The role of Islam in the formally secular state of Uzbekistan remains a potentially volatile issue. Critics of President Karimov often cite his hard-line stance on radical Islam as a cornerstone of his authoritarian regime.  Whether Karimov will again seek to extend his time in office remains uncertain, yet it remains vitally important that both domestic and international actors understand the influence of Islam in Uzbekistan to understand the potential problems facing the nation and the Central Asian region more generally.

In this Carnegie Paper, A Face of Islam: Muhammad-Sodiq Muhammad-Yusuf, Martha Brill Olcott, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, provides an in-depth analysis of Sheikh Muhammad-Sodiq Muhammad-Yusuf—the most prominent theologian and unofficial spiritual leader of Uzbekistan.  Olcott gives insight into Muhammad-Sodiq’s life, his spiritual and ideological writings, and ultimately, his political agenda.  Given that this Uzbek cleric has a wide following in his country, including within the elite, Olcott’s examination of the life and mind of Muhammad-Sodiq provides a window into his country’s religious life.

Influenced by years spent in seminaries in Libya, as well as frequent travel to leading Arab Islamic centers, Muhammad-Sodiq’s goal is the gradual but full Islamization of Uzbek society.  But, he maintains that Uzbekistan is not yet prepared for the immediate transition to an Islamic state.  This nuanced position allows him to remain an independent advocate who offers occasional criticism of the government.  His outspokenness has boosted Muhammad-Sodiq’s popularity with believers and even theologians who do not agree with his view.

Olcott argues that if the government does not confer with Muhammad-Sodiq, it risks open confrontation with the Islamic leaders within the country and beyond its borders, given the Uzbek cleric’s strong position in the countries of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. 

This is the second paper in an ongoing project for a forthcoming book on Islam in Central Asia.

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About the Author
Martha Brill Olcott is a senior associate in the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Endowment, directs the Central Asian Voices website, and co-directs the Carnegie Moscow Center Project on Religion, Society, and Security in the former Soviet Union. She specializes in Central Asia and the Caucasus and is the author of Central Asia’s Second Chance (Carnegie, 2005).