04.12.2008Islamic Revival in KazakhstanA Pragmatic Islam"I tried to read the Koran, in Russian, but then I shelved it again. I couldn't relate to all those regulations," Nessip says. She works for a tourist agency and her colleagues also see Islam more as a traditional aspect of their culture. "I have been observing Ramadan for three days," she says, "but I'm doing it more for my personal mental and bodily wellbeing."
A guard at the Sultan-epe mosque studying the Koran. Even today there are mystic brotherhoods who are part of a history of Sufism in Kazakhstan "Modern Kazakh Islam is very pragmatic," says Gulnar Nadirowa, head of Arabic literature at the oriental institute in Kazakhstan's national university, Al-Farabi. "For the Kazakhs, a people with religious roots in shamanism and Tengriism, Islam was never a dogmatic religion." The connection to their forebears has always played a greater role than the observance of rituals; this is part of Kazakh culture and did not disappear under Soviet rule.
State support for churches and Jewish communities
Where then has this new desire to belong to a religion come from? "For many Kazakhs the collapse of the Soviet Union represented the loss of many years of societal certainty. The vacuum opened up by the absence of ideological organisations such as the Komsomol, was filled again by Islam," says Nadirowa. Even now they are still in a transitional phase, which is why people are looking for any kind of certainty they can find. "For many Kazakhs Islam offers this."
Unlike in the other, much more strongly Muslim central Asian republics, in Kazakhstan all religions are experiencing a renaissance, and are supported by the state. Around twenty percent of the Kazakh population are still Russian, and the Russian Orthodox Church has grown again. The Jewish community has also experienced a new feeling of cohesion and two years ago Kazakhstan's largest synagogue was built in Astana. Russian Orthodox and Muslim festivals are both celebrated as public holidays.
An identity emancipated from Russia
The Muslim students Ilmira (left) and Nargisa in front of the mosque at the Egyptian Nur-Mubarak University in Almaty Above all it is young Kazakhs, who know their country only as an independent state, for whom Islam seems to offer help in the search for their own, Kazakh, identity, emancipated from Russia. "They want to be Kazakh, Muslim and modern," as Mahmoud Heegazi from the Nur-Mubarak university puts it.
For Ilmira and Nargisa, both seventeen, it was a surprise when a few years ago Ilmira's brother and Nargisa's father began to go to the mosque regularly. Today however Islam is a firmly established part of their lives, as can clearly be seen; both wear a veil and saying the "Namaz" prayer is now a secure ritual.
The girls are studying Islam at the Nur-Mubarak University. Nargisa wants to continue her studies in Egypt, Ilmira wants to go on to study law. "I'm doing this course now just for myself," Ilmira says. "I want to work as a lawyer, if my future husband allows it." As she doesn't know what her husband, who should be a good Muslim, will prefer, her studies are prophylactic, as it were. "I want to keep all options open."
© Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Steph Morris