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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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With the strong Sufi influence, anthropologists will tend to draw obvious parallels between Kazakh religion and Shamanism. Both have an emphasis on the spirit world of the ancestors and the need for illumination by means of a spiritual intermediary. Maria Subtelny (1989:595) argues that Kazakh religious practitioners “are intimately connected with the Central Asian brand of folk Islam that incorporated and syncretized pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions such as earlier shamanistic and animistic practices”. In a world that is modernizing it now seems backward to have a belief in the power of the Shaman and Sufi Islam offers a more reputable base for the practice of a spiritual intermediary. The Kazakh practitioners make extensive use of the Quran and the names of god and do not enter into an ecstatic, trance-like state. Filbert (1999:50-51) agrees that it would be an overstatement to classify Kazakhs as practicing Shamanism, and he argues that we should rather speak of the animistic roots within a context of Islam. This works itself out in practices such as the honoring of ancestors, foretelling of the future, healing processes, and protection from evil spirits.22 The importance of spiritual intermediaries may be best understood through the Kazakh terms used to describe them.

Whilst the Modern and Russified Kazakh will tend to go directly to a medical professional with an ailment, the Traditional Kazakh will make use of a ‘healer’ known as a Yemshi. Such a person has a calling from god to perform healing rituals and prescribe treatment (Kenzheaxmetuli 2004:248). Their help is used in addition to that received from a doctor or hospital and their diagnosis is seen as a confirmation of that of the medical professional. They are especially consulted when medical science has no answers and their reputation grows with each successful diagnosis and recommendation for treatment.

Valikhanov (2006:80-81,85), Kenzheaxmetuli (2004:248,259) and Privratsky (2000:219) describes how these healers can be divided into various categories such as Molda, Tawip, Palshi, and Baqsi.

2.7.4.1 Molda This is the healer who has become well-versed in reciting the Quran as he performs a healing ritual, knowing which verses in the Quran most aptly apply to the particular illness (Olivier Roy 2000:152, Kenzheaxmetuli 2004:259, Privratsky 2000: 219). Whilst he may make use of various other paraphernalia, the essential ingredient is the expert use of the Quran. This category is male dominated and the calling is seen as coming from god through the ancestor spirits. A molda may pride himself over the other categories because of his knowledge and use of the Quran.

Mustafina (2005:20-29) in explaining these beliefs and practices does make the point that they are primarily observed in the traditional settings such as the city of Turkestan, and that elsewhere they may not be very evident.

2.7.4.2 Tawip “The tawip’s art is practical religion, an application of Kazakh belief in the ancestor-spirits, the Muslim saints, and the pure way of Islam” (Privratsky 2000:241). Whilst Tawips do not make extensive use of the Quran, and in many instances are women, they nevertheless see themselves as part of the proud Islamic healing tradition. They may be held in high esteem where their healing methods have been effective, or they may be discounted as frauds where they lose their effectiveness. Their calling and ability also derives from the ancestor spirits and they are led through techniques of pulse-taking for diagnosis, breathing on the patient, exorcism of spirits, fortune casting, and massage (:233).

2.7.4.3 Palshi The Palshi is a fortune-teller and usually a woman who receives her ability through the ancestor spirits (Valikhanov, 2006:81). She most often will practice her art in a public setting such as the bazaar or on a train. A session is usually brief and the person seeking help will sit before her and explain their problem. She then uses various items such as tarot cards, bones, and pellets, as well as reading the person’s palm. Once she has given her forecast, the person usually expresses appreciation with a monetary gift. The Palshi’s role in healing has to do with predicting the success of a medical diagnosis or prescription (Privratsky 2000:245). Her popularity however is broader than merely medical issues and may involve predicting circumstances that may be uncertain such as job success or the success of a marriage. The forecast is almost always positive and if the Palshi does receive a negative prediction she will remain silent rather than express it. To express it may cause it to come about and then she becomes the one that is to blame.

2.7.4.4 Baqsi This is the most controversial term used as it relates more directly to Shamanism and the use of ecstatic utterances (Valikhanov 2006:80). Kazakhs seem to use this term loosely to describe certain healers and yet no healer seems willing to have this title conferred upon them.

