Special: Dangerous Preaching: The Role of Religious Leaders in the Rise of Radical Islam in Central Asia. By Nurbek Bekmurzaev.

Nurbek Bekmurzaev. MA in Politics and Security (Central Asia). OSCE Academy in Bishkek.

Introduction

On May 2, 1998, during his speech to the parliament of Uzbekistan, President Karimov called to toughen the measures against terrorists and famously stated “If necessary I will shoot them myself” encouraging to shoot terrorists in heads.[i] His threats came after the series of terrorist attacks in Namangan, in December, 1997, which claimed lives of six people, including four policemen – one was beheaded with his head displayed outside the local police station.[ii] Despite increasingly repressive measures adopted in relation to explicit Muslim practices in the country, the Islamic insurgency in the region increased in the years to come, having found sanctuary and support in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Since religious radicalism has remained a genuine security threat to stability and peace in Central Asia, scholars across various disciplines attempted to understand the connection between the state repression and radicalization. In particular, the puzzle of why increased repressions, as in the case of Uzbekistan, cannot effectively combat the insurgency. The reasons behind the appearance of Islamic militancy are one of the most popular and extensively researched topics. However, the existing literature falls short of giving a comprehensive answer to the question of religious radicalism’s rise.

The goal of the article is to contribute to the ongoing debate on the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia by exploring an alternative perspective on radicalization. The article aims to establish the link between the teachings of religious leaders and the emergence of Islamic militancy in the region. It argues that:

  • The rise of religious radicalism in Central Asia is as much a result of exposure to preaching by local religious leaders as it is an outcome of the dire political and economic situation.
  • The Islamic religious education provided at underground religious schools by several prominent ulama during the Soviet Union and the subsequent dissemination of their preaching paved the way for the rise of militant Islam.

The article first explores the lives and teachings of the major ulama from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Then, through the analysis of their preaching and the chain of disciples, it connects these ulama to the rise of Islamic militancy in Central Asia.

Traditionalists vs. Fundamentalists

The division between the Central Asian ulama into Hanafi and Salafi during the latter half of the twentieth century fostered an environment conducive to radicalization; the first ones were considered conservative/traditionalists, while the latter Wahhabi and fundamentalists. In addition, it disrupted the long-held balance and unity among the religious elite in Central Asia. The dispute between the Hanafi and Salafi ulama eventually led to the schism between ordinary Muslims as well. As the result of the debate, religious elite went far enough for each party to blame the opponent of distorting Islam. The localized Hanafi Islam came under attack of the Salafis, who called for the purification of the Islamic faith from local traditions and political engagement under the pretext of protecting religion.[iii] Thus, the Ferghana Salafis, who represented the breakaway ulama and challenged the official religious establishment, later served as ideological and spiritual leaders to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU).[iv] The IMU shot to global prominence in the second half of the 1990s, whereas the Salafis scholars started their preaching on cleansing the faith and establishing an Islamic state long before the Soviet Union’s disintegration.[v] Despite their small number, Salafi clerics stood behind the major events, which resulted in significant changes in the status and role of Islam. Salafi ulama expanded their support base in the latter half of the twentieth century and gained strength to challenge the Hanafi scholars; however, even then Salafism was not able to compete with Hanafism for power and influence on the regional scale.

The majority of Muslims in Central Asia adhere to the Hanafi mazhab – one of the four law schools in Sunni Islam. Starting from the tenth century, Hanafi mazhab became dominant in the region, and its ulama and fuqaha secured all the religious posts in the state. Hanafi theologians played a major role in shaping the religious life of the majority of ordinary Muslims. The dominance of Hanafism was due to its smooth facilitation/incorporation of pre-Islamic norms and traditions and tolerance to popular pre-Islamic customs and rites.[vi] Contrary to Hanafism, Salafism “is a fundamentalist sect of Islam, calling modern Muslims to revert to authentic Islam of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions.”[vii] Although Salafis remained a minority and usually found themselves on the outskirts of decision making, they were the masterminds behind the rise of the radical Islamic groups. Central Asian ulama’s division was the reflection of the events happening in the wider Muslim community. In particular, after the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932, Wahhabism became prominent among the Arabs of Mecca and Medina.[viii] Central Asian ulama and Muslims in general – deceptively – viewed Arabs as carriers of genuine Islam, so the increasing number of Arabs leaving mazhabs for Wahhabism rang alarm in their minds. The schism between the ulama in the region was an important factor in the radicalization of Muslims because of the subsequent contestation over Islam and the role it should play in society. Salafi ulama became convinced of Hanafi clerics’ deviation from the true path of Islam and opened their own underground schools in the Ferghana Valley that became centers of fundamentalist Islamic thought.

