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Journal of Islamic Studies-2014-Abashin-178-200

Published online 13 March 2014
Journal of Islamic Studies 25:2 (2014) pp. 178–200
European University, St. Petersburg
* Author’s note: I am grateful to Paolo Sartori for useful comments on an
initial draft, which in many ways determined the final design and content of this
paper. I am also thankful to Bahtiyor Babajanov for valuable guidance on a
number of questions that I had in preparing this work. Finally, I would like to
acknowledge my debt to this Journal’s anonymous reviewers for their comments
and advice on the manuscript, as well as to Alexei Elfimov and Madeleine Reeves
who helped with the translation of the article.
Paolo Sartori, ‘Towards a History of the Muslim’s Soviet Union: A View
from Central Asia’ in Die Welt des Islams, 50 (2010): 315–34, at 322. I will go
along with the understanding of this term offered by Paolo Sartori ‘to identify the
culture of ‘‘being Muslim’’ under Soviet rule. Within this cultural framework,
Islam, although challenged by the discourse of an unabashedly antireligious state,
remained a source of knowledge, ethics, morality, and spirituality for many (but
by no means all) Muslims in the USSR’.
ß The Author (2014). Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the Oxford Centre for Islamic
Studies. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: [email protected]
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The transformation of religious identities and practices during the
twentieth century was labeled ‘secularization’, which implied ‘driving
religion out’ of the social and political domain to the point, many hoped,
of its extinction. Religiosity, whether Muslim or other, was portrayed as
‘outdated’ and ‘defunct’, and was marginalized and confined to the
sphere of private life. Yet the sudden return of religion to political life at
the close of the century requires us to reassess the question of what
exactly was happening to it during the era of secularization, where and
how religiosity was surviving, adapting to changes, and getting ready for
its comeback to the political arena. In this paper I explore the history of
Islam in what was the most explicitly and systematically antireligious
polity, namely the USSR. I argue however, that, even in this case, there
was a certain religious recognition built into the structures of behaviour
and administration.
The part that ‘Muslimness’—that is, ‘a specific cultural experience’,
shared by Soviet Muslims1—has played in Soviet Central Asia looks
rather ambiguous two decades after the breakdown of the Soviet state.
On the one hand, one could gather certain facts and tell a story of
See Shoshana Keller, To Moscow, Not Mecca: The Soviet Campaign against
Islam in Central Asia, 1917–1941 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001).
Yaacov Ro8i, Islam in the Soviet Union: From the Second World War to
Gorbachev (London: Hurst & Company, 2000), 723. Furthermore, Sergei
Poliakov (Everyday Islam: Religion and Tradition in Rural Central Asia
[Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharp, 1992], 95–112) held that, at the local level, Islam
remained the dominant social regulator.
For a brief outline of these developments, see Adeeb Khalid, Islam after
Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley, CA: University of
California Press, 2007), 50–139.
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persecutions and repressions of Muslim activists, the banning of Muslim
institutions, and campaigns against Muslim customs and rituals.2 On the
other hand, Islam was officially recognized and allowed some room for
legitimate activity, and there is plenty of evidence that Muslim identities
and various Muslim practices had survived through the entire Soviet
period, coexisting fairly peacefully with Soviet institutions at the local
level.3 Despite the seeming contradiction between these takes on viewing
Central Asian Islam in the Soviet epoch, they cannot be considered, in
my opinion, as incompatible or mutually exclusive or wholly incapable
of being bridged in some way.
What should be taken into account in particular are differences
between various periods and specific regional contexts. Indeed, over the
seventy-year timespan, phases of stricter persecutions alternated with
those of milder religious policies. Thus, in the 1920s, Soviet authorities
sanctioned the functioning of many Muslim institutions including
the q:@; courts, the waqfs, mosques, schools, etc.; in the 1930s, these
institutions were banned and the repressive campaign against the religion
unfolded; in the 1940s, official Muslim administrations were established,
giving religious activities some protection guarantees; in the early 1960s,
another ideological campaign for ‘fighting religious survivals’ was
launched and, though not as dramatic as the one in the 1930s, led to
the shrinking of the religion’s legitimacy; the lull of the 1970s again gave
way to a new wave of knocks against the religion in the early 1980s;
while the late 1980s witnessed a contrary course in the direction of a
considerable liberalization of religious policies.4
The dynamics of the process, therefore, was cyclical rather than linear.
Besides, different republics and regions of Central Asia were under
different degrees of control and different measures of social and political
pressure. Changes effected by the state’s intervention were notably
slower to occur and less thorough in faraway villages (qishloq),
mountainous areas, and old quarters of towns (mahalla). This caused
an uneven spatial distribution of manifestations of Muslimness—more
se rg ei ab as hi n
For representative biographies of various religious activists in Tajikistan of
the post-Stalin epoch, see Stéphane Dudoignon, ‘From Revival to Mutation:
the Religious Personnel of Islam in Tajikistan, from De-Stalinization to
Independence (1955–91)’ in Central Asian Survey, 30/1 (2011): 53–80.
For a recent work in this vein, see Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever,
Until It Was no More: The Last Soviet Generation (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 2006).
See, for example, Masha Kirasirova, ‘ ‘‘Sons of Muslims’’ in Moscow: Soviet
Central Asian Mediators to the Foreign East, 1955–1962’, Ab Imperio, 4 (2011):
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salient in some areas, and less so in others. In the late 1980s, one could
quite often observe strikingly dissimilar types of religiosity even in
neighbouring places, which was a result of the concurrence of all kinds of
disparate, sometimes accidental, circumstances including the degree of
attention the authorities paid to one or another area.5
Finally, the very Soviet project, with its particular ideology and
organizational layout, was a complex structure generating sets of
different expectations for different strata of the population. Although
Soviet society has for quite some time been imagined as unified and
totalitarian, there is a revised view that has been increasingly accepted as
of late. According to the latter, both in the domain outside immediate
state control and even within it, there existed—especially in the late
Soviet period—multiple, often rival, interests and stakes; and a variety of
tactics of adaptation or resistance were deployed.6 Trying to balance
different groups, the Soviet project was inherently contradictory and
contained the most heterogeneous elements ranging from the avantgarde to conservatism and from nationalism to universalism. Religion
too was among those elements which could be manipulated in this or
that manner, depending on the context. Notwithstanding the expressly
secular, atheist, and communist makeup of its plans and goals, the Soviet
state permitted religious activities in exchange for the loyalty of
believers. The boundaries of religious expression allowed were subject
to change and indeed did change, but the principle itself of ‘looking for
balance’ was never questioned and was at the foundation of negotiations
on what one could and could not do, which continued at all administrative levels.
