Kyrgyzstan develops aviation transport services
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to promote cellular sector growth
Uzbek theatre group teaches contemporary drama
Egypt announces arrest of al-Qaeda-linked terrorist cell
More Central Asians start performing Ramadan rites
Believers interested in true Islam without prejudices, analysts say
By Asker Sultanov and Gulmira Kamziyeva
BISHKEK – The number of Central Asians observing the Ramadan fast has been growing year to year, analysts say, seeing this as an indicator that more Muslims seek to worship “true Islam” – a faith free from wrong interpretations.
This year Ramadan begins July 20 in Central Asia. In Pakistan and some other countries it could begin later, depending on moon sightings and local conditions and traditions.
In Tajikistan, where the Islamic faith always has been important, according to Tajik Ulema Council spokesman Fatih Bobodzhonov, the popularity of Ramadan and Islam continues to rise. Ramadan is the month of peace and spiritual purification, Bobodzhonov said, explaining the attraction of the month-long fast.
To accommodate the growing numbers of adherents, Tajikistan has started building a mosque that will accommodate 50,000 inside and more than 60,000 in its yard, he said. “This will be the biggest mosque in the post-Soviet area,” he said
Uzbek President Islam Karimov July 17 signed a decree on Ramadan ordering all necessary measures so the month can be celebrated appropriately.
Tashkent Islam University student Komil Shariyev said he has been following Ramadan for more than 10 years, but his parents will join him only this year: “It is going to be very hot the next month, but I’m going to support my family spiritually, because they have made the right choice … to fast during Ramadan,” Shariyev said.
“The number of people embracing Islam has been growing with every coming year, and not only in Kyrgyzstan but worldwide too,” Maksat Mambetaliyev, spokesman for the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kyrgyzstan (DUMK), said. “People are interested in Islam as it is, without distortions or misinterpretations. Why? Because true Islam is consistent with the natural state of mind of each individual and society as a whole.”
Despite the increase in those attending prayers, the DUMK has had no problems finding space for the devout in its mosques, Mambetaliyev noted.
“During Ramadan, traditional iftar meals are served at the larger mosques in Bishkek, Osh and other cities, with sponsors from among local businessmen paying for those meals as a way to earn favours from the Almighty,” he said. “On the 27th night of Ramadan, the Lailat al-Qadr or Night of Destiny is celebrated at all mosques throughout the country. On this blessed night, which the Koran describes as being ‘better than 1,000 months,’ people come to mosques to hear sermons, recite prayers, read the Koran and, of course, beg the Creator to grant prosperity to Muslims and to Kyrgyzstan.”
During the Orozo Ayt (Eid ul-Fitr) feast of the end of Ramadan August 19, all Muslims come out into the central squares in their cities to offer the holiday prayer, Mambetaliyev said.
“After the prayer, they go home feeling exalted, visit their dear ones and rejoice at the rewards they receive for their 30-day fasting,” he said.
No surveys to measure the number of people observing the Ramadan fast have been conducted, said Kazakhstani theologian Makhmatullo Koriyev. However, judging by crammed mosques and the growing popularity of halal food and iftar services, the number of people fasting increases by 4% to 5% per year, he said.
“It's interesting that their number has been growing not only because of the young, but also because of adults who never fasted before; such people are numerous,” he added.
Older newcomers to Ramadan
Almaty resident Atirkul Nogaibayeva, 60, will fast for the first time ever this year. She spent an entire year learning to pray in accordance with the Muslim canons and is waiting for Ramadan to begin.
“I am a mother of four and a grandmother of 10,” she said. “I would like all my kids to be happy, and I wish peace and goodwill to all people; so I'm about to keep this fast of my own free will, performing my duty as a Muslim. ... (It) might improve my health a bit, too.”
Leaflets detailing the times of sunrise and sunset during Ramadan are annually distributed at mosques, and she intends to stringently comply with the mealtime limitations, Nogaibayeva added.
Askhan Syzdykuly, 42, of Astana, a long-time follower of Islam, has never kept the Ramadan fast – but will do so this year.
“Although the holy month comes amid the hot season this year, those who have gone through this test said the Almighty gives one the strength to endure all the hardships,” he said. “I spent a month preparing myself morally for this. Most important, love for the Almighty isn't found at mosques, it's in everyone's heart.”
The majority of fast participants – 60% – are rural residents, said Anara Tabyshaliyeva, director of the Regional Research Institute of Kyrgyzstan.
“The number of urban residents observing the fast has notably increased as well,” she said. “Still, rural areas appear to be more religious than the capital, and former (Communist) party activists there have stepped down ... to make room for people who've shown a high degree of religiosity and performed the Hajj.”
Akiyat Party leader Alikbek Dzhekshenkulov, a former Kyrgyz foreign minister, told Central Asia Online he took to fasting four years ago.
“Just like any respectable Muslim, I keep the (Ramadan) fast, since I see this as my duty to the Almighty during the month of purification and self-actualisation,” he said. “Besides, fasting is good for your health.”
“The influence of Islam has generally grown, as clearly shown by the crowds attending Friday prayers,” he said. “Believers, many youth among them, no longer find enough room inside the Central Mosque in Bishkek and stay to pray outside.”
All Bishkek mosques have been overcrowded during Friday prayers in the past three to four years, Mambetaliyev agreed.
“That's not to mention the Kurman and Orozo Ayt (Eid) prayers,” he said. “In Bishkek, Eid prayers attract up to 150,000 people; Friday prayers half as many. This number has been growing from year to year, as shown by the huge crowds assembling in the city square during holiday prayers. ... And the number of regular mosque-goers has been growing too. A mosque once built in some residential area or district quickly becomes too small to hold all the worshippers, so we need to build larger mosques.”
Mosque construction boom
Besides Dushanbe, other Central Asian cities are welcoming newer, bigger mosques.
One of Central Asia's largest mosques opened in Balykchy, Kyrgyzstan, in May. “It can hold up to 10,000 people,” Mambetaliyev said. “And in June, another mosque opened at the foot of Mount Sulaiman-Too in the city of Osh. It, too, is one of Central Asia's largest. It can hold 5,000 people inside, and 15,000 more can pray outside.”
A new mosque for 10,000 worshippers has opened in Astana, Koriyev added.
The growing number of Kyrgyz believers prompted the DUMK to start building a new Central Mosque in Bishkek for about 7,500 worshippers; the project is to be completed in 2014.
The number of mosques in southern Kyrgyzstan has increased from just a few at the end of the Soviet era to nearly 2,000 today, Tabyshaliyeva said. In the past 15 years, the number of mosques in Kyrgyzstan alone has increased 42-fold to more than 1,750, according to the NGO Human Rights Advocacy Centre.
The number of people identifying themselves as Muslims has tended to grow, Nazira Kurbanova, chairwoman of the Public Oversight Council at the Kyrgyz State Commission on Religious Affairs, acknowledged, while noting that this growth may be “quantitative, rather than qualitative.”
“Indeed, it seems the number of believers has increased – if only because more women have started wearing hijabs and the mosques are crammed,” she said. “But this category might be superficial adherents.”
More and more Muslims seek to learn true Islam and study it in a scholarly manner, without lapsing into extremism or heresy, Koriyev said. “This is a very positive indicator. Also, many intellectuals have taken to fasting and have embraced Islam without getting radicalised.”
Fasting impacts city dwellers positively, said Altynbek, a mullah from Almaty. “Also, it has some psychological effects – it gives people a feeling of peace and spiritual calm and reduces their hostility toward others; all this sharply reduces the rate of crime and extremism,” he said.