Sufism in Post-Soviet Tajikistan

A review of Post-Soviet Sufism: Texts and the Performance of Tradition in Tajikistan, by Benjamin Clark Gatling.

Perhaps few topics in the recent history of academia may claim to have generated as much public interest, while simultaneously remaining subject to as much ignorance and obfuscation, as that of Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia. This is particularly the case in regards to the tradition of Sufism, a term matched in the frequency of its appearance in popular literature only by the degree of confusion regarding its significance and meaning. In the later decades of the Cold War, western scholars looked longingly to Sufi communities in the Soviet Union as potential sites of resistance to communist rule. In the wake of independence these hopes gave way to fears on the part of both western observers and post-Soviet Central Asian regimes of a militant wave of resurgent Islam sweeping across the region, while more recent years have seen attention called among certain circles to Sufism as a more tolerant counterweight to “fundamentalist” Islam, and to Sufi communities as potential allies in the War on Terror. Despite their differences in perspective, these various approaches to Sufism in Central Asia remain united in their lack of attention both to the historical sources of Sufism and to its present-day reality and presence in the region. In contrast, historically and ethnographically informed studies and opinions on Sufism in Central Asia, and more broadly of Islam in the region in general, remain exceedingly rare. This is particularly true in the case of Tajikistan. While Sufi communities in other Central Asian countries have been the subject of well-researched monographs in recent years (Maria Elisabeth Louw, Everyday Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia. London: Routledge, 2007; Bruce G. Privratsky, Muslim Turkistan: Kazak Religion and Collective Memory. Richmond: Curzon Press, 2001), to date there is no parallel to be found for the study of Sufism in contemporary Tajikistan. Aside from the handful of articles by Oumar Arabov and Stephane Dudoignon (to which may be added the forth-coming studies of Jo-Ann Gross), the topic of Sufism in present-day Tajikistan remains an almost entirely unexplored area of research. This remains the case despite the critical role performed by Islamist parties in the Tajik Civil War (1992-97) and in contemporary Tajik politics, as well as the importance given to Tajikistan by western policy-makers due to its shared border and connections with Afghanistan.

For these reasons and more, Benjamin Gatling’s dissertation on Sufism in contemporary Tajikistan is a most welcome addition to the meager literature on this important topic. Drawing upon a year of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in Tajikistan from 2010-11, as well as a wide body of primary and secondary literature in Tajik, Persian, and Russian, Gatling’s work is well-grounded in and informed by the ethnographic reality of contemporary Sufi communities, as well as the literature both of and about Sufism. It is the very relation between the textual and “lived” practice of Sufism which forms the central focus of Gatling’s study. Specifically, he is concerned with the manners in which texts are utilized and performed among Sufi communities, the ways in which the classical Persian literary traditions inform notions of identity among Tajik Sufism, and the means by which Sufi communities create and canonize new textual realities. But beyond the particulars of his research agenda, Gatling’s dissertation more broadly presents a concise and well-researched introduction to both the history and contemporary ethnographic reality of Sufism in Tajikistan, one which will hopefully serve as a model and an impetus for future research in this area.

Gatling begins his introductory chapter (pp. 1-25) with an account of an extensive military operation in the Rasht valley in Tajikistan carried out in Fall 2010 against alleged Islamist militants, an event which unfortunately coincided with the beginning of his field research. These operations were accompanied by sweeping restrictions on religious practices throughout the country, offering a succinct illustration and reminder of the challenges involved in both the study and practice of Islamic traditions in post-Soviet Central Asia. The restricted environment in which Gatling began his fieldwork served in part to guide a shift in his emphasis from the study of public ritual among Sufi communities to the study of Sufi texts and the exploration of “the ways the textual imaginations of Tajik Sufi groups were embodied and enacted within ritual frames rather than focusing on ritual itself” (pp. 9-10). Following this introduction, Gatling delves into a discussion of the object of his study, Sufism, and the various definitions and facets of this term. Gatling here engages with a perspective frequently encountered in both the popular and scholarly literature of Sufism as a sort of “vernacular” and primarily non-textual variation of Islamic practice, one counterpoised against an envisioned orthodox and primarily scriptural mainstream of Islam. Rather than observing Sufism as merely a vernacular rendition of Islam, Gatling instead takes the tariqat as the focus of his study, which he defines as “local iterations of historical, transnational teaching hierarchies tracing their origin back to an eponymous founder and subsequently back to the Prophet Muhammad himself” (p. 12). He explains that “Sufi tariqat in Tajikistan are organized around the charismatic figure of a pir into discrete halqa… the term most often used for each individual group of murids and for the general ritual and teaching events in which these same disciples gather” (p. 13). The primary focus of his study was a series of halqas operating within and around the capital city of Dushanbe. Gatling concludes with a discussion of his ethnographic methodology, and specifically the challenges inherent in studying a community whose traditions and practices are often concealed from outsiders. Gatling’s discussion of his methodological concerns here would serve as a useful guide for future scholars contemplating research in similar environments.

