Central Asian Islam Outside a Soviet Box

By Morgan Y. Liu, Ohio State University

This article was originally published in the June issue of NewsNet. References and additional resources can be found here.

A quarter century after the Soviet collapse, Central Asian studies continues to find more of a home with institutions in the ASEEES realm than with Middle East studies, Asian studies, or comparative Muslim societies. For those working on the current period, there are valid scholarly reasons still to conceptualize Central Asia with respect to the rest of the former Soviet and European state socialist space. Even as post-Soviet Central Asian societies have diverged from each other in politics, economics, and society, they are tethered to the Russian Federation through bilateral ties, multilateral organizations, military arrangements, media presence, cultural influence, and personal stakes of the many Central Asian labor migrants in Russia. More importantly, Central Asian nationalisms, cultural and religious “revivals”, political imaginaries, and institutions bear deep marks of Soviet understandings and practices, the nativist rhetoric of the independent states notwithstanding.

But a nagging question remains. What is being left out in Central Asian research when its scholars tend to be associated most with Slavic, East European, and Eurasian units, conferences, and publication venues? What crucial questions remain unasked for Central Asia because of the scholarly epistemologies and histories of debate within the Soviet studies space? Such a question may be posed for any geographical area, but Central Asia’s current “decolonizing” moment and new global connections constitute an invitation to explore wider comparative frameworks of inquiry. This move does not seek to repudiate the connections of Central Asian studies to ASEEES-like institutions. On the contrary, it is a call only to open up. The idea is to encourage multiple footings in Central Asian research and nimble ways of bringing them into productive dialogue. 

This think piece outlines the beginnings of one such attempt. It runs through an example showing, I suggest, that Central Asian Islam has tended to be misunderstood in part because of its framing within the concerns of Soviet studies, a misconception that has carried forward into post-Soviet scholarship. I sketch out an alternative framing, borrowed from anthropological work on Islam in the Middle East and Muslim-majority societies worldwide, that shifts perspective on Central Asian Islam, opening novel questions for both the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The key intervention here is the contention that Central Asian Islam has been framed, implicitly or explicitly, as a radical rupture from Islam elsewhere (outside of state socialisms) because of the supposedly extraordinary experience of Soviet or European state socialist rule. Instead, I present Islam in Central Asia (and potentially elsewhere in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe) as being more continuous with Islam worldwide, as fully locatable on a global canvas of Islamic variation.

The familiar narrative about Central Asian Islam follows the contour of Soviet repression succeeded by post-Soviet “revival”. Instances of this narrative may err not in the particulars, but in their misleading explanatory framework. Let us start with the Soviet experience, which varied by period and place. Mosques and madrasas (Islamic seminaries) were mostly closed, and the few kept running were highly restricted in activity and attendance. Imams (mosque leaders) were imprisoned, killed, or driven into exile or underground. Religious texts were destroyed, with a few squirreled away in homes. Islamic education outside of state-sanctioned institutions happened quietly in neighborhoods, with women playing crucial roles in transmission of religious knowledge. Islamic practice – especially praying, fasting, and pilgrimage to Mecca – was discouraged, forbidden, and punished, particularly for men under 40. Overall, state efforts to root out religious “backwardness” in Central Asia were variously interleaved with broader social goals for the “emancipation” of women, restructuring of class relations, liquidation of illiteracy, modernizing of worldviews, and orientation away from the Muslim world and toward the rest of the Union (though Central Asia served as a showpiece for outreach to the Middle East, Africa, and Asia).

After the Soviet dissolution, thousands of mosques were built or restored. Religious teachers trained abroad, or in newly opened Central Asian madrasas and religious faculties at universities. Men and women of all ages, particularly children and elderly, are acquiring Islamic knowledge in mosque classes and self-organized neighborhood lesson circles. People are noticeably praying, fasting, going to pilgrimage, and avoiding alcohol. They are dressing modestly according to global Islamic rather than pre-Soviet Central Asian standards. Islamic pamphlets, DVDs, television programming, and websites in Central Asian languages and Russian proliferate. Bazaar stalls and retail stores specialize in Islamic clothing and merchandise. Weddings are done “in the Muslim way”, with no vodka, no mixing of the sexes, and less extravagance. Public space – buildings, signage, bodily dress, and loudspeakers – has become increasingly saturated with visual and auditory signs of piety. Central Asians today are, in short, practicing Islam with a certain sense of determination and ostentation.

The question is how to interpret the above. The repression-revival narrative is compelling but problematic. It assumes Soviet and post-Soviet Central Asia to be highly abnormal with respect to an implicit standard of what Muslim-majority societies are supposed to look like. Soviet Central Asia was abnormal, as the thinking goes, because it was almost completely cut off from the wider Muslim world to which it had been historically connected and subject to intense political pressures and social engineering. Post-Soviet Central Asia is abnormal because the rush of competing Islamic missionaries and movements operating there has created a highly contentious religious environment. Central Asians, initially educated poorly in the basics of Islam and left in an “ideological vacuum” after the Soviet collapse, are swayed by contrasting foreign traditions of the faith, even as the states, ever vigilant against “extremism”, attempt to promote a supposedly nativist “Islam of our forefathers”. For both periods, Central Asian Islam is deemed deviant from implicit norms because of the extraordinary consequences of Soviet rule. So the story goes. 

