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«Reestablishing roots and learning to fly: Kazakh church planting between contextualization and globalization. by Dean Frederick Sieberhagen submitted ...»

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2.7.1 Sufi Saints and Shrines Svat Soucek (2000:36) explains how the Sufi expression of Islam seems to have grown out of Sunni Islam as a means to close the gap between a distant and holy god and people’s need for a god who is close by and involved in daily life. This gave rise to religious leaders who traveled the Muslim world establishing their religious orders. Julian Baldick (1993:5) explains how in Central Asia Islam existed within communities and not a church structure such as exists in Christianity. Consequently, these communities were very open to a religious authority that could help them in the understanding of their religion. The Sufi focus was on the more personal and compassionate aspects of god and Soucek explains the practice of their religion as follows The method was to think of god to the exclusion of anything else, and could consist of a seemingly unending repetition of the first part of the shahada, La Ilaha illa Llah (“There is no god but Allah”), or of God’s name in its many variants such as the pronoun Huwa (“He” in Arabic), meaning God. This ritual often was an elaborate process that included a special manner of breathing and affected the Sufi’s physical state. (:37) This ritual could be carried out in a group or alone and could be very vocal or in silence. For Kazakhs, the most important of these religious leaders is Akhmet Yasawi (1093 to 1166) and his tomb has become a central focus in Kazakh religious belief and practice. The Laumulins (2009:110), (Khalid 2007:121), and Privratsky (2000:179) explain the great importance of Yasawi in that he is seen as the one who brought the truth of Islam to the Kazakh ancestors even though he died in 1166 AD before the Kazakh nation came into being. He is honored and remembered as the one who connects Kazakhs to the larger Islamic tradition (Khalid 2007:22). Modern Kazakh currency notes are decorated with images of his shrine and a Kazakh can make a serious show of practicing religion by making a pilgrimage to his shrine in the city of Turkestan.14 There is a sense in which the special blessing of god on Yasawi is somehow still present in and around the shrine. This is also true for other saints and their shrines of which Yasawi is the most well known and respected. Kenzheaxmetuli (2004: 242) explains the ceremonies that are undertaken at the shrines and these include the reading of the Quran, the dedication of food, the tieing of white fabric, and the offering of money.

As Musk(1989) explains, throughout the Muslim world there is the official mosquebased expression of Islam and then the unofficial, folk expression which often involves saints and their shrines. Kenzheaxmetuli (2004:242) shows how for Kazakhs the pilgrimage to the shrine is not merely to fulfill a ritual requirement, but may involve seeking the answer to a problem, needing physical healing, and enhancing a woman’s chances of having a child.

Even certain trees and bushes around a shrine or ancestral tomb are seen as have spiritual power, especially as regards infertility, and they are often covered with strips of cloth that have been tied around them as a symbol of hope.

Reynold Nicholson (1989:28) describes the Sufi search for god as a path that a person travels throughout their life, the various stages of which help to draw the person closer to god.

This falls right in line with the way Kazakhs refer to their own faith, namely, taza zhol or kudai zhol, meaning the pure way or god’s way (Privratsky 2000:83,87). As described before, this pure way is known through the ancestors in the way that they traveled this path and these ancestors are now part of the near spirit world. The spirits of the saints and ancestors are very important as they serve as mediators between people and god (183). For the normal person it is difficult to communicate directly with god and so the spirits can more easily do so on that person’s behalf. Where this all becomes controversial is when the person becomes so focused on the saint or ancestor that their devotion to this saint or ancestor diminishes their devotion Nasyrov (1993) details the history of Turkestan and how prior to the life of Yasawi it was a farming community along the Syr Daria river on one of the branches of the Great Silk Road. He explains how it grew and flourished with Yasawi’s presence as a Sufi saint and even after his death as a mausoleum was erected in his memory which became a place of pilgrimage for the Muslims of Central Asia.

to god. The Laumulins ( 2009:6) describe how at this point orthodox Islam with its Arabian base would say they have crossed the line, become pagans, and consequently are no longer Muslims. Orthodox Islam and the teachings of the Quran would anyway be disturbed with any focus on a spirit other than god, but devotion to these spirits is definitely unacceptable.

