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Religious Transformation in Central Asia: Consistent Islamization

The globalization of recent years, which has become synonymous with open borders, the intensification of cultural exchanges, the circulation of various ideas, is regressing. The era of the return of all those problems that seemed to have been overcome in the past is approaching.

The world is experiencing several crises simultaneously, both in geopolitics as a whole and at the regional level. Unsolvable problems are accumulated, such as uncontrolled migration, a drop in the level and quality of life, unemployment, etc.

Researchers in the West call this the “crisis of modernism” or the “challenge of modernization,” and what happens in the East and in the countries of the so-called third world is called the “response to the challenges” of the crisis of modernization.

In the spiritual sphere, we also observe a clear activation and a general return of religiosity to society. For a long period of the so-called “confrontation” between the countries of the West and the East, society did not attach too much importance to what religious groups exist in the public space, because it was actively involved in politics.

The period from 1978-1979 in the history of the countries of Central Asia, the confrontation of forces in Afghanistan, the Iranian revolution and the collapse of the USSR irrevocably changed the reality of the world. Despite the fact that in 1989 everyone watched the fall of the Berlin Wall, the relationship between East and West seemed clear, and everyone believed that democracy would triumph throughout the world over time, the situation changed.

The world has shifted from politics to religion and has given us the understanding that we are entering a new era. And today the main issue is the modernization of Islam and its relations with the state.

The Kingdom of Atheism and Religion Control

The relationship between the state and religion at all times was quite complicated. In the history of mankind, religion has always been an important element of public life, it was at the center of the formation of various state structures and served as an important tool of state policy. Although often this relationship was in conflict.

In the aftermath of the October Socialist Revolution, Central Asia became part of the Soviet state. Cooperation with the Soviets during this period brought anti-religious repression to the region and culminated in the “kingdom of atheism” [1].

Having become independent after the collapse of the USSR, the region declared its freedom and welcomed the return of Islam until various extremist forms of the Muslim religion began to appear here. As a result, the state, fearing radicalization, began to resort to control over the religious life of the population.

Transformation and Search

The stages of transformation and the search for acceptable forms of religion in the region, which could be opposed to radical trends, partly resembled the search for a panacea for radicalization. For example, in the form of Sufism. Sufism as a form of spiritual orientation of Islamic culture, was considered by researchers and ideologists as a format capable of organizing the religious space of Central Asia, resisting the radicalization and shift of the countries of the region towards fundamentalism.

The ascetic-mystical movement in Islam, Sufism (tasavwuf) was seen on the territory of Central Asia since the VIII century. The first ascetics and mystics were carriers of wool, the practice of wearing coarse woolen clothes, in Arabic Suf, gave the name to the whole movement. Wool, a rough hair coat that is very unpleasant for the body, has become a symbol of repentance and rejection of worldly goods and pleasures, it was worn by ascetics and mystics before Islam, for example, in the Middle East they were Christian mystics and monks.

According to Sufism researcher A. Knysh, a true ascetic and mystic should be constantly alert and always know the true essence of a person’s intention. The Sufi, according to him, had to fear vanity and possess the skills of subtle psychological analysis [2].

Analysis of the human soul was the basis of all Sufi science, which was subsequently practiced with the goal of self-knowledge.

“The main goal of Sufi self-discipline was to achieve intimacy with God. This intimacy was characterized as love, passion, craving. Among other things, ascetics constantly sought to analyze their actions and reveal the true meaning of intention. They considered this spiritual experience so valuable that they sought to pass it on to everyone else, that is, believers who were not part of the ascetic-mystical movement. ”[3]

       It was supposed that the popularization of Sufism would be a rather successful strategy, but then the authorities abandoned it, realizing that Sufism could also take the form of an active political religion, capable of mobilizing people dissatisfied with the authorities to fight the existing order.

As history tells us, until the spread of Islam in Central Asia, various ancient beliefs existed on this territory.

The whole region was a vast cultural space – the territory of a large number of places of worship, the so-called “sacred space”, where every monument of architecture, every grave of a saint, every sacred well was part of this “place of power”. Here one could find evidence of such beliefs as Mazdeanism, Zoroastrianism and shamanism. They entered here from the outside for various political reasons. Their carriers felt safe here and were actively engaged in proselytism. Representatives of Buddhism and Hinduism, for example, also sought refuge here. Zoroastrianism, as the religion of the Sassanid state in Persia, spread throughout Central Asia on the Iranian plateau. The teachings of Nestorianism and Judaism appeared together with missionaries and through various diasporas, and Manichaeism was openly persecuted.

“The peculiarity of Islamization, which was superimposed on these various layers of religion, partly explains the specificity of Islam, which is diverse and which retains elements and signs of pre-Islamic beliefs in its modern form [4].”

As we see, initially these were superpositions between the cultures of the settled and nomadic population as part of the exchange of various civilizations along the Silk Road.

The second intersection of the elements of different cultures – Iranian and Turkic, which has existed for more than 1000 years – has determined this feature of the region.

The third intersection occurred at the time of the arrival of Islam in this region. Thus, Islamic civilization was formed on the basis of local culture, which included rituals and traditions of folk art, architecture and applied art.

The next period of effective change begins with the arrival of tsarist Russia, and the last was marked by the arrival of the Soviets in the region.

The presence of Russia in this territory gave the region an impulse in another direction of cultural development and at the same time cut it off from the rest of the Islamic world. The Soviet period in the history of Central Asia was marked by a total transformation of society, where its last phase, after which these countries gained their independence, made it possible to gain more open access to this region.

Consistent Islamization

The era of independence has become an era of enormous number of challenges for the Central Asian countries. The search for an acceptable ideology by the state is ongoing. But the uncertainty of what exactly the state and society wants to find as an acceptable ideology cannot yet stop the slow and consistent Islamization of post-Soviet Muslim countries.

Attempts by scientists, researchers and ideologists to propose to the state, Sufism as a form that could potentially unite the countries of Central Asia, which, after gaining independence, politically dissociated from each other, played a positive role. This form of belief, as you know, helped Islam survive in the Soviet period, but then it began to alarm the state because of fear, which arose more from an incomplete knowledge of this mystical form of belief.

The paradox is that all the emerging forms of Islam in Central Asia, despite the long period of isolation of the countries of the region from the rest of the Islamic world, still reflect the general world tendencies of consistent Islamization.

[1] См. PoujolCatherine,L’AsieCentrale,Ellipses Edition Marketing S.A.,2013.-C.45

[2] См.Abashin S.,Le soufisme “populaire en Asie Centrale,Le Turkestan russe^une colonie comme les autres?,Paris:Complex,Collection de L’IFEAC-Cahier d’Asie Centrale,n17/18,2009,C.29.

[3] См.Кныш А. Д. Мусульманский мистицизм. Краткая история. М.-СПб, 2004.C.24.

[4]См. PoujolCatherine,L’AsieCentrale,Ellipses Edition Marketing S.A.,2013.-C.53

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