Turkmens - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Turkmens are Sunni Muslims of the Hanafi branch. Despite the claims of some observers that their nomadic heritage created a certain laxness or heterodoxy in their religious practice, Turkmens are devout. The incorrect perception stems in part from the fact that in the past few mosques were found among the Turkmens, a phenomenon not uncommon among traditionally nomadic societies, where religious practice is centered more in the movable home than in a stationary mosque. The Turkmens saw themselves as resolute defenders of Sunni orthodoxy against the Shiism prevalent among their southern neighbors in Iran.

During the Soviet period the authorities repeatedly tried to eradicate religious belief, without success. Among the most persistent traditions has been that of ziyarat, or pilgrimage to the tombs of Muslim saints, a practice that was always strong among the Turkmens and that increased in popularity because of the difficulty for Soviet Muslims of performing the pilgrimage to Mecca. Later Soviet policies allowed for more openness in religious practice and permitted the opening of several new mosques.

Religious Practitioners. Turkmens respect the mullahs, who teach and lead the faithful in their religious life. In the past, these mullahs received their training in the urban centers of Khiva and Bukhara. For much of the Soviet period mullahs and their activities were strictly controlled by the authorities, a policy that increased the influence of the more secretive leaders ( ishans ) of mystical Sufi orders. These latter, who are often closely tied to the sacred Owlad tribes, have traditionally played a significant role in the spiritual life of the Turkmens and have functioned as unofficial preservers of the Turkmens' Islamic heritage during the more oppressive periods of Soviet rule.

Ceremonies. The Turkmens keep all the major ceremonies of the Islamic calendar, with the feast of Kurban Bairam perhaps the most important for them. This has been true despite strong official disapproval in years past.

Arts. The Turkmens have a rich oral epic tradition held in common with other Oghuz Turks, including the epic of Dede Korkut ( Gorkut Ata in Turkmen). They also have produced numerous poets renowned for their eloquence, the most famous being Maqtum Quli (eighteenth century). Their weavings, which include everything from large floor rugs to saddle bags, purses, and other domestic utilitarian items, are considered to be among the finest examples of decorative art in the world. Many scholars see the preservation of tribal markings and religious symbols in the designs found in Turkmen weavings.

Medicine. Only late in the Soviet era did authorities admit the poor state of medical care in Turkmenistan. For example, the infant mortality rate in the republic, which is estimated to be between 60 and 100 per thousand, is the highest of the former Soviet republics and among the highest in the world. Perhaps for this reason amulets to protect children from evil spirits and other folk medical practices have remained common, despite the advent of modern medical treatment.

Death and Afterlife. Funerals among the Turkmens are performed according to Islamic rites, even by avowedly atheistic party members. Special feasts and remembrances are held forty days and one year after a death. Turkmens usually bury their dead in cemeteries built up around the tomb of an Islamic saint or an Owlad tribesmen, who serves as a guide and helper in the afterlife for those buried near him.

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