When attempting to explain Islam in contemporary Central Asia scholars tend to establish a typology of factors to explain the ongoing Islamic revival. Traditionally we distinguish between internal factors – local traditions, politics concerning religious matters – and external factors that implicitly point at foreign states or Islamist organisations that have contributed most to reshaping the Islamic landscape in each Central Asian country. Among these foreign contributors we often cite religious influences from the Arab states, Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan, but we often forget to mention the streams and trends originating in India and Pakistan that nevertheless have had a strong and long presence in the region. My goal in this article is to show that the Indian subcontinent contributes fully to the restructuring of Islam in Central Asia. In addition, I shall examine the geopolitical impact and implications, current or future, of the Islamic factor in the relations between the Indian subcontinent and the Central Asian republics. These relations can be properly understood only by taking a look at their history, and especially in the Mughal era, which was a period of intensive interactions between these two regions. These historical reminders will help us to understand the nature of Islamic movements originating in the Indian subcontinent, and their development in Central Asia since the end of the Soviet Union. These movements are not numerous and include poorly organised brotherhoods like the Naqshbandiyya, some new and more visible organisations like the more robust and proselytising Ahmadiyya, and especially the Jamaat al Tabligh (JT), which is at the centre of this article.

Bayram Balci
Balci was a nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Russia and Eurasia Program, where his research focuses on Turkey and Turkish foreign policy in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
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This article is based on several sessions of fieldwork research which I conducted in Kyrgyzstan (mainly Osh and Bishkek), Kazakhstan (Astana and Almaty) and Tajikistan (Dushanbe) between 2006 and 2010, with intensive research work in 2010. I also did field research in India in October 2009 and April 2010, mainly in Nizamuddin in New Delhi where the historical centre of JT is located, and also in Deoban and Lucknow where prestigious madrassahs attract Muslims from all over the world. I also did more limited research in Kolkata where some Tablighi regularly organise seminars. In Central Asia I interviewed ordinary members of the movement, some influential people who are respected in Tablighi circles in Kyrgyzstan, and also some representatives of ‘official Islam’ working in the State Committee for Religious Affairs in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan or working as imams or employees in the Directorate for Spiritual Affairs of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Finally, providing a comparative perspective, I have conducted dozens of interviews with representatives of ‘Turkish Islam’ in Central Asia, such as members of the Süleymancılar group or the employees of the Diyanet, the official Turkish religious organisation with which there is very active religious cooperation in Central Asia. In addition to this work in Central Asia, thanks to the fact that the TJ is one of the most transnational Islamic networks in the world (Ali 2010) I have had the opportunity to enrich my research with interviews with Tablighi in France, the USA and Turkey. Finally, between 24 November and 6 December 2014 I had the opportunity to verify some of my hypotheses with several interviews I conducted in Bishkek and Astana.

The antiquity of Islamic interactions between Central Asia and India

Before the arrival of Islam in Central Asia, there had been intensive religious relations with India, especially with regard to Buddhism, which in fact took a different form in Central Asia which in turn influenced both Chinese Buddhism and Islam (Fussman 2003, 2007, 2009; Leriche and Pidaev 2008, 163). With the arrival of Islam in India, first with the raids of Mahmud Ghaznavi (r. 997–1030) and conquest by the Ghaznavids (975–1187), and then with conquest by the Ghurids (1148–1215), especially under Muizz al-Din Muhammad (r. 1173–1206), these interactions moved into the sphere of Islam (see for example Gaborieau 2007, 388; Schimmel 1980). These interactions intensified during the Delhi sultanates (1206–1526). The accession in India of a dynasty originating in Central Asia – the Mughals (1526–1858)1 – further intensified these interactions. Whether for personal, religious or political reasons, many Central Asians followed the Mughal prince Babur to India, thus starting a tradition of relatively large- scale personal travel between the two regions.2 This resulted in cross-influences and mutual fertilisation in the fields of literature, miniature painting, music, astronomy and architecture (see Beisembiev 2007; Rasulzadeh 1968). In the field of religion many mystics and ordinary believers found refuge in India when the politico-religious situa- tion in Central Asia was tense and there was greater religious freedom in India (Foltz 1998, 190). More important was the fact that the Mughal princes, beginning with Babur (r. 1526 – 1530), were devotees of important Naqshbandi sheikhs and maintained personal ties with many Islamic authorities in Central Asia.3

The history of the Naqshbandiyya, which originated in Central Asia, epitomises the dynamism of the Islamic interactions between Central Asia and India. From the begin- ning, both the proto-Naqshbandiyya, starting with Khwaja Ghijduvani (d.1220), and the Naqshbandiyya proper, named after Baha al-Din Naqshband (1318–1389), were loosely organised.4 The third important figure in the history of the brotherhood, Khwaja Ahrar (1404–1490), centralised the movement; it was able to respond to the spiritual needs of the population and it achieved predominance in Mughal India. Among the most political sheikhs in the brotherhood’s history, Khwaja Ahrar did not hesitate to flirt with power and involve himself in state affairs and business (Gross 2007). The numerous waqfs he controlled permitted him to assert his power and to negotiate with the rulers, who needed Sufi support to legitimise their power, from a position of strength. This tradition of strong ties between the political rulers and Sufi sheikhs would continue among the Mughals.

