PASTORAL NOMADS OF CENTRAL ASIA AND SPIRITUAL NOMADISM
In the last section of this paper, I would like to make one more argument for the link between nomadism and Tablighi practice through contextualizing Tablighi movement in the region of Central Asia. During the Soviet times Islamic practices were equally restricted for all ethnic groups of Muslims in Central Asia. When the Soviet Union broke up, many new religious influences emerged in the region, one of which was the Tablighi practice that came from the Indian subcontinent. By the second half of the 1990s it found fruitful ground in Kyrgyzstan and in the last 15 years it became its dominant Islamic teaching. Today, Kyrgyzstan is the only country in Central Asia where Tablighi practice is legal and has a very large number of active followers. In the yearly 2000s the number of three-day jamaats traveling only in the Northern regions during weekends was nearing a thousand. This was the period of highest popularity reaching the levels of fashion. Since then numbers have dropped significantly, but there is more regularity, experience and formalization/legalization of the practice.
On the contrary, Tablighi practice in Uzbekistan and Taikistan is strictly prohibited and persecuted. A logical explanation to such state of affairs would be in the nature of political system. Kyrgyzstan, generally considered as the “island of democracy’ in the “sea of authoritarian states”, has much more religious freedom and supposedly that is why Tablighi ideology found its way into it. However, if we look at the case of Kazakhstan, we will see that in spite of its authoritarianism, censorship and the illegal status of Tablighi practice, it is still very popular among the ethnic Kazakhs. In the ijtema gathering in Bhopal, India Kazakh Tablighis comprised the biggest group (by my estimates, nearly 70%) from the territory of CIS.
Additional evidence against the political regime thesis is the unpopularity of Tablighi practices among Uzbek Muslims in the Southern Kyrgyzstan. Tablighi practice has very large number of followers in the Northern Kyrgyzstan. However, it is much less popular in the South, where a large share of population is ethnic Uzbeks. It is easily noticeable that in the South Tablighi practice has strong ethnic character – it is mostly Kyrgyz Muslims who engage in it, while many Uzbek scholars and congregation in the mosques reject it. Obviously, in the case of Southern Kyrgyzstan this has nothing to do with the political regime, since this differentiation takes place in the same country.
What can explain this difference? One seemingly logical explanation can be drawn from a historical perspective: Uzbeks and Tajiks had stronger religious tradition before the Soviet period and after its break-up they simply returned to it having little space for new influences. Kyrgyz and Kazakh Muslims one the contrary are generally perceived to have much weaker Islamic practices in the past and therefore they were much more open to new influences, including all kinds of Evangelical Christian missionary organizations, Wahabi teachings, Fetullah Gullen schools and very active Tablighi Jamaat,. This argument is quite strong. However, it reproduces the stereotypical view of Central Asian nomads as “bad Muslims” and fails to acknowledge the main historical difference between two major Islamic influences in the region: first of the traditional conservative ulama scholarship and second of the Central Asian Sufi brotherhoods.
Traditional Islamic teaching in the region spread through the official institutions, such as mosques and madrasas. These were mostly based in larger cities of Central Asia, such as Bukhara, Khiva, Samarqand, but also in smaller towns and villages. As such it had more influence on the urban and agricultural populations of Uzbeks and Tajiks who lived in all these settlements. On the contrary, nomadic groups of Central Asia did not have access to these traditional Islamic institutions. Their conversion to Islam and further Islamic practices were influenced by the traveling Sufi dervishes of Central Asian Sufi orders, which were quite influential. As discussed previously, Sufi practice had much less emphasis on the proper Islamic knowledge, but more on zikr, meditation and journey both physical and spiritual. Sufis who travelled in Central Asia as traders, beggars or dervishes, had a nomadic component strongly present in their lives and philosophy. That is why their teachings were much closer to Central Asian nomads than the teachings of urban scholars. Sufi practice was also more flexible in regards to the main tenants of Islam, such as five-time prayer, study of Quran and attainment of proper religious knowledge. This was another reason why it was more welcomed by the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs of Central Asia.
