The vast majority of today's Kyrgyz are Muslims of the Sunni (see Glossary) branch, but Islam came late and fairly superficially to the area. Kyrgyz Muslims generally practice their religion in a specific way influenced by earlier tribal customs. The practice of Islam also differs in the northern and southern regions of the country. Kyrgyzstan remained a secular state after the fall of communism, which had only superficial influence on religious practice when Kyrgyzstan was a Soviet republic. Most of the Russian population of Kyrgyzstan is atheist or Russian Orthodox. The Uzbeks, who make up 12.9 percent of the population, are generally Sunni Muslims.
The Introduction of Islam
Islam was introduced to the Kyrgyz tribes between the ninth and twelfth centuries. The most intense exposure to Islam occurred in the seventeenth century, when the Jungars drove the Kyrgyz of the Tian Shan region into the Fergana Valley, whose population was totally Islamic. However, as the danger from the Jungars subsided and Kyrgyz groups returned to their previous region, the influence of Islam became weaker. When the Quqon Khanate conquered the territory of the Kyrgyz in the eighteenth century, the nomadic Kyrgyz remained aloof from the official Islamic practices of that regime. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, most of the Kyrgyz population had been converted to at least a superficial recognition of Islamic practice.
Alongside Islam the Kyrgyz tribes also practiced totemism, the recognition of spiritual kinship with a particular type of animal. Under this belief system, which predated their contact with Islam, Kyrgyz tribes adopted reindeer, camels, snakes, owls, and bears as objects of worship. The sun, moon, and stars also played an important religious role. The strong dependence of the nomads on the forces of nature reinforced such connections and fostered belief in shamanism (the power of tribal healers and magicians with mystical connections to the spirit world) and black magic as well. Traces of such beliefs remain in the religious practice of many of today's Kyrgyz.
Knowledge of and interest in Islam are said to be much stronger in the south, especially around Osh, than farther north. Religious practice in the north is more heavily mixed with animism (belief that every animate and inanimate object contains a spirit) and shamanist practices, giving worship there a resemblance to Siberian religious practice.
Islam and the State
Religion has not played an especially large role in the politics of Kyrgyzstan, although more traditional elements of society urged that the Muslim heritage of the country be acknowledged in the preamble to the 1993 constitution. That document mandates a secular state, forbidding the intrusion of any ideology or religion in the conduct of state business. As in other parts of Central Asia, non-Central Asians have been concerned about the potential of a fundamentalist Islamic revolution that would emulate Iran and Afghanistan by bringing Islam directly into the making of state policy, to the detriment of the non-Islamic population. Because of sensitivity about the economic consequences of a continued outflow of Russians, President Akayev has taken particular pains to reassure the non-Kyrgyz that no Islamic revolution threatens (see Ethnic Groups, this ch.). Akayev has paid public visits to Bishkek's main Russian Orthodox church and directed 1 million rubles from the state treasury toward that faith's church-building fund. He has also appropriated funds and other support for a German cultural center. The state officially recognizes Orthodox Christmas (but not Easter) as a holiday, while also noting two Muslim feast days, Oroz ait (which ends Ramadan) and Kurban ait (June 13, the Day of Remembrance), and Muslim New Year, which falls on the vernal equinox.
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