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[History & Science]- [History]- [Culture]

The modern term "Uzbek," as the identifier of an ethnically distinct group, is one of ambiguity. In part, this confusion is due to the many peoples who have conquered the region now called Uzbekistan. From the fourth to nineteenth centuries, control has been held by Alexander the Great, the Arabs, the Seljuk Turks of Khwarazm, Chingiss Khan, Tamarlane, the Timurids, and the Uzbeks. These Uzbeks were an amalgam of tribes of the once famed Golden Horde. Their first homeland, during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, was in an area of Khwarazm (also called Khiva), north of today's Uzbekistan. They were originally a warlike, outlaw people; their name, Uzbek, became synonymous with "fear and villainy." Inconclusive efforts have been made to link them to Chingiss Khan, whose form of leadership their chiefs emanated, and at the time of the Mongol Invasion, they were considered Moguls. Then, at the end of the 1400s, they were scattered throughout Central Asia, losing their real ethnic distinctiveness among other peoples. They later came to be known as Sarts, a multiethnic term distinguishing urban dwellers from nomads, and populated such great cities as Samarkand, Bukhara and Khiva. Hence, common lifestyle and culture came to unite these Central Asian peoples more than the ties of race and blood held sacred to other cultures within Islam.

"Uzbek" was revived as a group name only after most of Central Asia, including the current region of Uzbekistan, fell to Russian imperialism between 1863 and 1876. In the next fifty years (with the Bolshevik Revolution hailing the creation of the Soviet Union in 1917), foreign policies became more and more intrusive, until total subordination of native political authority was attained by the time of Stalin's rise to power. In 1924, seeking to dissolve the indigenous Turko-Iranian complex, the Soviets "put forward the name[ism] 'Uzbek'... in order to focus on an ethnic group with a great homeland and huge country, [and] to lead it to a new life." (208) Thus, the Uzbek nationality/ethnicity is constructed along lines of political convenience, not actual historical and cultural bonds. Yet despite this artificial point of origin, an often blatantly inaccurate past contrived by Soviet histographers, and the many more recantations and contradictions of Soviet nationality policy (see drawing), Uzbeks have emerged with a unique culture, based on the symbols and values of their traditional sovereignty, intact. Amidst this systematically-imposed policy of conformism to communist rule, the question arises: how did the Uzbeks sustain such a strong identity?

The answer lies in the specific nature of the Uzbek identity, the most significant factor being it is an Islamic identity. This not only religious, but also cultural adherence has had lasting implications on all aspects of Uzbek life.

Islamic revival in Uzbekistan was battling outside influence prior to the nation's absorption into the USSR. Reacting to the growing inroads made by Russian imperialism, the short-lived (1913-1916) Jadid or Reformist movement had a wide impact. At the time, Jadids saw the majority of their Muslim people, especially government officials and clergy, as very ignorant and corrupt. Muftis (religious teachers) falsely claimed their practice of charging money to solve disputes was sanctioned by the Qur'an, and bribery, embezzlement and usury pervaded government transactions. Thus, the reformers sought to rectify such moral weakness, and the subsequent vulnerability to outside forces it brought about, by modernizing and reunifying their "Turkistan" (a more ethnically inclusive term previously used to identify Uzbekistan) with the rest of the Islamic world from which they were isolated. They ingeniously focused on the past triumphs of their people, a past rich with Islamic traditions and values. Secular history, which was ignored in traditional schooling, became an additional focus alongside religious history in the New Method Schools they created. Facing fierce opposition from the "blind[ly] dogmatic" traditional schools, Jadids taught classical Arabic (to speakers of both Farsi and Turki) in a way that the Quran and the rich history it contained could be understood, not just rotely memorized. Also, the curriculum of New Method Schools hinted at nationalism, as did Jadid periodical publications. Fearing they were breeding grounds for opposition, the Russians began shutting down the schools and newspapers as early as 1910.

Jadid theater, as an art form previously nonexistent in Central Asia, more effectively thwarted censors to spread the reformist Islamic message. The form is called janli surät, meaning "living picture." Each play presents moral situations through the "engrossing images" of sinners and then names the proper, Islamic course of action to resolve them. Topics cover many modern issues such as women's inequality (the Jadid opposed multiple and arranged marriages), problems of traditional schooling, drug addiction, and colonialism. This last topic was particularly targeted by Russian censorship so Jadid innovators revived the use of mystical Sufi poetry, "a genre that made an art of multiple meanings," for the stage. Of the only twenty or so plays remaining from the six-year life of the Jadid theater, a common theme- the fear of the end of the Muslim community via lost spirituality- endures. "The Patricide," by Mahmud Khoja Behbudig, is one of the most well-known of such plays. It tells the story of a son whose crimes destroy his family. When his father is murdered by one of his (the son's) underworld associates, the cardinal Islamic sin of disregard for genealogical connections is committed. Behbudig is only one of many artists who helped establish an Uzbek (Turkistanian) identity based on traditional values during the heavily censored era of the early 1900s.