Shami Domullah

Salafism gained a foothold in Central Asia in the early 1900s, but it started having formative influence on the local ulama only after the arrival of Shami Domullah to Tashkent in 1919.[ix] The first Wahhabi cells in the region were opened by a native of Medina Sayed Shari Muhammad, but Wahhabism “was never particularly popular, for it broke with the moderate Islamic traditions of Central Asia.”[x] Shami Domullah’s input to the spread of Salafism – Wahhabism, which eventually acquired militant dimension due to changing political context, was significant. His disciples were the first generation of religious scholars who put the Soviet rule and the official religious establishment under serious scrutiny and critic. In the 1920s, Shami Domullah taught and organized his Salafi students into the movement called Ahl-i-Hadith[xi]. This Tashkent-based movement was the result of the underground schools set up by the fundamentalist clerics “that pressed for the “purification” of locally practices of Hanafi Islam, both through reemphasizing neglected texts, or by rejecting the Hanafi School of Law in its entirety.”[xii] Shami Domullah’s efforts in consolidation of the Salafi ulama led to the rise of fundamentalist religious thought.  He educated a generation of fundamentalist ulama during his stay in Tashkent, who are credited with spreading Salafi Islam to Central Asia. Shami Domullah effectively exploited his Arabic origin and extensive religious knowledge in his effort to convince the local ulama that Islam in Central Asia became significantly distorted and was in dire need of cleansing. He inspired religious leaders who studied from him to set up their own schools that produced radical ulama through promoting Salafism, which was perceived to be free from distortion and innovation. Shami Domullah’s teachings made their way to the Ferghana Valley through his disciples from that region: Shaikh Rahim Qori Kamalov of Kokand and Yunus Qori.[xiii] Having returned from Tashkent, Shaikh Kamalov and Yunus Qori served as teachers to Hakimzhan Qori – the man poised to have had a formative influence on the next generation of Salafi ulama, who provided doctrinal and spiritual guidance to the IMU. Moreover, Central Asia’s long-term mufti Ziyauddin Babakhan described Shami Domullah as the scholar who had the greatest influence on his development as a religious scholar.[xiv] Ziyauddin Babakhan’s admiration for Shami Domullah was due to the fact that Shami Domullah taught him at early age while in Kukaltash madrassa. Certainly, having a mufti who at least was supportive of Salafism substantially helped in the spread of Salafism.

The political situation in Central Asia – after the October Revolution – and the Hanafi scholars’ response towards the utterly changed political system provided a fertile environment for Shami Domullah to spread Salafism. He was able to pick and exploit the weak spots of the Hanafi ulama. These ulama often turned a blind eye on the wide practice of the pre-Islamic rites and traditions, which were usually remnants of the previously held faith in the region – paganism. Also, the majority of Hanafi ulama did not seem to mind living under the rule of a non-Muslim or even an infidel. As a strong proponent of Salafi Islam, Shami Domullah pressed for the purification of the faith from local traditions.[xv] Indeed, Islam was localized in Central Asia with pre-Islamic rites and traditions rooted so deep into religion that they were perceived as Islamic. Events that marked the life-cycle such as weddings and funerals contained elements completely contrary to Islam. For example, ordinary Muslims perceived paying kalym (a bride price), having funeral repasts arranged on the third and seventh days after a death, and organizing extravagant banquets on occasion of the khatna (circumcision) rite as their religious duty.[xvi] Shami Domullah was able to exploit his Arabic origin in presenting Salafi or Wahhabi Islam as a genuine form of religion – clean from distortion and innovation. Also, the political quietism adopted by the remaining Hanafi ulama discredited them heavily. The Soviet attack on religion resulted in the large-scale execution and imprisonment of Islamic clergy.[xvii] The remaining ulama obviously feared for their safety and remained silent over politics. It was the local ulama’s political quietism in the time of the attack on Islam that cost them their reputation. Shami Domullah’s teachings appealed to the young ulama because he was not perceived as someone who traded off his safety for the belief and religious obligation bestowed upon him. Shami Domullah died in 1932 in Khorezm, after he was arrested, but he left a legacy that lived through his numerous disciples.[xviii] Although the purification of religion took a center stage in Shami Domullah’s teachings, he was one of the key contributors to the rise of militant Islam.