Although it sporadically exploited official religious institutions in the
publicly exposed facets of its foreign and domestic policies,7 the Soviet
power nevertheless defined the domain of religion, in line with the
European tradition, as private. That distinction between the ‘public’ and
the ‘private’ (between obshchestvennoe and lichnoe, in the Russian–
Soviet vocabulary) functioned as a mechanism demarcating where and
For instance, Alexandre Bennigsen and S. Enders Wimbush, Muslims of the
Soviet Empire: A Guide (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986).
Johan Rasanayagam, Islam in Post-Soviet Uzbekistan: The Morality of
Experience (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 78–9.
Lewis Siegelbaum, ‘Introduction: Mapping Private Spheres in the Soviet
Context’ in Siegelbaum (ed.), Borders of Socialism: Private Spheres of Soviet
Russia (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 3.
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how religiosity could be manifest. If the public space was to be under the
total control of the state, the private space implied a wider degree of
personal autonomy and here Muslims could be more flexible in following
their practices, by way of adjusting them to the context of their homelife.
There, in the private domain, Islam was preserved and practised through
a variety of ways and means—texts and moral advice, rules and habits,
preferences and manners, food and clothes, rites and everyday life-cycles,
and so forth. Some of the practices were secret, but most were apparent
or else could be guessed. It was only the most radical of them that
Central Asian administrators kept under surveillance and attempted
to correct by applying moral pressure and sometimes repressive methods;
on the whole, however, everyday family life remained Muslim in
character and Soviet activists themselves adhered to its basic norms.
The private sphere was not necessarily an alternative to the
Soviet regime; nor was it, as some Soviet Studies scholars have held,8
antagonistic to the Soviet public sphere. I concur with Johan
Rasanayagam who has studied the transformation of Islam in
Uzbekistan and argues that ‘the performance of Muslim ritual outside
state regulation need not be seen, as it has so often been presented, as
‘‘underground Islam’’, oppositional in some way to the official Islam of
the Spiritual Directorate or to state socialist ideology. The everyday
sociality, of which Muslim ritual was a part, was simply separate from
these state discourses, deterritorialised in relation to them [. . .] The
enactment of Muslim ritual in ‘‘private’’ or domestic space need not be
opposed to ‘‘public’’ performance in terms of dissimulation or resistance
to state discursive regimes . . .’.9 Playing simultaneously the roles of the
Soviet person (even that of the convinced communist) and of the Muslim
more often than not was no contradiction in Central Asia, for each of the
roles had a space of its own. Soviet citizens learned to differentiate
between spaces where one could or should do something and those
where one could not or should not.
Nevertheless, the demarcation between the public and the private was
not rigid or set once and for all.10 In my opinion, when looking at the
border between the public and the private, it makes sense to see there a
sizeable ‘grey zone’ where public and private merged. This ‘third sphere’
se rg ei ab as hi n
Siegelbaum, ‘Introduction: Mapping Private Spheres in the Soviet Context’,
10; Elena Zdravomyslova and Victor Voronkov, ‘The Informal Public in Soviet
Society: Double Morality at Work’ in Social Research, 69/1 (2002): 49–69.
Boris-Mathieu Pétric, Pouvoir, don et réseaux en Ouzbékistan postsoviétique (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2002).
Nina Lobacheva, Formirovanie novoi obriadnosti uzbekov (Moscow:
Nauka, 1975).
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has been already alluded to in works on the Soviet society; it was called
the ‘informal public’ or else the ‘public privacy’ and it was meant to
embrace clubs of various kinds, informal interest groups, hostel
communities, communal apartments, and so on.11 The life in that inbetween ‘grey zone’, much like the private family or individual life, was
not under the comprehensive control of administrators, nor was it
regulated by strict ideological rules, and yet it was public in character, for
it was taking place in various public spaces and was abutting, even
blending, with Soviet symbols and institutions.
In Soviet Central Asia, there existed distinct types of informal public
sociality. I will discuss these by examining the case of two rituals:
darveshona and xudoyi.
In order to clarify why these cases should be considered special, we
should be mindful of the fact that an array of various important rituals
had been maintained throughout the Soviet period. Various events in the
life of a person or family, such as childbirth, circumcision, weddings, or
funerals, were followed by collective rituals with feasts and prayers. The
very process of organizing and holding these rituals triggered and
simultaneously cemented the entire network of local social ties.12 Despite
the aggressive Soviet rhetoric about the necessity of rebuilding personal
everyday life, the authorities actually had to act very carefully, taking
into consideration the popularity and rootedness of these customs.
Administrators did call for change and suggest what would be, from the
ideological point of view, more appropriate versions of such rituals;13
but very seldom—indeed, only on the occasion of political campaigns—
would they go as far as forcibly to prohibit local ritual practices.
A compromise that suited all was found in the convention of viewing
family rituals as individuals’ private business. Although these rituals in
fact epitomized the public space for the expression of statuses, resources,
and identities, in the official view they were seen as essentially private
affairs, since they were taken to be run for private reasons, initiated and
financed by separate individuals, and typically held within the confines of
private homes.
On the surface, there was little that distinguished darveshona
and xudoyi from family rituals. It is this ‘little’, however—the very
I was able to observe the rituals in question in Uzbek villages on the eve
of the breakdown of the USSR. The descriptions that I made of them
were my first, and now represent a distant, ethnographic experience.
They are incomplete, as is obvious to me now that I re-read my fieldwork
notes and try to reconstruct the described events. Still, I decided to make
use of that data because they were gathered during the Soviet period and
reflect the reality of an epoch not yet touched by post-Soviet changes.
I conducted my research in the part of the Ferghana Valley that
belonged at the time in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic, and I
happened to be at two locations: I stayed for several months during 1989
and 1990 in the Novkent and Chirmoch qishloqs (Kuva district,
Ferghana region); and then also for several months in 1990 and 1991
in the Mindon qishloq (Ferghana district, Ferghana region). These two
locations differ first of all in their geographical characteristics: Novkent
and Chirmoch are situated in the plains area of the Ferghana Valley, not
far from the ancient town of Kuva; while Mindon is in the southern
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differentiating minutiae—that interests me most. First of all, these rituals
were run not on behalf of this or that particular individual, but rather on
behalf of the community; accordingly, they were financed jointly and, to
a lesser or greater extent, at the expense of the state budget. Secondly,
they were held not at home but in public places that were supposed to
conform to a certain formal type. In a word, if family rituals were in a
way removed from the Soviet state’s control and could exist in an
autonomous space, darveshona and xudoyi cut directly through the
official space, for they were not subject to the same conventional
compromise as the family rituals, and they entailed special techniques of
recognition and public disguise.
Focusing on the ‘informal public sphere’ allows us to better examine
not only the ways in which the division between the Soviet and the
Muslim as different worldviews materialized, but also the ways in which
Soviet practices, discourses, and artefacts mixed and blended with
Muslim ones. What I am interested in here, then, is not a parallel
(peaceful or otherwise) coexistence of the Soviet and the Muslim, but
their hybrid formations that emerged as a result of their interpenetration.
To explicate this, I am going to provide an ethnographic description of a
number of Muslim rituals that I witnessed, and finally to discuss the tools
that made it possible to play the double game of recognizing and
concealing Muslimness.
se rg ei ab as hi n
outlying area of the valley and closer to the foothills. Secondly, although
all of the villages are populated by Uzbeks, the origins of the population
in each are different, as are, in consequence, some of the local customs
and habits.14 This helps to explain some specificities in the Muslim
practices that I am about to discuss.
In the first case, residents relate to the Kipchak, some tribes of the nomad
Uzbek, the Sart and Kashgar in their origins; in the second, to the Sart, Kashgar
and Tajik (see, for instance, Sergei Abashin, Natsionalizmy v Srednei Azii: v
poiskakh identichnosti (St. Petersburg: Aleteiia, 2007), 36–71).
Literally, ‘in a dervish way’.
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On March 17, 1990, a ritual of darveshona15 was held in Novkent.
Starting from about 9 a.m., the locals—mainly men over forty—began to
gather around the newly built bathhouse, and tables and benches were
already arranged nearby. The cook (oshpaz) and his assistants were
working in full swing. Groups of relatives and other acquaintances were
greeted by the local barber who served as usta, showing them to their
seats at the table. When they were seated, another attendant
(dasturxonchi) came and laid out tea, flat-cakes, and other snacks on
the table. The most important guests, such as the chairmen of the rural
council and collective farm (kolkhoz), the school director, and other
administrators, were invited to separate rooms where special seats were
arranged. Novkent’s mull: and several elders likewise took their seats in
a separate room. By 10 a.m. the shorva soup was served to the guests;
and having partaken of it, they (there were about a hundred of them,
according to my count) would start leaving in small groups, except for
the administrators and elders who stayed. The breakfast for the Novkent
men was at that point over.
The Novkent women gathered in a separate private house not far from
the bathhouse, as if somewhat away from the men. By about twelve
noon, when the women’s breakfast would come to a close, the chairmen
of the rural council and the council of veterans headed to the women’s
house. The latter, Abdumuxtor Ubaydulloev, delivered a ten-to-fifteenminute speech to the women, in which he urged them to maintain
cleanness in their houses, to see that the children were well brought up,
be humble, and cut down on the exchange of gifts at various family
events. After the speech the administrators returned to the men’s quarters
and women started leaving, taking their bundles with food leftovers that
were already placed there by dasturxonchi.
By 3 p.m. the Novkent men started heading for the bathhouse again.
When everybody arrived, the aforementioned Abdumuxtor Ubaydulloev
In Mindon, which was just two hours’ drive away from Novkent and
Chirmoch, the darveshona ritual as described above was not practised.
Mindon locals knew about that ritual and said with certainty that it did
not exist in their village. There was just one person who mentioned that,
during the apricot ripening season, women used to collect money and
arrange a shared meal that was supposedly called darveshona. However,
I did not witness such a rite myself; and judging from the description
provided, it obviously did not have anything in common with the
The campaign against alcoholism was under way in the USSR at the time.
Darveshona rituals were actually held in all neighbouring villages, but I was
able to attend just those in Novkent and Chirmoch.
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delivered another long speech of twenty to thirty minutes in which he
reiterated his exhortations to the women, now adding the instructions to
refrain from alcohol and respect Islam and the state. There was just one
awkward glitch. Ubaydulloev ended his flamboyant and emotional
address on the harms of alcoholism.16 Novkentians nodded and
mumbled approvingly. Suddenly someone stood up and objected;
‘Well, it’s all right to drink beer, isn’t it?’ The reaction to the question
was amusing, as Ubaydulloev, perplexed for a second, waved a hand and
said, ‘Yes, it’s all right’. A hubbub of joy arose among the darveshona
participants. Following Ubaydulloev, the chairman of the rural council
spoke; he introduced the newly appointed head of the Novkent mahalla
committee to the locals, and it was implied that he was thus elected by
the locals. Then another long meal service (katta osh) ensued; the
participants were served pilaf, and plates with pilaf and bread were set
aside even for those who could not be present (for instance, because of
sickness or observance of mourning). The service lasted for about an
hour; those that finished eating did not leave the table but sat and waited.
At about 4 p.m. the Novkent mull: pronounced a prayer and wished
well-being to everyone, after which the participants said ‘Amen’ and
started leaving. The mull: and the elders stayed in their room for half an
hour longer and read the Qur8:n (xatmi Qur8on). At that point the
Novkent darveshona was over.
On 19 March, that is in a day, a similar ritual was held in Chirmoch
for the locals of that qishloq.17 Its arrangement was the same, with the
only difference that the spot for holding the event was the open space at
the Chirmoch cemetery, near the building that was used as a mosque.
Prior to the beginning of katta osh, the very same Abdumuxtor
Ubaydulloev repeated the speech that he had given in Novkent nearly
to the letter. No one seemed to object this time.
se rg ei ab as hi n
Literally, ‘belonging to the God’.
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darveshona of the Novkent or Chirmoch type. Why darveshona rituals
were practised in some places but not in others is a difficult question.
Perhaps it had to do with the differences in the origins of the population
and with the different customs that emerged as a result.
Anyway, in Mindon, there was a spring ritual of xudoyi18 with a
prayer for the well-being of the community.
On 13 March 1991, at 8:30 in the morning, following the first prayer
before dawn, a group of elders who had gathered in Mindon’s main
mosque (juma) boarded a small bus to embark on a one-day trip to the
village of Hamzaabod. The bus was rented by kolkhoz officials at the
local motor pool. There were some thirty passengers: mainly elders from
different parts of Mindon, but also several middle-aged men who were
supposed to attend to the needs of the former; and so there was a butcher
among those, who was simultaneously the cook (not a typical case), a
kolkhoz water administrator (mirob), and a foreman gardener.
Hamzaabod is situated some 25–30 kilometres from Mindon, in the
Alay Mountains at an altitude of about 1500 metres in the upper part of
the gorge along which the Shohimardon river flows and at the spot where
the river forms from the confluence of Qorasuv and Oqsuv. The trip took
just over an hour. Passing by Vuodil, a large qishloq at the entrance to the
gorge, the travellers stopped to purchase bread and products necessary
for the ritual meal. In the bus, they also had a sheep, which was
specifically allotted from the kolkhoz flock for the ritual. The next stop
was Hamzaabod itself and the bus pulled up at the memorial monument
to Hamza Hokimzade Niyozi, a revolutionary writer after whom the
village was named. Staying still inside the vehicle, the Mindon community members said their prayers and quietly pronounced ‘Amen’. The
oldest mull: read an appropriate Qur8:nic s<ra. Having thus paused for
a few minutes, the travellers resumed their journey to their principal
destination. The bus climbed up the road running along a steep mountain
slope and, having passed the small village of Yordan, descended down
the hill to the banks of the Oqsuv river. This was their principal
destination—a ‘recreation area’ equipped with everything needed to
welcome the guests.
The elders got out of the bus and, having gathered in knots of eight to
ten, immediately seated themselves on benches at the tables already
arranged for them. Service people promptly laid the tablecloth,
distributed bread, and started preparing tea. While the xudoyi participants were having a relaxed talk over the light breakfast, the butcher and
mirob went away to the river bank in order to slaughter the sheep.
Maxzum (maxdum)—lord, teacher—the title granted to the most distinguished religious activists; in Ferghana, the title was often held by descendants of
such religious activists.
In the Ferghana Valley, belonging to the tura order was considered most
honorable and its geneology was traced to the Prophet. (For more detail see:
Sergei Abashin, ‘Tura’ in Stanislav Prozorov (ed.), Islam na territorii byvshei
Rossiiskoi imperii: Entsiklopedicheskii slovar8 (Moscow: Vostochnaia Literatura,
2006, i. 387–8.) The upper Muslim elite in Ferghana often belonged to this order.
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The culmination of the ritual was the partaking of the meal. However,
there was another event that preceded it. As the experts were magically
fiddling with the cooking pot, a voice was suddenly heard from a nearby
tearoom (choyxona), which called the guests for midday prayers. As it
turned out, one of the choyxona’s rooms was there to serve the mosque
functions and its local keeper was a muezzin (locally called azonchi). It
was around one o’clock now. The elders promptly left their benches and
all went to the choyxona to perform namoz. There were a number of
other strangers inside, and the person leading the prayer as im:m was a
native of Marghilan, an old Farghana town. Little was known about
him, except that he was a kind of religious activist. Once the prayer had
ended, the xudoyi participants returned to their benches and they were
served first soup and then pilaf, the main dish.
The Marghilanian who had played the part of im:m sat somewhat
aside at a separate table. He was accompanied by another religious
activist who was known to the Mindon elders, for that person was from
Chimion, a village neighbouring Mindon. Everybody kept addressing
that person as Maxsim-aka, that is, using not his name but a distorted
form of maxzum,19 an honorific that signified his belonging to the
religious family. The Mindonians one by one approached these
people, greeting them and showing their respect for them, and engaged
in small talk.
Consequently, it was Maxsim-aka who was invited to perform the
reading of the Qur8:n during the xatmi Qur8on ceremony which, just as
in the darveshona case, formally brought the meal to a conclusion. As a
matter of fact, an argument arose among the Mindonians as to whether
the respected Chimion authority or Mindon’s local mull: should be
invited for the purpose. The opinion that prevailed was the one in favour
of the Chimion guest who was apparently considered of higher rank
within the local religious hierarchy, since he was said to belong to a
distinguished religious group of to8ra.20 Having accepted the invitation,
Maxsim-aka took another seat that was vacated for him, and got ready
for the ritual procedure. Food leftovers were removed at once; then
everybody washed their hands with water. For around fifteen to twenty
se rg ei ab as hi n
In 1990 and 1991, I thus happened to observe the performance of
collective rituals with Muslim prayers in a couple of random qishloqs
of the Ferghana Valley. The question that arises is: What was the attitude
of the Soviet state towards these rituals? What did it do to reconcile them
with its ideological requirements? What administrative measures did it
take to control them?
There is a difficulty in answering this question. The fact is that the
cases I witnessed took place during the period of 1988–91, which
was marked by substantial liberalization of policies toward religion.
Repressive actions ceased at the time, and there was a significant
widening of the domain of legitimate religious activities, of the scope of
access to information about religion, and of the possibility of discussing
religious matters openly. Therefore, for the rituals that I witnessed, there
were favourable conditions of the kind that had not necessarily obtained
in preceding periods (even the calm ones, not to mention the decades
marked by persecution).
Nevertheless, I would insist that the rituals that I observed in 1990–91
were not an invention of the Gorbachev era or a newly devised
reconstruction. Indeed, they were performed as habitual, regular, and
recurrent practices. Not only in Mindon, Novkent, and Chirmoch, but
also in other Ferghana Valley qishloqs where I conducted fieldwork in
the 1990s, the locals would tell me about one or another version of a
collective spring ritual that they knew had been held at least during the
I suppose that rare mentions of the rituals in scholarly works and
administrative accounts might have to do not so much with their
presumed absence as the particular mode of visibility that they assumed.
The very fact that they were not much of an ideological bother points to
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minutes Maxsim-aka loudly read the prayer while others were repeating
it silently, trying to keep to the rhythm. After the prayer, Maxsim-aka
appealed to God, now in Uzbek, with requests for good rain, rich crops,
good luck in the coming year, and peace and well-being for Mindon
residents. At this point, about 3.30 pm, the xudoyi ritual ended, and the
elders said ‘Amen’ and got up. Maxsim-aka went back to his company,
while the pilgrims, having boarded the bus that was waiting for them,
departed without further delay or distractions; they passed Hamzaabod,
Vuodil, and finally arrived at their native qishloq where they broke up
and went home.
The mass feast by itself—attended by some 30 people in the case of the
Mindon xudoyi, and by 100–150 people in that of the Novkent or
Chirmoch darveshona—was by no means in contradiction with Soviet
norms. Being timed to coincide with agricultural calendar cycles, it easily
fit the logic of Soviet holidays, which likewise appealed to collectivist
sentiment. At the same time, the feast had a rather distinct sacral
meaning, for there was a popular folk belief that the ritual food released
the smell (is) that helped to summon the spirits of the ancestors.21 Any
act of preparing everyday meals such as shorva or pilaf could therefore,
in certain circumstances and at a certain time and place, take on religious
significance. That sacred context was not deliberately accented or
revealed, although all men and women participating in the rituals were
aware of it and behaved accordingly: thus, alcohol was ruled out at these
feasts; age and gender segregation lines were enforced; proper politeness
rules and dressing etiquette were supposed to be observed.
