What does the future hold for Islam in Kazakhstan?

Only a small number of Muslims practice, but as religion grows so, too, do instances of radicalism

By Maral Tazhibaeva

2009-12-21

ASTANA. Kazakhstan -- Although 77 percent of Kazakhs are Muslim by descent, only a small fraction practice the religion.

But, as the number of faithful Muslims rises each year, manifestations of religious radicalism are more frequent, creating a quandary for the religion and its followers.

“There is no other way than the Muslim faith for Kazakhstan and Kazakhs, a real and correct Islam, while extremism results from a lack of knowledge used for political ends”, Bilal, a student with the Nur-Mubarak Theological University, Kazakhstan‘s only school for training imams, told Central Asia Online.

Its rector, Dr. Khijazi declined requests for an interview. The other schools which used to operate have since been closed.

In order to teach the people that "radical Islam" is not right, religious leaders issue fatwas, or orders, blaming terrorists for misleading people and for the going against the rules of Islam.

They also ask believers during Friday prayers to follow the teachings of being peaceful.

A religious upturn began after the country gained independence in 1991 and it has reached all classes.

Aslbek – whose father, Aslan Musin, heads the Kazakh president’s administration – leads a modernist Muslim sect of Quranites criticized by official clerics. President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s nephew Kayrat Satybaldy heads Ak Orda, another, more conservative and orthodox religious group.

All imams (about 2,700) need permission from the SDMK to work for the Muftiate. This is intended to prevent extremists from taking control of mosques. The Muftiate teach imams to be tolerant and loyal.

The Muftiate’s ideology is based on the Hanafi School of Sunni Islam. Hanafis follow Imam Abu Hanifa, one of the four Imams of Islam.

“The SDMK officially represents the interests of Kazakhstan’s Muslims but is not a state agency”, said Erkebulan Karakulov, head of the Muftiate’s Department of Religious Analysis and Examination. “The Muftiate’s responsibilities include issuing official fatwa for the republic’s Muslims and ensuring their unity”.

Nevertheless, the SDMK operates in line with government policies.

As for the small proportion of practicing Muslims, Muhammed Hussein Khadzhi Alsabekov, deputy head of the SDMK, said many “just have not had an opportunity to learn their religion and study”.

He said the Muftiate’s task is to give people “food for thought” rather than achieve higher numbers.

Proof that the number of Muslim worshippers has risen of late is seen by a steep rise in the number of mosques – up from 63 during the Soviet era to 2,700.

Kazakhstan’s authorities are trying to harmonize inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations, for instance, by holding annual conventions of traditional religions in Astana, or by adopting the National Unity Doctrine.

Rustam Alpysbayev, a Kazakh journalist and researcher of Islam, says that the country “in fact, has no secular specialists on Islam. There are only representatives of the SDMK or theologists who testify at trials of suspected extremists, but it is impossible to meet them to discuss the religious situation. I do not know who conveys the religious picture to the country’s leadership”.

Serik, 20, interviewed outside the Central Mosque in Almaty said, “On the surface it seems that Kazakhstan seeks to please everyone – Catholic churches and Judaic synagogues were built but then later stood empty. However, it has been a strange conversation with local Muslims – those who are reluctant to visit official mosques, those who have long beards or wear hijabs are considered extremists. They are placed under unofficial surveillance, being followed and are pressured”.

Neither officials, representatives of the SDMK, nor scholars can say how many “disloyal” Muslim communities are in the country. The Quranites claim to have about 100,000 followers.

The Muftiate issued a fatwa against this religious group, accusing it of digression from Islam. The chief imam of the Central Mosque, Kulmuhammad Makhanbet, described their preaching on his website as an attempt “to destroy religion by replacing concepts and through circum-intellectual jugglery.”

Courts in Kazakhstan have outlawed 13 terrorist organizations and one considered extremist. Eleven of those allegedly involved in terrorist activity used Muslim religious slogans.

