Central Asia, Kazakhstan, RSAA member, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan

Sufism and the State: Saints’ Shrines in Central Asia

Fitzroy Morrissey is an Oriental Studies Graduate of Oxford University. He has travelled extensively in the Islamic world, and is the author of A Sufi for a week. He is currently studying Persian as a graduate student. Here, he discusses the relationship between Sufism in Central Asia and the post-Soviet states.

For over half a millennium, Islam in Central Asia has revolved around three poles: (Hanafi) Sunnism, Persian culture and Sufism. These three are not separate but rather overlapping elements of Central Asian religious life, such that one scholar has recently declared, “Orthodox Islam and Sufism are very mingled in Tajikistan and the majority of believers are not able to make out the difference.” (Arabov, 2010, 346)

Often dismissed by observers of Islamic societies – as well as by Muslim fundamentalists – as a “heterodox” or “folk” form of Islam, Sufism has in fact long been an integral part of the religious orthodoxy of Central Asia: the clerics (ulema) who guard and define that orthodoxy have traditionally enjoyed close ties to the local Sufi orders (tariqas). The Naqshbandiyya order, which arose in the Transoxanian city of Bokhara in the late-13th, early-14th century, and is the most popular order in Central Asia, is particularly well known for its sobriety and emphasis on upholding the sharia.

Unsurprisingly, Sufism – and Islam more broadly – experienced a major decline as a public presence in Central Asia during the Soviet period, which saw Sufi lodges (khanqas) forcibly closed and the widespread banning of the practice of visitation to saints’ shrines (mazar) – a ritual traditionally practised even by those with no formal connection to the Sufi orders. Yet the survival of Sufi practices and beliefs among certain groups, especially the Naqshbandis, has allowed for a Sufi revival to take place since independence in 1991/92. Since then, many Sufi shrines have been renovated, visitation of saints’ tombs has once again become an important part of religious life, and several Sufis have taken important positions in the religious hierarchies of the Central Asian republics.

The issue of saints’ shrines is a particularly important one, for it gives us an insight into the extent to which the state has been prepared to patronise Sufism and promote it as an integral part of their state’s national identity and history. In Uzbekistan, where the state’s relationship with the Sufi orders and their leaders, post-independence, has flitted between support and suspicion, the two most important shrines are those of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the 14th century sheikh after whom the Naqshbandiyya is named, and Khoja Ahrar Obdayollah, another prominent Naqshbandi sheikh, who lived in the 15th century. These two sheikhs are key figures in the history of the development of Naqshbandi thinking and practice. Baha’uddin is said to have introduced the so-called “silent zikr” (zikr-e khafi) into Naqshbandi ritual, which still distinguishes the meditative practice of the Naqshbandis from the more extravagant, musical rituals of other orders. Khoja Ahrar, meanwhile, perhaps more than anyone else embodied the key Naqshbandi doctrine of “solitude in the crowd” (khalvat dar anjuman), which meant that Naqshbandi disciples could and should play a prominent role in the economic and political life of the community, while constantly remembering God. This latter doctrine helps partly to explain the traditional prominence of Naqshbandi Sufis in Central Asian politics – Khoja Ahrar himself was involved in the Timurid administration, and is said to have accrued considerable personal wealth as a landholder. (For Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah’s life and political and economic role in the community, see Gross & Urunbaev, 2002, Ch. 1.)

Because of the special importance of Baha’uddin and Khoja Ahrar within the history of Central Asia’s most important Sufi order, it is no surprise that their shrines are still significant today, on both the religious and political levels. In Soviet times, the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband, located near Bokhara, was closed, and used by the authorities as a storehouse for fertiliser, indicating the extent of Soviet disregard for Central Asia’s religious heritage. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the shrine was reopened in 1989. The post-Soviet government of Islam Karimov (with financial support from Turkey, where there is a large Naqshbandi community) subsequently paid for the renovation of the shrine in 1993, to mark the 675th anniversary of Baha’uddin’s birth. The government also sponsored a number of initiatives in celebration of the anniversary: Uzbek President Karimov, along with the then Chief Mufti, Mukhtarkhan Abdulayev, himself a Naqshbandi Sufi, attended a commemorative ceremony at the shrine, an academic conference dedicated to Baha’uddin was organised, a Naqshbandi cultural foundation was founded in Bokhara, and the main street of the city was renamed after the saint. (For these measures, see Louw, 2007, 55-6)