Another Perspective on Central Asian Islam

The story is not completely wrong, so much as misleading. It sets forth Central Asia as radical rupture from “normal” Islam, and by doing so, closes off paths of productive inquiry. The purpose here is not to assess the repression-revival narrative in its specifics, nor to discuss the Cold War meta-narrative that frames it. Rather, it is to outline a different perspective, drawn from a stream of anthropological studies on Islam inspired by Talal Asad’s notion of discursive tradition.  For Asad, Islam is an ongoing dialogue between foundational texts, their authorized interpreters, and practitioners. Islamic practice and belief are oriented in some way to Qu’ran, Hadith, and other sources, yet interpretations shift across movements, history, and place. Islam is thus a kind of continual conversation between Muslims trying to orient themselves according to the texts, understood to be fixed points, but where their orientations can be mutually contested and evolve. This entire process Asad calls a discursive tradition. Fixity, on one hand, variation and dispute, on the other, are built into this notion of Islam. It simultaneously keeps in view ideals of divine perfection and the vagaries of socio-historical process.

How does seeing Islam as discursive tradition illuminate Central Asia? First, it would avoid generally casting Soviet-era Central Asians as lapsed or deficient Muslims. When they lacked access to Islamic texts, those who tried to maintain some observance nonetheless sought to conform their practice according to what they believed the texts proscribed. The fact that Soviet-era Islamic practices attenuated, deviated from texts over time, or incorporated local elements not attested in any text recognized by outside Muslims, does not change the fact that Central Asians, in good faith, understood their actions to be conforming to absent texts. They remained a part of the discursive tradition, even if Muslims elsewhere would disapprove of their knowledge and practice.

Second, Asad opens new ways of posing questions for the Soviet period. If his approach is right, then Islam is not ultimately about material or ideological content, but rather a continuing dialogue and striving toward correct belief and practice. The focus on inquiry should not only be about the number of mosques closed or proportion of people fasting; we are not measuring “how much Islam survived”. Rather we should ask: how did the contours of the discursive tradition shift as religious teaching and debate were severely muffled and rebutted by an activist modern state hostile to that tradition? How did sincere Central Asian Muslims make sense of their religious duties and moral orientations in a pressurized socio-political context? The Soviet Central Asian Muslim community, as isolated and “repressed” as they were, did not cease their engagement in Islam as a discursive tradition. Soviet Islam represents not so much a rupture as a mutation in the terms of the Islamic conversation.

Third, Asad highlights the polemical aspects of Muslim orthodoxy as intrinsic to Islam. Much writing about post-Soviet Islam seems to regard the struggle between different forms of Islam as an aberration or interruption to “normal” religious life that is, one is led to suppose, uncontested, stable, and insulated from alternatives. The aggressive presence of foreign Muslim (and other) missionaries and monies starting from the 1990s is seen as producing an abnormal agonistic religious terrain. But if Islam is a discursive tradition, then post-Soviet Islam would not stand as anomalous in the world-historical Islamic record, even with the intensity of current disputes between competing Islamic streams – those are certainly found elsewhere today. Nor is it peculiar that alternative discourses of proper Islam are circulating from afar. Islamic history is replete with trans-local figures, movements, texts, and ideas in various configurations of coexistence and contention. The alarm about “foreign Islam” in the post-Soviet scholarship (and state discourse) is founded on misapprehensions about their supposed abnormality from an ahistorical baseline of “authentic” pure form. Rather than treating Islam as a static national tradition needing protection from outside contamination, it is more accurate to acknowledge it as a discursive tradition, where debate and self-correction over time and across communities are central to how Islam has always manifested itself.


We considered an example of how thinking outside of a Soviet/post-Soviet studies box may yield fresh insight for a region like Central Asia. The move here is to locate it more continuously on the canvas of Muslim-majority societies worldwide and through history by considering what Islam is (a kind of conversation) and is not (specific content). Doing so may have exposed blinders that many scholars (and other observers) tend to wear when writing about Central Asia of the early 20th century onward.

Do those blinders come from concerns driving some of Soviet studies? Is Central Asian Islam regarded as anomalous because Soviet rule is assumed to be exceptional, as revealed in the repression-revival narrative?  Such questions cannot be addressed here, but perhaps enough has been said to provoke novel ways of recontextualizing Central Asia and, for that matter, other places within the ASEEES purview. Thinking outside of the area studies box is not a new call. But it is always refreshing to see examples of when it may produce something insightful.

Morgan Y. Liu is Associate Professor in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures and the Department of Anthropology at the Ohio State University.