There was a problem with the xatmi Qur8on prayer, i.e. the reading of
the Qur8:n that was necessarily expected to wrap up the meal at xudoyi
or darveshona. The obvious religious character of that element of the
feast was bringing the participants into conflict with the official ideology
and putting them at risk of being censured or subjected to disciplinary
action by the state. This engendered a set of techniques for either
concealing or explaining xatmi Qur8on in ways that would secure the
Bruce Privratsky, Muslim Turkistan: Kazak Religion and Collective Memory
(Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press, 2001), 128–33; Kikuta Haruka, ‘Ruh or
Spirits of the Deceased as Mediators in Islamic Belief: The Case of a Town in
Uzbekistan’ in Acta Slavica Iaponica, 30 (2011): 69–73.
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their peaceful and rather deep integration into the fabric of Soviet
everyday life. The invisibility of these rituals, thus, was a symptom not of
their seeming absence but rather of their recognition and legitimization.
I did not hear or participate in discussions on whether darveshona and
xudoyi rituals adhered to the Soviet ideology or not. By ‘default’, they
were apparently presumed to adhere to it, or at any rate not to be of the
kind that would be deemed totally inappropriate from the Soviet point of
view. However, this effect was not at all automatic; it was actually
produced by an array of rhetorical and practical tactics of concealment,
reticence, and double interpretation that were instrumental in normalizing these rituals.
se rg ei ab as hi n
Elyor Karimov and David Abramson (compilers), Religion made official: a
comprehensive collection of documents on religion from the state archives of
Soviet Uzbekistan, 1920s–1960s (Almaty: IFEAC, 2009); Dmitrii Arapov (ed.),
Islam i sovetskoe gosudarstvo (1944–1991): sbornik dokumentov, vol. 3
(Moscow: Mardzhani, 2011).
Religion made official . . . , 227, 272.
See, for instance Gleb Snesarev, Relikty domusul8manskikh verovanii i
obriadov u Uzbekov Khorezma (Moscow: Nauka, 1969). On the ritual of
‘sacrifice to the waters’, which is akin to the cases that I recorded, see 237–9.)
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participants against possible accusations and help them to keep the
rituals legitimate at the same time. The simplest of the techniques was to
put the elders reading the prayer in a separate, more secluded space. As a
matter of fact, this technique was employed in the case of xudoyi where
the group of elders would go to a recreation site in the mountains. In
Novkent and Chirmoch, there was a separate room reserved for the
elders, whereas the rest of the participants were seated in the open space.
Needless to say, everybody present, including local Soviet administrators,
knew that whatever was going on in that room was of concern to the
entire community, but they pretended to think that it was a private
business of the elders.
Another technique was the shortening of the prayer itself. The reading
of the Qur8:n would then be cut down to a 10–20 minute reading of a
single s<ra (or a few s<ras). The brevity of the procedure ensured that no
extra attention was drawn to this part of the ritual, and yet it did not
diminish its symbolic significance in the eyes of those for whom the
important fact was that the prayer had been uttered.
There also were official discursive means of normalizing local
practices. For instance, should we examine the published documents of
the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults,22 we will easily notice that
the attention of Soviet administrators was principally drawn to the
practices that were considered properly Islamic: performing namoz,
going to a mosque, observing the fast, celebrating qurbon hayiti and
ro8za hayiti, taking part in mavlud, marriage (nikoh), circumcision
(xatna), etc. This list at times could be extended to include other rituals,
xudoyi and darveshona among them,23 but still the attitude towards
those was not so strict or focused. Perhaps the differentiating criterion
here was the distinction between ‘Islam’ and ‘Islamic survivals’, which
was useful in taking certain practices from the less favourable category of
‘religion’ and moving them over to the more favourable category
of ‘national culture’.24 For example, a move of the kind was performed after the uneasy struggle against the spring equinox celebration
of navroz.25 Although xudoyi and darveshona were not within the focus
of that struggle, the trajectory of debates around them must in many
ways have run parallel to that around navroz, and it was no accident that
darveshona in Novkent and Chirmoch was held close to the calendar
date of navroz, as if referring to that celebration.
I should point out that, at the time when I observed both rituals in
1990–91, there was already some consensus as to their normality, so
discussions on their being ‘Soviet’ or ‘non-Soviet’ were not carried on any
longer. What was carried on among Uzbek village residents, however, was
a discussion on whether their local practices conformed to the ‘correct’
Islam. The rituals in question were an arena where that discussion was
made public. The theme of what it means to be Muslim was most salient
both during the feast of Mindonians in the Shohimardon mountains and at
the gathering of Novkent and Chirmoch residents.
Certainly, the revitalization of the Islamic discourse26 at the turn of the
1980s–90s was connected to policies of the perestroika era when disputes
and conflicts over religious matters took on a political tone.27 Yet the issue
of this or that practice being Islamic or non-Islamic had a longer history
and tradition of debate going beyond the framework of the Soviet period.
Throughout the Soviet period, the issue resonated continuously at the level
of everyday life. As Uzbek scholar Baxtiyar Babajanov demonstrates in his
research, debates on the Muslimness of local practices were initiated in the
1950s–80s by the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia
and Kazakhstan (SADUM).28 The fatwas that it issued censured a number
See Laura Adams, The Spectacular State: Culture and National Identity in
Uzbekistan (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), 50–8.
This notion has been employed, in particular, by Michael Kemper, Sufis und
Gelehrte in Tatarien und Baschkivien, 1789–1889. Der Islamische Diskurs und
russischer Herschaft (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 1998), 1.
Abdujabar Abduvakhitov, ‘Islamic Revivalism in Uzbekistan’ in Dale
Eickelman (ed.), Russia’s Muslim Frontiers (Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University Press, 1993), 79–100; Bakhtiar Babadzhanov, ‘Islam in Uzbekistan:
From the Struggle for ‘‘Religious Purity’’ to Political Activism’ in Boris Rumer
(ed.), Central Asia: A Gathering Storm? (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2002),
Bakhtiar Babadzhanov, ‘O fetvakh SADUM protiv ‘‘neislamskikh obychaev’’ ’ in Aleksei Malashenko and Martha Brill Olcott (eds.), Islam na
postsovetskom prostranstve (Moscow: Art-Biznes-Tsentr, 2001), 170–84.
