Kyrgyz - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Kyrgyz are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi school of law, but the degree to which the north and south adhere to religious practices must be considered when understanding the role of Islam in Kyrgyzstan. The distinction is often made between the religious practices of Islam and the everyday cultural practices of Islam. Islamic mosques and madrassah were built by the sixteenth century in the southern regions of Kyrgyzstan. One of the most important holy places for Muslims in Kyrgyzstan is the Throne of Suleyman in the southern city of Osh. It is sometimes referred to by Soviet Muslims as the "second Mecca." By contrast, Islam infiltrated northern Kyrgyzstan in a slower, less encompassing manner. Many ancient indigenous beliefs and practices, including shamanism and totemism, coexisted syncretically with Islam. Shamans, most of whom are women, still play a prominent role at funerals, memorials, and other ceremonies and rituals. This split between the northern and southern Kyrgyz in their religious adherence to Muslim practices can still be seen today. Likewise, the Sufi order of Islam has been one of the most active Muslim groups in Kyrgyzstan for over a century.

The Sufi orders represent a somewhat different form of Islam than the orthodox Islam, and their adepts are generally more extreme in their views and in their intolerance of non-Muslims. The four Sufi tariqas (paths to God, or Sufi brotherhoods) that brought Islam to the Kyrgyz and remain in Kyrgyzstan are: the Naqshbandiya, which is Bukharan and very popular and powerful; the Qadiriya, an ancient tariqa; the Yasawiya, a south Kazakhstan tariqa; and the Kubrawiya, a Khorezm tariqa. In addition, there are two newer indigenous orders that sprang from the Yasawiya. The earlier of the two is the Order of Lachi, which formed in the late nineteenth century. It opposed the older orders and was oppressed by them in return. As a result of this enmity, the Lachi initially supported the Bolsheviks but later came to oppose them. The Lachi went underground, and the Soviets could not find them again until the 1950s. Several villages in the Osh Oblast are composed entirely of Lachi members. Another indigenous Sufi order is the Order of the Hairy Ishans, which formed in the 1920s and was intensely anti-Soviet. As a result of its opposition, the Soviets attacked them in 1935-1936 and again in 1952-1953, killing some of their leaders. The Hairy Ishan order, unlike other Sufi orders, allows women to participate in the zikr (prayers) and to form their own female-only subgroups. On the whole, however, under the Soviets the practice of Sufism became highly secretive, even to the point that the silent zikr has replaced the zikr said aloud.

Under the Soviets, religious activity and belief were strongly discouraged, although not eradicated. The Soviets printed anti-Islamic books for Kyrgyz consumption (sixty-nine titles between 1948 and 1975) and gave antireligious lectures (45,000 in Kirghizia in 1975 alone). Antireligious propaganda was seen or heard in the opera, the ballet, the theater, and over the radio. The Soviets also formed motor clubs, whose task it was to bring antireligious propaganda to isolated regions. Reforms in the 1980s made open religious observance possible for the first time in many decades. A significant number of Kyrgyz observe Muslim practices in their everyday lives but not in a religious sense. Kyrgyz women do not wear veils, nor do they avoid men to whom they are not related.


Religious Practitioners. The Kyrgyz Muslims have the Standard Islamic clerics. In addition, the Sufi orders have their own murshids, or leaders.


Ceremonies. The Kyrgyz practice standard Islamic ceremonies and rituals. Births, circumcisions, weddings, funerals, and Islamic holidays occasion celebrations. The wealthy and the politically powerful also hold large, well-attended festivals for weddings and to commemorate the death of a family member.


Arts. Kyrgyz cultural arts are rich and varied. From acrobatic horseback riding by both men and women to the fine craftsmanship of leather saddles and silver jewelry, the Kyrgyz have remembered their nomadic roots in keeping such traditional arts prominent in their everyday lives. One of the more significant cultural arts of the Kyrgyz is the recitation of their epic poem Manas, one of the longest epic poems in the oral tradition of the world's peoples. It is at least one million lines long and is said to take six months to perform. Manas is part of the Turkic dastan, a genre of literature that served as an educational medium by which the Kyrgyz transmitted from generation to generation their history, values, customs, and ethnic identity. The bard, called a manaschi, chanted Manas without musical accompaniment. This storytelling role was performed by an individual with shamanlike capabilities and in whom the community would confide. The Russian historian Basilov describes a nineteenth-century manaschi as one who used episodes of Manas as a curative ritual. Listening to the epic was reputed to have the power to cure a woman of infertility.

The Kyrgyz also have a long and popular tradition of informal recitation of folklore. The singing of folk songs is often accompanied by the three-stringed instrument akomuz. Among some of the most famous Soviet writers of the last thirty years, Kyrgyz writer Chingis Aitmatov has distinguished himself as the author of books and screenplays. His works include Dzamilya , A Day Lasts Longer than One Hundred Years, and The White Steamship.

Soviet influence in Kirghizia has included the formation of a Kyrgyz orchestra; the publication of books, magazines, and newspapers in Kyrgyz and Russian; the establishment of libraries; radio and television broadcasts; and the creation of a feature-film industry to disseminate cultural material.

Medicine. Traditional Kyrgyz medicine, Chinese acupuncture, and Soviet rest sanitoriums offer the major methods of healing available to people in Kyrgyzstan. Since 1991 Western aid has focused on providing pharmaceutical medicines and medical training to the country. Medical help is inadequate in the rural mountainous regions, especially since the breakup of the Soviet infrastructure in 1991 and the earthquake in August 1992.

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