CyberChaikhana’s religion chapter: “The Conversation of the Gods”

Photograph by Flickr user Caio Basilio (CC-Usage)
Photograph by Flickr user Caio Basilio (CC-Usage)

The writing phase of the CyberChaikhana project is finally coming to a close. Over the summer I penned the last chapters. A that remains to do now is to finish the chapter on gender, and then to do a final review and harmonization of the total manuscript.

Throughout this week, I will be releasing the rough drafts of the remainig chapters. Today I begin with the history, current status, and meaning of religion in the region. This is perhaps my favorite topic, and the chapter as it currently stands is definitely the most academic of the entire book. Good luck! ;-)

The Conversation of the Gods

Central Asia has always been a battleground, and not just between empires.  Ideas, especially in the form of religions, have also sought to conquer the region toward their own ends. Yet, according to neweurasia’s Paksoy, unknown to these forces, a far older belief system has persisted right through to today.

In the beginning was Tengri—Over the past quarter of a century, fragmentary literary and oral evidence indicating a distinct monotheistic belief system centered around an ancient Central Asian deity has emerged: before Christ, Allah, and Buddha, there was Tengri.

Tengri was a deity of the sky and water.  Hence, the belief system built around it, a.k.a., “Tengriism”, was ecologically sensitive from the very start, linking morality, nature, and society.  Shamanistic vision questing was also an essential feature.  So, how does one measure the influence of a belief system on the world?  By the wars waged in its name?  The number of adherents?  The other belief systems it subsumes?  Or, the way it regulates societies?  By all of these measures, Tengriism constitutes not only the earliest historical belief system, but also the archetypal value system of humanity.

Tengriism survived the frequent conflict waged on Central Asian territory by the later arrivals Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and Marxism.  However, no wars were waged in Tengri’s name, nor did the deity seek converts.  Tengriists did not even create a centralized clerical structure, or, indeed, a clerical class.  But when gods speak, the earth trembles.  It is thus little wonder that their conversation has taken the form of titanic dramas between religions.  Such wars always get a lot of attention, but the way in which they cross-pollinate and create new traditions has not be adequately examined.  When new belief systems arrived, Tengriism did not fight them, for it already had deep roots. Whichever belief system was layered upon it, spiritual or political, Tengriist beliefs and practices continued unabated as the hidden bedrock.

Such was the reality throughout the many rather repressive regimes that ruled Central Asia over the centuries.  For example, some Soviet era dissidents identified themselves with Tengri: “Tengriist, Communist, Atheist” was the self-description of one prominent spokesperson of a movement in the 1970s and 1980s.  Earlier, when Islam arrived on the back of invading armies, the ensuing fight was not about the belief system but about the distribution of wealth. Tengriism not only stood its ground, but also began transforming, indeed, Tengrifying clerical Islam. As a result, Tengriism eventually gave birth to a series of new Islamic polities that were more Tengri than Abraham or Muhammad in essential character.  Of course, the political tug of war surrounding these communities prevented the open articulation of the name Tengri.  Instead, Tengriism persisted in the form of local court registers, permitted under the designation of “local custom”.

The Tengriist legal tradition, now in Islamic trappings, was a living, breathing form of the old shamanism, and to the credit of the judicial systems of the time, courts allowed these beliefs to be the ultimate arbiter of proper behavior, hence underpinning justice.  Later, when Islamized groups began moving West into Europe, the Islam they brought with them was this Tengrified version, still exerting influence through oral tradition, literature, and law—perhaps even the European Union is, in its secret heart, Tengriist.


Other bloggers have noted the deep currents of ancient faith that course through the region.  Kyrgyzstan in particular has captured the imagination of the following two bloggers, a tourist and an anthropologist who visited the Talas area:

1000 years of Manas—Before leaving Talas, I managed to see Manas-Ordo, a complex that is such a part of the local character that people here say you haven’t really been to Talas if you haven’t been there.