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se rg ei ab as hi n
See Bakhtiar Babadzhanov et al. (eds.), Disputy musul’manskikh religioznykh avtoritetov Tsentral’noi Azii v XX veke (Almaty: Daik-press, 2007).
I am grateful to Bakhtiar Babadzhanov for bringing this to my attention, as
well as for his translations and comments. The citations come from: Tsentral’nyi
gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Respubliki Uzbekistan, fond 2456, op. 1, d. 143,
444, 540.
On the kalandar, see Anna Troitskaia, ‘Iz proshlogo kalandarov i
maddakhov v Uzbekistane’ in Gleb Snesarev and Vladimir Basilov (eds.),
Domusul’manskie verovaniia i obriady v Srednei Azii (Moscow: Nauka, 1975),
191–223; on the ‘rain stones’, see Sergei Malov, ‘Shamanskii kamen’ ‘yada’ u
tiurkov Zapadnogo Kitaia’ in Sovetskaia etnografiia, 1/1 (1947): 151–60.
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of rituals widespread in the region as non-Islamic and non-obligatory.
Although the interests of Soviet and SADUM’s administrators seemed to
overlap and impact each other in that case, there certainly was a
distinctive theological genealogy behind the arguments of the Muslim
Darveshona, as a matter of fact, was mentioned in a whole series of
SADUM’s fatwas issued in 1947–76.30 Thus, one of the earlier texts
conveyed that, ‘rituals adverse to Shar;6a (marosimlar) are still held in
qishloqs. The most detestable action among them, adverse to Islam and
Allah’s will, is darveshona. Several unclean persons of the polytheist bent
(mushriklar) . . . gather in a circle, wave with coloured canes, and fool the
people, assuring them that they are summoning the rain’. What was
implied is that the ritual was held by members of mendicant Sufi
communities—the darvesh, or qalandar—who apparently performed
dhikr and some actions with ritual ‘rain stones’, after which they
collected alms.31 In the later texts, the religious reproof of the ‘ignorance
of Shar;6a and Islam’ would be reinforced with more Soviet formal
appeals to ‘technological development and progress’ and with accusations of charlatans who were after ‘dishonest profits’.
The darveshona as described in these fatwas had nothing to do with
the ritual that I observed in 1990. There were no qalandars, dhikr, or
‘rain stones’ of any kind; nor were there even mentions or memories of
such a way of calling on the rain; although the word ‘darvesh’ did
survive. It could be suggested that the change was propelled both by the
Soviet campaign ‘against survivals’ and by the criticism of ‘non-Shar;6a
customs’ on the part of Muslims themselves. The local community
reacted to all external and internal stimuli by moulding such versions of
practices so as to be able to parry different kinds of condemnatory
For more detail, see Sergei Abashin, ‘Shakhimardan’ in Prozorov (ed.),
Islam na territorii, i. 460–62; Roza Rassudova, ‘Kul8tovye ob8ekty Fergany kak
istochnik po istorii oroshaemogo zemledeliia’ in Sovetskaia etnografia, 4/4
(1985): 96–104.
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A religious context could emerge in a public space not only through
awareness of the significance of this or that action but also through
knowledge of the proper sites where significant actions take place. In
fact, these sites were often chosen in a way that would enhance the effect
of sacredness. In Novkent, the spot allocated for the darveshona was a
space around the bathhouse that did not call up any religious
associations; but in Chirmoch, for instance, the darveshona was held
at the cemetery which was filled with Muslim symbols. There was a
structure that was formally intended for storage of the cemetery tools
and equipment and simultaneously was the lodge of the cemetery keeper;
but at the same time it played the part of a village mosque where the
elders would gather daily to perform namoz and where the janoza ritual
for the dead would be regularly held. There also was a small sacred
place (mozor) toward which locals would every once in a while make
pilgrimage (ziyorat). On religious holidays, people would come to visit
the graves of their relatives. All of that set the tone for the behaviour and
feelings of people the moment they entered the cemetery. The intervention of administrators in the realm of funeral and mourning rites was
much less aggressive or pervasive, which was dictated by the need to
exercise caution in that sensitive area; so the cemetery remained the
space in which ‘being Muslim’ was not just allowed but was properly
considered the decent and determinate mode of behaviour.
The sacred status of the ritual location was especially evident in the
case of the Mindon xudoyi. Formally, the mountainous surroundings of
Hamzaabod and Yordan were known as part of a recreation area with
health resorts, tourist camps, and nature parks. In the Soviet period,
coming here for either a day-trip or prolonged vacation was a popular
pastime for many Ferghana Valley residents. At the same time, there was
hardly a single person who would not know that Hamzaabod had once
been the location of one of the most revered sacred sites of the region—
the mozor and mausoleum of Shohimardon—where, according to local
legend, 6Al; ibn Ab; F:lib (the fourth caliph and the Prophet’s son-in-law)
had been buried. The entire environs of that site were in fact a huge
sacred area containing other sacred sites as well, such as the place
bearing the footprints (qadamjoy) of 6Al;’s activity, and shrines of various
saints of lower rank.32 All these sites were destinations for mass
se rg ei ab as hi n
Bruce Privratsky, Muslim Turkistan, 168–82.
See Hamid Algar, art. ‘Nagshband’, EI2, vii. 933–4.
The person known under this name in Central Asia was 6Abd al-Q:dir
Jil:n;. See W. Braune, art. 6Abd al-K:dir al-Dj;l:n;’, EI2, i. 70.
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pilgrimage; besides, multiple families of those said to belong to religious
lineages stretching from the saints still lived there.
In the 1930s, performing religious acts around the mausoleum had been
banned. The mausoleum and the shrine were demolished during the 1950s;
in their place was erected the aforementioned memorial monument to
Hamza Hokimzade Niyozi, who had been killed there in 1929 (it was in his
honour, too, that the village of Shohimardon was renamed Hamzaabod).
6Al;’s mazar was, that is to say, turned into a Soviet monument to the struggle
against religion. Nonetheless, the area preserved its sacred status in the view
of the people, even though the possibility of performing religious activities
was now severely limited. Pilgrimage trips were still undertaken to certain
sites that were less visible; but even routine recreation trips to the mountains
would not infrequently involve stopping for a brief prayer accompanied
with invocations to God or 6Al;.33 So, when the Mindon elders, who passed
by that site in May 1991, stopped there for a minute to say a prayer, their
prayer was certainly meant not for the Soviet writer but for 6Al;.
The trip from Mindon to the Shohimardon mountains, sponsored by
the kolkhoz, did imply—for every participant in that journey—moving in
that sacred spatial context. It entailed not just a prayer for well-being but
indeed a special prayer at a special place near highly revered objects and
pilgrimage spots.