Therefore, we can see that from the very beginning nomadic and settled cultures of Central Asia practiced different kinds of Islam and this differentiation continued for centuries to become a tradition embedded in the lifestyle, philosophy and social relations. When the Soviet Union broke up, the Tablighi practice, which had many elements of Sufi practice, was found to be much closer to the religious views and practices of Kyrgyz and Kazakh Muslims and more alien to those of Uzbeks and Tajiks.
This perspective allows us to establish some further links between nomadism as a lifestyle and cultural practice and new religious traveling practices in the Post-Soviet Central Asia. From the cultural view, Kyrgyz people, who for centuries lived as pastoral nomads and retained many of nomadic practices through the Soviet period until present days, have a lifestyle, which is much more mobile than that of settled cultures of Uzbeks and Tajiks. Their worldviews, family and gender roles, and even occupations are much more accommodating of the need for frequent travels. It is partly for these reasons, I claim, Kyrgyz engage in the traveling practices of Tablighi jamaat much more actively than Uzbeks. A very similar argument can be proposed for the formerly nomadic cultures of Kazakhs. 70 years of Soviet rule were long enough to have effect on the lifestyle of Central Asian nomads making them much more settled, but obviously not long enough to change their culture. Therefore, instead of correlating the popularity of Tablighi with the nature of political system, I would suggest a direct correlation with the nomadic lifestyle.
In addition, a connection can be drawn with the strong oral tradition of Central Asian nomads. Kyrgyz people didn’t have wide-spread written language until the Soviet period, but they have the largest oral epic in the world – Manas and they always valued good stories and persuasive story-tellers. Tablighi practice is also significantly based on the oral narrative rather on extensive written sources. There are only three or four main books used by Tablighis in their journeys. The main mode of delivering and sharing the message is oral. It can be said to be another reason for the popularity of Tablighi among Kyrgyz.
One could argue against this view by bringing examples of other sedentary cultures around the world that embraced Tablighi practice very well. In fact, the people of Mewat, where the practice originated were a very settled population. To answer this critique, I propose that Tablighi as a grass-root ideology and practice has some basic unchangeable principles, but it is also quite flexible and when it was spreading around the world in the last century, it built on the specific cultural features of every region and peoples it encountered. In some places it was traditional hospitality, in others communal lifestyle, etc. I would not argue that nomadism was the only factors that contributed to the popularity of Tablighi, but one cannot deny their significance.
This regional comparison gives us additional interesting perspective on the use of the term spiritual nomadism for understanding the Tablighi movement. On the example of popularity of Tablighi practices among the Central Asian nomads we can propose that spiritual travels are not just about frequent trips for spiritual purposes. Spiritual travels are more than anything e reflection of the specific lifestyle, which has accommodates higher degree of mobility embedded in the culture, livelihood and social relations of specific ethnic groups.
In this paper we employed the term spiritual nomadism to better understand Tablighi traveling practice and its effects on personal transformations of its participant-travelers. It described the lifestyle and the philosophy of people who traveled the world for various spiritual purposes long time in the past and who travel it extensively today as well. Tablighi in their journeys travel along the paths connecting spiritual places – they go from one mosque to another. These physical nodes in different places around the world overlap with their own spiritual inner terrains – imaginary spaces of searching for truth, for the meaning of life, for brotherhood. In the Tablighi perspective the two types of journeys are inseparable. As we have witnessed in the accounts of Tablighi, physical and spiritual travels strongly reinforce each other. The combination of these lengthy inner and outer journeys, form the lifestyle and worldview of Tablighi travellers.
Using the nomadism perspective gives us an explanation why Tablighi journeys cannot be limited by few experiences and why they need elements of nomadic lifestyle to have these experiences repeated again and again on the regular basis to envision one’s life as a constant transformation, to continue expanding the spiritual nomadic knowledge and one’s social networks, to reinforce more dynamic worldviews and to maintain and strengthen one’s belief system. In turn, this paper has shown how these traveling practices of the Tablighi then transform people from traditionally settled cultures into spiritual nomads of the 21-st century and how in certain regions of the world, like in Central Asia, it builds on already existing nomadic tradition.
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