22 June 2011

Being Muslim in Kyrgyzstan

So Sarah asked yesterday about how Kyrgyz practice Islam differently from Arabs.  There's lots to say about that.

You could start with the five pillars of Islam.  The Hanafi school, which most of Central Asia is part of, emphasizes the Shahada.  It's important to profess your faith. Just being Muslim is vital here.  There are Arab Christians and Arab Jews, but, at least until very recently, there are no Kyrgyz Christians or Turkmen Jews (although you can make a case that there are Uzbek Jews, but that's another argument).  So, if one is Kyrgyz, one is Muslim.  I don't know if a formal profession of faith is often done though.

In most of Central Asia you'll hear the call to prayer 5 times a day.  Big Russian cities like Bishkek and Almaty are exceptions.  But very few people actually pray five times a day.  Certainly Arabs don't all pray five times a day, but attendance at the mosque is significantly higher in the Arab world than in Central Asia.  In fact, we've had friends tell us they were advised to not pray too often since that can lead to being labeled an extremist.  But that's another post too.

I've hardly ever met anyone in Central Asia who fasts for the entire month of Ramadan.  We've met a few people who've told us they're trying it out for a few days, but it's not common for people to fast from sunup to sundown for the entire month.  I understand that Uzbeks are more likely to fast (and pray), but not really the Uzbeks I've known, and we've never lived in an Uzbek town.  Unfortunately.

Zakat isn't happening much either, at least not in the formal definition of 2.5% every year.  I think there is a great deal of charitable giving here, and it should be considered Islamic, but it might not necessarily be zakat.  Yet another post.

And the Hajj.  We have met less than a handful of people who've been on the Hajj.  We'd meet Hajjis all the time in the Middle East.  It's difficult and expensive to go on the Hajj here, especially since the Ministry of Religion controls who goes and you have pay a hefty bribe to get on the list, but whether because it's been nearly impossible to go for at least 100 years, or if it's because there's really not much desire to go, there aren't a lot of Hajjis here.

Kyrgyz dress modestly in general (not always in Bishkek), but the traditional clothing is different from Arab Muslim clothing.  Head scarves are very common, but they're not the hijab.  Even women who wear their scarf in a manner that's more like a traditional Muslim headcovering, it's still rarely the tight, face-hugging look.  I think I've only ever seen one women here with fabric covering her face.

So that's the 5 Pillars.  But there's a lot more to Islam than that and Islam has major differences in different parts of the ward.  

For example, there's disagreement over butchering.  Kyrgyz are nomads and obviously have their traditions for slaughtering sheep.  Those traditions aren't technically halal, although I think you'd find Kyrgyz who considered them Islamic.  Alcohol might fall into this category too.  Early Hanafi interpretation did allow some types of alcohol to be drunk and you'd be hard-pressed to find a Kyrgyz who'd say that kymyz is forbidden.  There are also many people here who drink vodka and eat pork (although pork isn't as common as alcohol) and say they are Muslim.

Of course Arabs aren't all strict by-the-book Muslims.  What's different here is what constitutes being a strict Muslim.  Simply doing any of the basics at all usually makes you strict here.  And there are customs and traditions that are technically not Islamic that must be done here.  Islam is very closely tied with culture here and sometimes it's nearly impossible to separate the two even if it's easy from the outside to say that Kyrgyz aren't very good Muslims.  But that's not true.  Kyrgyz are perfectly good Muslims.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the interesting post.

    "And there are customs and traditions that are technically not Islamic that must be done here."

    Will you please share some examples?