The citizens of Kyrgyzstan have obtained higher religious education abroad – mainly in the eastern Arabic countries – for almost thirty years. However, Bishkek is going to change this trend and create conditions for the same education within the republic.
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Baktybek Niyazov has been vice rector of academic affairs in a Bishkek-based madrasah for 21 years. He obtained religious education in Kyrgyzstan back in 1993 in the Islamic University, and in 2003-2004 he studied at Riyadh (Saudi Arabia).
“I decided to study abroad only to see the world. I wanted to know more and to broaden my horizons. As our religious sphere is related to the Arabic language, I decided to study in Saudi Arabia. I practised my language skills among native speakers there,” he shared.
According to Niyazov, he could continue to study at Riyadh, but decided to come back and go the university in Kyrgyzstan. Now he is a postgraduate student of the Arabaev State University majoring in “Theology”. According to his assessment of the level of religious education in Kyrgyzstan, the situation has improved a little – this sphere is now in good order.
“We have decent teachers. I would urge everyone to study here, in Kyrgyzstan. Those who want to see the world and broaden the horizons can go abroad,” he noted.
Why going abroad?
According to Zakir Chotaev, deputy director of the State Committee for Religious Affairs, the most popular destinations in religious education for Kyrgyzstanis are Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, as well as Russia.
According to him, Kyrgyzstanis choose foreign educational institutions for two reasons: the desire to see the world and because of the Soviet past. Some of those who go abroad think that religious educational institutions of Kyrgyzstan are less competent than foreign universities where Islam has been studied and taught without interruption.
“Many people think that Arab countries provide better education. However, the Al-Azhar University in Egypt is not what it used to be. Ex-ambassador of Egypt said that university is not what it used to be and teaches various schools, but curricula should be adapted to our religious values if our citizens are going to study there. The point is that education is adapted to the Arab countries as they have different schools there,” Chotaev said.
Religious scholar Indira Aslanova said that any country has its own religious peculiarities. The Islam in Kyrgyzstan differs from the Islam in other countries and this is normal.
“In our case, traditional funerals or weddings were somehow adapted to the religion or rites. They can conflict with what people studied when they obtained education in other countries because they see it as part of Islam rather than a part of culture. Therefore, they can have negative assessment of our Islam and think our Islam is improper,” the expert said.
Also, she noted that according to the research of one of the western researchers in the Al-Azhar University in Egypt, students who studied religion abroad were most sustainable to any radical ideas.
Theologian and PhD Kadyr Malikov added that Kyrgyzstanis prefer foreign education as their system of education is quite different.
“One can learn the language among native speakers. Also, it is understood that Islamic sciences are more developed because these areas are historically the zones of promotion of Islam. Moreover, foreign universities are preferred because their religious status is higher than that of Kyrgyzstan. The choice is obvious between a madrasah and a university,” Malikov said.
In 1995, he studied at the only madrasah of Kyrgyzstan available then, and later on went to Jordan to study in the sharia department.
However, there is a reverse side of the study of Kyrgyzstanis abroad.
“First of all, the problem is their uncontrolled departure. The second problem is that students who don’t know the fundamentals of Islam shape their knowledge of religion through the prism of national understanding. Therefore, they are being influenced by various sects or movements,” Malikov said.
Go back to bygone fame
In the past, Central Asia was renowned for its religious school. With the emergence of Islam in the 8th century A.D., Bukhara became a religious, cultural and scientific centre for the Muslims. Imam Al Bukhari, a famous scientist and collector of hadiths, was born and created his works here.
In the 15th century, Bukhara was deemed the centre of Islamic civilisation along with Samarkand, where many scholars worked. Back then, many madrasahs and mosques were built there, and many of them are still functioning today and provide education to future theologians.
In the times of the Soviet Union with its atheistic regime, the country had few religious educational institutions. A major gap in the study of Islam had its impact on the level of religious schools in the region. Today, low qualification of the staff in Kyrgyzstan prevents students from getting a good religious education, according to Akimzhan Ergeshov, head of the department of education of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK).
“After the collapse of the Soviet Union, we opened a madrasah. How old are the students? The oldest student is 15 years old. We cannot prepare thinkers for this period of time. We need to be educated by people who understand religion in a right way. People devote their lives to obtain religious education, so they have a right to get good knowledge,” Ergeshov said.
According to him, all those who want to study Islam in Kyrgyzstan need to be taught the fundamentals of Islam in order to avoid negative consequences. DUMK already considers the issue of education of students. According to Ergeshov, Kyrgyzstanis must study in local universities for at least 2-3 years before they go abroad. Thus, they will obtain elementary Arabic language skills and understand the fundamentals of religion.
Also, the new regulation “On the procedure of religious education” that concerns both secondary and higher education is being implemented. Today, Kyrgyzstan has theological departments (with mixed education) at local universities, which issue national diplomas, as well as educational institutions where only religious disciplines are being taught. According to Zakir Chotaev, the elementary education category is going to be removed and religious courses are going to be introduced.
“We also have proposals about introducing master’s degree. […] We have already provided four years for higher education. As to higher education, it will depend on religious institutions. Anyways, as to Islam, this issue will be solved by DUMK,” he said.
The process of creation of own religious knowledge is on and the emphasis should be placed on the country’s peculiarities, according to experts. Higher educational institutions in Kyrgyzstan have been actively developing in the last 10 years only and they do not have an academic base for proper education.
Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan is going to create decent conditions for religious education in the country. Uzbekistan, Russia and Kazakhstan have their own religious educational institutions. Kyrgyzstan, according to the official, must have its own strong system of religious education in order to teach the clergy and not to be influenced by foreign religious centres.
“Now we have developed the draft provision on the procedure of religious education. We want to make all standards and curricula compliant. However, it is not adopted yet. We are planning to strengthen religious education in terms of methodology and quality of teaching,” Chotaev said.
According to experts, Kyrgyzstan needs to improve the level of education in general, beginning from schools.
“It is dangerous because people in Kyrgyzstan cannot obtain a good basic education. They don’t know how to distinguish between cultural values and universal values. Therefore, they perceive only local peculiarities specific to the region as a part of Islam,” Aslanova said.
Moreover, she noted that those who study in foreign Islamic universities should not be made devilish. Religious education concerns not only Islam, but also other religions.
This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»