Islam in Kazakhstan: Modern and Moderate

By Alex Walters

The patterns of Islamic teaching, practice and tolerance among the Kazakh people have been remarkably consistent since the faith was first preached in the steppes of Central Asia in the eighth century. Islam in those days spread through the flourishing trade between those east and west of the Silk Road, the greatest route of commerce in the ancient world.

“The Kazakh tribes were a wandering nomadic people. And therefore they laid great emphasis on the values of hospitality, generosity and gratitude,” Alina Khamatdinova, the director of the Civic Alliance of Kazakhstan, told Edge Magazine. “The harshness of the steppe environment made life difficult. No one could survive it on their own. They could only do so as part of a community. And the communities had to learn to trust each other and to cooperate with each other.”

Muslims in KazakhstanToday, Kazakhstan is once more the hub of a rapidly growing web of communications and trade across the Eurasian land mass. And just as Islam was inclusive, tolerant and successful in those early days across the steppe, the modern practice of Islam in Kazakhstan remains the same today.

The traditions of Islam in the Kazakh lands were also shaped by the era in which they arrived. Islam came to the steppes very early, little more than a century after the life and teachings of the prophet himself. It was the era of the great caliphates of Damascus, Bagdad, and Cordoba – the greatest centres of learning, science, culture and tolerance in the world for half a millennium.

Through the peaceful activities of missionaries, Islam gradually but steadily spread to become the dominant faith of the Kazakh peoples. Their lifestyle and culture as nomads, herders and traders spread the faith to the farthest and most remote corners of the steppe. And today, the re-establishment of the institutions of the faith is being encouraged and is flourishing after the long, dark age of religious repression during the Soviet era.

Even before Kazakhstan became fully independent from the Soviet Union, the foundations for a revival of the Islamic faith were underway. In 1990, President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who was then running the country as first secretary of the Communist party of Kazakhstan, defied the Kremlin by pulling Kazakhstan out of the Muslim Board of Central Asia. The board had been Moscow’s main body to control and limit Islam throughout the region. Nazarbayev replaced it with an independent muftiate, or Muslim religious authority, for all the practicing Muslims in Kazakhstan. With that move, Kazakhstan broke from the religious limitations of the Soviet Union and signaled that the revival of Islam would be supported and fostered at the highest levels of the re-emerging independent nation.

Nazarbayev and his colleagues also took care from the earliest days of national independence to protect and preserve the traditionally moderate and tolerant traditions of Hanafi Islam in Kazakhstan. In 1993, the new constitution of Kazakhstan expressly ruled out the existence of religious political parties. The separation of religion from politics was ensured by this crucial act.

Two years later, the revised Constitution of 1995 went further by outlawing any group that tried to stir up racial, ethnic or religious conflict in the country. It also gave the government the power to closely monitor and restrain the activities within Kazakhstan of religious organizations from outside the country. In this way, Kazakhstan was able to insulate itself from the extreme religious conflicts that have convulsed a number of other nations in Asia.

The 1995 Constitution, as did its predecessor, also stipulated that Kazakhstan is and will be a secular state.
When Nazarbayev established the Muftiate of Kazakhstan, he chose Ratbek Nisanbayev to be its first leader, or mufti. Nisanbayev agreed that bringing Islam into politics would be harmful to both the nation and to the practice of the faith within it. He publically and repeatedly stated that any Islamist political party in Kazakhstan would create a “breach of peace.”

The government of Kazakhstan, however, did not try to discourage the spread of Islam in the country. On the contrary, the government actively encouraged it. As a result, the faith, and not just the Islamic faith, has dramatically flourished in conditions of tolerance, confidence and freedom in the two decades since independence.

By 2010, 65 percent of the 16.4 million people in Kazakhstan were Muslims. The Blue Mosque in the new capital Astana was built to house 7,000 people. Instead, more than 14,000 people flock to its main prayer service every Friday.

In the summer of 2011, Kazakhstan also created an Agency for Religious Affairs, a government body whose job it is to coordinate the state activities regarding religions, to prevent any abuses by religious organizations in the country and to make sure the traditions of tolerance and freedom of belief are protected. It was that Agency that put together a new bill on religious activities in the fall of 2011 which was passed by the Parliament and signed into law by President Nazarbayev in October 2011. This law, upholding the religious freedom and tolerance for all religions, for the firs t time in Kazakhstan’s history also highlighted the traditional role of Islam, as well as Russian Orthodox Christianity, as the two most widely spread religions in the country.

The country also recognized that for Islam to flourish, Kazakhstan would have to re-enter the Ummah, the great global community of 1.3 billion Muslims, from which it had been forcibly separated through 74 years of Soviet rule. Kazakhstan’s chairing of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation this year is a fitting achievement to crown 20 years of successful efforts in this regard since the establishment of national independence.

Financial aid and other support for the building of new mosques and teaching institutions in Kazakhstan since independence has come primarily from Turkey, Egypt and, most of all, from Saudi Arabia. Kazakhstan has established flourishing relations with those nations and the small states of the Arabian, or Persian, Gulf. Every year, thousands of Kazakh Muslims freely and joyously fulfill the hajj, the greatest annual religious pilgrimage in the world.
President Nazarbayev has also set a personal example in leading this process. He has paid high-profile state visits to leading nations of the Ummah such as Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia while pursuing the goal of making Kazakhstan a bridge linking East and West, North and South. And in 1994, he visited the most holy of Muslim sites, Mecca.

The dramatic rise in the observance of Muslim laws regarding the purity of food, especially meat, is another testament to the constructive religious revival that has occurred in the country. As recently as 2000, it was extremely difficult to buy Halal meat anywhere in Kazakhstan and there was almost no domestic demand for it. Today, more than 500 Kazakh companies produce and sell Halal meat, making Kazakhstan Central Asia’s main Halal meat producer. And in 2006, Kazakhstan established a rigorous process of official certification for its producers of Halal meat.

But despite the strict standards for Halal meat and other religious observances, the practice of Islam in Kazakhstan remains an entirely moderate and voluntary one. The culture of Islam in Kazakhstan is one of tolerance and understatement. The presence and importance of the religion is immediately apparent to the visitor, but not overwhelming. And those who choose observances such as hijabs – traditional Muslim head coverings worn by women – mix freely and comfortably with others who wear modern miniskirts or enjoy a cocktail at the country’s many nightclubs and restaurants.

The beauty of the revival of Islam in Kazakhstan is that it is both flourishing in the modern world, while retaining the tolerance and inclusion that marked its arrival on the Kazakh steppes all those centuries ago.

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