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Islam was a relative latecomer to Central Asia, after Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism had all criss-crossed the plains.
Islam first appeared a century after the hijra of the prophet (pbuh), brought by the Arab traders, an unexpected import; it too found a place on the Central Asian plain. It was then revived and renewed and bought back again and again in all its various forms by successive waves of conquest, becoming a permanent feature of Central Asian Society.
Islam was adopted avidly by the settled populations, particularly in the Fergana Valley which sits at the intersection of present day Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. One of the few geographically comfortable places, Fergana has always been rich and densely populated. This green valley has thus functioned as a centre point for the confluence for religious ideas and a hotbed for new religious movements throughout history. Oasis cities on the trade routes such as Samarkand and Bhukara too became famous seats of learning. Islamic philosophy, scholarship, science, art and culture flourished under the wing of Muslim conquerors such as Timur. Central Asia gave rise to some of Islam's best known poets, scholars, scientists, conquerors and mystics, and Islam thrived in all its forms and colours.
The mountainous regions, and harsh unreachable areas inhabited by nomadic peoples, took up Islam much later than the urban centres, and were much less stringent in their interpretation. This is reflected in the Shmanistic adulterations and customs which remain in present day rural Islam.
'Popular Islam' which resonated with the tenor of Central Asian life was especially powerful in spreading Islam and in maintaining its presence during harsh Soviet times. The most well known proponents of this brand of faith, which emphasised the direct experianetial link with God, were the Naqshbandi Sufis. Far from being purely spiritual and monastic, the Naqshabandis were extremely politically active. Political leaders of the 11th to 13th century required the sanction of their religious scholars in order to win and maintain popular support. The Sufis vied with the traditional ulema in gaining influence. Islam in the middle ages was vibrant and dynamic. It was forward looking and continually developing; a tradition shaped and moulded by the merging and refinement of all its many and varied religious manifestations.
In the 1700's, as Muslim empires grew weak and shrank, the tartars came into precedence subtle strategies were employed to subdue the dominant Central Asian tradition and peoples. Islamic orthodoxy was supported financially, and given approval from the highest echelons of power during the time of Catherine the Great. Islam officially sanctioned became slowly stagnant and staid, almost an anachronism compared to its 11th to 13th century heyday.
The beginning of the twentieth centaury saw intellectual renewal of religious ideas in line with similar movements in many parts of the Muslim world. A revivalist trend seeking to combine the best of modern scientific learning with Islamic tenants and traditional learning sprang up, led by a group known as the Jadidis. The Jadid movement was to Central Asia what Ikhwan-al-Muslimoon were to Egypt or Sir Sayyid Ahmed Khan's movement to India. However the Jadidi attempt to spread from its intellectual base into a popular movement never took off. The Russian Revolution and the forced Sovietisation of Central Asia curtailed it.
Some of the Muslims of Central Asia known as the 'Basmachis' (bandits) resisted the Revolution and its concomitant atheistic trends for many years, while some Jadidis attempted to fuse Jadid ideas and communism. Neither strategy was rewarded. Stalin massacred the Jadidis, and the Basmachi revolts were brutally put down.
The Soviet Era forced Islam underground. Mosques and Madressahs disappeared almost to the point of non-existence, and the face of Islam was hidden under the veil of communism. The ethos, adab and traditions were kept alive in small discreet circles. On public holidays under the pretext of picnicking, common folks would visit local shrines and pass on something of their traditions to the next generation.
With Glasnost (openness) in the 1980's the mosques and madressahs rapidly mushroomed back into existence, often funded by external missionary funding from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and to a lesser extent Iran. These new schools sought to eradicate the perceived aberrant practices of Central Asian Islam and to replace them with a new more austere Islamic tradition. This conservative trend and the inflammatory ideas of pan-Islamism from which Central Asians had been previously excluded by virtue of their Soviet imposed isolation, found a receptive audience. People were hungry to get back in touch with their past and practices after years of repression, and conservative trends were portrayed as truly authentic Islam.
With independence came the withdrawal of Soviet economic support from Central Asia and a loss of a large sector of the Central Asian export market. Acute economic hardship coupled with the political upheaval of transition from communism to post communist systems saw the whole region collapse into a barely contained chaos. Strict Islam with its strong missionary funding seemed to offer stability and hope to the people. However it posed a serious thereat to the ruling communist turned 'democratic' regimes, and Islam was once again under attack of the secularists. Simple Muslims going about their business were labelled as Whahabi extremists for routine acts such as sporting a beard, and were arrested with impunity, tortured and jailed.
As all reasonable outlets of Islamic expression were repressed and annihilated and economic and social conditions deteriorated. Unemployment in the presence of a now largely young and angry population created the perfect conditions for new reactionary, radical Islamic movements such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, the Hizb-ut-Tahrir and the Islamic Renaissance Party to come to the fore.
These narrow highly radicalised strands of Islam, weighted with political agendas
as opposed to religious inspiration are very much contrary to the natural, dynamic
tradition of Central Asian Islam. They have served to radicalise and politicise
a society already driven with ethnic and clan based divisions. But they have
also shown that Islamic ideology has the power to attract support across these
rifts and divides. It remains to be seen whether a natural Islam can re-emerge
and re-assert itself, and whether Central Asia can once again serve as a base
for re-dynamising the whole of Islamic society.