When asked how widespread radical views in Kazakhstan were, Karakulov said, “There are groups and sects of that sort in the western part of the country. They consider all who do not read Namaz and who have not joined them as Kafirs. This is wrong according to our religion. I have never met those who took arms for jihad. I hope and believe there are no people like that in Kazakhstan”.

This year, a Kazakh court imposed a ban on the distribution of more than 200 titles of books, booklets, audio and leaflets deemed extremist.

“On the surface, one can say we do not have religious extremism, but in fact we have turbulent neighbours: Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan (and we) are quite close to Afghanistan”, said Nagima Baitenova, the head of the Philosophy and Religious Studies Department at Kazakhstan’s al-Farabi Nagim Baitenov National University.

“There is also the internal factor and threat which comes mainly from activities of banned Islamist and extremist sects like Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Wahhabis. Kazakhstan has latent extremism that destroys society from within. The country is targeted by latent religious expansion”, he said.

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Reader Comments

  • The Kazakh nation will soon disappear through Islam. Look, if you are a Muslim you have to pray in Arabic, wear national Arab clothes, lead an Arab lifestyle and adopt their Arab-Muslim traditions. Are we Kazakhs or someone else? It would be better to follow the Tengriism to preserve the Kazakh nation. Most importantly, we should remain Kazakhs and preserve our traditions. I am sick of the Ishmaelites imposing their faith and culture. Let us not lose our identity and personality. I oppose the Islamisation of the Kazakh people.

    November 26, 2013 @ 09:11:20AM Темирлан
  • Mashalleh. This is a good article. Those seeking to achieve selfish ends by spreading anarchy in the state will not do well and will be among the losers, Allah willing.

    October 27, 2012 @ 01:10:33AM ЯСМИН
  • Our Kazakh brothers know themselves. They know where they come from, where they are, and to where they will go. Islam is the only way of salvation. It is obvious that those who think Islam has some vague points, have not known Islam correctly. The purpose of media propaganda by the foes of Islam, in order to tie Islam to terrorism, has been defeated. China, Russia, Europe, the USA and Israel are on the verge of collapse.

    October 17, 2011 @ 04:10:00AM آرسلان ته‌گین غازی
  • i went to kazakhstan last year .most of kazakhstan were sufies . they have soft version of islam like we punjabi have,but some biggest power in kazakhstan want to change people of kazakhstan to wahabissim version(pathnisim),wahabi mullah always talk against kazakh culture out of tv show some time in tv shows. wahabi mullah want to convert them jihadi and suiced attaker like they did in our pakistan

    August 13, 2011 @ 08:08:00PM pakistani
  • Zhaslan! Islam is a religion. Tengriism is a belief. Circumcision existed before Christianity and long before Islam. As for the ancestors, look beyond Al-Farabi and you will see. They bury the dead at cemeteries according to Sufism. Ahmed Yassaui adjusted Quran to Tengri. Otherwise it would not be accepted. Not 33 Arabic words, but 50 to 60 percent of the Kazakh literary language consists of Arab and Persian words. Atilla was against Christianity, Genghis Khan was against Islam, and we will go for Tengriism. And you will not get away from it, are you closer to your people or someone else's religion?

    June 10, 2011 @ 03:06:00PM айдын
  • Tengrianism is not a religion, it is stupid, study it. If some Kazakhs do not consider themselves Muslims, then why do they bury their loved ones at Muslim cemeteries? They do circumcision because they are Muslims and those who do not consider themselves Muslims, let them be buried elsewhere. They can avoid circumcision and be impotent. Our Kazakh ancestors have always been devout Muslims - Abai Kunanbaev, Abu Nasr Al Farabi, Mashhoor Zhusup, etc. All read prayers and were earnest Muslims; 33 words in the Kazakh language come from the Arabic language.

    April 15, 2011 @ 01:04:00AM Жаслан
  • @ poganin_konserwa : While I honestly respect your views, I pity you as a Kazakh. You claim that 97% of Kazakhs are Tengriists. Maybe you just need to explain this to us further. I have friends from Kazakhstan studying here in Egypt but none of themn has said of that high percentage of your religious affiliation. Your president could not have built a Islamic university if at all would end up unattended. Please verify your statistics.

