JUNE 6, 2002
Islamic Pilgrimage in Uzbekistan
-- Patrick A. Hatcher
Since the predominantly Muslim republics of Central Asia gained independence from the former Soviet Union, their citizens have been exploring the public expression of religious practices that once had to be kept away from the scrutiny of the state. From the enduring influence of Soviet education’s atheist ideology to the various world-wide Islamic political and reformist ideologies, many complex -- often conflicting -- ideas confront Central Asian Muslims as they forge new religious identities. No religious practice remains untouched by this process. As I saw on my recent visit to roughly twenty pilgrimage centers in southeastern Uzbekistan, changing interpretations of pilgrimage practices in Uzbekistan demonstrate differing local responses to larger forces shaping contemporary Islam in Central Asia.
Pilgrimage to shrines of holy people has long been a prominent and distinctive feature of Central Asian Islam, and Uzbekistan alone contains the tombs of hundreds, if not thousands, of religious scholars and “saints” from the mystical Sufi orders. Curtailed and often forbidden under the Soviets, religious pilgrimage thrives under the current regime, which at times has even funded the restoration of prominent shrines as a bastion of an “apolitical” Islam against the perceived threat of political Islamic “extremist” groups. However, the Uzbek government still maintains a Soviet-like control over Islamic institutions, requiring registration and doctrinal screening of mosques and imams.
A typical pilgrimage involves circumambulating, touching, or kissing the tomb for blessings, tying a “wish cloth” to a tree, lighting a candle, having a prayer said by a Qur’an reciter, and leaving monetary donations on or near the tomb. At most of the sites I visited I was actively encouraged to do some or all of these activities. In many respects, some of these local pilgrimage practices echo those of the obligatory Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, such as circumambulating the Ka’ba structure and possibly touching the black stone in its corner. In centuries past, many Muslim legal scholars even argued that since the Hajj was generally beyond the means of most Muslims, a cycle of certain local pilgrimages would fulfill a Muslim’s obligation to go on the Hajj. These legal justifications are now only occasionally known or invoked. Instead, pilgrims and imams typically appeal only to memories of pre-Soviet “tradition” to defend these practices.
At a significant minority of these holy sites, posted signs, speeches by the shrine’s imam or custodian, or the physical layout of the shrines themselves present a different and new interpretation of the proper practice of local pilgrimage. Whether prompted by criticism from certain “purist” Muslim countries, such as Saudi Arabia, which funds many Islamic restoration projects; by standardization attempts of the government-controlled Religious Directorship; or by Soviet, European, and Muslim orientalists’ disdain for “village superstition,” these initiatives encourage a more austere ritual. But it is not the existence of saints per se nor the general practice of shrine pilgrimage that is challenged. Rather, it is certain common practices that are the target of these would-be reform efforts.
One target is the practice of circumambulating the tomb, touching it, or leaving money on it. Posters at three of the shrines explicitly forbade these practices, while staff at a few other shrines had erected new fences around the tombs to make these activities physically impossible. When I visited the tomb of the Sufi saint Baha’ al-din Naqshband in 1998, circumambulation was still generally practiced, but in 2002 there was a sign equating such practices with idolatry and a fence to prevent the access of those who might disagree. Nevertheless, many pilgrims tie “wish cloths” to trees anyway (when the imams aren’t looking.) Another shrine’s poster gave a far less theologically-threatening explanation for the prohibition, stating that leaving objects around the tomb will create a cluttered appearance. But one imam proffered the most unusual argument. This attention to trees and stones, he argued, derives from the now-discredited Soviets and their “materialist” ideology rather than from pre-Islamic or pagan religions, as other reforming imams would have it.
Uzbek Muslim leaders are very conscious of being watched: by a government worried about political Islamic movements yet eager to use Islam to bolster its legitimacy; by Saudi and other foreign Muslim donors with their own doctrinal agendas; and by ordinary Uzbek Muslims who may feel unsure of practices that they may only have heard about from parents and grandparents. For the near future, the course of post-Soviet Central Asian Islam’s development will be determined by the myriad small, quiet struggles in which local Muslim institutions and individual believers attempt to navigate these many currents influencing their religious practice.
-- Patrick A. Hatcher is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History of Religions at the University of Chicago Divinity School. He is currently a Fulbright-Hays Fellow residing in Uzbekistan.