Manas is a legendary Kyrgyz hero who searches for a home for his people. Together with his advisors and knights, he battles larger foes, until winning a battle at which he is killed.  Probably based on the experiences of a range of military leaders, their achievements are ascribed to this single character.  While books of the legend are available, even in English, Manas’ exploits are traditionally passed down orally by storytellers called manaschi.

The Manas-Ordo complex includes a horse track, a museum, a rose garden surrounded by 40 statues of Manas’ soldiers, a sheep-slaughtering site, and a yurt where fortunes can be told.  It was all built in 1995, during the “1000 Years of Manas” celebration. He’s portrayed here as a real character: he’s said to have weighed ten kilos at birth, was two and half meters tall in adulthood, and was born and raised in Talas.  They found the grave of a man who matched the physical dimensions; today, a large rock stands beside it that’s said to have been lifted by Manas before each battle as a sign of luck.  If he could lift it, everything would be ok; if he couldn’t, he wouldn’t go fight.

Besides Manas, what distinguishes Talas is that it was the site of a decisive battle between Muslim (Turks, Arabs and Tibetans) and Chinese forces in 751 CE.  The Muslims’ success in driving out the Tang Chinese army brought Islam into the region and changed the course of Central Asian history.


Keeping the sacred secret—Worshipping at sacred sites is an ancient cultural practice in Kyrgyzstan.  Although much of the vocabulary of worship in the Kyrgyz language is Islamic in origin, the meanings have been adapted and expanded over time:

Sacred sites are called “mazars”, originally Arabic for “a place which is visited”, i.e., a place of pilgrimage like a Muslim saint, but now designating any sacred spot, even pre-Islamic ones.

The caretakers of mazars are called “shaykhs”, again originally Arabic for “elder” and now more generally a guardian of holy places.  The word also appears in “mashaykhs”, meaning “saints” and “monks”, “kojoshaykhs”, actually from the Persian “kojo” for “master”, now a wish-granter.

And the pilgrims whom the shaykhs oversee and whom the mashaykhs and kojoshaykhs receive are called “zyiaratchys”, also originally Arabic, from “zyiarat” for “pilgrim”, now meaning anyone who sojourns to sacred mountains and hermitages.

I went to the holy site of Nyldy ata in the northern village of Özgörüsh.  I met two zyiaratchys who were staying there for the night.  When I asked them why they had come, one of them replied that he wanted “to find the truth of this life” and had been recommended to this site by a shaykh.

But overall the two zyiaratchys were reticent about their reasons.  They mentioned that they were receiving “dem saluu” from a Nyldy ata shaykh.  This is a curative treatment to rejuvenate a person physically and spiritually.  It requires perfect mental and ritual purity; they had come to this mazar in the belief that it would accomplish this for them.

While in Nyldy ata, I also heard the word “bata” many times.  This means “blessing”, and it was sought from spirits, Allah, and even the owner of the mazar.  There is also a lot of education in lore and traditional morality.

The strong belief of the Kyrgyz in the power of mazars, as well as in their ancestors’ spirits and the phenomena of worshipping at sacred sites in general, is actually conducive to both the local culture and ecology.  These rituals also help them define their place in society and help them to feel part of something larger than themselves.


However, we must also be very careful of the observer problem: bloggers bring their own biases into every analysis, and so there is a veil of perception between themselves and their subjects.  As the next two bloggers point out, such epistemological issues are not merely academic.