Chapter two (pp. 26-93) is dedicated primarily to a survey and critique of the scholarly literature concerning Islam and Sufism in Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia. After surveying some of the now widely dismissed arguments of Cold War-era western scholarship, such as the fanciful envisioning of Sufi communities as potential centers of resistance to Soviet authority, Gatling turns to more recent approaches in the study of Islam in Central Asia, some of which are no less ill-conceived than their Cold War predecessors. He begins by outlining anthropological approaches to the study of Islam and Sufism, and particularly the scholarship of Talal Asad and Saba Mahmood, whose findings have only very recently begun to be applied to the study of Islam in Central Asia. Gatling next presents a critique of the notion of “Islamic revival” which has been widely trumpeted in much of the literature on Islam in Central Asia since independence. In contrast to the common narrative concerning the shifting fortunes of Islam in modern Central Asia, Gatling argues that “Many followers of the Sufi path firmly reject celebratory discourses of revivalism and instead claim their present ritual practice, forms of knowledge transmission, and silsila relationships share a strict continuity with the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. Yet, at the same time, as other facets of the Central Asian Islamic revival have been realized, e.g. new mosques built, shrines reconstructed, new access to previously proscribed literature, etc., they simultaneously argue that no true pirs remain inside of Tajikistan, that the number of adherents to the Sufi path has decreased, and that the younger generation now shuns the mystical practice of their Tajik forebears” (p. 37). After highlighting some of the various perceptions concerning the decline of Sufism in present-day Tajikistan, Gatling turns to a discussion of the relationship of Sufism with politics. Like many post-Soviet governments today, the Tajik state casts a ubiquitous shadow of suspicion over unsanctioned religiosity, at times leading to outright repression. In common with many Cold War-era western observers, political elites in Central Asia today commonly perceive Islam, and particularly Sufism, as inherently political and as a potential threat to the stability of the state. As a result, Sufi communities in Tajikistan today engage in a complex relationship with the state, with some outright shunning any political activity whatsoever, with others selectively engaging with the state with the hope of engendering a more positive relationship between the government and Sufi authorities. At the same time, Gatling argues that the Tajik state actively appropriates many of the symbols and motifs of Sufism for its own purposes, particularly those motifs emphasizing the necessity of submission to authority, “calling attention to the fame and influence of historical Sufi exemplars, appropriating their images and symbols, while divorcing the content of their teachings from any contemporary relevancy” (p. 61). As an alternative to political engagement, many Sufi communities emphasize the notion of tavakkal, or complete reliance on God alone, which according to Gatling, “may function as discursive posturing amidst the dangerous and dynamic political environment of contemporary Tajikistan” (p. 69).

Gatling concludes his second chapter with a discussion of the “typologies of Sufism” in present-day Tajikistan. Chief among the typologies that Gatling describes are those of tariqat affiliation, or what in other contexts has been labeled as “orders” among Sufi communities. The majority of the Sufi groups studied by Gatling affiliated themselves with the Naqshbandiyya, while a minority associate themselves with the Qodiriyya. While the academic literature on Sufism has traditionally placed primary importance on tariqat affiliation as markers of identity, Gatling argues that the situation among Sufis in present-day Tajikistan is more complex: “Rather, varieties of ritual practice, adherence to unique forms of proper behavior and comportment (adab), relationships with other ulamo, exposure to distinct bodies of mystical literature, and inclusion in discreet circles of knowledge transmission may help to better characterize different streams of Sufi practice in Central Asia irrespective of practitioners’ self-identification into larger transnational teaching hierarchies” (p. 72). Gatling here also highlights the complex and multifarious methods of the transmission of authority within Tajik Sufi communities. As a result, boundaries between Sufi circles in Tajikistan are often blurred, or may operate upon different lines than those imagined in more idealized depictions of Sufi communities. One important cleavage Gatling highlights, which runs across tariqat affiliations, is the approach of various Sufi communities to “reformist Islam” and their attitudes to traditional Sufi practices such as shrine visitation and belief in the miraculous powers of Sufi pirs, with some Sufi communities today criticizing such practices as akin to shirk, or the association of partners with God. In this section of his work, Gatling builds upon the scholarship of historians of Islam in Central Asia including Devin DeWeese, Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, and Jo-Ann Gross, as well as the work of Carl Ernst on Sufism in the Indian subcontinent, while presenting a unique and critical ethnographic survey of present-day Sufi communities in Tajikistan.

