From vernacular to global Islam? ESCAS conference discussions

The main entrance of Nazarbayev University. Photo taken by David Levy.
The main entrance of Nazarbayev University. Photo taken by David Levy.



In August 5-7, 2013 Nazarbayev University hosted the 14th biennial conference of the European Society for Central Asian Studies in Astana. Since the conference has already been generally discussed by Diana Kudaibergenova and given the scope of our column (“Pray, pay and obey”), I would like to highlight some of the presentations that addressed various aspects of Islam in the region.

Three major panels on the subject gathered scholars who addressed issues of the social carriers, practices and spaces of religion, as well as negotiations of foreign vs. nationally ‘appropriate’ forms of Islam in the Central Asian region.

On social carriers

I was fortunate to attend two presentations that, in line with Weber’s conceptualization of social carriers as social groups that reify and pass a particular religious ethic on from one generation to the next (c.f., Turner 1974), contributed to our understanding of the pluralist nature of such groups within Central Asian Islam. Instead of seeing Islam as an autonomous force that either catches on or fails to catch on with the local population, both presentations explored the religion through the ideas, values and lived experiences of particular groups of social carriers on which they focused.

Azim Malikov of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology presented on the history and identity of khodjas, a particular elite group historically known as descendants of the prophet and first caliphs. Focusing on the families of khodjas in Southern Kazakhstan, where they are usually highly respected by local communities and even hold more authority than local imams in some cases, Malikov addressed questions of when, how and why these groups trace their lineage, choose to identify themselves as khodjas, and use various strategies when it comes to marriage. Malikov claimed that most often the social position of khodjas is rather limited to more respected spots at community celebrations and only nominally in, say, their interaction with religious authorities. The discussant of the panel, Ulan Bigozhin of Indiana University, however, argued that there has been more active mobilization of khodja groups in Kazakhstan, where the members raise funds, carry out a brokerage role between local communities and the government, help build infrastructure in their villages and towns, and invest in education.

Kazakh women during a Muslim prayer at Auezov Jubilee
Kazakh women during a Muslim prayer at Auezov Jubilee

Another presenter, Dr. Gulnar Nadirova of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, discussed women’s role of transmitting religious family traditions and rituals in the Soviet period. Due to the traditional restriction of the roles of mothers, grandmothers, sisters and aunts to the private domain of households, women were the crucial carriers of rituals and a vast array of oral stories through which most of the population in Soviet Kazakhstan related to Islam. Based on a recent survey carried out by her colleagues in which they primarily focused on those generations that received their formal education during the Soviet period, Nadirova concluded that the “everyday” religiousness of Kazakhs that has been nurtured by women, although quite distanced from theological discussions of Islam, was one of the major factors that contributed to the often-claimed religious revival since the 1990s.

On mosques and muftiys

The second issue that was addressed by several presenters was that of symbolism and changing meaning of mosques and religious authorities in the region. Dr. Shynar Kaliyeva of Al-Farabi Kazakh National University presented on “the Social Functions of Mosques in post-Soviet Kazakhstan.” The talk presented a rich historical discussion that drew out changing meanings and functions of mosques in Kazakhstan. She pointed out that mosques had historically been used for a variety of purposes – as places of teaching, publicizing information, providing medical help, detaining criminals, giving shelter, and acting as platforms for meetings of umma. While their numbers drastically decreased under Soviet rule, Kazakhstan today is home to 2320 mosques (in comparison to 68 in 1991). The new layer of symbolism that contemporary mosques convey is that of international relations between Kazakhstan and Islamic states, which, according to the presenter, has led to the construction of mosques like Nur Astana. Dr Kaliyeva, noted that the lack of regulation in the construction of mosques, as well as a deficiency of qualified well-trained imams, reflects the commercialization of Islam in Kazakhstan and poses potential threats to state security.

Hazrat Sultan mosque in Astana. Photo taken by David Levy
Hazrat Sultan mosque in Astana. Photo taken by David Levy


Echoing the tension between foreign vs. local forms of Islam, Dr. Galina Yemelianova of Unviersity of Birmingham emphasized the proliferation of ‘non-traditional’ forms of Islam, attributing it to the expansion of global jihadist movements and Kazakh Muslims’ increasing affiliation with the global umma. She posed the question to the audience of whether or not an Egypt-trained muftiy at the Muftiate would be able to keep national interests in mind in his work with the population.


On practices

Following the discussions of what makes one a literate imam or what makes one more “strongly” or “weakly” religious, Dr. Akhbota Ahmetbekova presented interesting historical accounts of how Islam was practiced by the Kazakh population in the early 19th century. In particular, the author mentioned that Kazakh Islam had a more individualized practice of praying, where practicing Muslims did not necessarily attend mosques, but prayed at home or in the workplace facing Qibla. She also noted the pre-Islamic judicial system, where biys, “representing traditional institutes of tribal judges,” carried out a more prominent role as a reference point, as opposed to imams, who would most likely refer to qadis. Dr. Ahmetbekova attributed these peculiarities of Islam among the nomads of steppes to the institutional space that was predominantly led by imams of Tatar origin on the territory of Kazakhstan in that period.

Another presentation on the changing meanings of religious space and practices was made by Dr. Ruziya Kamarova of L.N. Gumilyov Eurasion National University. Dr Kamarova presented on the ethical and aesthetic perspectives of hijab wearing in Kazakhstan. She presented an interesting juxtaposition of the widely shared understandings among the Kazakhstani population of hijab as ugly, non-aesthetic and therefore denigrating women on the one hand, and on the other the responses of devout practicing women to such claims. These women often call for beauty and an aesthetic that does not exploit sexual appeal, and therefore is not in line with Western concepts of beauty; beauty that can be both modest and express religious convictions, yet reflect women’s own choice to wear hijab as a part of their modern world views.

Those interested can find the full program of the conference at this link: