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Over a period of centuries, Islam in Turkmenistan has become an unusual blend of Sufi mysticism, orthodox (Sunni) Islam, and shamanistic and Zoroastrian practices. The cult of ancestors is still observed, and reverence for members of the four holy tribes (the owlat) is still strong. Popular or ‘folk’ Islam is centered around practices and beliefs related to Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam that originated in Central Asia. The veneration of holy places, which are generally tombs connected with Sufi saints, mythical personages, or tribal ancestors, continues to play an active role in the preservation of religious feeling among the population.

The pervasive nature of folk Islam, together with the Soviet-era repression of religion and the authoritarian nature of the country’s political system, have acted as barriers to the growth of Islamist ideology in Turkmenistan. Thus, the leadership has sought to capitalize on the popularity of Sufism in order to encourage religion to conform to local popular practices as well as to combat the emergence of Islamism. As in other parts of Central Asia, the distinction between religious and ‘national’ rituals is blurred in Turkmenistan; since the perestroika period of the late 1980s, the leadership has attempted to co-opt Islam as a fundamental component of its overarching nation-building campaign.

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Low
Islamist Activity: 

In much of Central Asia, the broad process of re-Islamization that took place in the late 1980s and early 1990s was accompanied by the emergence of political movements that espoused a greater adherence to Islamic tenets. In Turkmenistan, however, there has been no movement to introduce elements of sharia or to establish parties based on Islamic principles. The vast majority of the population appears to prefer to disassociate religion from politics altogether, and would be unlikely to lend support to any attempt to replace secular with religious rule, especially if it were to involve a political struggle.

Perhaps more than any other factor, the desire to perpetuate religious beliefs and practices that are widely regarded as ‘national’ traditions in Turkmenistan has disempowered Islamism—an ideology calling for change—as a potent force for social mobilization. Turkmenis generally view Islam as a crucial part of national culture, encompassing a set of local customs that sets them apart from outsiders. As such, Islam has a significant secular component that has made it relatively immune to politicization and the penetration of Islamist ideologies. ‘Folk’ Islam (Islam-i halq) rather than orthodox Islam (Islam-i kitab) is dominant, and is primarily concerned with the celebration of life cycle rituals, the observation of the principle of sacrifice and the preservation of mystical beliefs. The practice of shrine pilgrimage (ziyarat) is at the heart of Islam in Turkmenistan.

To be sure, some of the most widespread practices among Turkmen believers are considered heretical by purist Muslims, such as warding off the evil eye through the use of plants and amulets or performing pilgrimages to the graves of local Sufi saints. As Central Asia expert Ahmed Rashid pointed out, fundamentalists have criticized Sufi followers to little avail for diverging from the commands of the Koran and tolerating non-Islamic influences.1 The inherent tension between folk Islam and an Islamist ideology that calls for greater orthodoxy has served to stymie any potential popular support for the latter.

Despite the apparent dearth of Islamist activity, the closed nature of polity and society in Turkmenistan has made it difficult to definitively ascertain the presence or absence of Islamist groups, and has also given rise to speculation that Islamist activity may exist within the former Soviet republic. For example, official reports on an unexpectedly fierce two-day battle that broke out in a northern suburb of Ashgabat in September 2008 provided little information, prompting Russian media and some Western wire services to make unconfirmed assertions that the violence was instigated by Islamist extremists.2 Similarly, despite reports that the Islamist group Hizb-ut-Tahrir has won converts in Turkmenistan’s labor camps and prisons, a significant presence in the country has yet to be established.3 No other Islamist group is known to have a presence in Turkmenistan, and no terrorist attacks tied to Islamist groups have been reported on Turkmenistani soil since independence.4 This is at least partly due to Turkmenistan’s geographic and political isolation, as well as its form of Islam, which is mild even by Central Asian standards.5

Islamism and Society: 

In addition to the popular nature of Islam, the durable changes to religious practice experienced by the population during the Soviet period provides a second explanation for the limited appeal of Islamist groups in Turkmenistan. Some analysts have argued that the Soviet legacy is the key factor hindering the present-day development of Islamism in Central Asia, given that the region was isolated from the rest of the Muslim world—including its intellectual centers—for more than seventy years.6 During Soviet rule, Islam in particular was rejected as contrary to modernization, with the consequence that all but a handful of mosques were either closed or turned into museums of atheism. The clergy was persecuted and religious literature was destroyed, all Islamic courts of law, waqf holdings (Muslim religious endowments that formed the basis of clerical economic power) and Muslim primary and secondary schools were liquidated. Local shrines acted as the real centers of religious life in the absence of functioning mosques during the Soviet period, thereby ensuring that they have remained an important part of worship in Turkmenistan.