Chapter three (pp. 94-166) explores the role of texts and textual practices among Tajik Sufi communities, drawing upon Talal Asad’s model of the “Islamic discursive tradition” and the scholarship of Brinkley Messick on textual habitus and dispositions of writing. Gatling takes as a case study here the work of a renowned nineteenth-century Qodiri shaykh and poet named Mavlavī Jununī (d. 1887), in order to “appreciate and contextualize the processes of contemporary canonization and hagiographic valorization ongoing in the post-Soviet environment in Tajikistan” (p. 97). The writings of this figure were largely unknown in the Soviet era, but experienced a surge in popularity after independence, due largely to the efforts towards publishing and disseminating his works among families linked to his spiritual lineage. Gatling surveys the biographical and tazkira literature of the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods, in which Jununī’s name is entirely absent. While this obscurity was due primarily to the inaccessibility of his works, among many of his admirers today there circulates a narrative that the lack of recognition afforded to him in earlier generations was due both to Soviet repression and to a general cause of “forgetfulness” among the Tajik people. The modern-day canonizers of Jununī’s works see it as their mission today to reawaken the Tajik people and to revive the memory of their illustrious spiritual ancestor. Gatling explores how this process of canonization of Jununī’s works, accompanied with the formation of hagiographical narratives concerning the person of Jununī, serves as a model for the means by which modern-day Sufi communities in Tajikistan seek to contextualize and narrate their place within the broader scope of Tajik history and Tajik national identity.

Chapter four (pp. 167-250), the largest chapter of the work, considers the ritual practices of Sufi halqas in Tajikistan, focusing particularly on the use of texts within these communities. Gatling begins by examining the oral performance of Sufi poetry, including Jununī as well as earlier poets of the classical Persian tradition, among the halqas. In his study of the oral performance of Persian poetry, Gatling draws upon and complements a small but critical body of literature by scholars including Margaret Mills, Gabrielle van den Berg, and Zuzanna Olszewska. He focuses on two main practices in which such performances are utilized: the halqai zikr, or “circle of remembrance,” and darsi tariqat, or “group teaching.”  Gatling describes and analyzes a number of zikr performances, focusing particularly on the interspersion of poetry in these circles and its role in the ritual event. He argues that “Zikr ritual works as a discursive framework whereby the past, or rather remembrance of the past, is negotiated in the present ritual frame. As such, poetry within zikr is often traditionalized discourse. I use the term ‘traditionalized’ to stress the social imaginaries implied within its performance… traditionalization of poetry serves the purpose of perpetuating a kind of mythic master-disciple relationship. Performance creates a direct silsila relationship between the poets sung and those gathered in the pir’s presence at the zikr event. So as the poets’ words are recited, or verses recited are apocryphally attributed to them, in practice the poet becomes the brotherhood’s present teaching pir.” (pp. 182-83). Gatling explores the ways in which Persian poetry and proverbs are employed by Sufi authorities as a means of legitimation, in what he describes as the “cultural hegemony of the poetical speech act” (p. 234).

Gatling next turns to a discussion of the darsi tariqat, a pedagogical event which provides an opportunity both for moral and ethical edification, and for the experiential practice of the Sufi path. The basis of the darsi tariqat is a reading from a text, typically a classical doctrinal work of the Persian Sufi tradition. But Gatling argues that “Darsi tariqat, though ostensibly about the explication of arcane and extremely valued mystical texts, teaches adepts much more than the particulars of Sufi theosophy. Instead, those in attendance gain mastery of a mystical vocabulary and interpretative frame and learn how to imitate models of comportment towards the pir and those farther along the mystical path” (p. 247). Gatling concludes this chapter in suggesting that “Both the performance of traditionalized poetry in halqai zikr and didactic speech events like darsi tariqat implicate the kinds of discursive projects of newly textualized Tajik Sufism as outlined in the previous chapter. Traditionalization processes, along with the redundancy of discursive routine that they create, are similarly constitutive of new textual canonization and further lend authority and legitimacy towards the nascent religious project of contemporary Tajik Sufi groups. Thus, they continually create new relationships between the sacred past and secular Tajik present” (p. 249).

