11 October 2005
Islam in Bishkek
I’ve been having a very difficult time finding any real research on Islam after Communism, which I can’t figure out because I think it’s a fascinating topic. Most studies or foundation on post-Communist societies focus on Russia and eastern Europe. As always, Central Asia doesn’t really fit in.
Some suggest that Islam never had as strong a hold on the nomadic Turks as it did on the Arabs. This article on Central Asian religion is the best I’ve been able to find about Islam and shamanism and its practice in Central Asia. I highly recommend reading it.
I’ve started watching and asking people here in Bishkek what they think about Islam. I know the answers will be different in Bishkek because the Russian influence is much greater.
Most Kyrgyz here are rather indifferent or oblivious to Islam; in fact, when I ask about Islam, many talk about Muslims as "others," rather than as a group they are part of. Alcohol is popular, although eating pork has never become widespread. Few people pray and I almost never hear the call to prayer. My husband asked his students how many are fasting and less than 10 percent are. I’ve never met anyone here who has been on the Hajj, and I’d run into Hajjis fairly often in Jerusalem and Cairo. I have real doubts about zakat, or almsgiving, since that was pretty much done away with by the Soviets.
But there are some older traditions that have remained. The picture at the top of this post is of a tree covered with small strips of cloth that people tie on to make a wish or a prayer. Friends tell us this is a Muslim tradition, but really, it’s an old shamanistic tradition that wasn’t lost when Islam came in, nor with the Communist takeover.
It is also popular to visit tombs of religious saints. The Soviets were never able to stamp that one out. It got to be so widespread that they did everything they could to make the pilgrims look like regular tourists instead of people doing anything religious. However, this isn’t specifically Islamic either- it’s a very ancient tradition.
So when it’s all taken together, it seems to me that the 5 Pillars of Islam (declaration of faith, prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and pilgrimage to Mecca) are largely unnoticeable, but the older, shamanistic practices have remained.