Mediating Mobile Traditions: The Tablighi Jama'at and the International Islamic University between Pakistan and Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan)
Mediating Mobile Traditions: The Tablighi Jama'at and the International Islamic University between Pakistan and Central Asia (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan)
Leibniz-Zentrum Moderner Orient
This paper discusses how Muslim networks from South Asia contributed to the reconstruction of religious, cultural, and social belonging by creating new modes and formats1 of regional interaction and connectivity2 with actors and institutions in Post-Soviet Central Asia. This is shown by using examples of the activities of the Muslim missionary movement's conservative preaching groups, such as the Tablighi Jama'at (TJ) and related Deoband traditions of Sunni Islam, as well as the activities of the comparatively modern International Islamic University in Islamabad, Pakistan (IIUI) and its graduates. After providing background for these institutions and their perspectives on Central Asia-Kyrgyzstan for the Tablighis and Tajikistan for the IIUI-this paper discusses forms of expansion and local adaptation of their networks, practices, and concepts. The religious actors and institutions from South Asia are presented here in their social, cultural, and political context as part of a larger process of the transformation of neighbouring regions. The growing number of South Asian students studying in Central Asia is also part of this larger interaction, where they add a secular dimension to social mobility in both directions. Religious actors and institutions merge with new opportunity structures3 of social and economic interaction, representing educational institutions, formats of knowledge transfer, and business networks, but also rely on social mobilisation. In the process of such interaction, these religious actors and institutions form translocal and transregional networks or 1 Formats are seen here as stable and usually organised forms of social connectivity. See also Reetz 2010a: 323. 2 Connectivity is used here as a state of connectedness of members of a transnational social network that has also been classified as a new, more advanced stage of mobility in transnational globalisation, notably in diaspora research. See also Tsagarousianou 2004; Tomlinson 1999. 3 “Opportunity structures” is used here as a concept to “examine factors external to the movement or individuals within it that inhibit or facilitate the viability of a particular movement in a particular time and place” (Reynard 2014, 2-3). Regarding Muslim networks from South Asia, the concept refers to social and economic factors that are external to the religious movements while still being relevant and sometimes crucial to explain their mobilisation and impact.
arrangements in what Elias (1978) called “figurations.” Here, local dynamics
of translation, adaptation, and transfer acquire new meaning and importance.
Religious networks from South Asia operating in the “neighbourhood”
If we follow Bourdieu’s understanding of the formation and distribution
of cultural, religious, or sacred capital (1991, 23), religious networks
emerging out of South Asia have become an influential factor in the globalising
“Islamic field.” Those religious networks are understood here as a relationship
of connectivity and mobility among religious actors through shared religious
practices, ideologies, and institutions (see Leutloff-Grandits, Peleikis,
and Thelen 2009, 5). They are marked by a particular level of density and
regularity of communication (see Mitchell 1961). However, the current
essay deals less with the density of their mutual interaction than with
the ability of connected religious actors to translate their shared symbolic
capital from one context to another. The emphasis is therefore less on the
mutual interaction than on the shared values, concepts, and practices. Thus it is
more productive to analyse how the religious networks established a translocal
and transnational religious field as discussed by Bourdieu. Following his
work, the religious actors and institutions are understood to trade in symbolic
goods or sacred capital, the distribution of which instantly creates power and
facilitates political relations among them (Bourdieu 1991, 3).
The religious aspect of those networks can therefore be imagined as
religious capital, constituted by knowledge about and the practice of religious
norms and concepts. While Bourdieu understood the actors involved
as constituting a mainly local community of religious specialists and laymen,
this perspective is expanded here beyond national and regional borders as
encompassing translocal and transregional networks. Following Bourdieu,
who regarded religious knowledge and practice as a form of social capital
for manifesting and negotiating positions of social power and control
over resources, these networks are presented here in its social capacity.
Through these networks, religious actors and institutions engage with
issues of shared sociability, economy, or cultural and ethnic identity.4 As the
variety of these dimensions of interaction increases, the religious factor,
while never absent, does not always dominate.
4 See, for instance, the distinctions in social networks between those based on social and symbolic
ties highlighted by Faist (1997, 218). Social ties imply personal relations and acquaintance, such as
those that exist in the household, family and kinship, friendship, or village networks. Symbolic ties
in turn rest on collective identities and representations, as is the case in networks based on religion,
ethnicity, or nationality.
The increasing impact of such religious networks is an important marker
of today’s world. While sociologists view globalisation differently, with
some arguing that it creates social and cultural homogenisation while others
see an emergence of more differentiation and diversification,5 it is argued
here that both directions of globalisation cannot be neatly separated and
instead belong together, where one becomes more visible than the other
depending on the perspective taken. While the religious networks contribute
to the emergence of some form of homogenisation across national borders
and regions among their potential constituencies, the fact that various
networks get the chance to operate side-by-side, in places where
previously only one or the other was dominant, speaks to an increase
of differentiation.6 By differentiation, we refer to both geographic and
denominational diversification. The geographic expansion of South Asian
Muslim groups can be understood as a tendency of such variation. Muslim
groups are spreading beyond their original centres of formation to other parts
of the world, not only from the historical centres of Islam in the Arabian
Peninsula, but also from regions such as South Asia. To some extent, South
Asia occupies a strong position to compete with the Arabian Peninsula.
Most groups, denominations, and interpretations of Islam that emerged
in South Asia managed to expand beyond their home regions into the
wider Muslim world. This applies to the Purists (Deobandis, Ahl-i
Hadith), the Sufi-oriented groups (Barelwi), the Shia minority, and the
Ahmadiyya (considered heterodox by most Sunni Muslims) (Reetz 2010a).
They did so not only by relying on their shared religious identities, but
also by using cultural and social connections that had formed in the course
of history and strengthened in recent years. Between Central and South
Asia, these connections emerged under the Mughal Empire, which had
its roots in Central Asia (Balabanlilar 2012). Its emperors ruled over
South Asia in the name of Islam from the sixteenth to the nineteenth
century. For other parts of the world, such expansion beyond South Asia
was partly due to the global expanses of the former British colonial empire.
Today, following the tracks of globalisation, the strong and vibrant modern
South Asian diaspora has travelled beyond territories formerly under
British rule, with South Asian Muslims active in North America,
North Africa (Maghreb), and Southern Europe (France, Spain). It was through
these different trajectories that the geographic expansion expressed itself in
social and cultural diversity as well, which marked the conditions of local
See Turner 2010, especially the introduction.
6 This is also argued by sociologists who contend that the homogenizing effects of capitalist
globalisation are linked to the differentiation of markets, resources, consumption, and production
(Nederveen Pieterse 2015, ch. 3).
followers of the Tablighi Jama’at, or the more political Jamaat-i Islami,
in different parts of the world.
This differentiation also applies to denominational variety among Muslims
from South Asia, where it is a particularly striking feature. There we can
conditionally distinguish groups following Islamic reformism (islah),
such as the groups under the influence of the Islamic seminary in Deoband
(North India) or the South Asian Ahl-i Hadith (People of the Tradition);
groups emphasising Sufism (tasawwuf), as practiced by Sufi orders, or by
Barelwi groups affiliated with institutions in the North Indian town of Bareli;
and those applying modernist interpretations as embodied by the Jama’at-i
Islami (Islamic Party, see also Reetz 2009). While such differentiation is not
unique to South Asia, it acquires a specific profile in the South Asian context
where these groups project their diverse interpretations and practices.
If we understand modernity as a process of social differentiation,7 the expanding
and discerning influence of South Asian Muslim groups can be traced back
to the nineteenth century (Reetz 2006). In that sense, the expansion of these
groups was part of the differentiation process, and therefore a reflection of
modernisation (see also Turner 2014).
Central and South Asia share a long history of related Muslim
institutions, cultural traditions, and religious practices. Those historical
links gained new strength in the early twentieth century when Central Asian
scholars—who had graduated from Deobandi or Barelwi institutions
in British India—returned and established like-minded networks of
friends and institutions in Central Asia. They laid the foundations of regular
connectivity, opening channels through which cultural and religious
capital of Islamic reference or provenance circulated. However, such flows
and transfers often changed the reference and context environment for
the acquired knowledge or learnt practices.8
I have discussed those dynamics as alternate forms of globalisation by
religious actors and institutions from South Asia for other geographic contexts
7 See the interview with Niklas Luhman, “What is modernity?” where he discusses different forms
and modes of differentiation (Rasch 2000, 195).
8 A good example is the religious scholar Mullah Hindustani (1892–1989) from Tajikistan, whom
scholars and analysts wrongly assumed to be a Salafi and Deobandi, because of his strong orthodox
views and influence. He actually graduated from the Madrasa Usmaniya in Ajmer, India (Darul
Uloom Moinia Usmania Dargah Shareef), a Barelwi madrasa of Sufi-oriented Islam. The Deoband
connection is assumed by Tim Epkenhans (2010, 318), Kirill Nourzhanov and Christian Bleuer (2013,
258), and Praveen
.The Ajmer reference is based on Hindustani’s autobiography, quoted
in Olimov (2008).