Hindustaniy Damla

Hindustaniy – Muhammadzhan Rustamov – contributed to the rise of Islamic militancy by providing an Islamic education that in the minds of many fellows was a rebellion against the Soviet rules. He provided a platform for acquiring Islamic knowledge and ensured that high-quality Islamic education was available in the region; however, Hindustaniy failed to foresee that his students – once having acquired advanced Islamic training – will eventually fall under the influence of radical and political interpretation of the faith. Hindustaniy became an important figure in the rise of radical Islam due to the politicization and radicalization of his several disciples. Hindustaniy’s disciples’ rejection of the Hanafi mazhab and the decision to engage into politics was the result of the exposure to the literature and ideas brought either by those who went for pilgrimage to Mecca, or students from the Middle East, who came to the Soviet Union for university studies.[xix] Due to the broad geographical scope of his educational experience, Hindustaniy “brought new ideas shaping the Muslim world and the ideology of Islamic fundamentalism,” which for the most part was about the establishment of an Islamic state.[xx] More importantly, as an informal bearer of Islamic knowledge, he imparted to his students a supply of independence and critical spirit with regard to the existing regime.[xxi] However, Hindustaniy strongly discouraged religious scholars’ involvement in politics. He was the representative of the unofficial/parallel Islam, which was completely apolitical. According to Hindustaniy, the Soviet rule was a test for believers in which success lay in reliance on God and patience, rather than in political and military struggle.[xxii] It is hideous to accuse him of turning his students against the state. His former student Hakimzhan Qori is reported saying: “Mullah Muhammadzhan [Rustamov] is like a poplar in the field. He blows in the direction of the wind,” hinting his teacher was conformist and complicit with the Soviet rule.[xxiii] Yet, many of his students became the leading regional Salafi ulama. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Hindustaniy’s former disciples found themselves in the limelight of the civil war in Tajikistan and the rise of the IMU in the Ferghana Valley. Rahkmatulla Qori Alloma, Abduvali Qori Mirzoyev, Hakimzhan Qori, Sayed Abdullah Nuri, Muhammad Sharif Himmatzoda were former students of Hindustaniy, prior to emerging as key actors in the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia.[xxiv]

Salafi ulama from the Ferghana Valley, who provided spiritual guidance to the IMU, received a world-class Islamic education at Hindustaniy Damla‘s hujra. Hindustaniy was unrivaled in terms of knowledge and training he acquired over his long education in various parts of the world. Born to a local mullah in a small village near Kokand in 1892, Hindustaniy received his initial religious education in the madrassas of Kokand and Bukhara, before leaving to Afghanistan during the revolutionary turmoil.[xxv] After studying in Afghanistan from Muhammad Ghaus Saidzade, he spent eight years mastering his knowledge of the Hanafi mazhab in the Usmaniya madrassa in Ajmer, India.[xxvi] The popularity of his Dushanbe-based hujra was due to his extensive religious training unheard of in the region. The study curriculum at his hujra was very similar and equally depoliticized as that found at the Mir-i-Arab madrassa in Bukhara and the Al-Bukhari Islamic Institute in Tashkent.[xxvii] When Hindustaniy started teaching in the latter half of the 1950s, opportunities to study at the two state-sanctioned Islamic educational institutes were severely limited. Given the limit of students who could attend them, Hindustaniy’s hujra was a genuine alternative, for it provided high quality Islamic learning. Uzbekistan’s and Tajikistan’s most prominent religious leaders, both radical and fundamentalists, and moderate conservatives who accepted the Hanafi dogma studied from Hindustaniy. Thus, Hindustaniy was the foremost figure in reviving Islamic education in Central Asia. The majority of the current day ulama in the region are indebted to him for their religious knowledge. At his hujra in Dushanbe, Hindustaniy’s disciples studied tafseer (commentary of Quran), hadeeth (saying and deeds of Prophet Muhammad), Arabic language, grammar and syntax, fiqh (sharia law) and other religious subjects.[xxviii] Having acquired extensive knowledge and expertise in Islam, Hindustaniy’s several disciples fell under the influence of Wahhabism through literature and individuals who either visited or came to the Soviet Union from the Arab states.

Hakimzhan Qori

Hakimzhan Qori contributed to the rise of Islamic militancy by educating the ultimate generation of Salafi ulama, who – after the Soviet Union’s disintegration – provided intellectual and doctrinal weight to the militant Islamist organization from the Ferghana Valley – the IMU. He was among the first students of Hindustaniy, but following only a year of studying in Dushanbe broke away with his teacher over the questions of the relationship between Islam and politics.[xxix] Hakimzhan Qori quit Hindustaniy’s hujra, in order to establish his own underground school in Marghilan, Uzbekistan. His fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic sources and resolute stance over the need of protection of Islam from the Soviet atheistic regime appealed to a large number of young Salafi ulama. Thus, Hakimzhan Qori’s hujra became the intellectual and educational center of fundamentalist Islamic thought. He had a significant influence on the next generation of Salafi ulama, who called for the establishment of an Islamic state.[xxx] Rakhmatulla Qori Alloma and Abduvali Qori – Hakimzhan Qori’s two most famous students – were among the first generation of Hindustani Damla’s students. They followed Hakimzhan Qori to Marghilan only to break away with him “claiming he was not being sufficiently political in his orientation and that he was not willing to urge direct engagement with the authorities in defense of the faith.”[xxxi] The persecution of ulama Hakimzhan Qori went though made him more cautious than his young disciples. Hakimzhan Qori was a classic fundamentalist, and his primary concern was to cleanse religion from innovations and local traditions. His breakaway students emerged as neo-fundamentalists for whom cleansing religion was only a part of their perceived religious obligation.