The taxing question for the Mindon residents in 1991, therefore, was
not the extent to which xudoyi might have been Soviet, but the extent to
which it appeared to conform to Islam. Regrettably, my research was not
focused specifically on this theme at the time, and I am not able to
expound arguments about the various viewpoints then held by local
community members on what practices could or could not be considered
properly Muslim. What I do remember is that, both in my conversations
with the locals and during the described trip to the mountains in
particular, talks about the ‘correctness’ of Islam were appealing to people
and interested them immensely. For example, doubt was cast on the
sacred nature of mozors and saints, which was seen by some of the
community members as contradicting the principle of strict monotheism.
I was able to note also the practical effect of those discussions. Thus, my
interlocutors mentioned that, in the recent past, prayers at xudoyi
had been still addressed, apart from All:h, to ‘Bahoviddin, Gaus and
Boy-Dehqon’, i.e. to the Sufi saints Bah:8 al-D;n Naqshband34 and
Ghawth al-A6Cam,35 as well as to Adam, legendary patron saint of
agriculture;36 but then ritual appeals became limited to the anonymous
ancestors and saints only (bobo-avliyolar). This development, again,
reflected the complex game in which the new censorship over symbols
and characters did not yet mean an immediate repudiation of old habits
and practices.
See Mikhail Gavrilov (ed.), Risolia sartovskikh remeslennikov:
Issledovaniie predanii musul8manskikh tsekhov (Tashkent: Tipografiia pri
Kantselyarii General-Gubernatora, 1912), 54–7.
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Another guise under which Muslimness could exist in the public sphere
was that of hereditary sacrality. The latter, just like the spatial sacrality,
need not be openly manifested but would be recognizable due to its
embeddedness in the local context. Here I would like to draw attention
to people who played the parts of principal characters in the rituals that I
witnessed. Little can be said, unfortunately, about the Chimion resident
Maxsim-aka, who was entrusted with leading the prayer in the Mindon
case, apart from his being a religious activist well known in Mindon and
even beyond it. The Soviet administration was represented at xudoyi by
the kolkhoz brigade leader who was trying to be inconspicuous and
handed the spiritual leadership over to the elders and mull:s. But in the
cases of Novkent and Chirmoch, interestingly, the figure of Abdumuxtor
Ubaydulloev was there to marry different, and seemingly incompatible,
Ubaydulloev was a Soviet administrator but also a member of a
respected local family of religious activists. For some time, he was the
chairman of the collective farm. For the majority of his life, however, he
worked as principal and teacher at the school through which a significant
number of the locals had passed. In the village context, the school had
more social functions than simply an institution providing elementary
education: it introduced children to a new way of life; it indoctrinated
them in new practices and beliefs; and it inculcated loyalty toward the
Soviet order. The school’s teacher, not to mention principal, was the
agent of the Soviet state to an even greater degree than the kolkhoz
chairman was. Now, the position of chairman of the council of veterans
(Ubaydulloev took up this role upon his retirement) might not have been
so important in terms of administrative status and especially income, but
it carried significant symbolic capital—it guaranteed the opportunity to
be invited to each and every major Soviet event of importance in the role
se rg ei ab as hi n
6Alam—the highest status for a learned Muslim person; domla (domulla)—
See, for example, Sergei Abashin, ‘Gellner, the ‘‘Saints’’ and Central Asia:
between Islam and Nationalism’, Inner Asia, 7/1 (2005): 65–86; Bruce
Privratsky, ‘ ‘‘Turkistan Belongs to the Qojas’’: Local Knowledge of a Muslim
Tradition’ in Stephane Dudoignon (ed.), Devout Societies vs. Impious States?
Transmitting Islamic Learning in Russia, Central Asia and China, through the
Twentieth Century (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz, 2004), 161–212.
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of one of the persons in charge, as well as the opportunity to deliver
speeches and be the official focus of attention. Ubaydulloev looked in
line with his elevated Soviet status: despite his 65 years, he did not wear a
beard, was dressed in a paramilitary jacket and trousers tucked into his
boots à la Stalin, and held himself confidently, even somewhat aggressively, exhibiting his special standing. It can be added that, among
Ubaydulloev’s numerous close relatives including brothers, sons, sonsin-law, and nephews, there were engineers, teachers, police officers, etc.;
that is to say, all of them had more or less prestigious positions within the
Soviet hierarchy as well.
In addition to the high (within the local context) Soviet position,
Abdumuxtor Ubaydulloev had an important religious status, which was
invariably pointed out by my interlocutors. He was the eldest in the
group of descendants of a once notable 6alam-domla;37 and, in
commemoration thereof, they bore the honorary title of Maxsim, to
which I have alluded above. Allegedly, the 6alam-domla had come from
somewhere around Kokand and had been one of the first to settle in
Novkent. His children and grandchildren, apart from getting the kin title
of Maxsim, had been educated to become mull:s in obedience to the
family tradition; and one of them was even said to have held the position
of mingboshi, i.e. that of the rural district governor in the Russian
empire. To be precise, within a small community, the status of Maxsim
was not considered ‘sacred’ in the strict sense of the term. The sacredness
was a hereditary mark of the oqsuyak (‘white bone’) group members who
traced their genealogy—which, even if forged, was still recognized—to
the Prophet or his closest companions.38 Neither Ubaydulloev nor his
relatives had claims reaching that far; but their family nonetheless had
always belonged to the local elite, which was taken both by themselves
and the locals as a hereditary entitlement of sorts or else as destiny.
The privilege of holding a special status did not disappear during the
Soviet period. Some members of the family fell victim to persecution or
had to emigrate to escape oppression. Other Maxsims—those who were
better educated, enjoyed the support of a wider social network, and had
more defined ambitions—were more willing and quick to accept the new
In concluding, I should emphasize that I would not wish to generalize the
degree to which the particulars described above were characteristic of the
entire Central Asian region. The cases examined here are indeed
restricted to a particular timeframe and particular places, and there are
significant variations even between these two examples. I suppose that,
in Central Asian towns and villages, there must have existed a variety of
rituals of the kind, as well as of ways of legitimizing and interpreting
them, and of identity configurations. I would guess further that those
ways, versions, and configurations were not unalterable but must have
been perpetually transforming and undergoing diverse influences and
reassessments. Still, some conceptual comments can be put forward even
on the basis of individual cases.
