God Does Not See Me When I Drink

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 wasn’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 aren’t Islamic at all (although we’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.

19 comments for “God Does Not See Me When I Drink

  1. November 22, 2005 at 8:39 am

    Fascinating post, Erica; thanks.

    The phrase “God closes His eyes when someone drinks” suggests the survival of a particular kind of pre-modern religious attitude, as your point about the continuing presence of other, older religious rituals in Kyrgyzstan supports. Since Mormonism is, arguably, quite modern in a conceptual sense, I can’t see any Mormon offering a line like that to justify their own variation from the norm with a straight face. Still, I wonder if something like this attitude is nonetheless present in the church–places and situations where, within a given cultural context, something that might strike an American Mormon as obviously relevant to the gospel simply doesn’t so strike someone else. I’m thinking of the recent thread that dealt with sex education in the schools, where Wilfried confessed that the idea of young people being exposed to “pretty direct and open” discussions of sexuality simply didn’t register as a problem for him. Or my old thread on my obseravtions about Hawai’i, where it seemed to me that often a sometimes harshly physical approach to disciplining children was taken as the norm. Yet I can easily imagine a situation in which another member of the church might look upon a schoolteacher explaining how to use a condom, or a father striking his son for not tucking his shirt in, and say that God is looking on in horror.

    And, of course, the situation can be flipped as well: no doubt there are matters about which I think God “closes His eyes” (i.e., it’s arguably in the manual or scriptures, but of course He doesn’t care), but a Mormon from Belgium or Hawai’i would think I’m risking damnation.

  2. Karen
    November 22, 2005 at 10:05 am

    Erica, great post.

    I was reading a study about Islam in Uzbekistan, and something like 90% self identified as Muslim, but the numbers just plummeted when asked about actual religious observance. I find this fascinating–especially since the Uzbek President seems to be using radical Islamic elements to justify his harsh crackdowns on any dissent. It seems to me that the best way to turn someone to radical Islam is to tell them they are radicals while you’re beating them down. I wonder if all of the outside sound and fury about radical Islam will actually start those kinds of movements in post-Soviet central asia. Does this seem to be a danger to you?

  3. Wilfried
    November 22, 2005 at 10:21 am

    Attention-grabbing thoughts, Erica. Viewed from our monolithic Mormonism it may indeed be difficult to conceive of a religion with many faces and traditions according to country and culture. Islam, of course, is per definition varied, having no central authority and many schools and trends. But even a seemingly more uniform religion like Catholicism has varied ways to live it according to the country, when we compare e.g. Holland to Mexico. Even the local Catholic hierarchy, in each of such differing countries, accepts and may encourage different traditions, norms and values. This is certainly not the case with Mormonism, with our strict top-down structure, uniform instructions and manuals. I welcome that for the sake of our unity and our strength.

    Another matter are the local cultural perceptions by individual Latter-day Saints, from country to country, and the way we judge them according to our interpretation of principles and commandments. And Russell is right to point that out. There are a number of things that will strike an American Mormon as contrary to Gospel principles, and vice-versa. Non-American Mormons may be shocked to see how (a number of) American Mormons eat junk-food, drink soda and get overweight, and will consider this an infraction to the Word of Wisdom. At the same time I heard of some French Mormons who see no problem taking part in their yearly family naturist (= nudist) summer vacation, which they have been doing for years as a natural and wholesome thing for them. Probably shocking to American Mormons! Of course, let us be careful not to call these “national” traits. It often has to do with education, social level, family traditions, or the typology of personal profiles we talk about in this other thread. It raises a lot of questions on tolerance and understanding between each other. At the same time we must respect, in conscience, the explicit and well-defined boundaries our acceptance of the Gospel imposes.

  4. November 22, 2005 at 10:45 am

    “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.”

    Huh. Jack-Muslims :)

  5. November 22, 2005 at 10:56 am

    “Non-American Mormons may be shocked to see how (a number of) American Mormons eat junk-food, drink soda and get overweight, and will consider this an infraction to the Word of Wisdom.”