Abduvali Qori and Rakhmatulla Qori Alloma planted the idea of establishing an Islamic state in Central Asia and acted as spiritual and doctrinal leaders to the IMU and the Islamists who fought in the Tajik civil war. They were the last in the line of prominent Salafi ulama, which started with Shami Domullah. At their own underground religious schools in Andijan and Namangan these two young Salafi ulama studied and disseminated the works of Hassan al-Banna, Sayed Abu’l Ala Maududi, and Sayed Qutb.[xxxii] Abduvali Qori and Rakhmatulla Alloma hold a similar view as al-Banna and Maududi that the goals of politics was the utter transformation of the individual and of society along principles extracted from the authentic sources of Islam.[xxxiii] They exceeded all their teachers in the degree of politicization and were ready to use all means possible to achieve the goal of establishing an Islamic state. Prior to his death in a car accident, in 1981, Rakhmatulla Qori Alloma planted a seed of political Islam by writing a brief manuscript tract with a catchy title Musulmonobod (“Muslimland”), “in which he described an ideal country where Islam flourishes, people have equal rights, and Muslims bow only to God, and not to any party, nor to living or dead leaders.”[xxxiv] The manuscript was popular among ordinary people in the countryside of Uzbekistan, since it presented a much better alternative to the existing Soviet regime.[xxxv] Abduvali Qori’s is the foremost figure in the rise of radical Islam in Central Asia, for his teachings inspired a significant number of people to take up arms in defense of the faith. With Rakhmatulla Qori Alloma dead and the leaders of the IMU lacking extensive religious education, the burden to provide doctrinal weight to the Islamic militancy fell on Abduvali Qori’s shoulders. The audiotapes with his speeches were used to recruit fighters for the IMU’s cause.[xxxvi] Although he never engaged in combat, Abduvali Qori inspired others who became leaders of various terrorist organizations.[xxxvii] The IMU’s leader Tohir Yuldashev considered Abduvali Qori to be his spiritual leader.[xxxviii]   

Conclusions

Dire economic situation, social problems, and political autocracy are the most cited reasons for the rise of Islamic militancy in Central Asia. These factors appeal to logic and carry significant explanatory power. Authoritarian regimes and economic problems do provide a fertile soil for the emergence of religious radicalism. However, these factors fail to explain geographical and numerical differences in radicalization. Despite the fact that Muslims comprise the major part of the population in Central Asia and find themselves in roughly the same economic and political situation, only a handful Muslims from certain regions turn into Islamic militants to fight the secular regimes. The evidence suggests that local Islamic religious leaders in the Ferghana Valley played one of the foremost roles in the rise of Islamic militancy. It was the exposure to preaching by the fundamentalist ulama that eventually turned Muslims of Central Asia against the state to the degree sufficient to engage in an armed combat. Frustration grew among the population in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and it provided a fertile ground for radical ulama to call on Muslims to take up arms. Without the spiritual and doctrinal support from Abduvali Qori and Rakhmatulla Qori Alloma, angry residents of the Ferghana Valley would have remained angry Muslims with their anger slowly turning into apathy.

 

[i] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New York: The Penguin Group, 2003), 146.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf.

[iv] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Emmanuel Karagiannis, Political Islam in Central Asia: The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir (London: Routledge, 2010), 16.

[viii] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 2007).

[ix] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[x] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New York: The Penguin Group, 2003), 45.

[xi] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf.

[xii] Ibid, 13.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xv] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf.

[xvi] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xvii] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 2007).

[xviii] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xix] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 2007).

[xx] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New York: The Penguin Group, 2003), 97.

[xxi] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xxii] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 2007).

[xxiii] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf, 23.

[xxiv] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New York: The Penguin Group, 2003); Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf.

[xxv] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 2007).

[xxvi] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xxvii] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf.

[xxviii] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xxix] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf.

[xxx] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xxxi] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf, 24.

[xxxii] Emmanuel Karagiannis, Political Islam in Central Asia: The Challenge of Hizb ut-Tahrir (London: Routledge, 2010).

[xxxiii] Adeeb Khalid, Islam after Communism: Religion and Politics in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of Berkeley Press, 2007).

[xxxiv] Ibid, 146.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Vitaly Naumkin, Radical Islam in Central Asia: Between Pen and Rifle (New York: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: 2005).

[xxxvii] Ibid.

[xxxviii] Martha Brill Olcott, “The Roots of Radical Islam in Central Asia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, January 2007, http://carnegieendowment.org/files/olcottroots.pdf.

Advertisements