As Musk (1989:174) correctly points out however, the normal Muslim in the street, across the Muslim world, finds something to fill the near-spirit world between themselves and god.

Kenzheaxmetuli (2004:253) explains the importance of the word/ ritual called Siyenu (prayer).

It is a belief in and appeal to intermediary spirits to help face the difficulties and challenges of life.15 Due to the effect of communism where the public display of religion was not prudent, the Kazakhs are less emotional in their Sufi practices than their pre-Soviet ancestors would have been. Also contributing to this is the fear of being shamed by others for not doing it the proper way. But this does not mean that they have no emotional involvement in the process.





Privratsky (2000: 200) puts it well when he explains that before performing a certain religious practice, Kazakhs describe themselves as feeling a heaviness. Afterwards, they describe a feeling of lightness, of a burden having been lifted. This is especially true when undertaken at the shrine of Yasawi. For traditional and even many other Kazakhs, Islam is most exemplified by the following statement: “For Kazakhs the most Islamic of all buildings is the Yasawi Shrine, the most Muslim of all figures is the saint buried there, and the most meaningful of all ritual movements is the recital of the Quran on the occasion of pilgrimage” (Privratsky 2000:193). Kenzheaxmetuli (2004:275) and Privratsky (2000:193) would argue Privratsky describes it as follows “The saints bridge two gaps: first, between the Kazakhs and the powers of the spirit world, and, secondly, between today’s Muslim identities and the Muslim identities of the past” (2000:185).

that the importance of ancestors and intermediary spirits is the way in which Kazakhs have contextualized Islam and made it their own.16 2.7.2 Remembrance Meals and the Hospitality Virtue Gabdina, Emelina, and Galikov (2002: 229) explain that as with many Muslim cultures hospitality is one of the Kazakh’s highest virtues, especially when expressed towards the ancestor spirits.17 There are elaborate and costly preparations that go into a meal when a guest is invited to a Kazakh’s home. The obvious time and effort spent on the meal communicates the honor given to guests. A Traditional Kazakh will usually not accept an invitation to a meal in a visitor’s home until they have first had the opportunity to be the host. This may take time as significant money needs to be saved for this event. Hospitality becomes an important expression of Kazakh religion as it plays out in the remembrance meal for the ancestors.

Privratsky (2000:161) explains how the remembrance meal for the ancestors should take place every week on a Thursday or Friday. The spirits of these ancestors visit the home on these two days and it is the responsibility of the home to welcome and please them.18 Part of the meal must include the frying of meat or pastry in fat or oil so that the aroma pleases the spirits.19 They are further pleased by the reciting of the Quran and a prayer in Kazakh at the end of the meal. Whilst most Kazakhs may be aware of this ritual, it is usually the Traditional Kazakhs that show any diligence in keeping it. A Modern or Russified Kazakh on visiting a Rabban Sauma (2002:323) explains it as follows: “Transcendent monotheism without mediation in this world tends to leave a spiritual vacuum in the lives of believers; so the ritual life of the Muslim household and neighborhood is inevitably more complex than the monotheistic stereotype of Islam suggests”.

They describe devotion to the ancestors as follows: “The Kazakhs as well worshipped the soul of their ancestors, aruakhs, revered the holy places, and offered scarifices to them” (2002:89).

Zhosipova (2004:136) and Kaliev (1994:192) explain the importance of food in the life of a Kazakh beyond the physical need. Certain foods carry significance and so the way guests are hosted, and in particular ancestors remembered, through the preparation and presentation of food, is an important part of both the culture in general and the belief system in particular.

Valikhanov (2006:77) gives an account of how Kazakhs fry bread called baursak as an offering to the ancestor spirits. This is one of the practices that for him causes Kazakh religion to lean towards Shamanism (:85).

traditional relative or friend may willingly partake at that time and see it as a good thing, but back in their own homes do not see the need to continue for themselves. The practice of hospitality, even towards outsiders, however, is prevalent across the board from Traditional to Modern to Russified Kazakhs.

