ISLAM and MUSLIMS IN TURKMENISTAN
Total area: 188,455 sq mi (488,100 sq km)
Population (2007 est.): 5,136,262
Capital and largest city (2003 est.): Ashgabat, 727,700
Other large cities: Chardzhou, 213,500; Tashauz, 160,400
Monetary unit: Manat
Languages: Turkmen 72%; Russian 12%; Uzbek 9%, other 7%
Ethnicity/race: Turkmen 85%, Uzbek 5%, Russian 4%, other 6% (2003)
Religions: Islam 89%, Eastern Orthodox 9%, unknown 2%
Literacy rate: 98.9% (1999 est.)
Economic summary: GDP/PPP (2007 est.): $26.73 billion; per capita $5,200. Real growth rate: 11.6% (IMF est.). Inflation: 6.4%.
Turkmenistan (formerly Turkmenia) is bounded by the Caspian Sea in the west, Kazakhstan in the north, Uzbekistan in the east, and Iran and Afghanistan in the south. About nine-tenths of Turkmenistan is desert, chiefly the Kara-Kum. One of the world's largest sand deserts, it is approximately 138,966 sq mi (360,000 sq km).
Turkmenistan was once part of the ancient Persian Empire. The Turkmen people were originally pastoral nomads and some of them continued this way of life up into the 20th century, living in transportable dome-shaped felt tents. The territory was ruled by the Seljuk Turks in the 11th century. The Mongols of Ghenghis Khan conquered the land in the 13th century; they dominated the area for the next two centuries until they were deposed in the late 15th century by invading Uzbeks. Prior to the 19th century, Turkmenia was divided into two lands, one belonging to the khanate of Khiva and the other belonging to the khanate of Bukhara. In 1868, the khanate of Khiva was made part of the Russian Empire and Turkmenia became known as the Transcaspia Region of Russian Turkistan. Turkmenistan was later formed out of the Turkistan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, founded in 1922, and was made an independent Soviet Socialist Republic on May 13, 1925. It was the poorest of the Soviet republics.
Turkmenistan declared its sovereignty in Aug. 1990 and became a member of the Commonwealth of Independent States on Dec. 21, 1991, together with ten other former Soviet republics.
Islamic History and Muslims
Traditionally, the Turkmen of Turkmenistan, like their kin in
Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, are Sunni Muslims. Shia Muslims, the other main
branch of Islam, are not numerous in Turkmenistan, and the Shia religious
practices of the Azerbaijani and Kurdish minorities are not politicized.
Although the great majority of Turkmen readily identify themselves as Muslims
and acknowledge Islam as an integral part of their cultural heritage, many are
non-believers and support a revival of the religion's status only as an element
of national revival. They do not attend mosque services or demonstrate their
adherence publicly, except through participation in officially sanctioned
national traditions associated with Islam on a popular level, including
life-cycle events such as weddings, burials, and pilgrimages.
Islam came to the Turkmen primarily through the activities of Sufi (see
Glossary) shaykhs rather than through the mosque and the "high" written
tradition of sedentary culture. These shaykhs were holy men critical in the
process of reconciling Islamic beliefs with pre-Islamic belief systems; they
often were adopted as "patron saints" of particular clans or tribal groups,
thereby becoming their "founders." Reformulation of communal identity around
such figures accounts for one of the highly localized developments of Islamic
practice in Turkmenistan.
The current government oversees official Islam through a structure inherited
from the Soviet period. Turkmenistan's Muslim Religious Board, together with
that of Uzbekistan, constitutes the Muslim Religious Board of Mavarannahr. The
Mavarannahr board is based in Tashkent and exerts considerable influence in
appointments of religious leaders in Turkmenistan. The governing body of Islamic
judges (Kaziat) is registered with the Turkmenistan Ministry of Justice, and a
council of religious affairs under the Cabinet of Ministers monitors the
activities of clergy. Individuals who wish to become members of the official
clergy must attend official religious institutions; a few, however, may prove
their qualifications simply by taking an examination.
Turkmenistan's government stresses its secular nature and its support of freedom of religious belief, as embodied in the 1991 Law on Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Organizations in the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic and institutionalized in the 1992 constitution. That document guarantees the separation of church and state; it also removes any legal basis for Islam to play a role in political life by prohibiting proselytizing, the dissemination of "unofficial" religious literature, discrimination based on religion, and the formation of religious political parties. In addition, the government reserves the right to appoint and dismiss anyone who teaches religious matters or who is a member of the clergy. Since independence, the Islamic leadership in Turkmenistan has been more assertive, but in large part it still responds to government control. The official governing body of religious judges gave its official support to President Niyazov in the June 1992 elections.
On the other hand, some Muslim leaders are opposed to the secular
concept of government and especially to a government controlled by former
communists (see Centers of Political Power, this ch.). Some official leaders and
teachers working outside the official structure have vowed to increase the
population's knowledge of Islam, increase Islam's role in society, and broaden
adherence to its tenets. Alarmed that such activism may aggravate tensions
between Sunnis and Shiites and especially alienate Orthodox Slavs, the
government has drawn up plans to elevate the council of religious affairs to
ministry status in an effort to regulate religious activities more tightly.
Awdy Kulyýew, the first Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan and later a political opposition leader, said Turkmenbashi Saparmurat Niyazov allows Muslims to practice their religion only to the extent it furthers his "personal enrichment." He also said that Turkmen are not very religious, but will become religious in the future in light of the Niyazov administration's policies. He criticized the future type of Islam he predicted would be practiced in Turkmenistan as "illiterate" and an "exploitation of Islam, not real Islam."
Islamic Centers and Organizations
Mosque, Ashgabat, Turkmenistan
Muslim Owned Business