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Sufism In Central Asia Has Few Prospects – OpEd

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Sufism has been a feature of life in Central Asia for a millennium; but despite surviving Soviet repression at the level of ritual and attracting the attention of many in the 1990s as an “alternative” set of social and political ideas, it currently has few prospects to become a significant movement there, according to Bakhtiyar Babadzhanov.

The widely-published Uzbek scholar who heads the department of Islamic studies at Tashkent’s Beruni Institute of Oriental Studies says that he reaches that conclusion on the basis of his interviews over many years with those in the region who call themselves Sufis or are called Sufis by others (caa-network.org/archives/7665).

For most of the last 1000 years, Sufism has been an intellectually and politically significant part of life in Central Asia, Babadzhanov says; but Soviet repression was so thorough that it reduced the few who remained attached to it to ritual practices alone and in effect ended the succession of generations that this trend in Islam requires to remain vital.

After the collapse of the Soviet system, he continues, many in Central Asia began to proclaim that they were Sufis and had reformed the brotherhoods on which Sufism depends. Babadzhanov says he was at first inclined to take these declarations at face value but soon discovered that those involved knew little or nothing about Sufism beyond some rituals.

And he reached the conclusion, he says, that “the majority of such leaders of ‘Sufi groups’ were knowledgeable about Sufi rituals but knew very little about the Sufi literary tradition,” and still less did they know “the collections of those sheikhs whom they indicated in their chain of succession.”

“Those organizational structures which we provisionally called ‘brotherhoods’ and which became more active in the first years of independence institutionally maintained themselves exclusively on collective ritual and periodic meetings and also on the spiritual authority of their leaders,” he says.

But now, “with the passing of time,” Babadzhanov says he is “inclined to explain the former popularity of these groups precisely by the weak activity of other spiritual leaders, including official ones,” rather than the strength of Sufism itself. Ordinary people turned away from the official imams to Sufis who appeared to be “closer” to the problems of their lives.

For better or worse, “these groups turned out to be not as vital and remained in place exclusively on the authority of their leaders,” many of whom were from a Sufi perspective illegitimate because any ties they might have had with earlier sheikhs had been broken in Soviet times.

Those Muslims who after 1991 spoke about Sufism as “’the golden inheritance’” often had no idea what they were talking about. It thus became “’an ideological cliché’” that reflected “the natural desire of the political leadership of the time to find an alternative to the aggressiveness and inclination to terrorism of the representatives of so-called ‘political Islam.’”

Indeed, Babadzhanov says, the amount of propaganda about “’the Sufi alternative’ was inversely proportion to a real understanding of Sufism in general and knowledge of its history” in Central Asia. There simply weren’t enough well-trained Muslim intellectuals who could discuss any of this.

The “official” Muslim leaders have been divided on Sufism. Some support it in principle even if they don’t understand it, while others, especially those trained in Saudi Arabia or Pakistan, reject it out of hand. Consequently, there are many conflicts about it among the religious leadership, especially in Kazakhstan.

There are some followers of Sufism among the political elites in the countries of Central Asia, but they are not numerous. And consequently, the prospects for the rebirth of Sufism in the region in the foreseeable future are not bright, especially among the current political establishments.


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Paul Goble

Paul Goble

Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .

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