About religion in Central Asia
Muslim religion - Islam in Central Asia

Islam, meaning in Arabic "giving oneself up to God, submission", is one of the three largest world religions, along with Christianity and Buddhism. Islam was founded at the beginning of the 7thc. AD on the Arabian Peninsula during the period of formation of the Arabian state of classes.

Islam was influenced by Christianity and Judaism, and partly by Manichaeism and Zoroastrianism. A Muslim must accept the "five pillars of faith". The first of them is utterance of the symbol of faith: "There is no God besides Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet". Muslims are also committed to praying every day, keeping the fasts, giving alms (zakat), and to making a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their lives (hadj). Other religious ceremonies and rituals of Islam such as the Muslim holidays (Kurban-bairam, Uraza-bairam, Mavlud) as well as the "pillars of faith" are of great importance for preserving and increasing influence of the religion over its believers.

At present, Muslim believers number about 860 million members in more than 120 countries. In 35 countries Muslims form a majority of the population, and in 18 countries the followers of Islam are members of influential minorities. In 28 countries Islam is the official state religion, among them are Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and others. In Russia, Muslims live in Tatarstan and Bashkortostan; there are also Muslims in Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia.

Since its birth, Islam, like other religions, has been constantly changing. The division of Islam into two branches, Sufism and Shiism, stimulated the ideological development of the religion. With the exception of the Azerbaijanis, small groups of Persians, and Kurds living in Turkmenistan and the Bukhara region of Uzbekistan, all the Muslims of the Commonwealth of Independent States are Sunnis.

Shiites live in the Gorno-Badakhshan autonomous province of Tajikistan, as sectarians called Ismailites. Groups of followers of varieties of mystical and ascetic Moslem teachings of Sufism (Muridism) are active in Chechnya and Ingushetia, and in some districts of Dagestan and Kazakhstan.

The affairs of Muslim communities in Central Asia are managed by the Religious Administration of Muslims of Maverounahr, having its head office in Tashkent.

The Administration Presidium appoints its representatives, having the rank of Kazy, to the regions (provinces, republics). To keep a close link with Muslim communities, the Administration and its representatives control the ritual services of mosques, as well as manage the teaching and popularization of the religion. The Religious Administration develops phetys (precepts, recommendations) on the most important issues of religious life.

Phetys are issued for the notice of the congregation in mosques. The everyday affairs of communities, such as managing the assets of the sect, maintaining prayer rooms, and spending money are dealt with by an elected body called "mutavalliat" comprised of the members of the congregation. The Mir-Arab Madrasseh in Bukhara where students are trained to become Muslim clergy, also has a school where Shiite clergy students are taught. Madrassehs are opening in other towns, particularly in Samarkand. There is an Al-Bukhari Muslim Institute in Tashkent.

Sufism in Central Asia

Sufism is a religious and philosophical Muslim teaching developed in the Arab countries in the 8thc. The cause for the development of Sufism was the state of social conditions in Muslim countries. Sufism contains elements of New Platonism, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and particularly Buddhism. In essence, Sufism propagates asceticism, pantheism, and mysticism. According to Sufism there are 4 steps leading to the state of perfection.

The first step is Sharia, or Muslim law, which requires unquestioning compliance.
The second step, called "tarikat", requires the complete obedience of apprentices to their teachers and strengthening of the willpower by rejecting material interests.

Having gone through this step, the third step, "marifat", can be reached when a man must use his heart and soul, not his intellect, to realize that the existence of the universe is in God, that the World is God's emanation and that the meaning of goodness and evil is relative, not absolute.

The fourth step, called "khakikat" (truth), can be reached only after the previous three have been mastered. "Achieving, knowing the truth" means "the end of the Sufi as a personality", his attaining enlightenment and merging with God into one being, which provides eternal existence. Sufis have to practice special exercises (meditations) to attain these goals.

Sufism spread over the countries of Near East, northern India, Indonesia, and Southwest China. In Maverounahr, particularly on the territory of Uzbekistan, Sufism became widely practiced during the period of the feudal wars in the second half of the 9th -beginning of the 10thc. centuries. The first Sufi chief in Maverounahr was Yusuf Khamadaniy (the 12thc.). Later followed such highly respected Sufis as Abdulkhalik Gizhduvaniy and Akhmad Yassaviy.

In the 13thc. - 14thc. a variety of Sufism called "Nakshbandia" was founded by Bahovutdin Nukshbandiy. There are some well preserved monuments to the saint Sufis in Uzbekistan. Sufi Muslims make pilgrimages to these places.

Buddhism in Central Asia

When King Kanishka came to power in 78 AD in Central Asia a new system of chronology was adopted, replacing the chronology from the era of the Seleucids.

During the Kushan period, various religious systems were widespread in Central Asia. These were the local cult of Mitra and Anahit, Zoroastrian pantheon (Ormuzd, Veretzanga, etc.) the Greek pantheon (Jupiter, Heliosis, Celen, etc.) and the cult of local heroes (Siyavush in Khorezm and Sogd). The followers of Buddhism had been banished from Iran in the 2nd - 3rd centuries and found support in Central Asia, where Buddhism became widely practiced. According to Chinese chronicles Buddhism came to China in 147 from the country of the "big yue dzhi", and thanks to the Kushan missionaries Buddhism was adopted as the official religion of the court of the Chinese emperor, Khuan-Di (147-167).

During the archeological excavations in Khorezm (Bazaar-Kala, Gyaur-Kala, Gyaz-Kala) and Sogd (tali-barzu, Zohak-i-Maron castle, Er-Kurgan and others) it was found out that many settlements and castles dated back to the Kushan period. But the largest number of traces of Buddhist culture during the Kushan period was found in Tolharistan.

Architectural fragments dating back to the Kushan period have been found in "Old Termez". Some Buddhist monuments date back to the period of the Great Kushans.

Zoroastrianism in Central Asia

Zoroastrianism is a system of religious beliefs, which spread through the territory of ancient Iran and Central Asia in the 7thc.-6thc. BC.

Zoroaster, or Zardusht, Zaraustra, Zardust, is the prophet of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster lived approximately in the 1st half of the 6th c. BC. He wrote the most ancient part of the holy book of Zoroastrianism "Avesta". It is assumed that Zoroaster began preaching in Eastern Iran and Central Asia. He opposed worshiping chiefs of the tribes, priesthood, and old gods. According to oriental legends, Zoroaster lived and preached in Bactria when King Vishtasp ruled there. The king was the first to adopt Zoroastrianism.

In the following chapters of Avesta Zoroaster was described as a legendary fighter who had not only used words and miracles, but also material weapons against evil spirits.

Uzbekistan and the holy sites of Zoroastrianism are inseparable: in Samarkand we find the ancient settlement called Afrosiab, which is the name of the hero from "Avesta"; Bukhara is one of the most ancient Uzbek towns, and was founded on a sacred hill of spring offerings worshipped by ancient Zoroastrians, at the tomb of saint Siyavush.

Throughout the centuries, Zoroastrianism has changed, both in meaning and in form. During the rule of the Arshakids and the Sasanids in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism was the official religion.

The most ancient site in Bukhara is the Ark fortress, which was built no later than the 1st millennium BC. The fortress dates back to the time when Afrosiab and Siyavush, the legendary hero mentioned in Avesta, ruled. According to the legends, Siyavush was buried inside the fortress beside its eastern gate, where Bukhara Zoroastrians laid their offerings.

In Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, Chilanzar Ak-Tepa was the cult center of the Zoroastrians.

The mystery of Zoroastrianism, having a history of several millennia, is key to the knowledge of the origins of Central Asia.

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