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Iraj Bashiri
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam

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The Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan stretches from the Pamirs to the Tian Shan. Historically, the Kirghiz, an ancient Turkic people, were a major power along the Yenisey River, where they developed a rudimentary script and established an elaborate civilization. In the face of the Mongol invasion, the Khirghiz took refuge in the Tian Shan where they lived as pastoral nomads.

After the incorporation of Kyrgyzstan into the Russian Empire in 1876, Russian peasants routinely confiscated Kirghiz grazing lands. Nicholas II 's order (1916) to draft Kirghiz youth set off revolts throughout Muslim Central Asia, resulting in the death and dislocation of many Kirghiz.

After the suppression in the 1920s of the Basmachi movement that advocated national independence and return of their waqf (religious endowment) lands, the Kirghiz were forced to settle in towns and villages. The progressive Jadīdist movement that had its roots in the new urban centers was suppressed and its leaders liquidated (1936). Muslim intellectuals who advocated reforms suffered the most. After 1937 all manifestations of the Kirghiz legacy, especially the epic Manas that was so important in Kirghiz tradition, were outlawed. Collectivization and industrialization were promoted in their stead.

During Soviet rule, mosques and madrasahs were converted into museums and opera houses, while vigorous Sovietization and Russification programs threatened to obliterate Kirghiz Islamic traditions. The Arabic script, which helped keep the Kirghiz abreast of Islamic developments outside the U.S.S.R., was replaced with Latin and later Cyrillic alphabets. Eventually, Russian was recognized as the state language, and the Soviet civil code displaced the sharīʿah and ʿāah (adat) legal codes. Prayers, death rituals, pilgrimages, and circumcisions were outlawed and Islamic marriages, with the attendant customs of kalym (bride price) and ichkari (confinement of women), were forbidden.

Today the Kyrgyz Republic has a population of 4,822,000; 52 percent speak Kirghiz, 95 percent Russian. The capital Bishkek (population 750,000) is the republic 's largest city. Kirghiz currency is the som (exchange rate 2005: $1 = 40.8 som) and the GDP is $1,700. The President (five-year terms) appoints the ministers, the judiciary, and the regional governors and can dismiss the bicameral parliament. In 2005, the Tulip Revolution swept Askar Akayev from the presidency on charges of corruption.

Kirghiz music, literature, and shamanistic rites are intertwined in the monumental epic Manas, which is sung by Manaschis who play the three-stringed lute, the komuz. World-renowned Kirghiz writer Chingiz Aitmatov (b. 1928) weaves wonderful tapestries of Soviet and nomadic Kirghiz life in his novels Jamila, The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, and Farewell, Gulsary!

Kirghiz art appears in the beautiful red, blue, brown, and green shyrdak designs of carpets and felts that decorate the inside of portable nomadic yurts (yurtas). Similar designs decorate traditional Kirghiz clothing. Although some customs are disappearing, others like ulak tartysh (a polo-like sport), aht chabysh (horse racing), and udarysh (wrestling on horseback) are promoted as tourist attractions.

Beshbarmak (boiled horsemeat on noodles) and pilov (pilaf) are the Kirghiz 's two favorite dishes, and no meal is complete without a drink of airan (yogurt), koumiss (fermented mare 's milk), or bozo (made from fermented grain).

Islam in Central Asia must be viewed from a north-south perspective. In Kazakhstan the influence of Islam is slight, while in Tajikistan Muslim groups have been extremely active. In northern Kyrgyzstan, where the Russian population lives and official Islam is sanctioned by the government, life goes on as usual. There is uneasiness in the southwestern town of Osh, where fundamentalist activities from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan spill over into the volatile Fergana Valley.

The Kirghiz have three types of holidays. Some Soviet holidays have become part of the fabric of the republic, some traditional non-Kirghiz holidays, like the Persian Nowrūz (New Year), are shared with neighbors, and Islamic holidays are becoming increasingly popular.

For seventy years the Soviets subsidized Kirghiz health care, welfare, housing, and education. After the fall of the U.S.S.R., the Kyrgyz suffered shortages of all types. The primary obstacle to substantial change is the ailing economy and a lack of capital.

After the dismantling of the kolkhoz (Soviet collective farm) system, the Kirghiz economy, which is based on agriculture, went into shock. With the introduction of privatization, it rebounded, and the rate of inflation decreased from 88 percent in 1991 to 3.2 percent in 2004. The republic 's main natural resources are coal, gold, lead, zinc, oil, and natural gas and its industry produces automobiles, tractors, electrical equipment, textiles, and footwear. Kyrgyzstan 's imports exceed its exports, resulting in a deficit that is offset by foreign economic aid. The transportation and communication systems of the republic are poor.



  • Allworth, Edward, ed.Central Asia: 130 Years of Russian Dominance. 3d ed.Durham, N.C., and London: Duke University Press, 1994. An overview of the social, cultural, and economic dynamics of the republics. Originally published in 1967 as Central Asia: A Century of Russian Rule (New York: Columbia University Press).
  • Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Marie Broxup. The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State. New York: St. Martin 's Press, 1983. Russian and Soviet interactions with the Muslims of Central Asia from the Mongol invasion to the present.
  • Hatto, A. T., ed.The Memorial Feast for Kökötöy-Khan (Kökötöydün ašı): A Kirghiz Epic Poem. London: Oxford University Press, 1977. The best portrayal of Kirghiz nomadic life before Sovietization.
  • Hiro, Dilip. Between Marx and Muhammad: The Changing Face of Central Asia. London: HarperCollins, 1995. The interaction between Islam and communism as the former tries to retrieve its legacy, especially in Central Asia, Iran, and Afghanistan.
  • Rashid, Ahmed. The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism?Karachi: Oxford University Press; London, U.K., and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Zed Books, 1995. An account of Muslim-Soviet interaction in Central Asia, and an overview of each republic and of rivalries and commonalities among the republics.
  • Rywkin, Michael. Moscow 's Muslim Challenge: Soviet Central Asia. Rev. ed.Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1990. Examines the effectiveness of Moscow 's policies for the Central Asian republics.
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