According to the imam of the mosque adjoining Baha’uddin’s shrine, the Uzbek government’s patronage of the shrine complex, and its broader support for the country’s indigenous Sufi institutions, has been motivated by a desire to counteract what he called the “Wahhabi outlook”, referring to the puritanical form of Islam that has gained a foothold in Central Asia (particularly in the guise of the Hizb ul-Tahrir movement) and other parts of the Islamic world over the past half century, and which is widely seen as the ideological basis for Islamic radicalism. Certainly, the imam’s comments give a strong indication of the thinking behind the Central Asian governments’ often supportive approach towards Sufism. Sufism represents a more peaceful, tolerant and less political version of Islam than the Wahhabi interpretation. Furthermore, the Naqshbandiyya, and Sufism more generally, is an important part of the region’s cultural and religious heritage, and can thus be presented by Central Asian states as the indigenous form of Islam, in contrast to “foreign” Islamic fundamentalism.

Yet, turning to the shrine of Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah, which is found near Samarkand, we also get a sense of the ambiguity of the Uzbek state’s relationship with Sufism. As in the case of the shrine complex of Baha’uddin Naqshband, the Uzbek government provided funds for the renovation of the shrine and for celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the saint’s birth in 2004. However, according to a report on Sufism in Central Asia authored for the Carnegie Endowment by Martha Brill-Olcott, the Uzbek government has become increasingly concerned about some of Obaydollah’s political teachings, particularly his call for a society governed by sharia, and for Naqshbandi disciples to involve themselves in political affairs. This concern led to the Uzbek authorities delaying the scheduled anniversary celebrations on two occasions and limiting a planned conference on the life and teachings of the sheikh to a small, local affair. Such suspicion on the part of the state towards Khoja Ahrar’s political views not only demonstrates the continued relevance of the teachings of famous Sufi masters in Central Asia, but also gets to the heart of the state’s ambiguous relationship with Sufism and the Sufi orders. On the one hand, the Uzbek government celebrates and supports Sufism as an important part of the country’s cultural and religious heritage and a potential bulwark against Islamic radicalism. On the other, it seems suspicious of the organisational capabilities of the Sufi orders, especially the more politically active Naqshbandiyya (the Qadiriyya is currently the only other major order in Uzbekistan), fearing that those capabilities might one day be translated into political action against their rule.

The issue of saints’ shrines is also relevant to the Central Asian states of Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Located in these two countries are the tombs of two extremely important figures in the history of Sufism: Seyyed Ali Hamadani, a contemporary of Baha’uddin Naqshband, originally from Hamadan in Iran but buried in Kulab in southern Tajikistan, and Ahmad Yasavi, a 12th century Sufi who gives his name to the Yasaviyya order, and whose tomb lies in the Kazakh city of Turkestan. Seyyed Ali Hamadani was a sheikh of the Kobravi order, which was historically one of the most important tariqahs in Central Asia, before it died out at the end of the 16th century, its place being taken by the Naqshbandiyya. Hamadani is credited with bringing Islam to the Kashmir region, where he is celebrated as a saint, and was also a prominent thinker in the school of Ibn ‘Arabi, which is famous for its elaboration of the doctrine of vahdat-e vojud or “the oneness of existence”.

In the case of the cult of Ali Hamadani, we witness the same kind of state involvement that we saw in the Uzbek state’s patronage of the shrine of Baha’uddin Naqshband and Khoja Ahrar Obaydollah. Following the civil war in the country (1992-97), the Tajik authorities, with support from Iran, funded the renovation of Hamadani’s shrine and the construction of a museum dedicated to the Sufi at the shrine complex. At the same time, the government declared Hamadani a national saint – his face subsequently appeared on the 10 somoni banknote. At the beginning of 2014, meanwhile, to mark the 700th anniversary of the saint’s birth, it was announced that the Tajik state, again in conjunction with Iran, would provide funds for the reconstruction of the park where Hamadani’s museum is located and for celebrations connected to the anniversary, while the Iran-Tajikistan Friendship Society announced plans for a Seyyed Ali Hamadani Foundation. Meanwhile members of Tajikistan’s political elite are said to frequently visit the shrine. As in the case of Uzbekistan, the Tajik government’s decision to patronise the legacy of Seyyed Ali Hamadani can best be understood as part of a broader policy to promote a more tolerant, politically quietist – in a word, Sufi – interpretation of Islam as the country’s indigenous religious tradition, as a bulwark against the imported threat of fundamentalism.