I will not be original if, drawing on my own observations, I argue—as
indeed I do—against the attempt to essentialize Sovietness and
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rules offered or imposed by the Soviet order. They became successful,
having converted the religious capital they had previously possessed into
new, up-to-date forms of capital. The Muslimness—which, as Soviet
administrators, these Maxsims could no longer manifest openly—still
remained the grounding point of their identity and the foundation of
their authority and special reputation. This condition gave rise to various
techniques of the double game that was supposed to bind the ‘Soviet’ and
the ‘Muslim’ together, rather than setting them off against each other.
Ubaydulloev’s participation as a Soviet official in a legitimate ritual,
which was at the same time obviously linked to the religious, was one of
the techniques of playing two roles simultaneously.
Ubaydulloev’s speech at the darveshona could be seen precisely as an
example of integrating things that on the surface would seem formally
incompatible. While defending a peculiar Soviet version of puritanistic
behaviour, morals, and order, the former school principal still stayed
fairly compliant with the general logic of Muslim moral rhetoric. Even
his warnings against drinking could be interpreted from either the
Muslim or the Soviet point of view, for the state campaign against
alcohol was under way at that time. Again, let me reiterate my caveat,
the Novkent Maxsim certainly had more freedom to make allusions or
references to Islam in 1990 than back in the 1950s–70s or else in the
early 1980s, not to mention the Stalin period. But even during those
earlier years, there had also been practices of the double interpretation of
Soviet slogans.
se rg ei ab as hi n
This academic debate on what is to be understood as ‘Soviet’ and ‘Muslim’,
it should be noted, is unfortunately often exacerbated by the disciplinary split
between Islamic Studies scholars and Russian Studies scholars, historians and
anthropologists, Western Sovietologists and Soviet scholars, as well as by various
differences in their approaches, sources, and academic traditions.
On various strains of this critique, see Abdul Hamid el-Zein, ‘Beyond
Ideology and Theology: The Search for the Anthropology of Islam’ in Annual
Review of Anthropology, 6 (1977): 227–54; Talal Asad, The Idea of an
Anthropology of Islam (Washington, DC: Center for Contemporary Arab
Studies, Georgetown University, 1986); Daniel Varisco, Islam Obscured: The
Rhetoric of Anthropological Representation (New York, NY: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2005).
See Devin DeWeese, ‘Islam and the Legacy of Sovietology: a Review Essay
on Yaacov Ro8i’s Islam in the Soviet Union’ in Journal of Islamic Studies, 13/3
(2002): 298–330.
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Muslimness and against the explicit or implicit desire to define them
comprehensively, draw precise demarcation lines between ‘Soviet’ and
‘non-Soviet’, or ‘Muslim’ and ‘non-Muslim’, and counterpose one
against the other.39
The critique of understanding Islam as a unified whole already has a
long history.40 I cannot but reiterate the argument, voiced by many
anthropologists, that Muslimness should be examined from the same
perspective as that in which people who consider themselves Muslim
view, discuss, and practise Islam. Any attempt at prescribing what ought
to be called Islam and who can be called Muslim restricts the field of
vision of a scholar, distorts the picture that is being examined, and makes
it hard to see the nuances of a complicated and often contradictory
struggle over meanings and resources. Employing such a critically
informed approach, on the contrary, makes it possible to see and
appreciate the wide variety of religious practices in Soviet Central Asia,
which were by no means limited to SADUM’s official activities or
random customs in the domain of everyday life.41 When we let ourselves
hear the voices of actual people, the panorama of colourful religious life,
brimful of events, rituals, debates, relationships and conflicts, unfolds
before us. We are able then to see the different ways in which
Muslimness can informally exist in the public sphere and variously
merge with the official ideological rhetoric, as well as the double game in
which various actors engage in their desire to retain, or make use of,
particular identities and attributes. Needless to say, this approach does
not deny the fact that there were campaigns of repression and
persecution against religion, nor does it deny the fact that secular
practices and convictions were widespread; it forces us, however, to
Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin
(Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006), 12–13.
Alexei Yurchak, Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More, 28.
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avoid the simplistic, deterministic, and straightforward manner of
writing about the recent Soviet past and post-Soviet present.
Rediscovering an array of forms of Muslimness in Soviet Central Asia
makes us, in turn, take a different look at Sovietness. The latter has been
increasingly subject to rethinking as of late. Thus, some researchers,
instead of focusing on the ways in which people resisted the totalitarian
regime or adapted to it, prefer exploring how Soviet ideology was
‘unpacked’ and ‘personalized’ within human beings, turning them into
individuals conscious of themselves as ‘Soviet subjects’.42 This approach
does not mean that individuals became wholly subordinated to the
ideological doctrine; on the contrary, they are seen as having retained the
opportunity to interpret, alter, and even contest it while remaining within
its framework. Other researchers argue that, after Stalin’s death, it
became possible for people to be loyal to the Soviet order and at the same
time to engage ‘in different new meanings’, which thus would ‘not
preclude a person from feeling an affinity for many of the meanings,
possibilities, values, and promises of socialism’, but rather allow one ‘to
recapture these meanings, values, and promises from the inflexible
interpretations provided by the party rhetoric’.43 The new connotations
could relate to the existing ideologies in various ways; they could
contradict them or they could exist in some parallel space. The Soviet
regime, therefore, generated conditions for a variety of lifestyles which
could be simultaneously within and without Sovietness and which could
be simultaneously perceived as ‘official’ or ‘normative’ and as ‘custom’
or ‘one’s own’.
Thinking about the peripheral regions of Central Asia in particular,
I should add that Soviet society was highly fragmented and consisted of
multiple territorial, social, and cultural parts in which there existed
different regimes of governance and control and in which there emerged
peculiar practices and routines of everyday life. Sovietness was not
uniform or built like a hierarchical pyramid where directives would only
flow from the top to the bottom; it implied a perpetual negotiation
process where agreements between different groups were made and
unmade. Local practices and symbols were not infrequently at stake in
these negotiations; and administrators could either Sovietize (or nationalize) them and use them to their own ends, or conceal and silence them,
or else censure and abuse them. The choice of this or that strategy
depended on a multiplicity of factors which were constantly changing.
What this means is that the spectrum of lifestyles able to emerge and
se rg ei ab as hi n
persist in Soviet society must have been very wide—indeed much wider
than would follow from accounts of historians who pay attention mainly
to Russian cities in their research. Consequently, even though the ‘Soviet
subject’—the reflecting and acting Homo Sovieticus—had a fair share of
recognizable generic traits, that same subject in Central Asia was still
endowed with the capacity to have, and the ability to shape, his or
her particular desires, interests, and qualities, including those of the
Muslim kind.
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