Islam in Central Asia is nothing like Islam in the Middle East. But this is what I love about Islam. It has its own local flair everywhere you go.
For example, when we were in the Middle East, we had plenty of opportunities to turn down coffee and tea. We had been warned before we left that it was impossible to turn down tea and coffee for any reason and that we simply would have to drink anything we were offered.
However, it wasnâ€™t at all difficult to turn anything down; we simply said it was forbidden (being careful to use the word that implied religious prohibition). Since several things are forbidden in Islam, no one ever pressured us to drink tea or coffee after that simple explanation. They usually just made us mint tea instead and everyone was happy.
We were hoping we could use a similar excuse here in Kyrgyzstan since it is at least nominally Muslim, but we’ve been far more pressured to drink alcohol and tea than anyplace we’ve been before. We’ve been informed that we are bad guests, that a little won’t hurt, that it is a tradition to drink, and so on.
But the best excuse we’ve heard was at a wedding where everyone except my husband was drinking. Even women wearing the hijab were drinking . When my husband finally made it understood (by reciting the Qur’an) that he was choosing not to drink for religious reasons, he was told that God closes his eyes when someone drinks.
Central Asia was never quite as strict in its style of Islam as most parts of the Islamic world. But while there are plenty of regional differences in Islam, few are as dramatic as when you cross from Iran and Afghanistan to post-Soviet Central Asia.
Very little research has been done on post-Soviet Islam. It would be a fascinating study. What does a Kyrgyz, an Uzbek, a Kazakh really mean when she says she is Muslim? In our limited experience, few Muslim practices have survived- almost no one fasted for Ramadan, I have only heard the call to prayer once in Bishkek, I have never met someone who has been on the Hajj. That is the opposite of our experience in the Middle East. There are even Muslim missionaries here trying to reconvert Central Asia to Islam.
What I do see are the older Kyrgyz traditions- burning juniper branches to purify a house, tying strips of fabric on holy trees to ask for protection, certain rituals when a baby is born, and pilgrimages to the graves of local saints. Those traditions, which arenâ€™t Islamic at all (although weâ€™re often told that they are), are the ones that survived.
Maybe it was because the Soviets let those less-religious traditions stay. Maybe they were more important in the first place. But whatever the reason, Islam in Central Asia has its own style.