Islam in Uzbekistan

Islam is by far the dominant religion in Uzbekistan, as Muslims constitute 90% of the population while 5% of the population follow Russian Orthodox Christianity according to a 2009 US State Department release.[1] However, a 2009 Pew Research Center report stated that Uzbekistan's population is 96.3% Muslim.[2] An estimated 93,000 Jews were once present. Despite its predominance, the practice of Islam is far from monolithic. Many versions of the faith have been practiced in Uzbekistan. The conflict of Islamic tradition with various agendas of reform or secularization throughout the 20th century has left the outside world with a confused notion of Islamic practices in Central Asia. In Uzbekistan the end of Soviet power did not bring an upsurge of Islamic fundamentalism, as many had predicted, but rather a gradual reacquaintance with the precepts of the faith. However, after 2000, there seems to be a rise of support in favour of the Islamists, which is whipped up by the repressive measures of the authoritarian regime.


The Po-i-Kalyan Mosque in Bukhara.

Islam was brought to ancestors of modern Uzbeks during the 8th century when the Arabs entered Central Asia. Islam initially took hold in the southern portions of Turkestan and thereafter gradually spread northward.[3] Islam also took root due to the zealous missionary work of the Iranian Samanid rulers as a significant number of Turkic peoples accepted Islam.[4] In the 14th-century, Tamerlane constructed many religious structures, including the Bibi-Khanym Mosque. He also constructed one of his finest buildings at the tomb of Ahmed Yesevi, an influential Turkic Sufi saint who spread Sufi Islam among the nomads. Omar Aqta, Timur's court calligrapher, is said to have transcribed the Qur'an using letters so small that the entire text of the book fit on a signet ring. Omar also is said to have created a Qur'an so large that a wheelbarrow was required to transport it. Folios of what is probably this larger Qur'an have been found, written in gold lettering on huge pages. Islam also spread amongst the Uzbeks with the conversion of Uzbeg Khan. Converted to Islam by Ibn Abdul Hamid, a Bukharan sayyid and sheikh of the Yasavi order, Uzbeg Khan promoted Islam amongst the Golden Horde and fostered Muslim missionary work to expand across Central Asia. In the long run, Islam enabled the khan to eliminate interfactional struggles in the Horde and to stabilize state institutions.

Notable scholars from the area today known as Uzbekistan include Imam Bukhari whose book, Sahih Bukhari is regarded by Sunni Muslims as the most authentic of all hadith compilations and the most authoritative book after the Qur'an. Other Muslim scholars from the region include Imam Tirmidhi and Abu Mansur Maturidi who was one of the pioneers[5] of Islamic Jurisprudence scholars and his two works are considered to be authoritative on the subject.[6] In Samarqand, the development of sciences in the Muslim world greatly prospered. The work of Ali Qushji (d. 1474), who worked at Samarqand and then Istanbul, is seen as a late example of innovation in Islamic theoretical astronomy and it is believed he may have possibly had some influence on Nicolaus Copernicus due to similar arguments concerning the Earth's rotation. The astronomical tradition established by the Maragha school continued at the Ulugh Beg Observatory at Samarqand. Founded by Ulugh Beg in the early 15th century, the observatory made considerable progress in observational astronomy.

Islam in the Soviet Era

Madrassa in Samarkand (photo taken in 1911).

Moscow greatly distorted the understanding of Islam among Uzbekistan's population and created competing Islamic ideologies among the Central Asians themselves. After its introduction in the 7th century, Islam in many ways formed the basis of life in Uzbekistan. During the Soviet era, Uzbekistan had sixty-five registered mosques and as many as 3,000 active mullahs and other Muslim clerics. For almost forty years, the Muslim Board of Central Asia, the official, Soviet-approved governing agency of the Muslim faith in the region, was based in Tashkent. The grand mufti who headed the board met with hundreds of foreign delegations each year in his official capacity, and the board published a journal on Islamic issues, Muslims of the Soviet East. However, the Muslims working or participating in any of these organizations were carefully screened for political reliability. Furthermore, as the government ostensibly was promoting Islam with the one hand, it was working hard to eradicate it with the other. The government sponsored official anti-religious campaigns and severe crackdowns on any hint of an Islamic movement or network outside of the control of the state. Moreover, many Muslims were subjected to intense Russification. Many mosques were closed [7] and during Joseph Stalin's reign, many Muslims were victims of mass deportation.

Mainstream Islam


Mosque in Bukhara.

For the most part, however, in the first years of independence Uzbekistan is seeing a resurgence of a more secular Islam, and even that movement is in its very early stages. According to a public opinion survey conducted in 1994, interest in Islam is growing rapidly, but personal understanding of Islam by Uzbeks remains limited or distorted. For example, about half of ethnic Uzbek respondents professed belief in Islam when asked to identify their religious faith. Among that number, however, knowledge or practice of the main precepts of Islam was weak. Despite a reported spread of Islam among Uzbekistan's younger population, the survey suggested that Islamic belief is still weakest among the younger generations. Few respondents showed interest in a form of Islam that would participate actively in political issues. Thus, the first years of post-Soviet religious freedom seem to have fostered a form of Islam related to the Uzbek population more in traditional and cultural terms than in religious ones, weakening Karimov's claims that a growing widespread fundamentalism poses a threat to Uzbekistan's survival.


Further information: Andijan massacre

Experts assume that Islam itself was probably not the root cause of growing unrest as much as a vehicle for expressing other grievances that are more immediate causes of dissension and despair. The people view political Islam as a solution to these problems. The Uzbek rulers strongly deny that. The government is against the (Hizb ut-Tahrir (Party of Islamic Liberation) and the followers of Said Nursî of Turkey.[8]

The government blames the May 2005 unrest in Uzbekistan on an aim to overthrow the government of Uzbekistan in order to make it a Central Asian theocratic republic. Uzbek President Islam Karimov "placed blame for the unrest on Islamic extremist groups, a label that he has used to describe political opponents in recent years and that his critics say is used as a pretext for maintaining a repressive state."[9] Hizb ut-Tahrir have denied involvement in the unrest, but expressed sympathy and solidarity with the victims of the unrest, firmly laying blame on the repressive practices and corruption of the government.

See also


  1. Atabaki, Touraj. Central Asia and the Caucasus: transnationalism and diaspora, pg. 24
  2. Ibn Athir, volume 8, pg. 396
  3. Katip Çelebi. (1943). Keşfü'z-Zünûn an Esâmi'l-Kütüb vel-Fünûn, (Vol. I), (pp. 110‑11). Istanbul:Maarif Matbaası.
  4. Ali, A. (1963). Maturidism. In Sharif, M. M. (Ed.), A history of muslim philosophy: With short accounts of other disciplines and the modern renaissance in the muslim lands (Vol. 1), (p. 261). Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz.
  5. Muslims in the Former U.S.S.R
  7. Uzbeks say troops shot recklessly at civilians The New York Times
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