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.


  1. Very intersting Amira. I'd enjoy seeing you develop this research extensively. It would seem that the soviets could stamp out the outward acts of worship - alms, prefession of faith, etc; yet could not change the hearts of the individual. Kind of like the beacon of light we inwardly seek. Such is the scraps tied to the tree; while it is a outwardly visible sign of faith or "wishes", people seemed to still need to believe ina higher power's influence in their lives. The Soviets accepted the fact of the scraps as evidence of wishing for good fortune - a plight of all man - to wish for better. ???

    I love being able to learn from your studies and experiences.

  2. Interesting as always Amira, thank you for taking the time to inform us all.