The Soviets Accidentally Started an Islamic Reformation

Yes, mullahs shut it down. But what Kyrgyzstan experienced was beautiful.

Two decades ago, I moved to Kyrgyzstan, a mountainous Central Asian country on the former Silk Road, during a window which opened with the fall of the Soviet Union and closed a decade later with the nation’s current wave of Islamization.

In the years before my arrival, Mikhail Gorbachev had instituted perestroika, which made it possible for an esteemed Soviet writer, Ernis Tursunov, to start translating the Koran into his native Kyrgyz language. He published sections of the Koran in the republic’s most popular Kyrgyz language journal, Ala-Too. Instantly it seemed as if the whole republic was reading the Koran section by section in their mother tongue.

A century earlier, fighting had polarized ethnic groups into either Christian Russian or Muslim Kyrgyz. Then the Tzars lost, and the Soviet Union set out to eradicate both Christianity and Islam until only token expressions of both faiths remained. When the Ala-Too journal published Tursunov’s Koranic translations, ethnic Kyrgyz understood little more than their religious category and the title of their faith’s associated book. Tursunov’s Koran helped Kyrgyzstan’s mountain Muslims define themselves.

Thanks to Tursunov’s translation, Islam awoke in Kyrgyzstan without the influence of foreign teachers, Islamic missionaries, mullahs, commentaries, the Hadith, seminaries, mosques, doctrines or other religious adornments. There weren’t enough mullahs (Islamic priests) with authority to enforce an official interpretation of the Koran, because mullahs had been banned by the USSR. As a result Kyrgyz Muslims took the Koran at face value, encountering it with an open-hearted, raw faith that began to tear down ethnic divisions. The Koran, in the absence of mullahs and doctrines, actually helped build ethnic and inter-religious cohesion.

Taking the Koran’s lead, Tursunov translated Moses’ Torat (Torah, or Old Testament), David’s Zabur (Psalms), and Jesus’ Injil (Gospel, or New Testament). These biblical books sold like hot kabobs among those who, like Tursunov, were fulfilling their Muslim duty as they understood it. The Koran confirms that the Torat, Zabur and Injil are also revelations from Allah. It actually places a curse on anyone who ignores or discredits any part of Allah’s collective revelations.

I moved to Kyrgyzstan in 1994, after the iron curtain had fallen, and I quickly learned how to navigate its nomadic, gift-giving culture. I bought copies of Tursunov’s translations, which in book form were unaffordable to many of the people scrambling to rebuild their lives after the disaster of Soviet rule. Despite my Western upbringing, my holy book collection quickly opened doors to grassroots Islamic circles, and also earned me a reputation as a good Muslim.

This newly-discovered, Kyrgyz form of Islam embraced Jews and Christians and folk traditions and thinkers and philosophers and musicians and artists and women and foreigners and many others. In the 1990s I knew both Soviet Jews and ethnic Kyrgyz who regarded ethnic Kyrgyz as the least anti-Semitic Muslims on earth. But then foreign money came in to build mosques in the bigger cities. TV stations hosted radical religious leaders from Egypt, Turkey and the Arabian Peninsula. Their point was simple: “The Bible and its books are foreign and have been changed from Allah’s original message. They will corrupt their audience.”

My urban friends no longer welcomed my gifts. Young mullahs educated in foreign countries soon replaced the older Soviet-era mullahs in rural areas. By the end of the 1990s, my “good Muslim” reputation took a beating in those villages as well. Tursunov was now in hot water for his translations, which were quickly turned into toilet paper, ditched in outhouses, or used as heating fuel until they all but disappeared.

Tursunov was accused of many things including mistranslating the Koran, but his real crime was translating in the absence of foreign mullahs, teachers and interpreters. Locals who still possessed portions of the Torat, Zabur and Injil were also accused of bringing curses on their relatives and villages.

In the open-window era, Muslims loved talking about Jesus so long as he donned his Koranic name Isa (Иса). “Isa is ours,” they would tell me as they read both the Koran and the Injil. But when the same text used the Russian name Iysus (Ийсус), Kyrgyz would perceive Jesus as foreign—and so this terminology was emphasized by the imported mullahs. Interestingly, Christian missionaries worked alongside these mullahs in achieving this end, as they were more comfortable using Isa’s Christian name Iysus Kristos (Christ) instead of his Koranic name Isa Mesix (Messiah).

The change solidified as the mullahs started to teach their religion, the Islamic doctrine of abrogation (Allah’s later verses trump earlier verses), traditions, dietary laws, creeds and practices. Commoners started learning proper Arabic and keeping the Ramadan fast. Going to the mosque and praying five times a day became popular. Anti-Semitism was taught as central to Kyrgyzstan’s new Islamic identity. Fundamentalists also blasted Kyrgyzstan’s pre-Islamic faith and folk culture, which contain many biblical elements. (Most notably, the central Kyrgyz epic about “Manas son of Jakyb” parallels the biblical “Manasseh son of Jacob.”) While the nation remains politically moderate, the window for grassroots faith and open-minded discussion of the Koran has closed.

I had experienced Kyrgyz Islam without mosques and mullahs as tolerant, open, sympathetic, light, cheerful, hopeful, playful, honest and, most of all, forgiving. I met many happy people in those days, despite the extreme difficulties arising from a societal overhaul.

In that era, the Kyrgyz people celebrated an Islamic feast centered around Abraham’s sacrifice. Men would visit seven homes and eat and pray at each home as they read a portion of Abraham’s story from the Torah. My friends and I loved these progressive story-dinners.

I think of two Soviet-era mullahs I knew who had lost their faith, but rediscovered it by reading the Koran alongside the Torat, Zabur, and Injil. The biblical collection became a part of their Islamic training and gave them a holistic perspective their foreign-educated colleagues lacked.

My take on this? The Soviets gave an unexpected gift to the Kygyz and to me. By putting religion on a blank slate, by zeroing it out, they gave Kyrgyz Muslims a chance to look at and experience the heart of their historic faith—one which embraced the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament along with the Koran—with eyes that weren’t clouded by layer upon layer of religious culture. The consequence was powerful and positive. Yes, the religious hammer came down on this movement quickly, which has broken my heart. But I still cherish the picture it gave me of the kind of simplicity and faith that I want for myself, my family and those I love.

Tursunov is dead now. Kyrgyzstan’s unique Islamic expression has been institutionalized, and the Koran has been buried under historic commentaries and orthodox interpretations. Nonetheless, when asked if I’m a Muslim, I’m instantly transported back to that window in time, and I answer yes, at least the kind of Muslim I saw there.

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