    November 7, 2010 @ 11:11:00AM Darwin George
  • \" Only Tengriism and Aruaki spirits of our glorious and mighty ancestors can inspire the Kazakhs! That is why, all these Semitic religions, in particular Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc. are nonsense that you should leave for yourself. You and your obscurantism are deeply alien to the Kazakhs and offensive to us. You are like slaves to your gods with books, obscurantism, dogmas and other nonsense, so go away, not just go away but go far and far away! If we keep silence and do not touch you, it does not mean you can talk rubbish about the Kazakhs and Islam. Do not touch us, our god Tengri, our Tengriism, the customs and traditions of our ancestors and our spiritual values. We do not need something that belongs to you!\" - I agree mate, I totally agree. Having Slavic and some Tatar roots myself, I worship the Old Gods of both Peoples; I sacrifice food and drink to Svantevit, Svarog, Perun, Veles, Mokosh, but also to Tengri and Eje; and to all of my Ancestors of course. The Old Gods, true Gods of our Peoples are coming back, or better - we come back to Them. Slava (Glory) to the Old Ones, the High Ones of our Nations!!!

    February 10, 2010 @ 10:02:00AM poganin_konserwa
  • This is a terrible attempt to tie Islam with terrorism! It is a lie to suggest that an Islamic revival is automatically accompanied by extremism! Extremism\'s causes lie in the palaces of the dictators that the West employs to murder, torture, and squander the wealth of the people. To stop the dictators (and those who fund them) is the only way to stop terrorism!

    January 27, 2010 @ 06:01:00AM Ibrahim
  • A lack of information breeds fabrication, extremism etc. Religion should be accessible and one should not think that it will not affect everyone.

    January 5, 2010 @ 06:01:00AM Галина
  • Where is my comment? Do you have censorship? If you say "A" by posting articles and offering readers to add their comments, have courage and professional objectivity to say "B" by posting readers'comments, you asked readers for comments, didn't you?

    January 5, 2010 @ 06:01:00AM Алтай
  • There are no Muslims, Christians, Hindus, Buddhists or other faithful by birth! The man makes his spiritual choice himself on the basis of spiritual traditions and customs of his people. The Kazakhs have not given anyone the right to categorize them as members one denomination or another. The Kazakhs have their own spiritual traditions - the Faith they inherited from their ancestors. That is Tengriism. About 97% of Kazakhs, not 77 %, are Tengriists! Only Tengriism and Aruaki spirits of our glorious and mighty ancestors can inspire the Kazakhs! That is why, all these Semitic religions, in particular Christianity, Judaism, Islam etc. are nonsense that you should leave for yourself. You and your obscurantism are deeply alien to the Kazakhs and offensive to us. You are like slaves to your gods with books, obscurantism, dogmas and other nonsense, so go away, not just go away but go far and far away! If we keep silence and do not touch you, it does not mean you can talk rubbish about the Kazakhs and Islam. Do not touch us, our god Tengri, our Tengriism, the customs and traditions of our ancestors and our spiritual values. We do not need something that belongs to you!

    January 5, 2010 @ 04:01:00AM Алтай
  • I was in Kazakhstan last year and saw quite a lot of religion there. Why?

    January 5, 2010 @ 01:01:00AM 1986
  • The so-called world religions do not produce a clear picture of cosmogenesis and antropogenesis. The purpose of life of an individual and humanity as a whole is unclear and does not satisfy smart people. There are conflicting points in every religion and between religions because there is no clear answer, at least at the moment. There must be a Common Understanding for the whole humanity. We are one people to God. At the down-to-earth materialistic level, i.e. in technologies, all follow the same laws, but everyone has a different idea of spirituality. Every human's main measurement is the quality of soul and consciousness. Most have discrete consciousness and are unable to think in categories of world creation.

    December 31, 2009 @ 10:12:00AM Акрамкан