However, while it is undeniable that the aggressive anti-religious campaign launched by the Soviet authorities placed even greater distance between Central Asian Islam and the Islam practiced in “mainstream” Muslim countries in the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia or Africa, Islamic doctrine had never taken as firm root in Turkmenistan as it had in other Muslim areas, including the older, sedentary territories of Central Asia. Well before the Bolshevik Revolution, the Turkmen, like other nomadic peoples, preferred to pray in private rather than visit a mosque.7 A mobile lifestyle necessarily favored a non-scriptural, popular version of Islam while naturally curtailing the presence of professional clergy. As the expert Adrienne Edgar noted, any man who could read and recite prayers was given the title of mullah, or cleric.8 Particularly in the nomadic regions, teachers of Sufi orders, or ishans, played a more influential role than the ulema (Muslim scholars). The independent Turkmen tribes lacked Muslim kadis who judged in accordance with Islamic law, with the result that sharia only held sway in the sphere of family law, and was implemented by mullahs at birth, circumcision, marriage and funeral ceremonies.9

In the twenty-first century, Turkmenis continue to be governed less by Islamic law than by tribal customary law, or adat, which has been passed down for many centuries. As the majority of Turkmenis do not practice their religion in a formal or institutional way, mosques remain conspicuously empty, including Central Asia’s largest and grandest mosque, the Turkmenbashi Ruhy Mosque in former President Niyazov’s hometown of Gypjak, which is only visited by a significant number of male worshippers on Fridays.

Islamism and the State: 

The strict state control of religion is a third, albeit less important, reason why Islamism has thus far failed to attract a significant following in Turkmenistan. Were Islamist groups to appear in Turkmenistan, state security forces would most certainly act swiftly and firmly to repress any and all manifestations of activity.

In order to prevent the emergence of Islam as a locus of oppositional activity, the Turkmenistani leadership has acted to thoroughly co-opt the official religious establishment. Beginning in the late 1980s, Turkmenistan’s iron-fisted ruler, Saparmurat Niyazov, who was first secretary of the Communist Party of the Turkmen SSR from 1985-1991 and the country’s first president from 1991 until his death in 2006, sanctioned the revival of Muslim practices while simultaneously striving to keep religion within official structures. Thus, Niyazov endorsed the construction of mosques, the teaching of basic Islamic principles in state schools, the refurbishment of holy places and the restoration of Islamic holidays. Whereas in 1987 there were only four functioning mosques in the Turkmen SSR, by 1992 that number had risen to eighty-three, with another sixty-four mosques under construction.10 By 2013, Turkmenistan had an estimated 395 registered mosques, although it is unclear how many Muslims make use of them.11 In 1991, Turkmenistan’s first madrassah (Islamic seminary) was founded in Dashhowuz to help alleviate the country’s acute shortage of trained religious clergy. Shrine pilgrimage was acknowledged by Niyazov as a fundamental component of Turkmen identity and even as an expression of patriotism. Seeking to improve their Islamic credentials, both Niyazov and his successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, have made pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, thereby adding the title of hajji to their already long lists of distinctions.

