Saturday, May 23, 2015

Religions of Central Asia


In central Asia Religion like other aspects of its culture are an overlap between East and West. Buddhism reached China from India and Central Asia, Nestorian Christianity came west to Iran and Central Asia because of suppression by the Byzantine Church, and Islam went west - not always by the sword, as is so often proclaimed, but largely by wandering Sufis who were not always welcome at the courts of the caliphs for their unorthodox views. Manicheism - the state religion of the Uighur kingdom in the 8th century - died out in the 20th century from its beginnings in Iran in the 3rd century AD. For a thousand years Zoroastrianism flourished throughout Central Asia but disappeared except for small communities in Iran, Pakistan and India.

Muslim Religion - Islam, meaning in Arabic "giving oneself up to God, submission" was founded at the beginning of the 7thc. AD on the Arabian Peninsula during the period of formation of the Arabian state of classes.   Islam was influenced by Christianity and Judaism, and partly by Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism. To be a Muslim you must accept the "five pillars of faith".

The first of them is utterance of the symbol of faith: "There is no God besides Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet".  Muslims are also committed to praying every day, keeping the fasts, giving alms (zakat), and to making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives (hadj). Other religious ceremonies and rituals of Islam such as the Muslim holidays as well as the "pillars of faith" are of great importance for preserving and increasing influence of the religion over its believers.

Since its birth, Islam, like other religions, has been constantly changing. The division of Islam into three different sections- the Sunni, Shi'a and Sufi sects, stimulated the ideological development of the religion. With the exception of  small groups of Persians, and Kurds living in Turkmenistan and the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan, all the Muslims of the Central Asia are Sunnis. Shiites also live in the Gorno - Badakhshan autonomous province of Tajikistan, within a sect called Ismailites. Groups of followers of varieties of mystical and ascetic Moslem teachings of Sufism (Muridism) which can be  both Sunni and Shia are active in Chechnya and Ingushetia, and in some districts of Dagestan and Kazakhstan.

The Mir-Arab Madrasah in Bukhara where students are trained to become Muslim clergy, also has a school where Shiite clergy students are taught. Madrasahs are also found in Samarkand. There is an Al-Bukhari Muslim Institute in Tashkent.


Sufism is a religious and philosophical Muslim teaching developed in the Arab countries in the 8thc.

The cause for the development of Sufism was the state of social conditions in Muslim countries. Sufism contains elements of New Platonism, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and particularly Buddhism. In essence, Sufism propagates asceticism, pantheism, and mysticism. According to Sufism there are four steps leading to the state of perfection.

The first step is Sharia, or Muslim law, which requires unquestioning compliance. The second step, called "tarikat", requires the complete obedience of apprentices to their teachers and strengthening of the willpower by rejecting material interests. Having gone through this step, the third step, "marifat", can be reached when a man must use his heart and soul, not his intellect, to realize that the existence of the universe is in God, that the World is God's emanation and that the meaning of goodness and evil is relative, not absolute.

The fourth step, called "khakikat" (truth), can be reached only after the previous three have been mastered. "Achieving, knowing the truth" means "the end of the Sufi as a personality", his attaining enlightenment and merging with God into one being, which provides eternal existence. Sufis have to practice special exercises (meditations) to attain these goals.

Sufism spread over the countries of Near East, northern India, Indonesia, and Southwest China. In Maverounahr (covering neally all of Uzbekistan), Sufism became widely practiced during the period of the feudal wars in the second half of the 9th to the beginning of the 10th centuries. The first Sufi chief in Maverounahr was Yusuf Khamadaniy (the 12thc.). Later followed such highly respected Sufis as Abdulkhalik Gizhduvaniy and Akhmad Yassaviy.  During the 14th and 15th centuries "Naqshabandiya order" founded by Bahovutdin Nukshbandiy in Bukhara became the dominant Sufi order.

In Khorezm the rise of Sufism was aided by its isolation whilst its neighbours in Persia had converted to the Shiite branch of Islam, Khiva stayed Sunni. This led to Khorezm, already a remote location surrounded by two deserts, becoming even more detached from much of the western Sunni world, leaving Islam in Khorezm to develop in relative isolation. Although native scholars such as Al Khorezmi travelled extensively and many pious Khivans would make the haj to Mecca, the greatest outside religious influence on Khiva arrived as result of the wandering Sufis whose extensive pilgrimages took them to the city. They would share news from the outside world and update the religious community on new practises.

Buddhism in Central Asia - During the Kushan period various religious systems were widespread in Central Asia. These were the local cult of Mitra and Anahit, Zoroastrian pantheon (Ormuzd, Veretzanga, etc.) the Greek pantheon (Jupiter, Heliosis, Celen, etc.) and the cult of local heroes (Siyavush in Khorezm and Sogd) and Buddhism.Buddhism was banished from Iran in the 2nd- 3rd centuries and found support in Central Asia, where Buddhism became widely practiced. According to Chinese chronicles Buddhism came to China in 147 AD from the country of the "big yue dzhi", and thanks to the Kushan missionaries Buddhism was adopted as the official religion of the court of the Chinese emperor, Khuan-Di (147-167).

