Institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia, 1943-1991


A review of Soviet and Muslim: The Institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia, 1943-1991, by Eren Murat Tasar. 

Eren Murat Tasar devoted his doctoral dissertation to a highly important and demanding subject – the history of official Islamic institutions in Soviet Central Asia. The main goal of this book is to explain the relationships of the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC) and Central Asian Muftiate (SADUM) “as well as its broader acceptance by state and society as a mechanism for regulating Islam” (p. 535). Basing his observations on an impressive body of official documentation from CARC, Tasar seeks to trace the origins of a mixed Soviet and Islamic identity of Central Asian Muslims.

Tasar worked in the state archives of Dushanbe, Bishkek, Tashkent, and Moscow and therefore had an opportunity to study the subject on a large geographical scale, taking into account evidence of sources from several Central Asian republics. Almost half a century of existence of SADUM is carefully represented by Tasar in a detailed chronological scheme. Throughout the dissertation Tasar successfully utilizes Terry Martin’s concept of the competing ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ lines in the Soviet bureaucratic apparatus, basing the chronology of the study on the relations of these two lines towards Central Asian Muslim institutions (see Terry Martin, The Affirmative Action Empire. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001). The period from 1943 to 1958 is characterized by “a moderate and flexible religious policy developed gradually within the Party-state” (p. 4). The second period of 1959-1964 is characterized by Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign, which “briefly empowered the hard line towards religion and featured a harsh crackdown on religious figures and institutions” (p. 4). The final, third period between 1965 and the early Gorbachev years witnessed the reconciliation of the hard and moderate lines in regulation of religious life.

Structurally, the dissertation consists of an introduction, six chapters, conclusion, several appendixes and a quite useful glossary of terms. The structure follows a chronological order and highlights the main aspects of the state-religion relationship. The first and the second chapters are devoted to the early stages of institutionalization of Islamic life in Soviet Central Asia with a special emphasis on the main figures from CARC and SADUM. The documents cited in this chapter reveal the birth of Soviet patriotic style in the administrative language of SADUM, which is counted as an important argument for the emerging Soviet Muslim identity aimed to combine Islamic religious affiliation with the Soviet concept of modernity.

It is evident from the third chapter that, since the 1950s, SADUM’s leadership decided “to transform the muftiate into an organization claiming control over all aspects of Muslim life in Central Asia” (p. 175). During this period, purification of religious life in Central Asia became a priority for the SADUM functionaries. This included the battle against innovations in religion, unregistered mullas, and ‘non-Islamic’ practices, such as veneration of shrines. Fatwas, religious advice of the local Islamic authority, were the main instrument of SADUM’s battle for its definition of the moderate and ‘progressive’ Islam. In this respect Tasar makes a valuable contribution to the issues previously discussed by Bakhtiiar Babadzhanov (B. Babadzhanov, “O fetvakh SADUM protiv “neislamskikh obychaev,”  in: A. Malashenko, M. Olcott Brill, Islam na postsovetskom prostranstve: vzgliad iznutri (Moscow: Art Biznes Tsentr, 2001)).

The fourth chapter deals with the Khrushchev anti-religious campaign with a special emphasis on the battle against Muslim shrines, mosques, and all unregistered functionaries. Tasar underlines that it was not a struggle against religion at large, but rather against ‘innovations’ jointly defined by the state and SADUM. The fifth chapter brings to the light the importance of SADUM on an international scale, especially as a tool of advertising the Soviet modernized model of Islam. Tasar highlights the contacts between the Muftiate and Central Asian migrants in the Middle East and in India. Another important issue is the presentation of Islam in the Soviet Union for foreign visitors: it encouraged Soviet authorities to create places for representing the ‘Soviet Muslim identity’.

The sixth and final chapter testifies to the emergence of respected Islamic scholarship outside of SADUM during the late Soviet era. The period of the 1970s and 1980s was characterized by the combination of elements of the ‘hard’ and ‘moderate’ approaches towards Islam. In contrast to the 1940s, one can mention the gradual decline of importance of Sufi affiliations for the new generation of Islamic scholars.

The publication of this dissertation is highly desired because of the value of source material brought to the scholarly attention, as well as Tasar’s detailed and innovative approach towards the process of institutionalization of Islam in Soviet Central Asia. This dissertation sheds a new light on the role of non-registered Islamic authorities and on the complexity of relations between official and non-official institutions of Soviet Islam.

Alfrid K. Bustanov
Amsterdam University
Eastern European Studies Department
The Netherlands

Primary Sources

Central State Archive of the Republic of Tajikistan
Central State Archive of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan
Central State Archive of Political Documentation of the Republic of Kyrgyzstan
Central State Archive of the Republic of Uzbekistan
Nauka i religiia (1959-1991)

Dissertation Information

Harvard University. 2010. 570 pp. Primary Advisor: Terry Martin.


Image: Mir-i-Arab Madrasah. Wikimedia Commons.

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