Yet, even while taking limited measures to promote Islam, the Turkmenistani leadership required all religious communities to obtain legal registration and banned all religious parties. In April 1994, Niyazov set up a Council for Religious Affairs, the Gengesh, within the presidential apparatus “to ensure the observance of the law.” Almost all senior Muslim clergy belong to the Gengesh, of which the chief mufti, appointed by the president, is also the deputy chair.12 In July 2000, a long-serving official in the Gengesh acknowledged that his organization controls the selection, promotion and dismissal of all clergy in Turkmenistan, thereby allowing the state to exert control on religious matters right down to the village level.13

In 1997, the leadership initiated a crackdown on Islamic activity by closing many of the mosques that had been opened just a few years earlier (mostly in Mary Oblast), shutting down virtually all institutions of Islamic learning, halting the importation of foreign religious literature, and tightening restrictions on the legal registration of religious communities. These restrictions endure to this day. Congregations that are not registered with the Ministry of Fairness (formerly the Ministry of Justice) are prohibited from gathering publicly and disseminating religious materials, with violators subject to penalties under the country’s administrative code. The Dashowuz madrassah was closed in 2001, and in 2005 cutbacks were made at the Faculty of Muslim Theology at Magtymguly Turkmen State University, which remained the only official institution for training imams. Regular reshuffling of Muslim leaders by the state also keeps clergy in check: from 2003 to 2013, Turkmenistan went through five chief muftis, with other Muslim leaders being rotated at a similar rate.14

To an even greater degree than other Central Asian Muslims, Turkmenis have been unable to travel and receive an education in madrassahs abroad. The government has aimed to restrict the population’s contact with fellow believers abroad by limiting the number of Turkmen Muslims—including secret police and state officials—performing the hajj to Mecca each year to 188 pilgrims, which represents less than five percent of the quota allocated by the Saudi authorities.15

As in other Central Asian states, Turkmenistani authorities have sought to limit unwanted Islamist trends by promoting a vision of Islam that is concerned with the preservation of tradition. In similar fashion to neighboring Uzbekistan, the leadership has attempted to capitalize on the popularity of Sufism in order to encourage religion to conform to local popular practices as well as to combat the emergence of Islamism. In so far as orthodox Islamic doctrine rejects and condemns as idolatrous some Sufist practices, such as the veneration of local saints and local shrine pilgrimages,16 it is held that the promotion of Sufism will serve to dampen any inclination among Turkmeni believers to support the more purist—and potentially Islamist—forms of ideology.17

Consequently, the Turkmenistani leadership has taken some steps to foster the Sufi tradition and incorporate it into the regime’s larger nation-building project. Thus, the Niyazov leadership provided the mosque and mausoleum complex of the twelfth-century Sufi scholar, Hoja Yusup Hamadani, with a modern-day reconstruction. Located in the Mary Region, this holy site is one of the most important places of shrine pilgrimage in Turkmenistan, even remaining open during the Soviet period, albeit under strict control. Likewise, rather than seeking to prohibit local pilgrimages to sacred places, both the Niyazov and Berdimuhammedov governments have encouraged it, even providing free accommodation for pilgrims in some instances.18 In 2009, citing fears concerning the spread of swine flu, Turkmenistani authorities barred aspiring Muslim pilgrims from making the hajj to Saudi Arabia altogether, urging them instead to sojourn to 38 sacred sites across the country, although most of the sites had historical or cultural rather than religious significance.19 As of 2013, the Turkmenistani government has shown no signs of easing pressure on Muslims, with censorship, educational and legal restrictions remaining tightly in place.

Under Niyazov, the state-sponsored form of Islam in Turkmenistan underwent an unusual twist when the president made his extensive cult of personality a centerpiece of religious practice by configuring himself as a prophet with his own sacred book, the Ruhnama (Book of the Soul). Niyazov regularly urged his country’s citizens to study and memorize passages from it, and knowledge of the Ruhnama was made a requirement for university entrance and for work in the public sector, which remained the main source of employment. Imams were obliged to display the Ruhnama inside mosques and to quote from it in sermons or face possible removal or even arrest. In direct violation of sharia, Niyazov even ordered that passages from the Ruhnama be inscribed alongside passages from the Koran on the walls of the cathedral mosque in Gypjak; an inscription above the main arch reads: “Ruhnama is a holy book, the Koran is Allah’s book.”