(Reetz 2010a, 2007, 2013a, 2010, 2011). Those actors and institutions
engaged in various ways of world-making by establishing their own modes
of regional interaction. They went beyond translocality9—characterising
the spatial interaction of different Muslim networks—and moved into
transregionalism. In the process, they crossed the boundaries of regions
with their particular cultural, linguistic, and political characteristics. With their
normative value system, these Muslim actors and institutions challenge
the dominant Western concepts of globalisation, examples being the critical
take on globalisation by the Indian Ahl-i Hadith scholar Maulana Abdul
Ghaffar Salafi (2014), or the Deobandi scholar Maulana Yasir Nadeem
(2003). At the same time, Muslim actors and institutions continued to partake
in many mainstream economic and social forms of global exchange and
connectivity. In particular, the religious networks retained close relations with
Muslim trading groups from South Asia, which in their turn had established
transregional connections well before the advent of British colonial rule,
particularly with East Africa and Southeast Asia.
The current paper looks at the specifics of those exchange dynamics
between South Asia and Post-Soviet Central Asia to understand the
modes of engagement of select religious actors and institutions as well
as the dynamics of their local adaptation. The purpose is to understand
how religious capital translated into the social and spatial mobility that was
cutting across the political, cultural, ethnic, and religious divides between
the two regions. For this purpose, qualitative interviews were conducted
with members of the Muslim networks as well as representatives of state
institutions in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan during several trips to the region
in the years 2012–15. The study builds on additional research and interviews
at the International Islamic University in Islamabad during the same period.
The focus was on the transregional impact of two networks, the missionary
movement of the Tablighi Jama’at and its related Deobandi madrasa system
on the one side, and the modernist International Islamic University
of Islamabad (IIUI) and its graduates on the other. Both networks are
historically rooted in South Asia. The Deobandi doctrine and the system
of Deobandi madrasas goes back to the Darul Ulum Deoband (Islamic
University of Deoband),10 which was opened in 1866. The lay preaching
movement of the Tablighi Jama’at was founded by Muhammad Ilyas
(1885–1944) in North India in 1926, primarily as an internal missionary
9 For the concept of translocality as a research perspective, see Freitag and von Oppen 2010. For
its application to Muslim actors from South Asia, see Reetz 2010a, 296.
10 http://www.darululoom-deoband.com/. [Accessed on 12. January 2016]; see Reetz 2007;
movement to re-awaken faith among Muslims. The International Islamic
University Islamabad (IIUI)11 was inaugurated in 1980. Although the
Tablighi and Deobandi movements were highly innovative in their own
time, they were later seen as conservative and more or less orthodox.
The founding of the IIUI, on the other hand, resulted from the modern
Islamist project of the “Islamization of knowledge” in the 1970s.12 While
it was founded around a core of strong departments devoted to orthodox
Islamic studies (Usul-ud-Din, lit. rules of religion) and missionary activity
(da’wa), it has since gravitated towards secular education with major
fee-earning faculties like management sciences, applied sciences, engineering
technology, law, and social sciences (Reetz 2010b).
Both institutions and networks attracted a steady number of foreign students,
not least from Central Asia. As will be shown here, using the examples of
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the exchange processes outside South Asia followed
different dynamics for every region or even country. Those dynamics were
influenced by the host institutions in South Asia as much as by the recipient
networks and institutions in Central Asia. The latter interpreted, selected,
and adapted the knowledge, practices, and experiences acquired in the light
of their own needs, values, and capacities.
While the flows of religious connectivity between South and Central Asia
were disrupted or curtailed during the Soviet era, they were never fully cut.
A small number of students from Russia and Central Asia continued to
graduate from Darul Ulum Deoband and the International Islamic University
even during this period.13
After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Pakistani leaders—based on
ideological Islamist assumptions—entertained high hopes about the potential
of re-uniting the Islamic Republic of Pakistan with the Muslim brother
states of Central Asia. In 1991–92, Pakistan’s President Ghulam Ishaq Khan,
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and key ministers repeatedly visited
Central Asia, while leaders from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan paid
return visits as well (Reetz 1993). Pakistan’s hopes were not only driven by
historic nostalgia but also by strategic expectations that these states would,
because of their Muslim identity, support Pakistan in its confrontation with
http://www.iiu.edu.pk/. [Accessed on 12. January 2016]; see Reetz 2010b.
For more on this see p. 22 of this article.
13 From the statistics of the Darul Ulum Deoband, we know that about seventy students from
Russia and about twenty from Central Asia graduated between 1866 and 1994 (Reetz 2007, 145). For
the IIUI, see below.
India and provide a “strategic hinterland” (Reetz 1993). In this way, they
would make up for what was felt to be a lack of “geographic depth” in the
event of a military confrontation with India. Simultaneously, religious
actors such as the Jama’at-i Islami invested heavily in spreading
religious material in Post-Soviet Central Asia, sponsoring translations of
(largely historical) religious tracts into Russian and Central Asian languages.
They sought to assist in the revival of religious thought and practice after
what they perceived as the end of the atheist era there. However, because
both the Pakistani government and the religious actors underestimated the
closeness of the secular former Soviet elites to India, these hopes did not
materialise. The influence of the Pakistani government in the region ran
into many obstacles as there was only limited response during the early
nineties to the overtures of the South Asian religious networks with their
hopes for proselytization, Muslim religious bonding, and political solidarity
in Central Asia. India, on the other hand, continued to benefit from the
existing networks and institutional links as well as the cultural affinity
and economic connections created during the Soviet era.
Central Asia rediscovers South Asia and its Muslim networks
From the perspective of Central Asia, the dissolution of the Soviet Union
in 1991 was also the strategic watershed event for relations with
South Asia. Most of the respondents interviewed for this study twenty-five
years later remembered it only as “collapse” (Russian: razval). The dissolution
of the Soviet Union caught many Central Asian states such as Kyrgyzstan
and Tajikistan by surprise, as they were unexpectedly confronted with the
demands of their own nation building. Their Soviet-trained Central Asian
elites had not pushed for national sovereignty because they feared it would
lead to a loss in resources, connectivity, and international political standing.
The dissolution process accelerated the elevation of ethnic and religious
references in the articulation of their re-asserted nation state identities,
a process that had already begun during the late Soviet period when ethnic
cultural markers enjoyed growing popularity. Meanwhile, the interest
in Islam, its practices, festivals, and religious doctrine had grown significantly
(see Olimov and Olimova 2003; Stephan 2010). Making use of the new
liberties granted during Perestroika, an All-Union Islamic Renaissance
Party was founded in Astrakhan, Muslim Russia, on July 9, 1990
Vaisman, and Wasserman 2000; Khalid 2007)
. It quickly developed branches
in other parts of the Soviet Union and it was the precursor of the only legal
Islamic political party in the post-Soviet era, the Islamic Renaissance Party
(IRP) of Tajikistan, which has now been banned (see below).
After the Afghan civil war against the Islamist Mujahidin insurgency of
the eighties, post-Soviet state elites in Central Asia were fearful of the revival
of religious practices. The Soviet Union had to withdraw in defeat from
Afghanistan while the Central Asian states, which had been heavily involved
in this struggle, continued to suffer from its consequences. Yet Islamic practice
reasserted itself partly from the grassroots, partly through opportunistic
government policies designed to exploit Muslim cultural references,
and partly through interaction with the Muslim world (Louw 2007;
Khalid 2007). Governments responded with a mix of tight state regulations
and repression, which also led to civil war in Tajikistan and flashes of violence
in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.
Muslim actors in post-Soviet Central Asia engaged with various transnational
Islamic movements that arrived to promote their concepts and formats
in a growing competition over defining true Islam and gaining the support
of Central Asian Muslims. These transnational movements included
influential players from Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Turkey, and Iran
. At the same time, post-Soviet Central Asia
re-discovered South Asia by taking advantage of the geographic proximity
and reviving historical bonds. Some actors in these states also responded to the
charm offensive by Pakistan religious actors and institutions,14 often seeking
support in their political contestation with the post-Soviet bureaucratic
elite, the nomenklatura. After violent clashes with government forces,
Islamic opposition forces crossed the border from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan
to Afghanistan and moved further into Pakistan in the early nineties.15 A
significant number of Central Asian Muslim activists also availed themselves
of scholarships offered to study at local Islamic schools in Pakistan, such
as the Syed Maudoodi International Islamic Educational Institute16 of the
14 Several of Pakistan’s religious actors and institutions made overtures in Central Asia during the
nineties. These included fellowship offers from the International Islamic University, which registered
the highest number of Central Asian students during those years (see p. 141). The Jama’at-i Islami
translated numerous religious tracts into Central Asian languages and distributed them there; Deobandi
madrasas in both India and Pakistan, as well as Tablighi activism, attracted a growing number of
Central Asian students and lay preachers. Islamic leaders from Central Asia visited Pakistan and
secured financial support for the revival of Islam, partly through the Pakistani government and partly
through the international organisation Motamar al-Alam al-Islami, the World Muslim Congress, with
its headquarters in Karachi. See Reetz 1993, 1999.