In The Modern Uzbeks, Edward A. Allworth also details other methods in which the Soviets sought to undermine traditional Uzbek culture and ideas. Calling the USSR, "a government openly hostile to the Islamic thought and values reflected in [their] works of art and architecture," he recounts numerous instances in which Uzbek monuments and treasures were taken for display in Russian museums. As Allworth contends, "a group's monuments help to sustain it in its struggle for self identity." (210) When taken as a prize or trophy, however, they come to symbolize defeat and humiliation. Through the Islamic practice of wäqf (pious endowment), Uzbeks managed to maintain private philanthropic institutions for the preservation of their buildings and artifacts. The Soviets continually attacked them, though, limiting community use of many of their monuments. Some of the more audacious Soviet acts against Uzbek culture include removing the throne (the "historic symbol of Khwarazm's sovereignty") from the Khivan Royal Palace and taking the Qufic Qur'an the "Qur'an of Uthman" (which was believed to be "marked with drops of blood from [the third Islamic caliph] himself") and Timur's sacred tombstone (called kök tash) for display in the Soviet Union. The latter artifacts were eventually returned as appeasement measures, but many insults, such as the relocation of the capital from Samarkand to Russian-dominated Tashkent, were never to be corrected.

In their further molding of the Uzbek historical identity, the Soviets revealed their own deep-seated prejudices against the descendants of the Golden Horde, since they had disgraced the Russians upon arriving in Mawaraunnahr (Transoxania) at the end of the fifteenth century. They rehabilitated and popularized the traditional Uzbek rival, Amir Timur, while trying to distance the Uzbeks from their more likely ancestral link, Chinggis Khan (who had also dominated the Russians for over two centuries). Professor Aleksandr Iakubovskii, the official Soviet historiographer, promoted many of these notions in his authorized history of Uzbekistan during the 1930s and 1940s. Even in their "token restitution" of the great medieval Chaghatai poet Mir Ali Shir (his pen name was Nawaig), the Soviet's anti-Uzbek bias persisted. For Mir Ali Shir was a Timurid, and the 1938 publications of his work omitted the Muslim praises for Allah with which his writings always began.

As the "Islamic mysticism, lyrical imaginings and magical fantasies of poets... [could not be] stomached by proletarians" , Uzbek artists developed more subtle forms of expression. Their history of "powerful oral traditions [and] elegant written poetry and prose" were preserved in hundreds of samizdat (unofficial publications) written predominantly in Uzbek. Drama, while more reactionary than that of the Jadid era, once again became a voice of protest. Izzat Sultan's "Imam" and Rahmatullah A. Uyghun's "Dostlär" (Friends) are two dramas which addressed morality and injustice and were eventually censored by communist authorities in the 1960s. The last generation of Uzbek poets under Soviet rule have been able to voice personal concerns, the past greatness of their people, the beauty of their homeland, and national pride. Their published poems, interestingly, are completely void of direct references to Islam, while retaining the rich, descriptive style of many Islamic writings. Women's freedom of expression is also more accepted by the Soviets than in nations governed by Islam, so Uzbek women's writing can go beyond simpler forms such as the Bedouin women's lyric poems described in Lila Abu-Lughod's Veiled Sentiments.

Also, in the late twentieth century, a new reformist movement called islahatchi formed. While this group lacked the political strength of its Jadid predecessors, who had helped in the failed attempt to establish a democratic government of Turkistan in 1924, they brought attention to social problems, especially in urban Uzbekistan. Russian influence had introduced drinking and prostitution, which islahatchi attacked as the antithesis of Islam. In the 1980s, it was common to see articles such as the one entitled "Don't Lose Thy Honor" (from a Tashkent evening paper), addressing social issues in numerous publications. The Islamic values of "knowledge, gentleness, fairness, and self control" go beyond just appropriate behavior to embody a way of thinking. In this way, Muslims could retain their identity by means of a dual value system. On the surface, the puritan nature of Soviet ethics (a remnant of Stalin's time) might seem similar to Islam, but in actuality, the public codes they imposed could in no way replace shari'a (the "path"), käbirä (the seven sins) or other Islamic law intrinsic to self identity.

It would be incomplete to leave this discussion of Islam's role in Uzbekistan's cultural development without at least briefly addressing the present situation. Since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Uzbekistan has won its independence and now must situate itself in a new world order. Its newly-recognized status as a Muslim nation presents further intricacies in both its domestic and foreign relations.

The Ferghana Valley has been an historic center of political and religious activity from before its division among the republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan by the Soviets. It is the most densely populated and environmentally debased region of all of Central Asia (home to one-third of Uzbekistan's citizens), with "nine or ten children [per family] the norm." Thus, its suffering people have not seen benefits of modernization, yielding opportunity for fundamentalists, who oppose the changes, to flourish. The Wahhabi, a highly secretive and militant Sunni sect, entice new followers in the Ferghana Valley with free education, Islamic literature, and financial assistance in building village mosques. They also use the technique of seizing public buildings and protesting until government authorities agree to turn them over. Most new believers in the Wahhabi are unemployed youths. This trend was predicted by observers, such as Aslam Arifov, a teacher in a Dushanbe suburb, who said, "teenagers drop out of school and hang around selling things on street corners. Without communism the only thing is commerce. Maybe Islam will fill the gap." In fulfilling this spiritual void in Uzbek society, the strictly observed Islamic movement faces little competition from the official mosques, which have no money to offer. In constrast, the Wahhabi received over a million dollars from the Saudi Ahle Sunnah movement in 1993 and continues to receive this funding openly.


Alisher M. Akramkhanov