In 2003, the country’s long-serving senior Muslim cleric and deputy chairman of the Gengesh, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, was replaced for expressing dissent by repeatedly objecting to the de facto status of the Ruhnama as a sacred book on a par with the Koran, and to its extensive use in mosques. In 2004, he was sentenced to 22 years in prison on treason charges, but was amnestied in August 2007. Upon his release Ibadullah thanked the president and accepted a post as an adviser at the president’s State Council for Religious Affairs, thus remaining under the close supervision of administration officials. Since coming to power in 2007, President Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov has gradually phased out the cult of Niyazov’s quasi-spiritual guidebook for the nation, although its study remains part of the education curriculum.20

Although the Ruhnama is no longer central to Turkmenistani spiritual practice under Berdimuhammedov (though the inscription on the Gypjak mosque remains), there is a new “spiritual guidebook” called the Turkmennama (the book of Turkmen); although it is not clear what role this plays in religious practice, it is reportedly less a moral guide and more a nationalist exultation of the Turkmen people. Under the new president, the state still pervades religious institutions at all levels. Imams are still selected by the Gengesh and the security service, and, while no longer required to recite an oath of allegiance to the president during sermons, are still required to pray for him.21 The Gengesh provides “recommendations” for sermon content, as well—sermons are expected to convey a state message. This, apparently, has riled some Turkmenistani Muslims, who resent government intrusion into their religious lives.22

It is difficult to speculate about the effects of government policy on the religious beliefs of Turkmenistani Muslims, although much empirical research shows that repression of religious groups generally leads to increased radicalism.23 Therefore, one would expect to see some mobilization of a religious opposition, and indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence of this—some unconfirmed reports from Turkmenistani refugees claim that there is an underground network of mosques which preach anti-government sermons.24 In addition, Turkmeni Islamists have turned up in Syria, where they have been fighting the Assad government. A former security official from Turkmenistan blames this development on the harsh repression of Turkmenistan’s religious groups and the ineptitude of the secret police.25 Turkmenistan could prove especially vulnerable to radical religious teaching due to theological ignorance among its citizens and clergy. The Gengesh has increasingly installed imams lacking in religious education; in fact, many viewed Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah as the last official with a proper religious education. Average citizens are rarely exposed to Islamic teaching, and while most households have a copy of the Koran, it us usually in Arabic. Turkmen-language Korans are rare.26

As uncertainty grows in the region ahead of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014, Turkmenistan has not shown that it is prepared for the possible consequences. Although its strong sense of cultural tradition and geographical isolation has helped to shield it from outside influences thus far, there is no guarantee of immunity if regional security severely deteriorates. Although there is little evidence of an Islamic opposition in Turkmenistan, if one were to arise, the Berdimuhammedov government would likely be unprepared.27

Citations: 