15 Uzbek and Tajik civil war fighters used the tribal regions of Pakistan as “safe havens,” where
some Tajik participants stayed on to attend madrasas and other schools like the IIUI or Jama’at-i Islami
Maududi Institute in Lahore (see Table 3). Uzbek fighters settled with their families; some continue
to be involved in local militant activities inside Pakistan in the border regions with Afghanistan.
(Interviews with respondents in Islamabad, Peshawar, and Dushanbe).
https://www.facebook.com/institute.official. [Accessed on 12. January 2016].
Jama’at-i Islami in Lahore, the International Islamic University, and also
at both local and foreign madrasas—including those set up or funded
in Pakistan by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in the aftermath
of the Afghan jihad of the 1980s.
Twenty years later, Central Asian graduates of “traditional” and “modern”
Islamic schools (madrasas, colleges, universities) in Pakistan and
India, as well as followers of missionary networks who had returned
to their countries of origin, were engaged in reshaping the environment there
in different ways. Adding another dimension to the transregional mobility
beyond the religious aspect, secular students from Pakistan and India
at universities and institutes in Central Asia and other Post-Soviet states have
slowly extended their own diaspora networks within Central Asia.17 At the
same time, Pakistan and India were developing their political and economic
relations with the new Central Asian states with varying degrees of success.
These relations were shaped by their own evolving capacities and needs
as well as the opportunities offered by Central Asia, especially the latter’s
natural and energy resources. China’s appearance on the regional scene and
a re-emerging Russia further added to the complexity of the situation.
Against this background, this paper looks at the dynamics of the connections
between the two regions through the example of Tablighi and Deobandi
activists in Kyrgyzstan and of IIUI graduates in Tajikistan. These selections
have been made without claiming to cover the whole range of Islamist
activism in Central Asia. Of particular interest are the ways in which
these activists and graduates embedded themselves in the local “Islamic
field” in both countries and reconciled their transregional connectivity
with their local life-worlds.18
The Tablighi Jama’at between South Asia and Kyrgyzstan
Since the Tablighi Jama’at established itself as a global actor in the
mid-1950s (Reetz 2008), it has directed its international activities from its
global headquarters in the Nizamuddin district of Delhi, India. In comparison,
the national TJ centre in Raiwind, near Lahore, Pakistan, became a
“second-among-equals” global actor of the Tablighi system. This was partly
due to the madrasa in Raiwind (Madrasa Arabiyya Islamiyya), which was
See the cases of medical institutes in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as shown below, p. 154.
18 For a discussion of the concept of life-worlds in relation to religious commitment and
specifically Islam, see Abenante and Cantini 2015, which treats life-worlds as the subjectivities of
one of the few madrasa institutions in South Asia officially aligned with
the TJ movement. The curriculum taught at this madrasa largely followed the
teaching programme of the Islamic University (Dar-ul-Ulum) in Deoband,
India, which was affiliated with several hundred Deobandi madrasas
across South Asia and beyond. This teaching programme was based on
the seventeenth century Dars-e Nizami curriculum, originally developed
by the Islamic scholar Mulla Nizamuddin (d. 1748). It privileged the study
of the Prophetic traditions (Hadith) in addition to the Quran (Robinson
1974).The Raiwind madrasa developed a tradition of hosting a large
number of international students, either for the whole eight-year ‘alim course
of a religious scholar (‘alimiyya), or for the final year (daura-i hadith) after
attending other Deobandi madrasas in Pakistan. Foreign students usually
benefitted from local scholarships, which would cover a frugal lifestyle in
line with rural conditions.The madrasa system was traditionally funded by
local donations, foundations (waqf), and a religious tax (zakat). Central
Asian students formed a visible and continuous, albeit small, component of
those students. The author learnt from respondents that Central Asian
madrasa and IIUI students in Pakistan would meet on the sidelines of the
traditional annual TJ congregations (ijtima) in some sort of regional
community bonding effort.
The TJ expanded to Central Asia during the mid-nineties in the
post-Soviet era (Ismailbekova and Nasritdinov 2012; Balci 2015). Former
Soviet elite representatives with authoritarian reflexes, who dominated several
governments there, were suspicious of Islamic groups arriving from abroad.
They remembered only too well the violent and humiliating experience
of confronting orthodox Islamic fighters in Afghanistan—the by now
famous mujahidin—after the Soviet Union had militarily and politically
intervened there in the eighties. However, some local politicians toyed with
the idea of using the ostensibly peaceful Tablighi missionaries for their own
internal religious politics. But growing competition in the Islamic field,
specifically a perceived challenge of authority in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan,
made them change their minds. As a consequence, TJ was banned in all
Central Asian republics except Kyrgyzstan, where, however, it was also
not formally registered (Toktogulova 2014). These prohibitions did not
prevent the TJ from conducting their preaching missions in almost
every Central Asian country as well as in Russia. We will focus here
on Kyrgyzstan, where their presence also manifested itself structurally
in society and in the administration.
During the last five years, the TJ has had a remarkable impact on the Islamic
field in Kyrgyzstan. This fact and the relative liberalism of the local political
system in comparison to its neighbours apparently allowed more freedom
of action and contributed to the growing popularity of the movement
in Kyrgyzstan. This development led to a flurry of new studies of its
activities by both local and international scholars.19
Looking at the global system of branches and institutions run by the
TJ in almost every country where Muslims live, the Kyrgyz TJ was one of
those remarkable units that managed to go beyond the cultural and ethnic
confines of the South Asian Muslim diaspora. It was run almost entirely
by natives, mostly Kyrgyz, and a few representatives of the Uzbek
minority. Kyrgyz Tablighis share this feature of endogeneity with their
counterparts in countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, France, and those
from the Arab Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia). In contrast, TJ
activities in the UK, the US, Canada, South Africa, as well as countries
in East Africa, still rely heavily, though to a varying degree, on diaspora
Muslims of South Asian descent. This endogenous character demonstrates
the remarkable adaptability of the TJ, as it managed to become an
accepted normative actor of Islam despite its South Asian roots and in effect
turned itself into a global religious service provider. Their endogeneity
in countries such as Kyrgyzstan provided cultural and religious space
for moulding, reading, and interpreting TJ values and practices according
to local demands, needs, and expectations. Social cohesion and networks
that were seen as being under threat by the advancing market economy and the
restructuring of the post-Soviet administration, were being revived—partially
through Tablighi formats—in local communities for both young men
and women. The supposed lack of ethical values under the current market
conditions made preaching and religious learning more attractive again.
As a consequence, the Kyrgyz TJ branches—like other TJ units in similar
conditions—became effective local actors and institutions. Its activists
managed to claim not only the sacred capital (Bourdieu 1991) of global
Islamic norms in a heavily contested field, but also stood for the local
representation of such normativity.
The TJ programme in Kyrgyzstan was almost identical to practices in other
TJ branches. The local Tablighis convened weekly Thursday night meetings
at local mosques, such as the main mosque in Bishkek or the Mosque in the
ninth microrayon of the town (fig. 1). There they called for the formation
of voluntary preaching groups, which in turn moved to other towns or areas to
19 Those studies mainly focused on the local conditions, with little reference to the South Asian
origins and sources of the Tablighis. See Toktoguova 2014; Ismailbekova and Nasritdinov 2012;
Nasritdinov and O’Connor 2010; Balci 2010.
spread their message among the local Muslim communities.20 The missionary
trips for the Kyrgyz Tablighis, who in local parlance are called daavatchi
or daavatisty—the Russian adaptation of a practitioner of da’wa (Islamic
mission)—also extended to India and Pakistan. They would go from door
to door to invite Muslims to prayer sessions at the local mosque. The idea
was to involve a larger number of (supposedly secularised) Muslims in
preaching and praying to revive regular religious practice among them.
The new recruits would study the Faza’il-e ‘Amal, the collection of Hadith
(Prophetic traditions) compiled by one of the founders of the movement, which
was supposed to help them transmit more formal religious knowledge
through the TJ’s six-point programme of action, which was said to capture
key elements of Islam.21 Separate gatherings were organised to address women,
together with their spouses or close male relatives.22
20 For a detailed and balanced description of the Tablighi programme in Kyrgyzstan by a local
analyst, see Aman Saliev, “Jama’at Tabligh v Kyrgyzii” (n.d.), at the information portal Materik,
http://materik.ru/problem/detail.php?ID=10769. [Accessed on 12. January 2016].
