Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Life and Death of the Most Important Citadel of Soviet Islam

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 22 – Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, a visiting scholar at Vienna’s Institute for Iranian Studies, provides some new details on the Central Asian Muslim Spiritual Directorate (CA MSD) which existed between 1943 and the demise of the USSR, the institution that was created at Moscow’s insistence and charged with establishing “Soviet Islam.”

            In a comment for the CAA-Network, the historian notes that the founding of the CA MSD was announced at a meeting of Muslims from across Central Asia in Tashkent October 20-23, 1943, when Stalin was allowing the revival of religious institutions as part of his effort to mobilize the population for war (

            The first head of the CA MSD was styled “the mufti of the five republics” of Central Asia. He then set up kaziyats in each of the republics, the heads of which were named by imams and mullahs there. The CA MSD had various departments, including those for coordination with the Soviet state, relations with Muslims abroad, and education.

            The institution’s willingness to do what Moscow asked, something that was overseen by a commission to ensure that all its declarations were consistent with Soviet policy, was reflected in its very first fetwa which declared that Muslims serving in the Red Army could eat pork, despite Islam’s prohibition on doing so, Babadjanov says.

            It established a series of training institutions, including the Mir-i-Arab madrassah which has existed since 1946, the Barakhan madrassah which operated between 1956 and 1962, and the Higher Islamic Institute which was founded in 1971. It also issued a journal, Muslims of the Soviet East, which came out in various languages.

            Most of the funding for the CA MSD came from offerings collected in mosques and even more at burial sites which had become pilgrimage sites for Muslims who could not at that time make the haj to Mecca.  In 1957, the Soviet authorities launched a campaign against such sites, significantly reducing the muftiate’s income.

            Nonetheless, the CA MSD promoted the Soviet regime’s values but had little success in enforcing Moscow’s views on “the proper religiosity” of the population.  Most Central Asians, the scholar says, retained the Islam that they had inherited from the past, despite all efforts to detach them from this.

            This whole system began to collapse during Perestroika.  Soviet officials lost their veto power over the actions of the CA MSD. “For example,” Babaldjanov says, “fetwas were no longer set to the Committee on Religious Cults for confirmation and in most cases were written in Arabic and not translated into Uzbek or Russian.”

            The CA MSD encourage the opening of new mosques and madrassahs, and by 1991, in Uzbekistan alone, there were 4878 mosques and ten madrassahs, dramatic increases from only a few years before. But even as it became more active, the CA MSD lost control of the situation outside of Uzbekistan.

            The kadiyats in the other republics grew into independent MSDs, and today, the CA MSD does not even have direct relations with let alone control of the five national MSDs that have come into existence. For all practical purposes, it no longer operates.

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