[1] Ahmed Rashid, The Resurgence of Central Asia: Islam or Nationalism? (Karachi: Oxford University Press, 1994), 246-247.
[2] Annette Bohr, “Turkmenistan,” in Nations in Transit: Democratization from Central Europe to Eurasia 2009 (New York: Freedom House, 2009), 522, http://www.freedomhouse.org/uploads/nit/2009/Turkmenistan-final.pdf. For an excellent, detailed analysis of both the international and domestic media reports on the September clashes, see Vitaliy Ponomarev, Sobytiia v Ashkhabade 10–13 Sentiabria 2000g [Events in Ashkhabad September 10–13, 2008] (Moscow: Memorial Human Rights Center, November 5, 2008).
[3] Cracks in the Marble: Turkmenistan’s Failing Dictatorship, International Crisis Group, January 2003, 25, http://www.crisisgroup.org/~/media/Files/asia/central-asia/turkmenistan/044%20Cracks%20in%20the%20Marble%20Turkmenistan%20Failing%20Dictatorship.ashx.
[4] U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Turkmenistan 2012 OSAC Crime and Safety Report, April 2012, https://www.osac.gov/Pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=12289.
[5] Jacob Zenn, On the Eve of 2014: Islamism in Central Asia (Washington, DC: The Hudson Institute, June 24, 2013), http://www.currenttrends.org/research/detail/on-the-eve-of-2014-islamism-in-central-asia.
[6] Krzysztof Strachota and Maciej Falkowski, Jihad vs. The Great New Game: Paradoxes of Militant Islamic threats In Central Asia (Warsaw: Centre for Eastern Studies, January 2010), 48-49.
[7] Carole Blackwell, Tradition and Society in Turkmenistan: Gender, Oral Culture and Song (Richmond: Curzon Press, 2001), 35.
[8] Adrienne Lynn Edgar, Tribal Nation: The Making Of Soviet Turkmenistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 26.
[9] W. Konig, Die Achal-Teke. Zur Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft einer Turkmenen-Gruppe im XIX Jahrhundert, 74, as cited in Paul Georg Geiss, Pre-Tsarist and Tsarist Central Asia: Communal Commitment and Political Order in Change (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 38.
[10] Alexander Verkhovsky, ed., Islam i politicheskaya bor’ba v stranakh SNG [Islam and political struggle in the СIS (Сommonwealth of Independent States)] (Moscow: Panorama, 1992), 27.
[11] Felix Corley, Turkmenistan: Will Sunni Mosques and Orthodox Churches Be Criminalized? Forum 18, May 20, 2013, http://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=246.
[12] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2013 (Washington. DC: USCIRF, April 2013), 176, http://www.uscirf.gov/images/2013%20USCIRF%20Annual%20Report%20%282%29.pdf.  
[13] S. Demidov, “Religioznie protsessy v postsovetskom Turkmenistane,” [Religious protests in post-Soviet Turkmenistan,” Tsentral’naia Aziia i Kavkaz no. 5 (2001).
[14] Felix Corley, “Turkmenistan: Government Changes Islamic Leadership Again,” Forum 18 News Service, February 25, 2013, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1805.
[15] Felix Corley, “Turkmenistan Religious Freedom Survey, August 2008,” Forum 18 News Service, August 5, 2008, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1167.
[16] See Maria Elisabeth Louw, Everyday Islam in Post-Soviet Central Asia (London: Routledge, 2007), 50.
[17] However, as some have noted, the relationship between folk Islam, orthodox Islam and Sufism is complex. While some folk customs might contradict the precepts of sharia, Sufi brotherhoods often successfully used the murid organization to spread orthodox Islam. Geiss, Pre-Tsarist and Tsarist Central Asia, 94n3.
[18] Cracks in the Marble, 25.
[19] Felix Corley, ‘Turkmenistan: Exit Bans, Haj Ban, Visa Denials Part Of State Religious Isolation Policy,” Forum 18 News Service, February 2010, http://www.forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1403; Bruce Pannier, “Turkmen Pilgrims Make A Homegrown Hajj,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, November 25, 2009, http://www.rferl.org/content/Turkmen_Pilgrims_Make_A-Homegrown_Hajj/1887880.html.
[20] Bohr, “Turkmenistan,” in Nations in Transit: Democratization from Central Europe to Eurasia 2010 (New York: Freedom House, 2010), 544, http://www.freedomhouse.hu/images/nit2010/NIT-2010-Turkmenistan-final.pdf.
[21] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2013, 174.
[22] Felix Corley, “Turkmenistan: Religious Freedom Survey, March 2012,” Forum 18 News Service, March 2012, http://forum18.org/Archive.php?article_id=1676.
[23] See, for example, Monica Duffy Toft, Daniel Philpott, and Timothy Samuel Shah, God’s Century: Resurgent Religion and Global Politics (W. W. Norton & Company, 2011); Brian J. Grim and Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied: Religious Persecution and Conflict in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2010). For an example specific to Central Asia, see Sebastien Peyrouse, “Islam in Central Asia: National Specificities and Postsoviet Globalisation,” Religion, State and Society 35, no. 3 (2007), 149.
[24] Alexey Malashenko, “Turkmenistan: Has There Been a Thaw?” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, September 2012, 6, http://carnegie.ru/publications/?fa=49681.
[25] Paul Goble, “Turkmenistan’s Authoritarianism Leading to Rise of Islamist Radicalism, Former Security Officer Says,” Window on Eurasia blog, June 30, 2013, http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2013/06/window-on-eurasia-turkmenistans.html.
[26] U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Annual Report 2013, 176-78.
[27] Malashenko, “Turkmenistan: Has There Been a Thaw?” 6.