The Fergana Valley: Source or Victim of Islamic Fundamentalism?

Bakhtiyar Babadzhanov


Bakhtiyar BABADZHANOV is Head of the Department of Islamic Studies at the Institute of Oriental studies, Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan.


So-called Fergana fundamentalism (known as Wahhabism, political Islam, etc.) is mentioned, if only in a few lines, in almost all publications on the contemporary political, religious and socio-economic situation in Central Asia. The Golden Valley has come to be regarded as a source of Islamic fundamentalism which could influence the religious situation in the entire region. Among researchers there is no consensus on the reasons behind this phenomenon, and there are different and sometimes contradictory explanations for it.

This study analyses the religious situation in Fergana today, taking account of the internal and external factors influencing the fundamentalist boom in the valley. The focus is on those Islamic groups which rally round the idea of reviving the genuine Islam of the times of the Prophet and his first four caliphs. 1

The Historical Background

Almost all the radical Islamic groups in Uzbekistan, especially those that found fertile soil in Fergana, pin their hopes on a historical and political renaissance of the Caliphate of the times of the first four perfect caliphs. They were and remain in the eyes of the majority of Muslims the symbols of just rule, brotherly relations and equal distribution of economic wealth. In the historical area of Ma wara an-nahr (Transoxiana, that which lies beyond the river), the processes of Islamization and re-Islamization (for example, during the more than 100-year-long period after the Mongolian conquest) were long and complex. But the most important thing is that the idealized images of the first four caliphs began gradually to supplant the literary and legendary examples of ancient Iranian kings.

By the mid-18th century, a proportion of the ulama of local states (including the khanate of Kokand) and even some of the rulers, initiated religious reform under the banner of a return to the pure Islam of the times of the Prophet and his four successors. The narrative (historical), hagiographic (Sufi), literary and epical traditions, folklore, and even architectural symbols also invariably invoke the rather idealized and mythologized images of the four caliphs.

It must be said that the idea of reviving the Caliphate never went beyond declarations. The insurmountable hurdle in the path to revival was presented by the local forms of everyday Islam which included, in addition to the rules of the Shariah, local (apparently, pre-Islamic) customs and traditions adat, and also other deeply rooted manifestations such as the cult of the saints, pilgrimage rituals (ziyarat), traditional fetishism, and so on.

During the period of Russian colonialism the local radical Muslim movements, known under the general name of qadimiyyah (Qadimists), also introduced the idea of reviving the Caliphate of the times of the first successors of the Prophet Muhammad. Muslims performing the hajj brought back Wahhabite ideas and literature, especially from India where successors of local Wahhabite leader Shah Waliullah were very active. According to the statistics of the Russian colonial authorities, 7075 per cent of hajjis came from Fergana where, following the dismantling of the Kokand khanate (Feb. 1876) the question of restoring the Muslim state in the Caliphate form became especially popular among local ulama and Sufi leaders. Once again their writings raised the problems of combating inadmissible innovations (bidah) such as the cult of the saints, pilgrimages to their graves, and so on. These and other attempts by Qadimists to combat local forms of Islam by no means enhanced their prestige among the local population, whereas their calls for combating colonialism were readily accepted.

Practically all religious figures (regardless of their faith and theological law school) were persecuted and eliminated during the Soviet period. The abrupt and forced secularization of all aspects of public, political and private life proved especially harsh and involved many victims in Fergana. Later, in conditions of strong sustained atheist pressure, the local forms of Islam continued to function in the shape of religious rites and observances (ziyarat, jinazah, marasim, etc.). They became strongly rooted in the minds of the masses over the centuries and formed the foundation of their system of values and way of life, and of the natural manifestation of peoples religious sentiments. At any rate, the so-called everyday (or popular) Islam once again demonstrated its ability to adapt to new and extremely unfavourable historical conditions. This adaptation was characterized by the revival in the 1960s and 1970s of pilgrimages to ziyarats (shrines), the graves of local saints (awliy) on traditional Islamic fetes (aid al-qurban, mawlud, etc.) and pre-Islamic fetes (sayil, nauruz). Visits to ziyarats were traditionally accompanied by lighting candles on the graves and appeals to the spirits of the saints for intercession, for example, to bring good luck in business. At roughly the same time unofficial religious groups (which were very small then) began to emerge in Fergana. On the one hand their members were in opposition to the conformist activities of the SAMCA,2 and on the other hand they were dissatisfied with the heretical nature of the reawakened religious conscience of the people. In addition to Muhammad Hindustanis followers, mentioned in Ashirbek Muminovs paper, I should mention the descendants of the traditionalist ulama, who survived the purges and managed to secretly teach their children and grandchildren and those they especially trusted. As a matter of fact, they all attended the republics only officially functioning madrasahs, called Mir-i Arab, and even worked for some time as imams and teachers (Marufdzhon qari, Habibulla Solikh qari, among others). Of course they voiced dissatisfaction (secretly and openly) with the flaccid conformist position of the SAMCA; as a result, most of them were fired from SAMCAs institutions.3 Having been left high and dry, this group of clergy swelled the ranks of the so-called unofficial imams and mudarrises. They were especially active in Fergana Valley cities (Namangan, Margilan, and Andizhan).

The Revival of Islam

A fresh awakening of Islam came in the early 1980s as the communist ideology suffered an obvious crisis in Uzbekistan, especially in Fergana. The safest and most natural form, under the Soviet regime, was the revival of Islamic rites on an everyday basis. According to the statistics of the 1982 Uzbekistan Communist Party Central Committee, 6566 per cent of newly married couples in the Fergana Valley went through the civilian matrimony ceremony and the nikah religious consecration;4 and visiting the graves of saints increased sharply. Naturally the local authorities and communists saw this as a threat to the state mono-ideology. In addition to a stepped-up counter-propaganda campaign5 and forcible measures (police cordons at holy places) there were attempts to build new monuments on the old cult sites. For example, a memorial was build on the site of Shakhimardan, the oldest holy place in the south of Fergana, for the first Soviet Uzbek author and playwright Khamza Khakim-zade Niyazi, who was murdered in 1929. Some other holy places were .

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