    That’s a great example, Wilfried. It works perfectly because 1) it’s a conclusion that can be pretty obviously and easily drawn from D&C 89 (i.e., it’s a “God is watching” principle), and yet 2) it’s a conclusion that I personally have never ever heard associated with anyone besides complete–and thus easily dismissed–cranks in the U.S. (i.e., “God doesn’t care about that”).

  6. November 22, 2005 at 11:28 am

    Karen, I’d be surprised to see radical Islam take widespread hold in Central Asia at least at this point. Could it happen in the Ferghana Valley? No doubt. But, like you said, Karimov is willing to do anything to keep that from happening. Certainly there is a risk to suppress Islam the way Karimov does- I think he defines radical Islam much too broadly.

    But most Central Asians we’ve talked to don’t have much interest in Islamic “doctrine” or in actually practicing Islam It’s been almost 15 years since independence and very few have learned about Islam. That’s why I think radical Islam isn’t likely to go anywhere here- moderate Islam hasn’t even taken hold. I think the most difficult hurdle for radical Islam’s proponents to overcome here in Central Asia would be to convince a large number of people that they would get any benefits from supporting it.

  7. MDS
    November 22, 2005 at 12:20 pm

    Germany definitely has a tolerance with respect to Word of Wisdom issues.I recall serving as a district leader in a ward where the members often gave each other food of all sorts. This included the missionaries. It was not uncommon on Sundays for a member to bring enough of a favorite food to send home with everyone. It might be loaves of bread, or cakes, etc. At some point, one member discovered what all the members thougt to be a lovely iced tea that came in a box that could be put in the fridge to chill, but didn’t need any mixing. The ingredients did not make it clear whether the drink contained black tea, and so the members were fine with the idea of drinking it. However, one of the sister missionaries in the district just could not lete her conscience rest and wrote to the manufacturer to inquire whether there was any black tea in the drink. She received a letter stating that, indeed, the drink was chock full of it. She asked me to take the letter to PEC to let the ward leadership know of the problem. I presented the bishop with the letter. He read it, put it in the trash bin, and said, “Well, why don’t we move on to something important.”

    I can think of at least two units with active members who held callings and smoked like chimneys. One smoking brother was a stake missionary. That made for some interesting discussions about the word of wisdom with our investigators.

  8. November 22, 2005 at 12:42 pm

    Germany isn’t the only place that has a high tolerance for Word of Wisdom issues. I knew a branch president in the States who had coffee and cigarettes with one of those he home taught every morning on his way to work. Great home teaching, not such great WofW practice. Though I don’t condone his coffee and cigarettes, I wouldn’t be surprised if he is in better stead with the Lord than someone like me who sticks to at least the letter of the WofW but isn’t so good about home teaching.

  9. Katie
    November 22, 2005 at 1:28 pm

    The Word of Wisdom parallel is a good one Wilfried. Recently in doing some research comparing Islam and Mormonism, I received a mysterious book from inter-library loan. It was from BYU, but the author had a Middle Eastern name, and was clearly a Muslim. The book was older and there was no printer, copyright, date of publishing, or any other information listed. The author had simply taken similiar practices and scriptures in Islam and Mormonism and put them in columns. So the Word of Widsom looked like this

    Mormonism Islam
    Abstain from tobacco Abstain from tobacco
    Abstain from alcohol Abstain from alcohol
    Eat fruit in season Eat fruit in season

    ………and then I got a big laugh when it came to “moderation in eating.” The Islam column simply said “moderation in eating” but the Mormonism column read:

    Moderation in eating
    (Not really practiced)

  10. Katie
    November 22, 2005 at 1:29 pm

    Oh too bad, my little carefully made columns didn’t post, well you will have to imagine what is looked like.

  11. November 22, 2005 at 1:35 pm

    Love the story, Katie.

    But I’ve had many Muslims tell me they gain weight during Ramadan.

    Thanks for all the great comments so far. But it is very late in Kyrgyzstan, so I’ll be back in the morning to respond a bit more.

