East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 2, No. 4, Fall 1994, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe

Islam in the Soviet Era

Don Fairbairn

On November 24, 1917, less than a month after the "Great October Revolution," the Bolsheviks issued the following appeal:

This appeal represented an obvious attempt to distance the new government from the tsarist regime's injustices toward Muslims.  In fact, Soviet authorities opposed Islam just as vigorously as they did Christianity.  However, the Kremlin perceived Islam to be a more vibrant religion than Christianity because it was younger.  Thus, early attempts to destroy Islam were less direct than were efforts to eradicate Christianity.

Soviet Actions Against Islam
In the 1920s Moscow sought to undermine Islam by disrupting Muslim unity and separating peoples into smaller groups which could more easily be controlled.  The Tatars already had been scattered since the fall of Kazan, but now those remaining in Tatarstan were split into two groups through the formation of the Tatar and Bashkir Autonomous Republics.  East of the Caspian Sea, Soviet authorities divided the large Turkic-language Muslim population through the establishment of Uzbekistan, Kirghizia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan.  Furthermore, Moscow drew the border between Uzbekistan and Tajikistan so as to divide Tajiks (speaking a Persian-based language) into two groups.

A further means of controlling the Muslim population was the establishment of four Islamic Spiritual Directorates.  The first comprised Central Asia and Kazakhstan with its seat in Tashkent.  The second, based in Ufa, controlled European Russia and Siberia.  The third covered the Caucasus region and Daghestan (on the coast of the Caspian Sea north of the Caucasus), with its seat in Makhach-Qala.  Finally, Muslims in the Transcaucasus region were governed from Baku.  A mufti (spiritual leader) appointed by the Soviet government led each of these directorates.

In addition to the manipulation of republic borders and Spiritual Directorates, the Soviet regime sought to control Islam by co-opting local mullahs--who were given the right to exist as long as they registered with the authorities, submitted to restrictions, and cooperated with the government.  (This tactic was similar to the agreement made with leaders of "registered" evangelical churches.)  Soviet leaders also were convinced that improved education would lead many Muslims to recognize the superiority of Marxism over Islam.  Thus, the authorities made major improvements in the educational system in Muslim parts of the country.  How successful this strategy has been in breaking down Muslim loyalty is debatable, but it has meant that Central Asians are the most literate of all the world's Muslims.

After several years of attempting to control  and discredit Islam indirectly, the government began a direct assault which lasted from 1928 until the Soviet Union's entry into World War II in 1941.  Authorities forbade zakat (giving of alms) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) and began closing mosques.  Stalin even ordered the execution of Muslims who possessed a copy of the Koran, an action which represented a rather dramatic shift from the position toward Islam which he had claimed to espouse earlier.

Not surprisingly, this direct attack had a profound impact on the practice of official Islam.  Since the Muslim faith seeks to bring an entire civilization's life under the rule of Allah and the shariah, it obviously fares poorly when it is forced to submit to an external regime.  Writing in 1966, Bennigsen and Lemercier-Quelquejay (Islam in the Soviet Union, 152) summarized the results of Soviet efforts to that point:

Islam's Responses to the Soviet Threat
After the revolution Islamic leaders sought to preserve their unity in such a way that fervent, traditional Muslims, usually in rural areas, and people who had largely abandoned their faith, could both consider themselves to be Muslim.  French scholar Helene Carrere de'Encausse describes the nature of these modifications by asserting that Soviet Muslim authorities moved away from a literal observance of the Islamic pillars.  Salat (daily prayers) could be performed once, instead of five times, a day.  Sawm (fasting during the month of Ramadan) was reinterpreted as a means to gain awareness of deprivation and hunger, which could be achieved without actually fasting for an entire month.  Similarly, the impossible hajj to Mecca was replaced by pilgrimages to the many local holy places within the Soviet Union.  In addition to redefining Muslim practices, official Islam in the Soviet Union also sought to present the religion's ideas in a way which stressed their compatibility with socialist concepts.

During the Soviet era, the primary change in popular Islam was that leaders of Sufism, an unofficial Muslim mystical movement, came to be regarded, in effect, as unofficial mullahs.  In the absence of actual mullahs, especially in rural areas, people naturally turned elsewhere for spiritual counsel and guidance.  The Sufis, considered to be the holiest people, were the obvious choice to fill the vacuum.