The mausoleum of Ahmad Yasavi in the Kazakh city of Turkestan is one of the oldest surviving examples of state patronage of a saint’s shrine in Central Asia. The Yasaviyya order, which looked to Ahmad as their founder and guide, played a key role in bringing many of the nomadic Turkic (and later Mongol) tribes of Central Asia into Islam. Known as a popular order of wandering dervishes, the Yasaviyya are said to have incorporated many of the traditional shamanistic practices of the Turkic tribes into their rituals, thus easing the conversion process. As a bridge between the Islamic and Turkic worlds, therefore, the cult of Ahmad Yasavi was especially appealing to the 14th century conqueror Timur (known in the west as Tamerlane), a Turkic-Mongol warrior who sought to depict himself as the heir to the universal empire of Genghis Khan, yet also a Muslim who defined his rule in Islamic terms. For this reason, Timur patronised a major reconstruction of Ahmad Yasavi’s shrine, which was already an important site of pilgrimage. By linking his rule to the cult of Ahmad Yasavi, Timur was able to tap into the power of the cult of saints that was widespread throughout Central Asia, and thus to acquire religious legitimacy for his rule. This policy of patronising shrines as a means of gaining legitimacy in Islamic terms was continued by his Timurid successors, who also renovated and expanded the shrine of the famous 11th century Sufi Abdullah Ansari at their capital Herat, as well as the ‘Alid shrine at Balkh and the mausoleum of the Shi’a Imam Reza at Mashhad. Clearly, Timur and his successors understood that, if they were able to present themselves as protectors and patrons of the saints, the baraka (spiritual power) of those saints that the pilgrims sought might rub off on them. (For the Timurids’ patronage of shrines, see Subtelny, 2007, Ch. 6.)

Today, the shrine of Ahmad Yasavi is a UNESCO World Heritage site and an undoubted source of Kazakh national pride. As in the Uzbek and Tajik cases, following independence the Kazakh state was quick to identify the shrine as a point of reference in its efforts to construct a new national identity. Once again we find that state funds were provided for the renovation of the shrine, and 1993 – the same year that the Uzbeks celebrated the life of Baha’uddin Naqshband – was declared the year of Ahmad Yasavi in Kazakhstan. Like Baha’uddin and Ali Hamadani, Ahmad Yasavi has thus become something of a national saint. (see Low, 2007, 49-50)

The relationship between Islam and the state in the republics of Central Asia remains a contested issue. In providing state support for the cults of their nations’ most famous medieval mystics, the governments of these republics have sought to define this relationship. The message seems to be that the state is the guardian of the nation’s religious heritage, and that Sufism is an integral part of this heritage. In so doing, the governments are drawing on an ancient precedent – even before Timur, rulers sought legitimacy through the patronage of Sufi saints’ shrines (the Seljuks’ patronage of the shrine and cult of the famous Sufi Bayazid Bastami being one notable example). The policy of supporting saints’ shrines therefore seems to have two major goals, namely: helping to construct a new national identity through the appropriation of the past, and promoting a more tolerant form of Islam as a counterweight to Islamic radicalism. In the long run, the success of this policy will be determined by whether long-held traditions such as visitation to saints’ shrines are able to survive the onslaughts of secular modernism and radical Islam, both of which are critical of the cult of saints. If the survival of the practice of visitation during the Soviet era – and its subsequent revival – is a good indicator, then the shrines will continue to play a prominent role in the religious and cultural life of Central Asia for many years to come.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Ann-Gross, J & Urunbaev, A, The Letters of Khwajah ‘Ubayd Allah Ahrar and His Associates (Brill, 2002).

Arabov, O, “A note on Sufism in Tajikistan: what does it look like?”, Central Asian Survey, 23:3-4 (2010), 345-347.

Brill-Olcott, M, “Sufism in Central Asia: A Force for Moderation or a Cause of Politicization?”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (2007).

Louw, E, Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia (Routledge, 2007).

O’Dell, E, “The Teaching, Practice, and Political Role of Sufism in Dushanbe”, NCEEER Working Paper (2011).

Roy, O, The New Central Asia: Geopolitics and the Birth of Nations (I.B. Tauris, 2007)

Subtelny, M, Timurids in Transition: Turko-Persian Politics and Acculturation in Medieval Iran (Brill, 2007)

Trimingham, J, The Sufi Orders in Islam (Oxford University Press, 1998)

Weismann, I, The Naqshbandiyya: Orthodoxy and activism in a worldwide Sufi tradition (Routledge, 2007).