In his brief concluding chapter (pp. 251-259), Gatling revisits and summarizes the primary arguments presented in the work. He explains that in his dissertation he has “attempted to delineate the connections among the processes of traditionalization and canonization associated with new poetical texts, the creative adaptation of older texts, and the ways that Tajik Sufis linearly imagine their relationship to the Tajik sacred past” (p. 253). He returns as well to his central argument concerning the framework of “revivalism” and the connection of present-day Sufi communities to the past: “Sufi practices are not a return to Sufism as observed prior to the Soviet period or merely the adaptation of Soviet Sufism to post-Soviet exigencies…. Sufis in Tajikistan are actively engaging with their sacred past, irrespective of ‘authentic’ chains of spiritual transmission, traditionalizing new liturgical texts, and creating new religious tradition all using constituent elements from their sacred past. Both religious history and textualities have been revived, but in novel ways” (p. 255). The dissertation concludes with a glossary and complete bibliography.

Although written from the disciplinary perspectives of folklore and ethnography, Gatling’s dissertation holds wide potential for informing the work of scholars from other disciplines, particularly for those working in the field of the history of religions (the present author’s field). The relationship between ethnography and history has traditionally been quite unidirectional. Scholars of contemporary Islamic communities, such as Gatling, have relied generously on the work of historians in order to provide background and context for their studies. Historians, on the other hand, have proven far less adaptive to the work of ethnographers in informing their own studies. Gatling’s work in particular demonstrates a rich opportunity for equalizing this relationship. Historians of pre-modern Sufi communities by necessity must rely primarily on textual sources for reconstructing the history of their subjects, often with at best only a partial understanding of the social context of these texts and their usage within the communities under review. Gatling’s dissertation presents enormous potential for enabling historians and other scholars of pre-modern Sufism to better understand the complex and multifarious roles served by their textual sources. Furthermore, Gatling’s work offers a much needed critique of the sadly still-dominant narrative of Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia as a largely novel, monolithic and, above all, destabilizing phenomenon. Gatling’s dissertation is an exemplary model of the sort of informed research which remains critically necessary and unfortunately still far too rare in the study of contemporary Islam in Central Asia.

Daniel Beben
Departments of History and Central Eurasian Studies
Indiana University, Bloomington

Primary Sources

Interviews and participant observation among Sufi communities in Karategin District, Tajikistan
Works of Mavlavī Jununī (Dushanbe and Tehran)
Works of Shaykh ʿAbdālhay Mūjakharfī (Dushanbe)
Hojī Akbar Turajonzoda, Shariat va jomea (Dushanbe)
Sadriddin Aynī, Namunai adabiyoti tojik (Dushanbe)

Dissertation Information

The Ohio State University. 2012. 292 pp. Primary Advisor: Margaret A. Mills.

Image: Autograph manuscript titled the Mufizu-l-anvor by a Tajik Sufi sheikh named Abdulhay Mujakharfi (photograph by author).


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  1. SK

    “many Sufi communities emphasize the notion of tavakkal, or complete reliance on God alone”

    That would be tavakkul, not *tavakkal.

    “Shaykh ʿAbdālhay Mūjakharfī”

    That is ʿAbdulhay (or better, ʿAbdulhayy), spelled correctly below.

    • Daniel Beben

      Thank you for your comments. All spellings have been rendered exactly as found in the author’s work. You should note that spelling and pronunciation of many words varies between Tajiki and other variants of Persian. Gatling actually provides a note in his work (p. 64) specifically regarding the choice of “tavakkal” over “tavakkul.”

    • Leon Rocha

      Dear Dr Mohammed Albadri,
      Thank you very much for your comment. As Daniel Beben stated above, “all spellings have been rendered exactly as found in the [dissertation] author’s work. You should note that spelling and pronunciation of many words varies between Tajiki and other variants of Persian.”
      With best wishes,
      Leon Rocha from the Dissertation Reviews team

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