As a result, popular Islam in the Soviet Union moved even further away from the faith of Muhammad than it had been before:

Of course, these pre-Islamic practices did not simply reemerge during the twentieth century; they were present in Eurasian popular Islam from the beginning.  Rather, the scarcity of mullahs and many people's distrust of the ones who were present paved the way for men whose religion was more syncretistic to rise to prominence within parallel Islam.  Their influence made shamanism, belief in the power of local holy places, and magical rituals more common in the realm of Soviet Islam than they had been before.

Polarities in Islam Under the Kremlin
The Soviet government's actions toward Islam and the two responses which they spawned resulted in a strong polarization of Soviet Islamic society.  The reform movement in official Islam brought many Muslims closer to the Marxist ideal by weakening their adherence to their faith and leading them to restate Muslim beliefs in less religious terms.  However, the reaction of parallel Islam led a substantial portion of Muslim society to become even less modernized?and certainly less Marxist than before.

Of these two effects, the more long-lasting has certainly been the increase in popular Islamic practices.  Beginning in the early 1980s, there was a strong reaction to the liberalization of Islam in the previous half-century.  In fact, even before Gorbachev's rise to power and the emergence of glasnost, Eurasian Islamic leaders had completely rejected the earlier reform movement and had rendered Soviet Islam more conservative and traditional than the Islam practiced in many parts of Africa and Asia.  This movement back to traditional Islam accelerated during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In addition, the government's actions have stirred up enormous animosity among Eurasian Muslims.  The attempts to eradicate Islam during the first half-century of Soviet rule, coupled with more recent events such as the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, have provoked understandably bitter reactions.

The resulting hatred has been all the more extreme because of the deceitfulness with which the government acted.  The Bolsheviks promised protection of Muslim rights, a protection which would have been exactly the opposite of the anti-Islamic campaigns and forced conversions which marked the tsarist regime.  Despite these promises, communists actually dealt with Muslims in substantially the same way that the tsars had.  But Russian Orthodox tsars had at least been honest about their intentions; the Bolsheviks were not.

Growing Distrust of the West
As we have already seen, this Muslim hatred of Moscow was certainly not a twentieth-century development; it had begun centuries earlier with the fall of Kazan.  However, the events since the Bolshevik Revolution have added a new dimension to Muslim sentiment, a dimension which may well be significant for Christians seeking to minister among Eurasian Muslims.  This dimension is a potential unwillingness to trust Westerners or their ideologies.

For Westerners it is difficult to imagine any philosophical systems further removed from each other than atheistic Marxism and Christianity.  Nevertheless, the subjection of Islamic societies to both "Christian" and Marxist rulers in the last four centuries may lead many Eurasian Muslims to identify the two.  From their perspective, their foundational differences may be lost beneath the similarity in the way purported Christians and Marxists have approached them.  Both Orthodox and Marxist rulers have conquered their lands, depriving them of representation in government, displacing parts of their population, and exploiting their labor and resources.  Both have used extensive propaganda and even force to convert Muslims to a foreign, western ideology.  Thus, many Muslims may see little difference between the two and may be reluctant to place their trust in a foreign belief system such as Christianity.  Because of this potential barrier, evangelicals working in Eurasia need to be especially careful not to offer secularized or nominal Muslims a Christianity which bears too many marks of the West. 
Editor's note:  See "Islam in Pre-Soviet Eurasia," E-WC&M Report 2 (Summer 1994), 2-3, for recommended reading on Islam in Eurasia.  Also of note:  New Geopolitics of Central Asia ed. by Ali Banuazizi and Myron Weiner (Bloomington:  Indiana University Press, 1994), $39.95, paper $15.95.  Orders:  800-842-6796.

Don Fairbairn is academic dean at Donetsk Bible College, Donetsk, Ukraine.  His 1993 unabridged 93-page paper, "The Straight Path or the Way of the Cross?" is available from the Institute for East-West Christian Studies, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187-5593 U.S.A. for $10.00 (IL residents add 6.75% sales tax) plus postage/handling $2.40 (U.S. and Canada, 1st class) or $4.75 (Europe, printed-matter airmail).  Contact the East-West Institute for mailing rates outside North America and Europe.

An October 24, 1994, address by Dr. Mehrdad Haghayeghi of Southwest Missouri State University at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Institute for Advance Russian Studies discounted the likelihood of anti-Western, Islamic fundamentalist ascendency in post-Soviet Central Asian republics.  To request "Islam and Politics in Central Asia" and other free meeting reports, contact:  Kennan Institute, 370 L'Enfant Promenade SW, Suite 704, Washington, DC 20024-2518; tel:  202-287-3400; fax:  202-287-3772.

Don Fairbairn, "Islam in the Soviet Era," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 2 (Fall 1994), 10-12.

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664

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