funeral, wedding, and circumcision rites, while only 19 percent fasted, and 5 percent prayed regularly. Various estimates put the number of deeply religious Muslims in Kazakhstan at 15 to 20 percent. The Islamic fervor appears to be higher in southern regions sharing a border with Uzbekistan.

Independent Kazakhstan is a secular republic in which no religion has state status. The government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev has pursued the policy of confessional and ethnic tolerance in a country where eponymous ethnicity accounts for only half of the population. Some 28 percent of all Kazakhstani citizens are members of the Russian Orthodox Church; other religious denominations, including Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Buddhists are represented as well. The republic 's constitution specifically guarantees freedom of religious worship and makes no mention of an Islamic dimension to the nation's past or identity.

Nazarbayev, nominally a Muslim, has been careful to cater to the Islamic sensibilities of the Kazakhs without compromising the secular foundations of the state. He performed ḥajj in 1994, but in contrast to other Central Asian heads of state, he has not permitted any of the Muslim holy days to become public holidays. He has positioned himself as an ecumenical leader and a champion of the dialogue of civilizations. Pope John Paul II visited Kazakhstan at his personal invitation in 2001, and two congresses of the Leaders of World and Traditional Religions took place in Astana in 2003 and 2006.

The Islamic establishment is led by the Muslim Spiritual Administration of Kazakhstan (DUMK), headed by a chief muftī. The Muslim Spiritual Administration of Kazakhstan separated from the Tashkent-based SADUM in 1990, while Kazakhstan was still part of the USSR; DUMK operates a thriving publishing business and runs five madrasahs and the Islamic University in Almaty (formerly Alma-Ata). Throughout the 1990s hundreds of scholars from Kazakhstan received religious training abroad, mostly in Turkey, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Until the late 1990s government officials did not strive for intrusive control of the muftī's jurisdiction and Muslim communities at large. Growing concerns about extremism and radicalism prompted the National Security Council, chaired by President Nazarbayev, to launch a policy review in 1999. The liberal 1992 law on religion was circumscribed by a series of legislative and administrative acts that bolster state power vis-à-vis religious communities, all of which are required to be officially registered. In 2005 Nazarbayev signed a new law to combat extremist activity and give security services an extensive mandate to monitor and close down offending groups. In 2006 the list of Islamic organizations banned on the basis of terrorist activities included twelve groups, among them the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Ḥizb al-Taḥrīr, the Islamic Party of Eastern Turkistan, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

In 2000, Absattar Derbisaliev, a former diplomat and vice-rector of the Kazakh State University, was elected the chief muftī of Kazakhstan. Under his leadership DUMK has increased its efforts to safeguard Ḥanafī orthodoxy in Kazakhstan. It watches over the moral and intellectual probity of imams and the quality of their sermons, often resorting to personnel rotation. Foreign non-Muslim missionaries, resurgent Ṣūfīs, and Shāfiʿī and Ḥanbalī communities supported from abroad are treated with hostility. The number of religious students sent overseas has dropped to around twenty per annum; most attend al-Azhar University in Cairo. While the DUMK remains independent of the state, it is loyal to the Nazarbayev government, cooperates with authorities in the fight against extremism, and refrains from criticizing domestic or foreign policy initiatives of the president.

In general, there is little tension between the state and official Islam in Kazakhstan. The republic is the least repressive of the Central Asian countries in dealing with Islamic activism. The potential for escalation resides in the activities of exogenous radical elements—penetrating from neighboring Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan—and al-Qaʿida.



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