They might be Muslims! Students or survivors of the Pax Sovetica know all too well the kind of madness for dialectical logic that was built into the Marxist-Leninist guiding principles of everything Soviet, dominating academic as much as political discourse. Less commonly recognized, though, is the healthy survival of this legacy in contemporary scholarly literature and journalistic “pop-lit” on Central Asian Islam. Authors from a variety of Central Asian, Russian, and American/European perspectives have tended to produce an almost infinite variety of assessments of the Islamic religious life and traditions of the peoples of Central Asia that insist on placing it at one extreme or another of a dialectical spectrum. At one end is “real Islam,” which means a wide variety of things (though most often something dangerous and foreboding). At the other end is a special “Central Asian” Islam, which in various contexts serves as a sort of euphemism for shamanism dressed up as Islam, institutionalized folklore, secular religion, or a collection of national cultural practices that have some vague historical relation to a religion brought to the region by Arab conquerors and Sufi missionaries centuries ago.

As Devin Deweese reminds us in his book, “Islamization and native religion in the Golden Horde”, the idea that somehow Central Asian Islam is not “real” remains one of the common stereotypes that characterizes the literature on Central Asia. Academics and social commentators advance this conclusion to different ends. Many Central Asian scholars themselves follow in the footsteps of the Russified Kazakh academic Valikhanov even after the end of Russian or Soviet rule and defend their modernity and progressive development in Sovietesque high-modernist terms. They submit to the old assumption that religion is a disease that afflicts backwards societies and seek to distance themselves from it, asserting that they were either “never really Muslims in the first place” or that Communism or modernity itself had severed them once and for all from that part of their history. In an influential outsider version of this argument, we find American scholars who claim that the Soviet experience of anti-religious fervor and persecution combined with rapid modernization in forced isolation from the rest of the ummah permanently altered the character of Islam in the region, subsuming religious practice into national and local identities.

On the other end are those commentators, scholars, and members of Central Asia’s own Muslim community who argue that Islam in Central Asia was and ought to be “real” and “normative” and that therefore Central Asians are subject to all of the generalizations that accompany these categories for the commentator who applies them. For those within Central Asia, particularly in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, this can translate into a demand that Islamic interests be represented in national government, as in the case of the Islamic Renaissance Party in Tajikistan. Or, alternatively, it often serves as the backbone for the argument that syncretic, autochthonous, or generally extra-textual practices like mazar visits, the veneration of saints, or what Deniz Kandiyoti and Nadira Azimova call “propitiatory” rituals ought to be purged from institutionally and communally accepted religious praxis.

This polar paradigm for evaluating the quality and nature of religion in Central Asia has enjoyed a great deal of unfortunate use, no matter how clearly cumbersome it is to apply, and I should note that it existed already long before the end of the Soviet period, e.g., among the disciples of Alexandre Bennigsen.  It feeds into alarmist claims about “political Islam” that are especially harmful to the people of Central Asia themselves because they tend to consistently drum up support for repressive authoritarian (but safely secular) regimes and serve to legitimize further curtailment of already painfully limited civil and human rights in countries like Uzbekistan. Tellingly, rebuttals aimed at this “alarmist” camp often do not question the basic premise of the logic being used, as if they are passively agreeing that if Central Asian Islam is real then it is inherently violent, dangerous, and categorically opposed to modern secular government.

Instead of posing a challenge to this basic premise, responses tend to fly to the opposite pole of the paradigm, defending Central Asians as safe and benign people who are, after all, “not really Muslims” or are actually Sufis (the good kind of Muslim), shamanists, or scientific atheists who merely enjoy their national traditions and folklore.  But is Sufism somehow un-Islamic?  Are the practitioners of prehistoric religions supposedly more amenable to modernism than Muslims?  Or are atheists supposedly more tolerant of social diversity? These bizarre arguments are no more explained by these assertions than why praying five times a day, going to Mosque on Fridays, fasting during Ramadan, or circumcising boys is apparently a sign of a passionate secret desire to overthrow secular government, kill Christians and Jews, and stone women to death for showing their faces to strangers.


