Religious Beliefs and Practices. The Kazakhs are Sunni Muslims. Islam began to appear in southern Kazakhstan in the eighth to ninth centuries, after the Arab conquest of Central Asia. After the foundation of the Kazakh khanate in the fifteenth century, Islam became the predominant religion among the Kazakh people. Its influence was especially strengthened after the Russian colonization of the Kazakhs in the eighteenth to nineteenth centuries because the czarist government attempted to solidify its position in Kazakhstan through Islam. During this period many mosques were constructed and madrasahs (Islamic secondary schools) opened. Pre-Islamic beliefs—the cults of the sky, of the ancestors, and of fire, for example—continued to a great extent to be preserved among the common people, however. The Kazakhs believed in the supernatural forces of good and evil spirits, of wood goblins and giants. To protect themselves from them, as well as from the evil eye, the Kazakhs wore protection beads and talismans. Shamanic beliefs were widely preserved among the Kazakhs, as well as belief in the strength of the bearers of this cult—the shamans, which the Kazakhs call bakhsy. In contradistinction to the Siberian shamans, who used drums during their rituals, the Kazakh shamans, who could also be men or women, played (with a bow) on a stringed instrument similar to a large violin.
At present both Islamic and pre-Islamic beliefs continue to be found among the Kazakhs, especially among the elderly. Following the severe Soviet persecutions, in which the mullahs were annihilated, there are few today who have received special religious training. For this reason, literate elderly people who know the prayers fulfill the role of mullahs in rural areas. Quite frequently these are school teachers on pension or other people with higher education.
Death and Afterlife. The Kazakhs observe funerary rites that are a mixture of Muslim customs with pre-Islamic beliefs. Mainly the relatives and neighbors of the deceased take part in the funeral ceremonies; they place the deceased, washed and wrapped in a white shroud, into a separate yurt specially put up for this event and do not leave him or her unattended for a single minute until the burial. Those who gather for the funeral pray under the guidance of a mullah. The women bemoan the deceased. The mourners bring the deceased to the cemetery on special stretchers; after further prayers, they lower the body into the grave and bury it. Among the Kazakhs, as among many other Eastern peoples, women are not allowed at the cemetery. After interment, ablutions are enacted at home and the clothing of the deceased is distributed to funeral participants; refreshments are prepared for all. Near the yurt of the deceased they set up a spear with a mourning flag, which is red if the deceased was a young person, black if middle-aged, and white if elderly. They do not remove this spear throughout the entire period of mourning—that is, the whole year. Funeral banquets for the deceased are held on the third, seventh, and fortieth days. Kazakhs observe the first anniversary funerary feast especially solemnly, with as many people as possible coming together. For this day, they slaughter the favorite horse of the deceased, whose mane and tail they had shaved on the day of it's master's death. They also slaughter a good deal of other livestock for the feast.
This anniversary funeral banquet is celebrated quite ceremonially; many people gather—representatives come from various tribes and clans, sometimes several hundred people. For this reason, they set up many additional yurts and organize equestrian races, the victors receiving rich prizes. At present the Kazakhs are attempting to preserve all customs and ceremonies associated with the funerary rites.
The Kazakhs set up domed monuments on the graves, frequently mausoleums of stone, adobe bricks, and clay. The simpler grave constructs are clay or brick fences in a rectangular shape, or sometimes simply a pile of stones with a pole to which they attach bundles of horse hair. They also make sacrifices at the graves, laying bones of animals on them.
Art. Oral folk art is widely developed among the Kazakhs: songs, epic tales, folktales, heroic epics, and so forth. The Kazakhs greatly value their performers: the storytellers ( zhyrsy ) and improvisational poets ( akyn ) . Several of these achieved great popularity, including Bukharzhyrau Kalmakanov (1693-1787) and the improvisational poet Makhambet Utemisov (1803-1846), who along with his friend Isatay Taymanov led the Kazakh uprising in the Bukeevsky Horde in 1836-1837.
The work of the eminent Kazakh educator and scholar Chokan Valikhanov (1835-1865), who painstakingly gathered and attentively studied the national poetic works of the Kazakhs, had great significance for the development of Kazakh literature. Kazakh written literature took shape under the influence of Russian literature in the second half of the nineteenth century. The renowned pedagogue Ibray Altynsarin (1841-1889) made a great contribution to the development of Kazakh literature as well. He created the first Kazakh chrestomathy for Russian/Kazakh schools and published his own works, those assembled by him from the national oral literature, and translations from Russian. Abay Kunabaev (1845-1904) was also a prominent figure of the Kazakh literary movement. From the beginning of the twentieth century a plethora of Kazakh poets and writers has produced works in Kazakhstan. Among them are the giants of Kazakh literature Mokhtar Auezov (1897-1961), Saken Seyfullin (1894-1939), Beymbet Maylin (1894-1939), and others. The modern Kazakh writers are successfully continuing the traditions of Kazakh national art and of the founders of Kazakh literature.
The folk music traditions are an inseparable part of the spiritual culture of the Kazakh people: the songs, the vocal accompaniment of the professional improvisational poets, the instrumental works, and so on. Popular musical instruments include the dombra, a "plucked" string instrument, and the kobyz —an instrument played with a bow. The favorite wind instrument is the sybyzgy, in the shape of an elongated flute; as for percussion instruments, the dauylpaz, a small drum, is favored. Since the second half of the nineteenth century, new musical instruments have appeared: the accordion and the violin. In the twentieth century professional musical arts have arisen and developed greatly among the Kazakhs. In 1934 the first musical performance took place, and in 1935 the Kazakh State Philharmonic opened. In 1937 the Abay State Academic Theater of opera and ballet opened.
Formerly there were no professional theatrical arts among the Kazakhs. Only in the beginning of the twentieth century and during the years of Soviet dominance did amateur forms of Kazakh theater begin to grow. The first Kazakh theater opened in 1926 in Orenburg (at that time the capital of the Kazakh Republic). At present, Kazakh drama and theatrical arts, as well as the national cinema, have achieved a great deal of success in a short period of time.
Until recently the decorative arts of the Kazakhs have focused mainly on the details of Kazakh dwellings, clothing, and other everyday objects. One can find original Kazakh ornamentation on teased and unteased carpets, strips, the yurt, and felt coverings. Kazakh women decorate their clothes and embroider.
Woodworking, leatherwork, and metalwork have occupied places of distinction within the Kazakh national arts, but a professional decorative arts industry developed only in the twentieth century. Moreover, the first professional artists in Kazakhstan were Russians. The openings of the Kazakh State Artists Gallery in 1935 and the Artistic-Theatrical Gallery in 1938 played a large role in the development of art in Kazakhstan. The communications media have greatly expanded, including print, radio, and, in recent times, television.
Academics have developed intensively in the course of the twentieth century; this includes the study of a variety of disciplines from mathematics and mechanics to various social sciences. In Kazakhstan today there are hundreds of scientific institutions where tens of thousands of scholars work. There is also a Kazakh Academy of Science.