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Tajikistan: Tolerant Coexistence of Sunni Kyrgyz and Ismaili Tajiks on the Roof of the World

Murghab. A place where people withstand the most severe climatic conditions to survive. However, even these circumstances do not prevent local residents from following their ancestors’ customs and traditions.

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Khabibullo Termechekov is 74. He is ethnic Kyrgyz born in Murghab. Fifty years ago, he married a Badakhshani Tajik woman breaking the strong traditions of this region. After returning to Murghab from the army, searching for a job, he went to Khorog (administrative center of GBAO) where his sister lived. He met Muborakhotun Nazarmamadova there; they decided to get married and to return to Murghab.

Murgab 3
Murgab 2

The Murghab district of the Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Region is located at a height of 3612 meters above sea level. It is known not only as the highest region of the former USSR, or as the largest region of Tajikistan, which occupies 28% of the country, but also because it borders China and Kyrgyzstan and Tajiks and Kyrgyz live here.

Here, at a height of up to 4655 meters, high mountain ranges and passes Kutezak, Kulma and Okbaital are located. All this taken together, with rare floral and faunal forms in addition, makes the region one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. The district, located 1000 kilometres away from Dushanbe and 320 kilometres away from Khorog, also catches attention with its unusual climate: 50 degrees Celsius below zero during winter and 40 degrees Celsius of heat during summer.

Severe winters and high altitude make the endless Murghab steppes unsuitable for farming and force its inhabitants to engage in animal breeding, mainly yaks and sheep. Murghab is also rich in mineral resources, which, according to scientists, can boost the development of the Tajik economy if used properly. However, Murghab’s attractiveness is not limited to its geographical and national attractions.

One of the most striking features of Murghab is the peaceful coexistence of two ethnic groups: Tajiks and Kyrgyz, who profess two different branches of Islam, and, nevertheless, peacefully live here for many centuries, side by side, without conflicts or hatred towards others’ belief.

Unlike in other border areas of the country, where ethnic and geographic factors fuel conflicts between Tajiks and Kyrgyz, these religious and ethnic groups exist separately here and rarely contact each other.

Khabibullo Termechekov and Muborakhotun Nazarmamadova. Photo: CABAR.asia
Khabibullo Termechekov and Muborakhotun Nazarmamadova. Photo: CABAR.asia

Khabibullo and Muborakhotun’s family is a rare case of these ethnic groups’ unity. Their children, born from Sunni Kyrgyz father and Ismaili Shia Tajik mother, are ethnic Kyrgyz, profess Ismailism and speak the Pamiri language Shughni.

“I have five sons and two daughters. I am a Sunni Muslim; I go to the mosque five times a day. They chose their mother’s path. I do not force them. Whatever path they choose, I let them choose, no pressure. It should not be that way. God also does not force us to choose. In our family, we speak the Pamiri language,” says Termechekov.

Murghab district with population of 17 thousand people is the most sparsely populated region of Tajikistan. Difficult living conditions in highlands have led to the poor economic development of this area. Life expectancy here does not exceed 55-65 years.

Tajiks live mainly in the center of Murghab district and in Alichur jamoat next to the Kyrgyz. Only in one of the 13 schools, subjects are taught in Tajik, in the rest – in Kyrgyz. There are about 2000 Murghabi Tajiks, who came here from other Badakhshan districts; they profess Islamism. According to both local authorities and the caliph and imams, these two ethnic groups live here without any religious disputes and peacefully coexist with each other.

Yakub Yakubov, local caliph (spiritual leader) of the Ismailism followers, says he has lived in the area since 1973 and has never witnessed religious conflicts or confrontations. According to him, they celebrate weddings and attend funerals without any restrictions and all together, regardless of their beliefs and ethnicity.

Yakub Yakubov. Photo: CABAR.asia
Yakub Yakubov. Photo: CABAR.asia

“We communicate with each other well; we attend each other’s events. No one ever divides us into Kyrgyz and Tajiks. I used to be a driver and helped them with moving. When it was a time for a prayer, I read namaz in my way, and they – in their different way. Nobody ever asked why I read namaz differently,” says Yakub Yakubov.