2.7.3 Dreams The Sufi saints were men set apart for special illumination from god and they had a calling and life separate from the ordinary Kazakh (Khalid 2007:10). Through the experience of dreams however, the normal Kazakh is able to have an experience similar to the saint. The ancestors are likely to appear in dreams when the Thursday remembrance meal ritual is being neglected and for the Traditional Kazakh especially this is a wake-up call to get serious about religion again (Valikhanov 2006:77).

The ancestors do not necessarily need to appear for the dream to derive its meaning from them. The ancestors are able to influence life and events that occur in a dream are seen as parallel to those of daily life. Privratsky (2000:137) explains that this does not mean that Kazakhs just fatalistically accept that what happens in a dream must come true in daily life.

The effect of a bad dream on daily life can be prevented by a ritual such as reciting the Quran or a visit to a shrine. The Quran is silent on the importance of ancestor spirits and their appearance in a Muslim’s dreams, consequently the purists in and outside of Islam would call this aspect of Kazakh religion Shamanism.20 The author read the Quran and did an online search for ancestors with www.searchtruth.com which searches the Quran and Hadith. The Quran search produced no results and the Hadith 10 references all to do with the historical facts of what ancestors had done or said, with no reference to do with ancestor spirits.

2.7.4 Shamanism, Tengrism and Healers Soucek (2000:40) explains how Shamanism is not usually regarded as a formal religion as it has no traditional religious structure such as holy writings, a place of worship, and a set of doctrines. In essence it involves a specially empowered person who is able to communicate with and even manipulate both good and evil spirits. So for example, if a blessing is needed for an important task such as hunting then a Shaman could be consulted to ensure this. The Shaman does not go though any kind of formal training but may sit under an older Shaman to learn from their ministry or they may spend time in isolation practicing their art until such time as they are ready. Shamanism also provides a framework for understanding the issues in life that don’t make sense, especially those that involve problems and pain. For the Shaman to enter the spirit world they have to go in to a type of ecstatic trance involving a lot of movement and sound.21 David Christian (1998:61) explains how Shamans have historically been present throughout the Central Asian steppe, primarily traveling to settlements that had need of their powers. Under communism the Shamans came under criticism and even persecution, and were typified as suffering from mental illness. Valikhanov (2006:85) argues that the Kazakhs in their practice of religion have had more in common with the Shamanism of Mongolia than with the practitioners of orthodox Islam.

Tengrism is the rise of a post Soviet religious movement in Central Asia that looks back to a shamanistic past that centered on the worship of a god called Tengri. Marlene

Laruelle describes it as follows:

Stanley Krippner (2002:966) examines various models of how Shamanism is viewed including the charlatan model, the schizophrenia model,the soul flight model, the decadent and crude technology model, and the deconstructionist model. The soul flight model which describes the Shaman going through a ritual which results in a state of ecstacy through which the world of the spirits is accessed, fits the Central Asian context.

Considering the various points and counterpoints of each model, Krippner concludes that Shamanism in the traditional sense is declining, but that a type of neo-shamanism has grown as a fad in the West.

Tengrism appears to be a monotheist natural religion whose last traces would be found in shamanism. The followers of Tengrism assert that this religion offers a cosmogony that is perfectly adapted to the contemporary world: it is ecological and calls men to live in harmony with nature.

Moreover, it is tolerant and accepts to coexist with other religions. It is individualistic, does not have a holy text, and the religion is without a clergy, without dogma and interdictions, and finally the concept of prayer is unknown. (2006:1) The attraction to Tengrism lies in the possibility that it is the most rooted religion in Central Asia so that Central Asians can claim it as ‘ours’. It is also much easier to adhere to as it makes far less demands than Christianity or Islam and due to its accommodating nature can incorporate aspects of Kazakh folk Islam such as the honoring of ancestor spirits. Perhaps its greatest promise though is that it gives credence to the nationalist movements that are growing in Central Asia. Thus far it does not seem to be a major movement in Kazakhstan and seems to be mainly confined to the academic and political domains. It may be that the growing discontent with radical Islam will lead to the development of a paradigm that promotes Tengrism as the Islam of Central Asia, however this is only speculation.



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