Spirit World of the Uzbeks

Born of the Flames

In Uzbekistan, a pre-Islamic belief in the spirit world is alive and well. In the popular form of Islam as practised by the ordinary people, the spirit world belongs to everyday reality. Jesko Schmoller dropped in on an "otin", a traditional Uzbek healer

Ferusa Tadschiwa, a traditional Uzbek healer and, Otabek, one of her patients (photo: Jesko Schmoller)
Ferusa Tadschiwa, left, is a traditional animist healer. In Uzbekistan, pre-Islamic spiritual traditions and the Muslim faith exist side by side, sometimes complementing one another

​​"This just can't go on," the 27-year-old Otabek Nayimow has decided. It's a sunny August morning, as it always is here, and he is sitting at breakfast. Neither morning nor sun, however, seem capable of penetrating his lacklustre spirit, his feelings of weakness, and lack of motivation. And with much still needing to be done over the summer, it is clear to him that he must do something about this state of affairs.

Decision made, he climbs into his small Daewoo car and drives off. Otabek lives in Yunusbod, a Tashkent suburb, full of the sort of grey, faceless apartment blocks typical of buildings erected during the Soviet period.

Qualified by temporary proximity to death

Ferusa Tadschiwa, 31, lives only a few minutes drive away. With the friendly preliminaries over, she ushers Otabek in and silence briefly reigns as neither utters a word. Then Ferusa begins to emit a murmuring sound, snatching at the air and shaking her prayer beads, brushing them over her patient's body. Finally, she produces a large, sharp knife, with which she begins to make cutting motions, apparently severing a mass of invisible obstacles that surround Otabek.

Ferusa is an "otin", a traditional Uzbek healer. It's a role for which she seems to have been particularly well prepared, having endured a bout of serious illness at only a few months old. According to local belief, it is just such experiences of temporary proximity to death that gives the otins their special powers. The first indication of Ferusa's awakening powers came around five years later.

"I often found myself lying awake in bed at night, she says, long after the others were asleep. Then I began to have visions, to see images of heroes and fantastical figures moving around, on the covers and on the walls."

Ferusa's mother said she should try watching fewer cartoons. But that didn't help. One night when she was eight years old, Ferusa was suddenly confronted by the figure of her great-great-grandfather standing by her bed, a giant from another time with shoulder-length hair. Since then she has been hearing his voice and is guided by what he tells her. It is to this voice inside herself that she listens for guidance about what to do to find a cure for Otabek's listlessness.

The tolerance of the Hanafite school

The belief in spirits and in their interaction with the human world is deeply rooted in Uzbek culture; a belief that has survived in spite of the fact that Uzbekistan is a country with strong Islamic traditions. It is the Hanafite school of Islamic law that prevails here, however, known for its traditions of tolerance towards pre-Islamic religious practices.

The Uzbek belief in the spirit world is nourished from many sources. There is the shamanic tradition associated with the ancient beliefs of the nomadic Turkic peoples, for example, or the old, near extinct, Iranian faith of Zoroastrianism, with its fire cult. Finally, with the Arab conquerors, came the fear of the "jinn".

Jinn (sing. jinni), often popularly rendered in English as genie, are spirits or ghosts, ancient inhabitants of the spirit world of the desert tribespeople, who were around long before they found their way into the Islamic religion. Like mankind, they too are creations of God, however, rather than being formed from clay they are born of fire, as the Koran tells us. According to the demonology of central Asia, however, jinn are not particularly pleasant to have around.

Anwarali Aka, 39, is a "domla" a scholar and teacher of the Koran whose help is sought out by people in trouble, including those who believe themselves possessed. He recalls "one particularly difficult case, where the person concerned was seeing people with the heads of animals. Human bodies with the heads of cows, goats, donkeys or sheep. Sometimes even several heads at once." In order to drive out the jinni, he recommended ritual washing and recitation of the creed. It worked, and the possession ended.

Spirits, ghosts and popular Islam

photo: Jesko Schmoller
Ferusa's equipment: prayer beads, a knife, and the Holy Koran

​​Islam in its popular form, as practiced by ordinary people, accepts spirits as part of everyday life and treats them accordingly. Beside the large "Kukaldash" madrasah – the Koran school – in Tashkent, and close to the entrance to the busy "Chorsu" bazaar, is a row of stalls. There you can buy everything from religious headwear and literature to talismans offering protection against the evil eye.

One guide booklet offers advice on how to protect yourself against jinn and demons. It explains the kind of places one should beware of in order to avoid encountering jinn – dirty places such as toilets and places where camels sleep, topping the list. Anyone unlucky enough to anger a jinni by accidentally treading on it or splashing it with hot water runs the risk, the guide explains, of having it take possession of their body.

A snake encountered on one's own property may well turn out to be a jinni. In such cases the snake is to be reminded of the promise it made to King Solomon. Whether one is dealing with an animal or a demon will then be revealed.

As the August sun sinks below the horizon out on the steppe, darkness descends on the streets of Tashkent. Having read some verses of the Koran, Otabek now feels his strength returning. Ferusa and her great-great-grandfather have been successful. Now, one after the other, the lights are going out in the row of apartment blocks, like the closing of sleepy eyes. The human inhabitants of Tashkent are going to their rest. Those born of the flames, however, are only just beginning to stir.

Jesko Schmoller

© Qantara.de 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

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