Credibility in the post-Soviet era lies in being able to tie into the greater Islamic tradition.

2.7.5 The Evil Eye Valikhanov (2006:103) and Kenzheaxmetuli (2004:257) show how in common with other cultures, Kazakhs have a need to explain the uncertainties and troubles that accompany life and that this has given rise to a belief in the concept of the ‘evil eye’, a belief which is not unique but widespread throughout the Muslim, and even non-Muslim, world. Musk (1989:26) explains that even though the Quran does not speak to it directly, nevertheless the ordinary Muslim recognizes the power of the evil eye. “The fundamental concept of the evil eye is that precious persons or things are constantly vulnerable to hurt or destruction caused by other people’s envy” (:26). The evil eye then is a constant spiritual presence that surrounds Kazakhs and is triggered into action through envy. Envy is the opposite of blessing and through the evil eye targets people or objects that are sources of blessing. Life is filled with blessing from god and the ancestors and therefore envy is everywhere for not everyone is being blessed at the same time or to the same extent. This belief in the evil eye for the Kazakh then provides a causal basis for those problems that are outside of their control.





Kenzheaxmetuli (2004:258) for example explains how with a serious disease that modern medicine has not healed, a treatment called ushyktau, a type of exorcism, is carried out to ward of the influence of the evil eye.

Kazakhs do not fatalistically live with the consequences of the evil eye; rather dealing with the effects of the evil eye takes various forms in Kazakh religious life (Kenzheaxmetuli 2004:257-258 & Paula Michaels 2003:29). Reciting the Quran and visiting the shrine of a saint or an ancestor’s tomb may provide protection. If the remembrance meal for the ancestors had been neglected then this must be corrected. The most common protection however is the use of amulets and charms. These can be purchased in a store or the bazaar, but those that are seen as most effective come from a Mullah or healer (Michaels 2003:29). A common such amulet is in the form of a triangular pouch which contains some verses from the Quran and is suspended from the rear-view mirror of a car.

2.7.6 Rites of Passage Khalid (2007:22) explains how for Central Asians the way Islam was localized was to take local customs and sacralize them. This made Islam more indigenous and also legitimized the customs as Islamic. He explained “It was played out through the communal celebrations of august ancestors, annual holidays, and life-cycle events” (:22). These life-cycle events are also known as rites of passage and represent the passage from one stage of life to the next.

Their religious significance in the lives of Kazakhs gives insight as to how these rites form part of what Kazakhs see as Islam. What follows is a look at some of the major rites with the understanding that there are nuances that play out in the various contexts.

2.7.6.1 Birth In describing a series of infancy and motherhood rites that take place at the birth of a child, Privratsky says “a newborn is ceremonially presented to the paternal grandmother in a cradle ceremony (besik toy) that features the censing of the cradle with wild rue (adiraspan) and attaching Quranic amulets (tumar) against evil spirits” (2000:106). This newborn child must be well protected from the evil eye and other than close family others are not allowed to see the child until it is forty days old.

For many Kazakhs they will hold a naming ceremony for the baby with the significance being that the name will somehow have a special effect on the future of the child (Kenzheaxmetuli 2004:64). They may be given a famous name such as the hero Abai, or that of a significant ancestor with the hope that the blessings that fell on that person will fall on the child. Some names are given on a fear-basis as a means to ward of illness or evil spirits.

As the child learns to walk there is also a walking ceremony that involves ribbons or thread being tied between the child’s legs (:72). The child then is placed facing the mother and takes steps towards her. The ribbons are then cut by a person of respect and wishes are made for the child to follow in that person’s footsteps.

2.7.6.2 Circumcision Although Kazakhs will say that one is born a Muslim, the rite of circumcision is the ceremonial marker of this fact (Zeinegul Seisenova 2006: 15). The family proudly announces that their son is now a Muslim and invites relatives and friends to a celebration which can last a few days and involve a lot of food and alcohol. With the influence of modern medicine through communism, almost all circumcisions take place in hospitals and the child is given time to heal before the celebration commences. Zhosipova (2004:25-26) and Kaliev (1994:28) describe some of the details involved in the circumcision ceremony, however they they make no mention of a specific ceremony or marker to show a girl is a Muslim.