See below, note 28.
22 For a detailed description of the Tablighis’ practice and their internal rules and administration,
see Reetz 2008.
Local roles and impact formats of the Tablighis
This broadly based interaction with local society turned the TJ activists
into a local power broker of religious, cultural, and social norms and
behaviour without claiming or directly exercising political power.
Yet critics from among the post-Soviet security elites feared that this
local involvement of the Tablighis prepared the ground for a more observant
and potentially radical Islamic activism to emerge. Parts of the local
population resented the TJ’s interventions, which they saw as moral pressure
to change inherited and customary practices of religious observance.
These reservations revealed the internal tensions and contradictions of
the TJ programme; the local preaching engagement of the Tablighis
was a key condition of their success but also set them apart from the
local population. Local elites could not directly use them for political
purposes, since the scope of their preaching was strictly circumscribed
by procedural rules, which discouraged them from involvement in any
form of activism—religious or non-religious—on behalf of the TJ (see Reetz
2008). At the same time, the TJ’s aim to integrate the common believers
and the governance system also showed in Kyrgyzstan.23
If we trace the activities of the Tablighis in Kyrgyzstan, we can see that
they made an impact through particular forms of engagement. The
TJ’s activism in Kyrgyzstan particularly benefited from the perceived need
for a rebirth of religious knowledge and practice after living under the
official atheism and secularism of the Soviet era.24 Tablighi preaching
questioned whether local traditional religious practices modelled on the
ways of their forefathers were “truly” following the right guidance of
Islam. The TJ argued that local Muslims were in need of more structured and
formal normative knowledge and practice,25 as brought and taught by the
Tablighi missionaries. The Tablighis introduced different styles of clothing,
even a different style of sitting—one respondent observed that he had to re-learn
the squatted style of “Muslim sitting.” TJ followers saw this as a recovery
of genuine Islamic practices that had been forgotten, but critics saw it as
an imposition of alien innovations that struck at the heart of Kyrgyz
See, for instance, the TJ’s interaction with the local administration, below, p. 140.
24 There are several studies on other conversion movements in Kyrgyzstan showing the widespread
interest in new religious orientations, see for example Pelkmans and McBrien 2008. I am grateful for
this reference to Aksana Ismailbekova.
25 Structured knowledge and practice of Islam are understood here as knowing about and following
the explicit formalised demands of the Quran, and the Prophetic traditions (Hadith), notably from the
founding generations of Islam-as-salaf.
culture and identity.26 In the process, however, TJ activists were also
making compromises, such as allowing the traditional ankle-length trousers
to be embroidered with Kyrgyz folklore motives to increase their
acceptability (Toktogulova 2014). The local preaching department of the state
Muftiyat even passed rules that made such considerations mandatory for the
preaching missions, so that they would raise less concern.27
The TJ also responded to local demands for more formal religious education,
filling a gap left by the secular state education system. As in similar
contexts in the UK, the US, Indonesia, Malaysia, and South Africa, TJ activists
started influencing the teaching of religion in madrasas in Kyrgyzstan.
In Bishkek, they helped create a Deobandi-style madrasa, which they adapted
to the local format. Respondents confirmed that this madrasa taught the
regular eight-year curriculum of ‘alimiyya, followed the same sequence of
subjects, and used similar books as in South Asia.28 There was, however, a
minor adaptation in the selection of reference books, although Central Asia
shares the Hanafi legal code of South Asia and was therefore legally
compatible with the curriculumfrom Deoband.29 The Tablighis also translated
their reference collection of Hadith, known by its original Urdu title
as Faza’il-e ‘Amal, into Kyrgyz and Tajik (figs. 2 and 3).30
The ambivalence of impact and influence on both religious behaviour
and social life became clearer when talking to some respondents. The
Tablighi role of social broker31 emerged from accounts of TJ followers
who emphasised the advantages of the movement for the restoration
of social harmony in Kyrgyz society and especially in rural communities.
By various accounts, TJ practices, such as sending a group of lay preachers
26 Interviews in Bishkek on 22. October 2012.
Guidelines for local preaching received at the Muftiyat, see below, note 38.
28 Interview in Bishkek on 27. October 2012.
29 Other local curricula that are based on adaptations from Soviet times, like SADUM, the
state institution regulating Islam, the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia and
Kazakhstan, are much closer to the modernist Tajdid tradition than to the Hanafi code (Khalid 2007).
The Hanafi code, named after Abu Hanifa (699–767), is one of four major legal doctrines of Islam,
see also p. 144 of this article.
30 The co-founder of the Tablighi Jama’at, Muhammad Zakariyya, compiled the Hadith collection
Faza’il-e ‘Amal [On the virtue of good deeds], which became the single most important reference
book for religious knowledge in Tablighi activism (Zakariyya 1994). Editions in Kyrgyz and Tajik
were published in Bishkek and Dushanbe and are available at local Islamic book stalls (Field research
in 2012 and 2014).
31 A social broker is a social network position, seen here as someone integrating different norms of
behaviour. See also
Fleming and Waguespack 2007
door to door to invite Muslim neighbours to pray at the local mosque
and listen to inspirational religious talks, had a healing social effect.
Repeated narratives of respondents emphasised how young men in a
particular village who used to drink and neglect “religious and social
duties” after being out of work in the aftermath of the collapse of the
Soviet system, started modifying their behaviour and attending religious
services at local mosques after they had joined TJ activities.32 Metaphorically,
TJ activism could be seen as re-appearance of a social bond amongst
young people that had previously been fostered by organisations like
the Komsomol, whose rituals and practices were destroyed by the social
upheaval following the end of the Soviet era and the introduction of the
market economy. Such an understanding would be in line with the thinking
of religious sociologists such as Emile Durkheim, who “argued that religion
is functional for society because it reaffirms the social bonds that people
have with each other, creating social cohesion and integration” (Andersen
and Taylor 2008, 452–53; Durkheim 2012 ). This phenomenon
can also be observed in other similar endogenous settings of the Tablighis.
In France, for instance, the TJ was the second-most influential Islamic
movement, providing Muslims with an Arabian or African migration
background with social pride and confidence. Social activists often expressed
32 Interviews with several respondents in Bishkek in October 2012.
Fig. 3: Fazail-e Amal in Tajik, Dushanbe.
hopes that the TJ could potentially heal many social or even economic
wounds in society (see Reetz 2010c). In Kyrgyzstan, a young activist named
Muhammad Azam, who was also a local preacher on television and at
times a government consultant, expressed enthusiasm about the potential
of the movement to contribute to peace and social or even ethnic
harmony, which in 2010 had been disrupted by clashes with the Uzbek
minority.33 Yet the TJ global organisation was very cautious and circumspect
about such expectations from Tablighi activism. Being in close and
direct contact with the Kyrgyz unit, Tablighi leaders from Raiwind
and Nizamuddin gave advice both in writing and through personal
consultations when they visited the country or Kyrgyz preachers visited
them. They strongly advised the local Kyrgyz activists to stay within
the limits of its ritualised practice, which focused exclusively on re-activating
religious practice and knowledge of the individual and the family.34
Female participation in TJ activities, which was traditionally conducted
through groups where the females were accompanied by the husband or
33 Interview in Bishkek on 25. October 2012.
34 Interview in Bishkek on 24. October 2012.
a trusted male relative (masturat jama’at), had also taken on its own
character in Kyrgyzstan. Given strong female self-respect and
emancipation in the tradition of the Soviet system, women’s participation
in these activities opened other contested binaries: what was meant to
re-introduce traditional Islamic gender segregation, echoed for local
Muslim women the social activities of women in Soviet times. Women who
participated in all-female education sessions (ta’lim) recreated female
traditions of social life that they fondly remembered from the activities
of branches of the Soviet Women’s Committee. Yet Kyrgyz opponents of
the Tablighi activities found it difficult to accept changes among female
TJ followers in demeanour, behaviour, and dress that signified gender
segregation (see Toktogulova 2014).