Nothing but a bogey man—I think “radical Islam”, “ethnic and other conflicts”, “terrorism” and many other very scary and abstract terms make up a huge myth. Of course there is some threat to security, but it is far more exaggerated than it is in reality. I come from Central Asia, I lived there for more than twenty years. I have never experienced radical Islam. I have been to the Ferghana valley, which is supposedly the most radical spot in Central Asia. But I am sorry to disappoint many Westerners who want to hear terrible stories about crazy radicals, because I have experienced nothing of the sort. Yes, I have witnessed and experienced violence and discrimination on the basis of gender and age, which somehow could have alleged ties to Islam. And yes, I have also met several Central Asians who became somewhat more religious after having lived abroad. But for me, radical Islam or fundamentalism is as exotic, abstract, and terrible as it is for many Europeans.

More importantly, the discourse of fear seems to be instrumentalized by the ruling elites here to legitimize their regimes. By making people believe that the authorities are responsible for maintaining peace, the rulers are able to maintain their power.  In the case of Uzbekistan, this means expanding the military’s control over the nation.  Many there complain about economic, political, and other problems, but then when they release their frustrations they always add: “… but thank God we don’t have war. Look at Tajikistan, Afghanistan, what they had to go through, there are so many wars everywhere, and there is nothing worse than war. And no matter how bad our president is he provides us with peace.  There is no one else who could hold this country together.”


During the Twentieth Century, the rich religious tapestry of Central Asia with its primarily Islamic form went up against the atheist scissors of the Soviet Union.  Ironically, however, perhaps the differences between an avowed religion like Islam and an ideology like Marxism are not like night and day, as the next post proposes.

Divine communism—When trying to discuss the status of religion in a Stalinist country like Turkmenistan, I think observer are missing a key point.  They seem to be under the assumption that in Stalinism, ideology is against religion.  However, I think the opposite is the case: they are actually, but secretly, one and the same.  You’ve got to get down, dirty, and metaphysical in order to really see what I mean.  Here are my two reasons why, based upon Turkmenistan’s Marxist heritage.

First, the grandfather of Marxism, Hegel, believed that God was really Freedom, and that Freedom was moving history along to an end point, and at that end point was a utopian government.  So, the Marxists pretty much just followed his line of reasoning and deified the government.  The Party became the community of believers, the technocrats its priesthood, the factory the church, the body of legislation the shariah, the Worker’s Republic the afterlife or resurrection, and the Chairman, well, at least was a vicar, if not God Himself, the great planner and final arbiter of judgment.  This wasn’t just some state ideology with a cult of personality; it was a religion.

Second, were all this not enough, Marxism had a full-blown mystical side, too.  Of course, this depends on what I mean by “mysticism”.  For me, it’s essentially the striving for a deep-seated change in the very character of a person or society that results from or causes ascension to new states of being.  This kind of alchemical viewpoint was very much at work among the Marxists’ biggest theorists:

“The human species, the coagulated Homo sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho-physical training” (Leon Trotsky).

“Will the new socio-economic system reproduce itself in the structure of the people’s character? If so, how?  Will his traits be inherited by his children? Will he be a free, self-regulating personality? Will the elements of freedom incorporated into the structure of the personality make any authoritarian forms of government unnecessary.” (Wilhem Reich)

You can call it hubris or foolhardy nobility; either way, it’s downright mystical.  So, if even as staunchly an atheistic system as Marxism can end up being so spiritual, then what exactly is the difference between ideology and religion?


With this in mind, perhaps it is possible to better understand a nation like Turkmenistan, where a nativized form of Stalinism seeks to regulate and even replace traditional forms of spirituality.

This is for God and this is for our idols… “Almost nothing.”  This is the answer of Felix Corley from Forum 18, the Oslo-based news service focused on religious freedom, to my question about whether there has been any positive change in Turkmenistan regarding the freedom of thought, conscience, and spirituality.

The country’s constitution guarantees religious freedom.  However, the government’s Council for Religious Affairs actively regulates all religious activity, executing what many observers interpret as a secret policy to discourage spirituality.  The primary targets are, of course, the Russian Orthodox and Muslims, who together comprise the majority of religious believers in Turkmenistan.

