Soviet and Muslim

The Institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia, 1943-1991

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Eren Taser
Religion and Global Politics
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , December
     416 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Soviet and Muslim: The Institutionalization of Islam in Central Asia retraces the history of the establishment of formal and informal institutions between the Soviet authorities and Islam in Central Asia over five decades from Stalin’s liberalization of religious policy during World War II to Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” (1944-1989). It is divided into five chapters, including conclusions.

The introduction addresses the state of the Islamic sphere in Central Asia, starting from the Russian conquest during the second half of the 19th century, when a policy of “non-interference” was applied to Islamic issues, through the years of the Revolution, Lenin’s New Economic Policy, severe persecution of religion in the 1930s, and up to Stalin’s adjustment of policy toward religionduring World War II, when the question of strengthening Soviet patriotism amongst the Union’s more religious citizens came to the fore. 

During this liberalization, a “Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan” (SADUM) was established in Tashkent in 1943 as an institution for the centralization of religious activities with the aim of normalizing relationships with the Soviet authorities. Established a month earlier as part of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC) became SADUM’s patron and senior partner. Through their complex interactions, Eren Tasar paints a wide panorama of the ambiguous and painful attempts to include religion in the everyday fabric of a modern atheist state. The main challenge was centralizing the religious sphere, which had never known such centralization and did not, or in some cases could not, agree to it. Tasar reveals the reasons for SADUM’s lack of success during the first attempt to centralize the activities of “official” and “non-registered” mosques, prominent religious figures, and representatives of a “people’s Islam” under the aegis of the SADUM. 

The second chapter, “Institutionalizing Soviet Islam, 1944-1958,” provides an overview of the concrete consequences of Stalin’s liberalization of religious policy at the local level against the background of an unfolding confrontation between hard and moderate lines within the Party-state. While hard-line advocates prevailed within the Party, CARC openly supported a more moderate approach, and often quite successfully prevented obvious violations of socialist law vis-à-vis believers and their associations by local authorities. On the basis of this “moderate line” and CARC’s “protective” role, an informal alliance between SADUM and CARC emerged. This informal alliance was strengthened additionally by a common foe: “popular” Islam and pre-Islamic beliefs and “vestiges.”

The third chapter, “SADUM's New Ambitions, 1943-1958,” discusses the institutional dynamics of SADUM's activities and its leaders who, with the support of very persuasive members of CARC, managed to achieve a maximal centralization of the Islamic sphere, extending it to a large number of unregistered mosques and a whole range of independent religious activists and corresponding financial flows.

The fourth chapter, “The Anti-Religious Campaign, 1959-1964,” deals with the victory of the hard line. It describes the almost complete elimination of the achievements of Stalin’s religious liberalization during Khrushchev’s rigid Leninist-Trotskyist campaign against religion. Despite all difficulties, SADUM succeeded both in maintaining itself as an organization and in keeping its in/formal link with CARC.

The fifth chapter, “The Muftiate on the International Stage,” shows that the victory of the Leninist-Trotskyist line provided SADUM with an unexpected loophole for self-preservation as an institutional formation: participation in the USSR’s anti-colonial policy in the countries of the Third World. In very difficult conditions, SADUM’s leaders managed to turn their organization into a valuable external political asset of the government. It was through the “Islamic face” of SADUM that the government was able to establish informal relations with many leaders of the Islamic world who were critical of the Soviet Union. Indeed, at that time SADUM became a kind of Islamic ministry of foreign affairs.

The sixth chapter, “The Brezhnev Era and Its Aftermath, 1965-1989,” describes SADUM's relationship with the state during the activation of the “Islamic factor” throughout the duration of the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan from 1979 to 1989. Tasar also includes the activation of the “Islamic factor” in the then-informal process of the Union Republics’ political and economic autonomization during the Brezhnev era, when the central government more or less lost effective and comprehensive control over the everyday life of the Union’s national entities. This period also witnessed the emergence of an Islamic sphere independent from SADUM and CARC, which after the collapse of the USSR would determine the relationship of post-Soviet states with religion.

Soviet and Muslim is based upon a deep analysis of unique sources from the central and republican archives as well as the published memoirs of some individuals active at the time, contemporary newspaper and magazine articles (in Russian, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, and Tajik), and the latest academic research. However, this concentration on written sources is the book’s main weakness: some of the author’s very controversial conclusions, reached on the basis of the archival sources alone, could have been verified through oral interviews with family members and colleagues of some of the most active figures of the period.

The study is limited to Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Turkmenistan is excluded from analysis due to its political isolation from both local and foreign researchers. Kazakhstan is not considered for two reasons: first, because CARC and SADUM built their relationship largely in the three republics mentioned above; and second, including Kazakhstan would have made Tasar’s research much more time-consuming. Both reasons are justified, but as a result, Soviet and Muslim focuses solely upon the so-called “stationary” Islam of settled communities. The “steppe” Islam of formerly nomadic groups is still waiting for a researcher to plumb its depths.

I resolutely disagrees with only one of Tasar’s assertions, which holds that the division of Islam into an “authentic” or “textual” branch and a “popular” or “fraudulent” one, whose roots lie in pre-Islamic, pagan, and therefore “inauthentic” practices, is solely an invention of European colonial powers that was later copied by Muslims in the post-colonial era who were against pilgrimage to shrines and “fraudulent” Islam (e.g., healers, sorcerers, etc.). The concept of the division of Islam into elite (khassa) and popular ('amma) branches was known long before the colonial era: it first occurs in the writings of Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa (ca. 721-757), and was later developed in the famous work of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (ca. 1059-1111), Ihya 'ulum al-din, in which he often uses the terms khassa and 'amma in the sense of an Islam of religious elites and an Islam of the common people, who understand Islam only from its outer layer.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bakhodir Sidikov is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Islamic Studies and Modern Oriental Philology at the University of Bern.

Date of Review: 
June 23, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Eren Tasar is Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


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