In Kyrgyzstan, as hinted above by Azam, TJ activism was increasingly
tested as a possible means for diffusing ethnic tensions between Kyrgyz
and Uzbek Muslims. According to evidence from several TJ activist
respondents and local researchers, local TJ units and activists played a
key role in several Uzbek communities in the South when riots broke out
in 2010,35 trying to keep tempers down by reminding everyone of their
shared Muslim identity.36 However, the hopes of local government and
NGO representatives to expand the peace-building role of the TJ were
not fulfilled. The reason was not only the persistent refusal of TJ organisers
to engage in local or other politics, but also the fact that Uzbeks so far
had abstained from joining the TJ ranks in larger numbers. Their refusal
to join followed local stereotypes that saw traditional Kyrgyz families
in need of expanding their formal religious knowledge, while Uzbek
Muslims considered themselves, or were considered to be, strongly
observant of the rules of Islam. Yet the social fabric was dynamic and the
TJ’s emphasis on common religious identity led to greater interaction
between Uzbeks and Kyrgyz within its ranks.37
35 In June 2010, a fight among youth gangs in a city club in Osh in the Ferghana Valley sparked
violent clashes with the country’s Uzbek minority, which accounts for about fifteen percent of
Kyrgyzstan’s population of roughly five million. While ethnic tensions had mounted over the years
of asserting Kyrgyz nationalism in line with post-Soviet power dynamics, areas where the Uzbek
minority was concentrated felt particularly volatile after major clashes in 1990. The Uzbek population
often feels discriminated against, while the Kyrgyz feel that their nationalist identity claims are
challenged by the strong religious commitments of Uzbek families. See also Wilkinson 2015.
36 Interviews in Bishkek in October 2012.
37 As witnessed by local TJ Kyrgyz respondents mentioned above, interviews in Bishkek in
The TJ also connected with the local political systems that governed
religion.38 As discussed by Toktogulova (2014) and experienced by the
author, the department of the Muftiyat, the State Administration of Islam
in Kyrgyzstan, an institution inherited from Soviet times, was strongly
influenced by Tablighi activists. In 2012, the section officer in charge of
missionary activities in foreign countries was Djigit Ali, a bureaucrat who
was a Tablighi activist himself and who had graduated from a madrasa
in Pakistan.39 The Muftiyat responded to local criticism of TJ activities
by codifying rules that local TJ followers must observe. These mandated
that their clothing must be in line with Kyrgyz tradition and that TJ groups
visiting villages must register and get documentation. There were also
provisions for training and self-education, since sermons and talks given
by Tablighi activists about what is correct Islamic behaviour frequently
provoked controversy.40 It is remarkable how religiosity and secularity became
intertwined in the case of this official. The exercise of secular duties was not
seen as preventing Muslims from practicing Islam and participating in TJ
activities. Such understanding of secularism came close to the interpretation
in India, where secularism was seen as a strategy of managing the diversity
of religion and protecting its followers from each other. Religiosity was
seen here as a basic and indispensable moral value of society, a concept
that in the West is perhaps most closely followed and lived in the US only.
With opponents of Tablighi influence increasingly demanding a formal
proscription of TJ activities in Kyrgyzstan in line with other Central Asian
states, its defenders also publicly articulated its benefits for society from
a global perspective, citing the unique public engagement of TJ followers
(Schenkkan 2011). Within the local political configuration, the opponents of the
TJ found themselves in the same camp with new radical Kyrgyz nationalists who
preached ethnic segregation. The TJ, which was perceived as conservative in
many other countries, or more precisely by their elites, in this way found itself in
Kyrgyzstan on the side of political liberalism, tolerance, and inter-ethnic peace.
38 Governance of religion is treated here as a political sciences perspective focusing on actors,
institutions, and their interaction. See also Kooiman 2003.
39 The Da’wa department in the Muftiyat was run by Ravshanbek Eratov, who was away on Hajj
during those days. Interview in Bishkek on 25. October 2012.
40 “Кыргызстан Мусулмандарынын Дин Башкармасынын Даават (үгүт-насаат) болүмүнүи иш
жүргүтүү боюнча жобосу” [Instructions of the Da‘wa Department—Preaching and Mission—of the
Sprititual Administration of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan regarding procedures to be followed], Bishkek,
13 September 2011. The document was received during the interviews in 2012 (translated by Aksana
Ismailbekova). In this document, the missionary department of Da‘wa under the Spiritual Administration
of Muslims of Kyrgyzstan had approved certain requirements for those who pursue missionary preaching
(in Kyrgyz daavat), which foremost applies to the Tablighi Jama’at. Point 4.5 of the instructions
specifically requires “a person, who is intending to do daavat, should keep his appearance clean and tidy
as well as wear local clothing, which does not contradict religious norms (sunnah).”
The International Islamic University Islamabad and Central Asia
The International Islamic University (IIUI), as mentioned above, emerged
from the larger project of “Islamization of Knowledge,” which set out
to find Islamic answers to academic inquiries not only related to
religion but also with regard to the humanities and social sciences. It was
championed by scholars like Muhammad Naguib Syed al-Attas (b. 1931)
and Isma‘il Raji al-Faruqi (1921–1986). The latter had established the
International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) in Virginia, USA in
1981, while al-Attas had established the International Institute of Islamic
Thought and Civilisation (ISTAC) in Kuala Lumpur in 1987. The idea
was to Islamize (Western) secular sciences so that Muslims could regain
(al-Attas 1998 ; Moten 2004)
. The university
in Islamabad continued its close relationship with its sister university in
Kuala Lumpur, which had been established around the same time (1983).
But the IIUI had less intense contacts with other Islamic Universities that
followed a similar model in Indonesia, India, or the Muslim regions of
Africa (see Reetz 2010b). Right from the beginning, the “Islamization
of knowledge” project also had an internationalist side to it, as it aimed at
strengthening solidarity among students from the global Muslim umma and
providing them with equal access to “Islamized” knowledge. The universities
in Islamabad and Kuala Lumpur have since evolved into primarily national
universities that provide access to secular knowledge in an environment
marked by Muslim ethics. At the same time, the departments of Usul-ud-Din
and Da’wa retained their religious importance, particularly in Islamabad.
While originally relying on substantial financial contributions from donors
in the Gulf region, since the September 11 attacks, the IIUI in Pakistan
is a state institution primarily financed with public money.41
As part of its internationalist calling, the IIUI has opened its doors
to foreign students since the 1990s. Although the number of foreign
students nearly doubled between 1988–89 and again in 2003–04, their
share of the total enrolment actually fell from forty-eight to twelve percent,
as overall enrolment increased faster than the number of foreign students
rose. Within this period, there was significant fluctuation and the number of
foreign students was temporarily much higher: The peak years of foreign
student enrolment were 1995–96 to 1998–99, with numbers fluctuating
between nine hundred and one thousand foreign students. Those were the
years of increasingly active internationalist ambitions amongst many of
its foreign students, as the Islamic resistance movements in Afghanistan,
Interviews with IIUI administration representatives in Islamabad in Septemer 2011 and October
Tajikistan and Uzbekistan gained momentum, partly through and from
Pakistani territory (Reetz 1999). After the Islamic Renaissance Party was
legalised in Tajikistanand participated in the government in 1997–99, students
from Tajikistan were sent to the IIU Islamabad on the official Tajikistan state
quota—with state consent but not on state funding. The Pakistani government
provided scholarships for international students, partly relying on international
donors. Haji Akbar Turajonzodah (b. 1954), a prominent religious scholar
associated with the Islamic opposition,42 was on the advisory board of the IIUI
while he held different public offices in Tajikistan in the 1990s.43
Within the international student body at the IIUI, student groups from the
post-Soviet Central Asian states and Muslim territories reached their
peak numbers between the late 1990s and the early 2000s, declining
afterwards: from Tajikistan in 2002–03 (62), Kazakhstan in 1997–98 (30),
Uzbekistan in 1994–95 (5), and Chechnya in 1997–98 (19).44 However, it
was not Islamic activism but religious knowledge transfer that had the most
enduring impact. From the data for 2001–02, we know that the students from
Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Chechnya, who formed the largest groups at the
IIUI from post-Soviet Muslim territories, primarily enrolled in the faculties of
Usul-ud-Din, Sharia and Law, and Arabic, with only a few taking courses at
the faculties of English, computer sciences, and social studies (ibid.).
Once back home in Tajikistan, the returning IIUI graduates struggled to gain
wider social recognition of their education so as to turn it into employment
opportunities.45 The Tajik government increasingly asserted itself in efforts
to fully control Islamic studies and the public activities of Muslim activists.
In 2010, it recalled all Tajik students from foreign Islamic schools (ASIA-Plus
2011). The IIUI as a state institution presented an ambiguous case for Tajik
state regulation as many of the Tajik students had enjoyed state support in
both Tajikistan and Pakistan in their time. Still, most Tajik students chose to
comply with the demands of their government and return home.
In spite of existing political limitations, several graduates of the IIUI took
up prestigious positions in the religious bureaucracy of Tajikistan. They not
42 While he sympathised with the Islamic opposition, he did not identify with the party politics
of the IRP.
43 Interview in Dushanbe on 3. April 2014.
44 These figures are from administrative reports of the International Islamic University for the
respective years, provided to the author, see also Table 1.
45 Interviews in Dushanbe in April 2014.
Source: IIUI website, http://www.iiu.edu.pk/. [Accessed on 20. January 2016].