Minority religious communities, like Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Catholics, Hare Krishna devotees, and Baha’is, frequently find themselves the victims of police raids.  Those who change their religious affiliation, especially from the two major faiths, are treated as spies.  The 2009 International Religious Freedom Report, released by the United States Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, remarks, “Ethnic Turkmen who choose to convert to other religious groups, especially lesser-known Protestant groups, are viewed with suspicion and sometimes ostracized.”

Corley summarizes the situation thus: “The Islamic community is controlled from the inside, with the president or his officials naming the chief mufti and senior imams and restricting Islamic education to state-run facilities.  All other communities are controlled from outside, by restrictions, threats, raids, and in extreme situations more direct pressure such as sacking from work, detention, beatings, and public vilification.”

Much of what I said here probably comes as little surprise to you the reader.  “Yeah, it’s a totalitarian regime,” you’re probably saying, “They want to control people’s minds.”  But have you ever stopped to think of what that means?  Brainwashing can be literal, such as when the authorities use psychiatric torture to bend the wills of dissidents.  But the brainwashing is more profound than just neurochemical manipulation.

The situation for pacifists is especially telling.  That’s because more often than not pacifists are motivated by ideology, whether the tenets of a specific creed, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, or the values of a general humanism, as in the case of conscientious objectors.  They are arrested and convicted to prison terms because the constitution makes military service compulsory and describes it as a “sacred duty”.  That the state would choose these words isn’t ironic or a joke.  The reality is much more unsettling: the authorities have literally replaced God with themselves.

For example, the president is portrayed as a supernatural person with special powers on a mission to protect the country, and this becomes a free pass for the government to do whatever it wants.  Indeed, the authorities are even trying to replace the Qur’an itself with Niyazov’s “spiritual guide book”, the Ruhnama.  Reading lessons are compulsory throughout schools, including universities, and it has been placed on the same shelf as the Qur’an in mosques.  There is even a mosque engraved with inscriptions not of the Qur’an but of the Ruhnama!

But is a clash between two gods—Niyazov and Allah—quietly in the making?  Islam has deep roots in Turkmenistan, and as my neweurasia colleague Prof. Paksoy points out, it also taps into some very old pagan currents.  Whatever happens in the short-term, there is only so long that Islam as a force can tolerate the government’s oppression.  If Protestantism couldn’t be successfully co-opted in Nazi Germany, we shouldn’t be surprised if Islam, which is a far more systematic religion, rears its head eventually in Stalinist Turkmenistan.

In fact, it seems that interest in Islam is reawakening among the population right now.  Perhaps divine law, which has stronger philosophical and emotional grounds to claim objectivity (or at least authority), will be able to buck against the narcissism of the ruling regime.  I don’t know, but it’s written in the Qur’an, “They set aside for God a share of their produce and of their cattle, saying, ‘This is for God’—so they pretend—‘and this is for our idols’” (6:136).  Maybe it’s a question of faith that one day the idol of Niyazov will fall.


Thus, the deep continuities of Central Asian spirituality channel as much the spirit of Marx as that of Manas and Muhammad.  Yet, to conclude, at the conversation of the Gods, Allah is determined to win the debate, but it’s not always clear whether it is really Allah who is speaking…

The prayer carpets of Marx—In earlier eras, Central Asia was as often an exporter of religion as a recipient of it.  However, during the past two centuries, the balance tipped and Central Asia became a target of proselytization, including from the anti-god, Communism.  The sources of these efforts to variously Islamicize, Christianize, or atheistize Central Asians are diverse, and now continuing with renewed vigor.

As to “Islamism”, the use of Islam as a political movement, military power, and program to rejuvenate post-colonial Muslim societies, what is this thing exactly—is it veiled nationalism, or something darker?  Is it monolithic, or complex?  And what does it mean for the region’s spirituality?

