Muslim Turkistan: Kazak Religion and Collective Memory

By Crews, Robert | The Middle East Journal, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Muslim Turkistan: Kazak Religion and Collective Memory


Crews, Robert, The Middle East Journal


CENTRAL ASIA

Muslim Turkistan: Kazak Religion and Collective Memory, by Bruce G. Privratsky. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 2001. xxi + 271 pages. Appendix to p. 273. Refs. to p. 298. Gloss. to p. 307. Index to p. 321. $45.

Reviewed by Robert Crews

Every year some 200,000 pilgrims and tourists trek to the southern desert-steppe of Kazakhstan and the remote oasis town of Turkistan. They come from the surrounding steppe villages and towns and from more distant places in Central Asia and the Turkic world to visit the shrine of the 12th-century Sufi, Ahmet Yasawi. Constructed by Tamerlane ("Emir Timur") in the late 14th century, the Yasawi shrine survived five decades of tsarist rule and seven decades under the Soviets. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Kazakhs (rendered Kazaks in the book under review) have transformed this monumental shrine complex from a Soviet museum to a symbol of national sovereignty and spiritual rebirth. An image of the shrine now graces the new national currency. Echoing the Pan-Turkist ode to the town as "the cradle of the heroic Turk," a billboard quoting President Nursultan Nazarbayev at the city limits informs travelers that Turkistan is on its way to becoming "the spiritual capital of the Turkic world" (pp. 30, 33).

In a remarkable ethnography based on an extended stay in Turkistan in the 1990s, Bruce G. Privratsky explores the religious life of this town and the pilgrims who regard it as a "Second Mecca." Against the backdrop of a distinctively post-Soviet landscape of sun-baked, mud-brick dwellings, decaying Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, and the modern architecture of the Turkishbuilt Yasawi University, the author examines the efforts of Kazakhs preoccupied with "laying hold again of a religious heritage that has been tested and distended, but not destroyed" (p. 2).

Privratsky argues that "Kazakh religion" persisted despite the dramatic upheavals of the 20th century because it retained the very features that previous scholars (and some Kazakh informants) have identified as shortcomings in piety and knowledge. Here the author takes on the oft-repeated assertion (dating at least to the early 20th century) that the nomadic Kazakhs remained only superficially tied to Islam because they lacked mosques, schools, and learning. He counters these claims by identifying Kazakh religion as a "local or 'popular' contextualization of Islam affectively experienced in the collective memory" as "blood" or "ethnicity" tied to a landscape of Sufi shrines and ancestor's cemeteries, a ritual ancestor cult, healing, and pilgrimage (p. 238).

Kazakh religion survived anti-religious campaigns because "the Soviets misdirected their attack against the theology and institutions of urban Islam where the Kazakhs had made little investment. …

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