Intervention options and constraints for Tajik graduates
Interviews with select graduates of the International Islamic University
and the Lahore-based Maududi Institute of the Jama’at-i Islami, conducted
in April 2014 and May 2015 in Dushanbe, suggested that their impact in
Tajikistan followed a pattern of cultural and social mobility that was similar
to that observed among the Tablighi followers in Kyrgyzstan. For example,
the knowledge they had obtained in Pakistan allowed them to intervene not
only in religious but also in secular affairs. At the same time, the impact of
their graduation from the IIUI on their religious positioning was less visible or
pronounced than in the cases of the Tablighis. They also faced a much more
constrained environment in Tajikistan.
Their greatest asset proved to be the formal educational credentials they
brought back. They managed to use them in different capacities and at various
levels. Those opportunities ranged from the religious bureaucracy of the state
to independent religious institutes, academic teaching positions (mainly of
languages like Arabic and Urdu), international NGOs, and media positions
where they could use their English-language proficiency. For some of them,
the structured religious knowledge they had obtained in different institutes
in Pakistan enabled them to occupy positions of authority in the public
religious administration of the state. The most prominent of them were the
Mufti of Tajikistan, Saidmukkaram Abdulkodirzoda, who was also the head
of the Ulama council of the Islamic Centre of Tajikistan,52 and Sulaiman
Davlatov, who was the Rector of the above-mentioned State Islamic Institute
from 2012 until he was promoted to the position of chairman of the influential
Committee of ReligiousAffairs under the President’s office in early 2015.53 They
both used the religious knowledge, political understanding, and international
experience in administration and governance that they had obtained while
studying at the IIUI, albeit in different ways. The Mufti, as head of the national
Tajik Ulama council, also oversaw the religious instruction programmes
at the Islamic Institute. Moreover, he headed the fatwa administration of the
Central Mosque. At times, he took on a political role when making arguments
in public about various government policies concerning believers and the
regulation of religious institutions and practices.54 He also publicly joined
the critique of the leader of the recently proscribed Islamic Renaissance
Party, Muhiddin Kabiri.55 Davlatov, on the other hand, as head of the Islamic
Institute, was deeply involved in issues of state administration. The challenge
he faced was to reconcile the demands of his state functions regarding
religious knowledge with the administrative traditions of the secular education
system of post-Soviet Tajikistan. He also had to accommodate the apprehensions
of the political elite about the potential radicalisation of Muslims, which
increasingly drove government policies. The traditional religious instruction
courses also had to be adjusted to the demands of the European Bologna
education system, with regular Bachelor’s and Master’s degree courses.
The government’s aspiration was not only to retain full control over religious
education, but also to ensure graduate access to regular jobs, not restricted
to the religious sector. Yet after the government had restricted the access
52 For the structure of state religious institutions of Islam, see Schmitz 2015.
53 Interviews in Dushanbe on 9. April 2014 and 30. May 2015.
54 Interview in Dushanbe on 10. April 2014.
55 After briefly meeting Kabiri at an international Islamic conference at Teheran (27.–29. December
2015), he called him a “traitor” in his New Year’s prayer on 1. January 2016, as reported in ASIA-Plus
of minors and under-aged students to institutionalised religious education,
the Islamic Institute found it difficult to get applicants sufficiently
well-versed in religious knowledge. Even more, they could not be tested
in this field because they had to go through standard testing procedures
at secular national testing centres, which were only allowed to test mainstream
subjects such as literature, history, and foreign languages.56 The only
Islamic high school in the country that provided religious education for
secondary-level students faced institutional and regulatory problems,
resulting in its supposedly temporary closure in 2015 (ASIA-Plus 2015).
However, what appeared to be important for the Tajik graduates of the
IIUI was that their education enabled them to pursue a career in religious
administration both in the state and the private sector, with the latter relating
to mosques and other religious institutions. Their studies put them in
a somewhat privileged position compared to their compatriots: They had not
only completed structured courses on Islamic studies and Arabic, but had
also gained international experience outside their home country and outside
the post-Soviet area. Central Asian respondents at the IIUI confirmed that their
access to an English-speaking environment and Western knowledge both at
the university and in Pakistan helped them in their individual adaptation
to the rapid changes in the society and economy of their home countries.
They acquired first-hand experience of the conditions of a market economy
and of relative freedom of operation for political forces and the media,
which was common in Pakistan yet was only gradually taking root in
post-Soviet Central Asia, where it is now being reversed again. The knowledge
transfer thus provided several dimensions of structured knowledge, with Islam
occupying a place of prime importance, while knowledge in secular areas
such as English, business management, and computers was complementary.
The secular knowledge obtained during their studies at the IIUI in Pakistan
benefitted graduates with degrees in religious or Arabic studies who now
worked in public NGOs or as media and public relations officers. One of
them, Mustafo Surkhov, who had studied Arabic for his Bachelor’s degree
and International Relations for his MA at the IIUI, was working with the
US NGO Creative Associates International.57 This organisation, which
had international funding, worked on programmes to reduce the number
of high school dropouts in countries such as Tajikistan, India, Cambodia, and
East Timor. In Tajikistan, Creative Associates International was engaged in
56 Interview in Dushanbe on 30. May 2015.
57 Interview in Dushanbe on 6. April 2014.
a pilot programme in the Eastern district of Khatlon.58 Another graduate,
Saadi Yusuf, became a media person at the Qatar embassy after working
for several years as a journalist covering religious topics.59 Yet not all
IIUI graduates managed to secure such stable and privileged positions.
Some were precariously self-employed as Arabic interpreters, or part-time
language teachers in academia. Some of the difficulties the graduates faced
were related to clichés associated with Pakistan as the source of radical Islam.
Other obstacles were connected with the reasons that had prompted them to
go to Pakistan in the first place, such as being members of the Islamic
opposition in defiance of state authority, which for some of them in the past
had also led to temporary persecution and confinement.60
The Pakistan factor and the securitization of Islam
The roots of their studies in Pakistan were often related to the painful events
of the past; during the civil war in Tajikistan between 1992–97, substantial
numbers of refugee migrants had settled in Pakistan and Afghanistan
for several years. The Islamic opposition represented the project of a new
life with secured rights for believers. Several of those students had studied
in smaller religious schools in Pakistan, not only in madrasas with
a complete curriculum to become a religious scholar (‘alim), but also at
schools established by international private funding from countries such as
Saudi Arabia. Among them was the Ma’had-e Sharā’i al-’Ala al-Darāshāt
(School of Higher Learning of the Islamic Law Sharia) in Peshawar which
existed until 1996. These schools taught Arabic and provided instruction in
selected religious subjects, but offered no degree programs.61
Several students had to adjust their biographies to the changing political
circumstances, institutional histories, and religious concepts. There was
strong informal pressure on the Tajik students to legitimise their education
by acquiring a second degree in Islamic studies from institutions in
countries like Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Several of them opted for an
additional Master’s degree in Tajikistan, like Davlatov.62
58 For more information on the project, see http://www.creativeassociatesinternational.com/
projects/tajikistan-school-dropout-prevention-pilot-program/. [Accessed on 11. January 2016].
59 Interview in Dushanbe on 7. April 2014.
60 Interviews in Dushanbe in April 2014.
61 Interview in Dushanbe on 21. May 2015. See also earlier interviews with Tajik religious students
in Peshawar in 1997 (Reetz 1999, 17).
Interviews conducted in 2015 suggested that the environment for them
to employ their skills had become more precarious. The Tajik state perceived
developments in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a growing threat. The only
legal Islamic party in the post-Soviet area, the Islamic Renaissance Party, lost
all its seats in the March 2015 parliamentary elections, which critics claimed
were rigged. As a follow-up, the party was gradually disenfranchised.
First, it was denied its all-republican status as a national party. After several
of its branches and connected offices had been forcibly closed down,
the Ministry of Justice argued that the party was no longer present in the
majority of cities and districts and therefore did not qualify as a valid
national party. This seemed to be a pretext for the government to take
further action against the party
(Radio Ozodi 2015)
. After a violent clash
between security forces and a reported group of three hundred activists,
the IRP was blamed for supposedly funding them. The party was banned on
September 29, 2015
(Radio Ozodi 2015a)
and was ultimately declared to be
an illegal extremist group
(Radio Ozodi 2016)
. At the same time,
the government maintained some degree of ambivalence. It criticised
Iran for inviting the IRP leader Kabiri for a conference in Tehran in
December 2015, while it was reported that its own representatives
personally communicated with Kabiri during this meeting, where the
Mufti of Tajikistan, Abdulkodirzoda (mentioned above), sat next to
Kabiri (ASIA-Plus 2015a; Qishloq Ovozi 2016).