We have to think in terms of the Cold War.  The real target of the competition between Communism and Capitalism was the Central Asian polity itself.  But then, after a while, Central Asians began assessing these alien thoughts, which appeared to be contrary to their own desires and expectations.  As a result, they decided to take action, in order to remove these outside obstacles to their own lifestyle.  This initially came with independence; for some, it now continues as an internal struggle within the Central Asian republics themselves.

Yet, we come to a new question: how well do these aspirant agents of change understand the basic precepts of their own belief system?  Or have they understood their belief system perfectly but are willing to deliberately distort its tenets for short-term interest?  This is the great unanswerable, for the answer is wrapped up in the particular weavings of the individual mind.

But I see within these “Islamists” something less individual and more ancient: the shamans of yesteryear, who resisted the incursions of Hellenism, of Buddhism, and then of Islam, each time taking on the trappings of the one conqueror to fight the next.  They now wear the guerrilla uniforms of Muslims, but they pray upon the prayer carpets of Marxism.


Delayed reactions—You hear a lot these days about the “return of Islam” in Central Asia, as though the ghost of bin Laden is haunting the streets of Astana and Tashkent scaring children.  But “Islamic fundamentalism”, “Islamism”, “political Islam”, or whatever you want to call it, is a very multifaceted phenomenon.  In the global network of Islamic radicalism, al-Qaeda and its various offshoots are the oddballs, wannabe Marxist universalists among a huge crowd of parochial localists.  So, how can we understand the “return of Islam” as it’s really happening in Central Asia?

First, considering that these are Turkic and Farsic cultures deeply influenced by different religions, I think “fundamentalism” as normally thought of in the West won’t happen here beyond a few ultra-extremists.  Second, Central Asian “fundamentalism”, such as it may exist, is emerging from a confluence of disgruntled agrarian and ex-proletariat elements, opportunists seeking to exploit traditional beliefs for personal gain, and interest groups from the outside who wish to exact leverage on the region for their own benefit (yep, I’m thinking of both Pakistan and the Taliban).  But there’s something deeper going on here, with roots further back in time.

I believe the “return of Islam” is ultimately the result of the abortion of the last century’s Jadidists.  This was a secular-nationalist movement whose aim was to establish a homegrown relationship between mosque and state, and which was eventually thwarted by the Soviets.  Under Communism, secularism, as commonly understood in an American or liberalist sense, was really a misnomer.  Instead, it was more extreme laïcité, with a profane ideology taking the place of religion, and the state, although officially atheist, nonetheless acting like a theocracy.  Islamic revival in Central Asia isn’t just because of the ideological vacuum left behind in Marxism’s fall; instead, it’s one of history’s greatest delayed reactions.

The real question is if it can be properly controlled and even channeled. So far, I’m not impressed by the policies of the various ‘Stans.  Kazakhstan seems to think it can just buy off Muslims with prosperity; Kyrgyzstan just seems to ignore the problem entirely; while Turkmenistan thinks it can fantasize it away and Uzbekistan thinks it can gun it down.  Only Tajikistan seems to have its head on straight: give the Muslims a voice in society in the form of political and social associations—and then politely steal their votes during elections. ;-)  But in all seriousness folks, the “return of Islam” doesn’t have to be a problem, and I mean it when I say that Tajikistan is sort of doing the right thing insofar as it allows Muslims some kind of voice in society.  Ironically, Rahmon et al may be presenting the best version of Jadidism’s dream today.


About Schwartz 286 Articles
Christopher Schwartz is NewEurasia's Editor in Chief.


  1. There was Zoroastrianism in the region well before Tengry. Of course, today there is just a very small number of them in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan, but the current version of Islam in Tajikistan is full of Zoroastrian legacies. Nawruz itself is considered a Zoroastrian celebration, and there’s even a group of young intellectuals in Tajikistan is trying to revive the religion. So, I think you should include this in your chapter.

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