Traditionally, the Turkmen of Turkmenistan, like their kin in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, and Iran, are Sunni Muslims (see Glossary). Shia Muslims (see Glossary), the other main branch of Islam, are not numerous in Turkmenistan, and the Shia religious practices of the Azerbaijani and Kurdish (see Glossary) minorities are not politicized. Although the great majority of Turkmen readily identify themselves as Muslims and acknowledge Islam as an integral part of their cultural heritage, many are non-believers and support a revival of the religion's status only as an element of national revival. They do not attend mosque services or demonstrate their adherence publicly, except through participation in officially sanctioned national traditions associated with Islam on a popular level, including life-cycle events such as weddings, burials, and pilgrimages.
History and Structure
Islam came to the Turkmen primarily through the activities of Sufi (see Glossary) shaykhs rather than through the mosque and the "high" written tradition of sedentary culture. These shaykhs were holy men critical in the process of reconciling Islamic beliefs with pre-Islamic belief systems; they often were adopted as "patron saints" of particular clans or tribal groups, thereby becoming their "founders." Reformulation of communal identity around such figures accounts for one of the highly localized developments of Islamic practice in Turkmenistan.
Integrated within the Turkmen tribal structure is the "holy" tribe called övlat . Ethnographers consider the övlat, of which six are active, as a revitalized form of the ancestor cult injected with Sufism. According to their genealogies, each tribe descends from the Prophet Muhammad through one of the Four Caliphs. Because of their belief in the sacred origin and spiritual powers of the övlat representatives, Turkmen accord these tribes a special, holy status. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the övlat tribes became dispersed in small, compact groups in Turkmenistan. They attended and conferred blessings on all important communal and life-cycle events, and also acted as mediators between clans and tribes. The institution of the övlat retains some authority today. Many of the Turkmen who are revered for their spiritual powers trace their lineage to an övlat, and it is not uncommon, especially in rural areas, for such individuals to be present at life-cycle and other communal celebrations.
In the Soviet era, all religious beliefs were attacked by the communist authorities as superstition and "vestiges of the past." Most religious schooling and religious observance were banned, and the vast majority of mosques were closed. An official Muslim Board of Central Asia with a headquarters in Tashkent was established during World War II to supervise Islam in Central Asia. For the most part, the Muslim Board functioned as an instrument of propaganda whose activities did little to enhance the Muslim cause. Atheist indoctrination stifled religious development and contributed to the isolation of the Turkmen from the international Muslim community. Some religious customs, such as Muslim burial and male circumcision, continued to be practiced throughout the Soviet period, but most religious belief, knowledge, and customs were preserved only in rural areas in "folk form" as a kind of unofficial Islam not sanctioned by the state-run Spiritual Directorate.
Religion after Independence
The current government oversees official Islam through a structure inherited from the Soviet period. Turkmenistan's Muslim Religious Board, together with that of Uzbekistan, constitutes the Muslim Religious Board of Mavarannahr. The Mavarannahr board is based in Tashkent and exerts considerable influence in appointments of religious leaders in Turkmenistan. The governing body of Islamic judges (Kaziat) is registered with the Turkmenistan Ministry of Justice, and a council of religious affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers monitors the activities of clergy. Individuals who wish to become members of the official clergy must attend official religious institutions; a few, however, may prove their qualifications simply by taking an examination.
Since 1990, efforts have been made to regain some of the cultural heritage lost under Soviet rule. President Niyazov has ordered that basic Islamic principles be taught in public schools. More religious institutions, including religious schools and mosques, have appeared, many with the support of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Turkey. Religious classes are held in both the schools and the mosques, with instruction in Arabic language, the Koran (Quran) and the hadith, and the history of Islam.
Turkmenistan's government stresses its secular nature and its support of freedom of religious belief, as embodied in the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and institutionalized in the 1992 constitution. That document guarantees the separation of church and state; it also removes any legal basis for Islam to play a role in political life by prohibiting proselytizing, the dissemination of "unofficial" religious literature, discrimination based on religion, and the formation of religious political parties. In addition, the government reserves the right to appoint and dismiss anyone who teaches religious matters or who is a member of the clergy. Since independence, the Islamic leadership in Turkmenistan has been more assertive, but in large part it still responds to government control. The official governing body of religious judges gave its official support to President Niyazov in the June 1992 elections.
On the other hand, some Muslim leaders are opposed to the secular concept of government and especially to a government controlled by former communists (see Centers of Political Power, this ch.). Some official leaders and teachers working outside the official structure have vowed to increase the population's knowledge of Islam, increase Islam's role in society, and broaden adherence to its tenets. Alarmed that such activism may aggravate tensions between Sunnis and Shiites and especially alienate Orthodox Slavs, the government has drawn up plans to elevate the council of religious affairs to ministry status in an effort to regulate religious activities more tightly.
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