Those were the signs of the growing tension and fear among the political
elites of post-Soviet Central Asia, where only Kyrgyzstan adhered to
some form of political pluralism. This fear was partly fuelled by the rise
of militant Islam in the larger Muslim world, and in particular on the
southern borders of Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. After
the gradual withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan at the
end of 2014, it was feared that the Taliban or the Islamic State might
gradually gain control, which would also impact the situation in
Tajikistan. Fighting moved near the Afghan borders with Turkmenistan
and Tajikistan, where the provincial capital of Kunduz, which is in close
proximity to Tajikistan, was briefly held by the Taliban for two weeks
in October 2015 (Nordland, 2015). At the same time, there was concern
that the post-Soviet political system might be challenged by more
“colour revolutions,” a concern particularly nourished by the Russian
leadership after the Orange revolution in the Ukraine in 2004. Not only
did the cadres of the past see their positions threatened, but they also
believed that the “colour revolutions” were engineered by the West
to weaken the post-Soviet states and Russia in particular, bringing
nothing but destruction. Internally, any resumption of religious practices
going beyond traditional home-grown ethical beliefs and rituals was
viewed with suspicion as radicalisation. Any public articulation of
structured religious beliefs was viewed as “Salafi” and externally-induced
(Radio Ozodi 2015b)
.63 The designation “Salafi” commonly refers to the
religious practice of the founding generations of Islam and the pious
ancestors (as-salaf). Yet the term is contested because it is also widely
used for competing claims to an assumed purity of doctrine to
justify politics and even warfare (jihad) in the name of religion. Often
for political reasons, various critics in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan
saw the Islamic education and knowledge obtained in Pakistan as radical
or “Salafi”-oriented. Some local Muslim activists in those countries
expressed such reservations in interviews with the author about the character
of Islamic education in Pakistan and the IIUI, thus partly identifying
with the post-Soviet discourse on radical Islam. They rarely referred
to the additional local meaning of “Salafi” in the South Asian context,
where it describes adherence to a specific doctrine established by the local
Ahl-i Hadith group in South Asia (see Reetz 2006).
In Kyrgyzstan, the TJ influence on ritual, behaviour, and dress was
viewed with suspicion, with critics frequently referencing their Pakistani
and Indian origins (Kabar 2015). The contestation about their idea of real
Islam and its radical potential was widely echoed by the public and
the administration. At the same time, sections of the public and also
some decision-makers in Kyrgyzstan appeared ready to consider the TJ
influence not as a burden but as an inspiration, which clearly distinguished
the local situation from that of the neighbouring countries.64
In the larger region of post-Soviet Central Asia, the governing elites became
increasingly wary of Pakistan’s role as a source of Islamic education
and mobilisation. Yet the official position of Tajikistan towards
Pakistan remained neutral and at times friendly, with the hope for
increased economic exchange within the wider Central and South Asian
region.65 The same applied to Kyrgyzstan, particularly with reference to
the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), where the membership
63 Interview with Davlatov on 30. May 2015. For the larger trajectory of political and discursive
developments in relation to Islam, in the case of Central Asia, see Roche, Wilkowsky, and Féaux de
la Croix 2014; for Tajikistan, Heathershaw and Herzig 2013; Heathershaw and Roche 2011; and for
Kyrgyzstan, Radford 2014.
64 Interviews in Bishkek in 2012; see also Ismailbekova and Nasritdinov 2012; Toktogulova 2014.
65 Interviews at the Centre for Strategic Studies under the President of Tajikistan on 9. April 2014
and 29. May 2015.
applications of both India and Pakistan were endorsed at the SCO summit
in Astana in June 2017
. Nevertheless, the governing elites
of the states bordering Afghanistan consider Pakistan ultimately responsible
for the continuing unrest in the region.66
Given the prevailing ambivalence towards Pakistan, one can see that the
multi-level mobility between Central and South Asia, which also manifested
in Islamic mobilisation, constituted both a threat perception and an
opportunity structure. To the chagrin of the elites, the increased
mobility coming with the widening of the public sphere through
transregional interaction, migration, and the new border-crossing medium
of the Internet was increasingly difficult to control (see Nozimova and
Epkenhans 2013). In interviews, the IIUI graduates in Tajikistan, as well
as the TJ activists in Kyrgyzstan, continued to stress the opportunities
and benefits of their previous and current interaction with Pakistan.
Graduates and others familiar with conditions in Pakistan spoke highly
of the professionalism of the IIUI, which they compared favourably with
the Tajik Islamic Institute.67 When the Pakistani embassy officially offered
a new quota for Tajik students at the IIIUI in 2015, the Tajik government
seemed at least ready to consider it.68 In Kyrgyzstan, on the other
hand, the government consulted with TJ activists and engaged them to use
their religious capital to defuse ethnic and religious tension.69
While the social side of the Muslim actors’ religious capital was mobilised,
addressed, and harnessed, it is useful to take a separate look at streams
of secular capital along the same trajectories between South and Central Asia
to understand how those compared with and were linked to religious mobility.
Flows of secular and sacred capital
The religious actors mentioned above had established their own modes
of connectivity. However, those modes were not necessarily confined to
religious knowledge and practice. They fed into wider regional
transformation processes, which will be briefly introduced here. Those
secular exchanges were rebuilding older historical connections between
66 Conference on Afghanistan in Dushanbe at the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences,
26. May 2015, participants’ discussion.
67 Interview with Mufti Mukarram in Dushanbe on 10. April 2014.
68 Interview with Davlatov on 30. May 2015.
the two regions that go back to the Silk Road era.70 My field studies in
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan showed a secular stream of interactions
between South and Central Asia that was generated by Indian and
Pakistani students attending Central Asian medical institutions. This secular
stream was not isolated from the religious connectivity discussed above.
Two Kyrgyzstan institutions, the International School of Medicine (ISM)
in Bishkek (opened in 2003)71 and the Asian Medical Institute (AMI) in Kant
(fifteen kilometres away from Bishkek and established in 2004),72 were nodal
points in the secular interaction. Both significantly focused on the South
Asian market. The ISM offered fee-based medical training to candidates
from the subcontinent. At US$1250 per semester, compared to as much as
US$6000 per semester at top private Pakistani medical colleges, it catered
to the lower end of the emerging middle class in South Asia. Out of the
over one thousand students enrolled at the ISM in 2012, two-thirds
came from India and the remaining third came from Pakistan.
The Avicenna State Medical University of Dushanbe in Tajikistan
followed a similar strategy, attracting many students from India and
a smaller number from Pakistan. This university73 consciously marketed
itself not only as the erstwhile second-best medical institute in the
entire Soviet Union, but also had separate websites for international
applicants, particularly from South Asia.74 In an interview, Sanjay Chowdhry,
a student from Rajasthan who wanted to specialise in cardio-vascular
medicine, explained that in the last two batches there had been 250 students
from different parts of India (he mentioned Bihar, Punjab, Haryana,
and Uttar Pradesh) and also some students from Pakistan, Iran, and
Afghanistan. Tuition ranged around US$3500 dollars per year, which
was higher than in Kyrgyzstan, but still far below that of the prestigious
private institutes in South Asia.75
70 During the Soviet era, exchanges between Kyrgyzstan and South Asia had been limited,
although Rajiv Gandhi visited Bishkek in 1985 as part of a trip to the Soviet Union. Tajikistan also
had extensive connections with South Asia at that time. See also Jain 1979.
http://ism.edu.kg [Accessed on 12. January 2016].
http://www.asmi.edu.kg/ [Accessed on 12. January 2016].
http://tajmedun.tj/ [Accessed on 12. January 2016].
74 For the website catering to the international market and Indian applicants in particular, see
their web presentations on Facebook
(https://www.facebook.com/Avicenna-Tajik-State-MedicalUniversity-Dushanbe-Tajikistan-266671463441921/), Blogspot (http://avicennatsmu.blogspot.in/),
and HPage (http://medicaluniversity.hpage.com/).
75 Interviews with medical students from India and Pakistan in Dushanbe on 15 April 2014.
Here in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, social and economic capital flowed
in reverse to South Asia. The South Asian students from India and Pakistan
lived together in one hostel, ignoring the constraints and polarities of the
tense political relationship between their home countries. In Bishkek, they
even had joint student representation. Their presence created a small South
Asian world near the Bishkek medical institute hostel, with a separate student
restaurant named “Bollywood” that served Indian food (fig. 5) and a local
business established by one of the Pakistani students that produced and
traded South Asian food and sweets. The ISM tried to make the town
attractive for South Asian students by highlighting on its website that
“Bishkek is also a centre for several Indian and Pakistani restaurants
(like The Host, Indian Village, Pizza one, Mac Burger, Begemot etc.) giving
several options for students to dine and hang out.”76 In the same vein, Dushanbe
city hosted several Indian and South Asian eating places, adding to the feeling
of home for South Asian students.