2.7.6.3 Marriage Gabdina, Emelina, Galikov (2002:138) and Seisenova (2006:15) describe how marriage involves lengthy interaction between the two families as various obligations are carried out.

An important part of the process is a ceremony known as bet ashar meaning the unveiling of

the bride. Privratsky describes it as follows:

Standing at the front of the crowd, the bride bows and nods from behind a brightly colored veil to greet each member of her husband’s family, who are summoned by the dombra player’s improvised song to come forward and make a monetary gift. After many verses, much laughter and many gifts – used by the family to defray the cost of the wedding – the veil is lifted, the bride receives a kiss from her mother-in-law, who puts on her a white scarf symbolizing her married status, and she is thus welcomed to her husband’s family ….. several hours later, when the guests have been fed, the mullah arrives for the neke qiyar ceremony, the specifically Islamic event of the day….. the mullah sits facing the couple who are also seated. He briefly recites verses from the Quran and asks the couple to confess the faith of Islam. He puts two coins in a bowl of water and passes it to the couple and then the witnesses, who all drink from it. The mullah preaches to the new couple briefly on their impending roles as Muslim parents and gives them his blessing” (2000:107).

With the importance of hospitality and the home Zhosipova (2004:27) and Kaliev (1994:151) show how marriage and the setting up of a new home are foundational to Kazakh life and therefore contain significant ceremonies. Under communism the spiritual aspects of these needed to be home-based, but now it seems that more and more couples move to the mosque for that part of the ceremony that involves the mullah.

2.7.6.4 Death With the strong emphasis on ancestors and their spirits, the ceremonies involved in a person’s death are very significant. Kenzheaxmetuli (2004:271) and Zhosipova (2004:133) point out that in common with other Central Asian peoples, the memorial ceremonies at a person’s death are marks of the Kazakh’s Muslim identity.

Zhosipova (:133) and Kaliev (1994:189) describe how in the immediate seven days following death the deceased’s home becomes a base for mourning and remembrance.

Another remembrance meal is prepared on the fortieth day after death and all family members and close friends are expected to attend no matter the distance. This remembrance is repeated the hundredth day and then on the yearly anniversary of the person’s death. How many years this goes on for seems to depend on each family and their circumstances.

Eventually the deceased is seen as being remembered as part of the Thursday remembrance meal.

The official remembrance meal during the first seven days is elaborate. Akzhol (2009, pers. interview, 24 March) explains all that is involved. If possible the family should acquire and slaughter a sheep and have the meal as a large feast. Usually the most senior male in the family dedicates the meal to the ancestor and verses from the Quran are recited. Depending on how traditional the family is, the women may have to sit separately and alcohol is not present. If possible a mullah should be present and he may join in the Quran recitals or actually perform them all himself. He will also pray to the ancestor spirits for their blessing of this remembrance meal. Even though they may not do so in normal daily life, this is time when the women will wear the head covering as a sign of Muslim obedience.

2.7.7 The Quran William Graham (2001:27) explains how easy it is to misunderstand the importance of the Quran in a Muslim’s life. Based on a Western paradigm we would look to see evidence of regular personal study and wonder how serious many Muslims are about their religion when this is not the case. As Graham points out the Quran for Muslims is not a document to be studied and interpreted but rather as a spoken word it becomes very active in their lives.

“From birth to death, virtually every action a Muslim makes, not to mention every solemn or festive event in his or her life, is potentially accompanied by spoken words of the Quran” (:39). Khalid (2007:21) describes the significance of the Quran for Central Asians:

The Quran is central to Islamic ritual: its recitation is a pious deed, its verses can serve as protection from misfortune, and the use of selected phrases from it in appropriate social contexts is the true measure of “comprehension”. However it was not central to the everyday conduct of Muslims.



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