During the archeological excavations in Khorezm (Bazaar-Kala, Gyaur-Kala, Gyaz-Kala) and Sogd (tali-barzu, Zohak-i-Maron castle, Er-Kurgan and others) it was found out that many settlements and castles dated back to the Kushan period. But the largest number of traces of Buddhist culture during the Kushan period today is found in Tolharistan "old Termez" were architectural fragments dating back to the Kushan period have been found.

Zoroastrianism is a system of religious beliefs, which spread through the territory of ancient Iran and Central Asia in the 7th-6thc. BC. Zoroaster (Zaraustra) is the prophet of Zoroastrianism he lived approximately in the first half of the 6th c. BC. He wrote the most ancient part of the holy book of Zoroastrianism "Avesta" in Khoresm. According to legend, Zoroaster lived and preached in Khoresm and Bactria when King Vishtasp ruled there. The king was the first monarch to adopt Zoroastrianism.

In the following chapters of Avesta Zoroaster was described as a legendary fighter who had not only used words and miracles, but also material weapons against evil spirits. Uzbekistan and the holy sites of Zoroastrianism are inseparable: in Samarkand is found the ancient settlement called Afrosiab, which is the name of the hero from "Avesta"; Bukhara is one of the most ancient Uzbek towns, and was founded on a sacred hill of spring offerings worshipped by ancient Zoroastrians, at the tomb of saint Siyavush.

Throughout the centuries, Zoroastrianism has changed, both in meaning and in form. During the rule of the Arshakids and the Sasanids in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism was the official religion. The most ancient site in Bukhara is the Ark fortress, which was built no later than the 1st millennium BC. The fortress dates back to the time when Afrosiab and Siyavush, the legendary hero mentioned in Avesta, ruled. According to the legends, Siyavush was buried inside the fortress beside its eastern gate, where Bukhara Zoroastrians laid their offerings. In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Chilanzar Ak-Tepa was the cult centre of the Zoroastrians.  Khoresm is considered by Zoroastrians to be integral to the survival of the religion, in part as it was the Khorezm King Vishtaspa who welcomed the fleeing Prophet Zoroaster and after conversion became a vital patron of the faith.

Christians in Central Asia  - The original christians in Central Asia were made up of sects that had been branded heretics and driven out of Christendom, these included the Marianites, (who believed that the Holy Trinity was made up of Father, Son and Holy Virgin Mary) the Collyridians, Ebionites, Eutchyians, Monophysites and Arians. However, it was the Nestorians who became the largest, most influencial and most widely spread of these Christian sects, leaving Central Asia with a millenium of Christianity. Born out of a theological schism in the Church regarding the deity of Christ the followers of Nestorius moved first to Turkey and then east to Persia and beyond.

Christianity, like Buddhism and Islam, travelled along the trade routes of the Silk Road, moving ever Eastwards. The Nestorians are credited with teaching various Turkic groups to read their own languages. In Hojelli, near Nukus, still contains ruins with crosses on them located near sacred burial sites.

In 644 the King of Merv, (in modern day Turkmenistan) converted and by the eighth century Christianity was well entrenched in Bukhara and the region around the Oxus river. Crosses and other Christian imagery appear on the coinage of that region. The Arab invasion of Central Asia led to many, including some Christians to convert to Islam.

Nestorian Christianity is also thought to have influenced Islam due to the meetings of the teenage Mohammed with a Nestorian Monk in Syria. They had many theological discussions which may have led to Mohammed's sympathy with the 'people of the book'. He is also thought to have been influenced by the Nestorians strong opposition towards images, rejecting icons and crucifixes. Al Beruni, the historian from Khiva, referred to the Nestorians as the most civilised of the Christian groups under the Caliphate. They are reputed to have passed on Greek medical, mathematical and other academic knowledge to the Arabs who in turn were to reintroduce them back to Europe.
Today's Christians in Central Asia consist primarily of Europeans – mainly Russians, Germans, Poles, Armenians, and Greeks. At present, large Orthodox communities exist in Kazakhstan (4,500,000), Kyrgyzstan (600,000), and Uzbekistan (at least 500,000), with tens of thousands in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. These communities have close ties to members of the majority Muslim population are well accepted.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union unfortunately there was an element of fundamentalist missionary activity that attempted to introduce alien western culture into the region and whose activities in some instances clearly was linked to US hegemony rather than spreading the word of God. On a human level these so called missionaries attacked local culture by attempting to break the strong family links which are so essential to the well being of these societies (much the same as they have done in other parts of the world). Due to these activities they are no longer generally welcome in Uzbekistan and a number of other Central Asian states.

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