  12. Ben Huff
    November 22, 2005 at 6:16 pm

    Very interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised if the identification with Islam is as much about filling a gap as anything. Just about everyone needs to identify with something that has a larger meaning, even if they define themselves as much by opposition as anything. In Kyrgyzstan, I imagine people don’t feel heaps of loyalty to the government, since it doesn’t seem overly effective, or overly concerned for their best interests. In other post-Soviet countries too I have the impression lots of people seem to be sort of grasping about for religious identities to try on. It’s a bit more challenging to pick up Christianity in this sort of nominal way there, perhaps, though, since Christianity in Europe is a bit anemic.

  13. November 22, 2005 at 10:58 pm

    I like Wilfried’s example too. It’s been a little tricky here at times to make it clear that when “we” (our family) chooses to do something, or not do something, it doesn’t mean that is something that “we” (the Church) does or doesn’t do.

    Ben, I think it goes further than filling a gap although it certainly does for some. By definition, Kyrgyz (and Kazakh, and Uzbeks, and Uyghurs, etc) are Muslim and it is a vital part of their cultural tradition, even though there is usually very little to the religious aspect. I’d almost compare it to most Jews in the world- they are Jewish culturally even though there is very little religious observance (although it’s obviously not the same since there is a specific Jewish ethnic group).

  14. November 23, 2005 at 1:19 am

    I’ve heard there are now height-based weight requirements for missionaries. If one is too heavy, and is not muscular or athletic, one may be turned down for missionary service until his weight is within bounds, or at least has demonstrated weight loss and proven that he is losing weight. I’ve heard it applies to young elders, but I don’t know about sisters or senior couples.

  15. John Williams
    November 23, 2005 at 1:51 am

    Maybe they just want to keep morbidly obese people from going out to the mission field where they’ll be required to walk several miles a day or ride a bike.

  16. John Williams
    November 23, 2005 at 1:53 am

    In my last post, I was referring to young people serving missions, not senior couples.

    In any event, I doubt that keeping very obese young people from serving would be a WoW issue. It’d probably be more of a practical issue.

  17. Lamonte
    November 23, 2005 at 9:13 am

    Russel – your comment “Still, I wonder if something like this attitude is nonetheless present in the church–places and situations where, within a given cultural context, something that might strike an American Mormon as obviously relevant to the gospel simply doesn’t so strike someone else” reminded me of a touching story related to a youth conference a couple of years ago. A local stake president works in the area of international humnitarian services and travels worldwide. He was visiting in Beijing and met briefly with what are apparently the only Mormon missionaries allowed in China – an senior couple who are only allowed to do humanitarian work. Later his work assignment put him at lunch with a group of Chinese government officials. One senior official, who was a retired general from the People’s Army, suggested that the stake president make a toast, something thw Chinese do many times during a lunch meeting. The stake president raised his water glass for the toast but the old general insisted that he toast with a glass of wine.

    The stake president insisted that he didn’t drink wine and that he would toast with water but the general persisted even more. Finally the stake president explained his religious beliefs and mentioned his membership in the Church of Jesus Chjrist of Latter-day Saints. As the stake president listened to the interpretor relate his comments he heard him say the word “Mormon” and the old general’s eyes lit up and then the stake president heard the general say the name “Elder…..”, the name of the senior missionaries. Then with a big smile on his face the old general took HIS water glass and he and the stake president toasted with water.

    It struck me as a great example of how one humble missionary couple, among citizens of a country with more than a billion residents, can influence even an old crusty goverment official who is most likely ignorant of our religious practices but who, when informed of them, will still respect them.

  18. November 23, 2005 at 7:04 pm

    “by reciting the Qur’an”
    That must have been some serious pressure! I am a little stunned that somehow your assurances that ‘no, water is fine; thank-you anyway’ etc do not turn it away.

  19. NateT
    November 27, 2005 at 9:24 pm


    While this might be a post-Soviet phenomina, it might also be the way it has been for a long time. Most of my experence with Islam in Central Asia have been with my studies of Xinjiang (Chinese Turkistan) and the Mongol invasions of Central Asia. Alot of what you talk about is present in discriptions of Mongol clans or tribes that converted to Islam too.

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