This region cannot be considered very religious. Murghab residents say that religious difference between them is not that relevant. Mamadibragim Saidnazarov, 73, thinks so as well. He was athlete and wrestler in the past and now has many Tajik friends who freely attend others’ events.

“We have no conflicts. We, Tajiks and Kyrgyz, are hardworking people. We solve our problems together. We are not ethnically divided into Kyrgyz and Tajiks. We have no problems even with religious traditions. We live a normal life,” says Saidnazarov.

Khushnazar Oshurov, another Murgab district resident, who has been living here since 1970, says that he graduated from high school here, and worked as a teacher in the Jaihun district, but returned during the civil war.

“From my childhood to this day, we live peacefully; there was not even a situation that could provoke thoughts of hatred. We do not interfere in their affairs, and they – in ours. We do not argue on religious issues, this is impossible. We all are Muslims. What kind of contradictions could there be? Islamic teaching is the same for both our madhhabs,” emphasizes Khushnazar.

Despite the fact that Kyrgyz preserve tribal traditions, which request them to have their own tribal cemeteries, there is also a joint cemetery in Murghab, where representatives of both ethnic groups are buried.

Joint Kyrgyz-Tajik cemetery in Murghab. Photo: CABAR.asia
Joint Kyrgyz-Tajik cemetery in Murghab. Photo: CABAR.asia

Mixed marriages are not very common in Murghab. However, in case if this happens, the union of the representatives of the two ethnic groups occurs by mutual agreement and relatives’ approval.

Khabibullo Termechekov says that when he fell in love with his future wife in Khorog and they decided to get married, relatives on both sides approved their marriage.

“My uncle lived next door to his sister. Thus, we met each other and got married,” says his wife Muborakhotun Nazarmamadova. “We lived with my mother-in-law, who treated me well and gave advice. I was never offered to read namaz by their rules. When I learned to read namaz, I started to read it according to my madhhab.”

Khushnazar also says that his brother married a Kyrgyz woman and now they live happily in Dushanbe, and a few years ago another his relative married a Kyrgyz woman, although her father objected at first.

“At first, the girl’s father objected, but brothers supported her, and, eventually, the father agreed. The girl got married for love,” says Khushnazar.

When such mixed families are created, weddings are also celebrated according to both ethnic groups’ traditions. The story of Khabibullo and Muborakhotun confirms this: their wedding was Komsomol, Pamir and Kyrgyz at the same time. According to Khushnazar, several years ago their daughter-in-law also arranged a Kyrgyz wedding, while her husband followed Badakhshani traditions.

According to caliph Yakub Yakubov, Ismailism does not prevent from marrying a representative of another Islam branch.

“Ismailism does not prohibit marrying a daughter to a representative of other madhhab or ethnic group. I know three or four families who married their daughters or sons to the Kyrgyz. For one such family, I performed the nikah ceremony (Muslim marriage – Tr.) myself,” says Yakub Yakubov.

Bahrom Kodirov, specialist of social development in the khukumat (local administration – Tr.) of the Murghab district, also says that there are no conflicts on religious and ethnic issues between the residents of the district, “As far as I remember, there never were conflicts between people on religious or other grounds”.

Orumgul Kidirova. Photo: CABAR.asia
Orumgul Kidirova. Photo: CABAR.asia

Orumgul Kidirova, deputy editor of the Sarykol district newspaper, returned to her native district after graduating from the journalism faculty of Tajik National University in Dushanbe. She says that because of her profession, she often talks with people and observes that the religious affiliation of the two ethnic groups does not separate them and does not create any problems in their relationship.

“Representatives of two ethnic groups live in Murghab, but we are not separated into Kyrgyz or Tajiks. We try to live with mutual understanding and tolerance. We work together in all institutions and organizations,” notes Orumgul Kidirova.

When we were returning from Murghab back to Khorog, a snow avalanche pushed our car out of the road on the Kutazak pass and it got stuck. Despite the freezing cold of minus 22 degrees Celsius and long distance, local residents rushed to help us. In this trouble, we once again witnessed the deep compassion and kindness of the residents of this remote region. Once again, we verified that the ethnic and religious diversity of our country is our priceless wealth.

This article was prepared under IWPR project “Stability in Central Asia via Open Dialogue”.

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