76 http://ism.edu.kg/?s_id=631 [Accessed on 12. January 2016].
Those two life-worlds of secular and religious interaction between
Central and South Asia were not mutually exclusive. They had some
shared nodal points. Respondents confirmed that some of the Pakistani
students occasionally participated in the Tablighi missionary tours in
Kyrgyzstan. On the other hand, Kyrgyz and Tajik respondents who had
been to Pakistan confirmed that some combined their studies at madrasas
and the IIUI with business activities both at home and in Pakistan.77
The flows of religious and cultural capital connecting Pakistan and India
with Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan in these cases show how connectivity within
the wider region operated on different yet related levels and in several
intertwined directions. Together they formed what one might call opportunity
structures. Religious as well as secular actors and institutions used spaces
provided by new forms of connectivity and mobility. This was an outcome
of the re-ordering of the region after the collapse of the Soviet system and
the end of the Cold War. Citizens of both Central and South Asia now went
where they could not go before and received services and knowledge
from sources previously closed to them. They were not passive recipients,
but active agents in the process—bringing with them their own objectives
and programmes, both religious and secular, which in turn structured
their selection and application.
Regional mobility and connectivity
As this paper primarily focused on the ways in which Islamic actors
and institutions fit into transregional patterns of social interaction,
it is important to understand the different dimensions of this process.
While primarily engaged in the acquisition and re-distribution of sacred
capital, these actors and institutions were also involved in the circulation
of wider social capital. And, as the case of the medical students shows,
the religious actors were not separate from similar secular network flows.
The examples of the medical students taking part in missionary work
and of the TJ activists being involved in mediating inter-ethnic conflict
show that sacred and secular actors were engaged in activities that
could not be neatly categorized as political or pertaining to security.
While the religious actors might be value-driven, they might also pursue
career opportunities, and while secular actors might be career-driven,
they might also be conscious of the value dimensions embedded
in their culture and religion.
Religious actors appeared here as self-conscious agents of change who
not only pursued religious agendas but also contributed to social interaction
in all its facets. It is argued here that the formats of their religious
networking were entangled with their local engagements, which formed
a dynamic figuration in line with the analytical frames of Norbert Elias’s
concept of figurations (1978). He investigated the mutual dynamics
of connectivity in what he called “groupings of people” who, “through their
basic dispositions and inclinations, are directed towards and linked with
each other in the most diverse ways” (ibid., 14–15). The interaction
of discourse and practice of TJ activities from South Asia with Central
Asian traditions and values produced a rich diversity of polarities that
reflected on the burning issues of social, cultural, and political contestation
in Kyrgyzstan. The preaching activities were seen and practiced by their
supporters as religious interventions for the re-building of social harmony
and cohesion in the face of the dramatic socio-economic changes that
followed the introduction of a market economy. Yet their claims to a true
Islamic knowledge and education were frequently challenged by the locals.
Local Muslims often engaged in debates with TJ followers, since TJ
practices were resented as controversial and interpreted as pressure to
change local lifestyles in accordance with Tablighi preferences. In the process,
the local Tablighis engaged with personal lives, community conditions, and
the functions of state institutions in often ambivalent ways.
The Central Asian graduates of the IIUI recreated modes of intervention
in terms of knowledge and practice that were partly similar to those of
the Tablighi activists. While they also put prime emphasis on structured
knowledge and practice of religion as opposed to inherited popular knowledge
and practices of Islam, their input was less on a personal level than
through interaction with state and private (including religious) institutions.
That also reflected the nature of their education and of the IIUI institutional
format, which was more focused on a synthesis of religious knowledge
and practice, with both its public and political meaning. This figuration
involved them to a greater degree in the post-Soviet political and security
discourse of Tajikistan and other post-Soviet Central Asian states,
which in turn made the social positions they acquired much more
vulnerable to political pressures.
At the same time, the IIUI graduates derived additional benefits from
acquiring knowledge and training in the market economy and related
political and public institutions in Pakistan, most of which came with
English language training. Their increased adaptability helped improve
their chances back home and opened new spaces for them in the private
sector. These different forms of benefits that graduates and followers of
religious institutions brought back to their home countries equally demonstrate
the limits of practices and discourse aimed at a securitisation of Islam.
They also showed the limits of state control over religion in times
of globalisation and expanding market economies, even more so as the
governing elites pushing for more state control also retained high stakes
in those market economies.
The new forms of mobility after the end of Soviet-era travel restrictions
created and recreated transregional mobile flows of values, practices,
and institutional modes, which were adapted and re-appropriated locally.
The new mobility across vast distances became operative and effective
only through local adaptation. It transported and reshaped the distance-locale
binary—between South and Central Asia—to local polarities of contestations
between the state and religious mobilisation. But while the connectivity
across distance could only come about when anchored in a local
perspective, the contestations it produced were strictly local in nature,
even when post-Soviet elites blamed them on outside intervention. At the
other end of the spectrum, the transregional mobility and connectivity
might help negotiate local processes of change and adaptation. At the same
time, the originalformats of Islamic knowledge and practice—here the TJ
activities and the “Islamization of knowledge” concept of the IIUI—underwent
adaptive interpretation. The religious capital, in order to reap benefits, had
to be re-invested locally.
The newly opened mobility facilitated flows, but the flows studied here
were structured by the type of religious engagement students chose to
pursue. Their preferences connected discourses and practices
moving across space and time, what one might figuratively call
“floating projects”: the Tablighi Jama’at mission of re-conversion and the
IIUI’s concept of the “Islamization of knowledge.” Each of them was
preconfigured by the nominal centres and reference points of those
engagements, but their mobility was only successful where they took into
full consideration the local conditions at the other end of those mobility flows.
In this sense, the original figurations of the Tablighi followers and the
IIUI graduates, the specific ways by which members of those networks
were connected—speaking with Elias—were re-configured through their
local adaptation. Such local appropriation appeared to be a pre-condition
of their own mobility, extending the “grouping of people” across national
borders. Elias, in his time, was less concerned with connectivity across borders
as “Nations [were] as yet unable to see themselves as integral components of
a figuration, the dynamics of which [were] compelling them to make these
efforts” (ibid., 30). One could therefore argue that only those Islamic
projects whose figurations were able to adapt, and ready to undergo
modification for this purpose, could be successfully transmitted across
the cultural and political divides of different regions.
For Elias, to interpret social relations and concepts as figurations meant
emphasising that they do not represent something alien, outside human
behaviour, but “the kind of forces which people exert over each other” (ibid., 21).
Applying his perspective to the Tablighi and IIUI networks could
help to understand that it was individual human beings, with all their
manifold interests and concurrent activities, who created those figurations
by exerting influence and command over each other. It would then help
to see them in their different capacities alternatively as social, political, or
cultural actors—beyond their religious positioning in those figurations.
As for Elias, the power differentials between those individuals determined
the kind of figurations they formed; significant changes in those power
differentials modified the whole figuration (ibid., 15). The interaction
of local followers of the Tablighi Jama’at in Kyrgyzstan or the Tajik
graduates of the IIUI followed and created different power differentials
between those individuals. This is where the figurations acquired their
adaptability, in addition to the changing regional dynamics discussed
above. And this is where the identity of these networks and the
self-identification of its members could be understood as the product
of social interaction, both in the localities and across regional spatial,
social, political, or cultural divides.
Connectivity, therefore, included not only the ability to connect, but also
the direction and intensity of flows, as much as their changing and
modulating character.78 Where connectivity was mutual and enduring,
it produced networks. While the networks represented changing figurations in
themselves, they triggered and fed on local figurations, raising the question
of scale. Mobility is therefore understood here as a multilevel process where
a lens was required to distinguish the different scales. In reverse, it was
the issue of scale that allowed us to learn about the nature, direction, and
stability of mobility. Where connections between the two regions
opened new opportunity structures, their meaning and usage could only
be understood if scale was considered and applied, revealing how the
78 See Mielke and Hornidge (2017) discussing the conceptual approach of the Crossroads Asia
research network and its take on area studies after the “mobility turn” and in the context of the
“figuration” approach by Elias, esp. pp. 14 and 68.
locale-distance binary was translated to local polarities. Therefore, it was
impossible to judge the effect or impact of such connectivity by only
knowing the source and format of that mobility; it was not enough to know
that we are analysing Tablighis and IIUI graduates coming from
Pakistan in South Asia. We also had to look at the local translation
and adaptation at the receiving end, which could feed into the source
mode or what we know about the “original” formats of these networks
in Pakistan. It could also differ significantly in adjusting to needs,
requirements, and opportunity spaces. The dynamism of transregional
interaction was therefore primarily driven by the dynamism of local interaction,
the ability of local societies to absorb such interaction, to participate in it,
and contribute to it.
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