The Naqshbandiyya spread in India in several steps and ways, but several phases can be identified. The first was characterised by an alliance between Babur and Sheikh Baqi Billah (1563–1603), who was perhaps the most important Naqshbandi master and suc- cessor of Khwaja Ahrar. Like Babur in the political and social sphere, Baqi Billah was a spiritual and physical tie between Central Asia and Mughal India; he and his family lived in both India and Central Asia. Subsequently other Sufi masters and others moved to India, often not coordinating their moves. Their motives varied from escaping the political pressure of the Shaybanids,5 to temptation by the political and economical opportunities in Mughal India, to a spiritual quest, to pilgrimage to Mecca via the port of Surat (in the present-day state of Gujarat). The next important Naqshbani sheikh in India, and perhaps second only to Baha al-Din Naqshband himself, was Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (1564–1624), known to his followers as mujaddid-i alf-i thani (the reviver of the second [Islamic] millennium). In 1599, on his way to Mecca, he stayed in Delhi and received an ijaza (certificate to propagate the tariqa) after which he introduced profound reforms and formed his own branch of the brotherhood known as Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya. From the seventeenth century the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya became the first Islamic movement from India to influence Central Asia. Sirhindi’s successor and descen- dant Habibullah sent his khalifas (deputies) from India to Central Asia where they reinvigorated the Naqshbandiyya. As a result of his initiatives, sheikhs from Bukhara went to India to receive an ijaza and returned to their homeland to spread the new branch of the brotherhood (Gross 2007).

The decline of the successor-states after the collapse of the Uzbek Empire – the Khanates of Khiva and Kokand and the Emirate of Bukhara – and the arrival of Russia on the Central Asian scene and its domination of the area did not end the spiritual ties between India and Central Asia. However, confronted with Russian superiority and with new connections to Muslim communities within the Russian Empire and beyond, the Central Asian societies generated a reform movement, called in Russian and Western literature ‘Jadidism’. This movement was inspired by, and connected to, the Turkic- language intellectuals of Russia and the Ottoman Empire rather than those of the Indian subcontinent, who wrote in Persian and Arabic.6 Nevertheless, Indian reformist thought, divided between the ‘secular’ reformism centred in Aligarh and the more conservative Deobandi school, continued to have influence.7 This is especially true of the latter. Paradoxically this happened in the Soviet period under conditions of active persecution of religion.8 It was indeed in the Soviet period that major religious authority functioned in Central Asia and shaped many Islamist leaders who then developed into various branches of Islamism, from the most quietist to the most political and radical. Muhammad Rustamov, known as Damullah Hindustani (1892–1989), was born in Kokand (in present-day Uzbekistan). He travelled extensively in Afghanistan and India, where he learned Hindi and Urdu, languages he later taught at the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences of the Tajik SSR in Dushanbe (Babadzhanov, Muminov, and Olcott 2004). Although he cannot really be classified as a Deobandi, Hindustani was influenced by this school. At the height of religious persecution Hindustani formed his own hujra (‘cell’ in Arabic; an informal and clandestine study group), the influence of which is still felt all over Central Asia. His grave, next to that of Mowlana Saheb Yaqub-e Charkhi, another important figure of the Naqshbandiyya, in the great mosque of Dushanbe, is visited by numerous pilgrims from all over Central Asia.

Independence and the renewal of ties with the Muslim world

The liberalism brought by perestroika, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new independent states on its debris had historical consequences for Islam in each of them. Henceforth, nothing stood in the way of Islam and the traditional Islamic elites that re- emerged. At the same time, the new authorities in each state tended to declare themselves favourable to Islam and to its integration in one way or another into the new political identities. In some cases, especially in Uzbekistan, the new power did not hesitate to use Islam as a source of legitimisation. This new approach to religion did not however prevent the authorities from feeling unease towards Islam out of fear that they would not always be able to control it (Olcott and Ziyayeva 2008). One of the consequences of this new situation was the massive influx of diverse Islamic influences from the Middle East, the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey. Islam in the Indian subcontinent did not remain behind in this race for influence on Central Asia either. Three important currents of Islam from this area vied to establish themselves in Central Asia: the Naqshbandiyya, whose historic role has already been described; the transnational Ahmadiyya movement of Indian origin; and most importantly JT, which arrived in Central Asia for the first time.

The revival of Central Asian Sufism has been the subject of several studies (see Zarcone 2000). This renaissance benefited from the ambivalent attitude of the Uzbek political leadership: whereas President Karimov praised the merits of this modest and tolerant Islam as a role model for the country’s social harmony, he was also anxious about its possible transformation into a competing political force (Olcott 2007). In the early 1990s, in cooperation with Turkey – then in good relations with Uzbekistan – Karimov made a considerable investment in the renovation of the mausoleum of Baha al-Din Naqshband in Bukhara, transforming it into an immense complex that could host thou- sands of pilgrims. This qualified support of the local Naqshbandiyya allowed it to establish connections with the branches of the brotherhood abroad, particularly in Turkey, where the Naqshbandiyya heritage was quite vigorous. In this context a Naqshbandi sheikh from Pakistan had important success in Central Asia. Sheikh Muhamad Zulfikar Naqshbandi Mujaddidi from Lahore visited Tajikistan and Uzbekistan and recruited followers to his movement.9 Among the disciples of the Pakistani sheikh was Salim Bukhari, a man of modern education with a degree in German studies. In 2008 he became the director of the Baha al-Din Naqshband foundation on Sufism and Sufi culture in Bukhara (Olcott 2007). The main raison d’être of this endowment is to promote research and analysis about the heritage of the Naqshibandiyya brotherhood. In view of his success, Tashkent refused him a visa and he has not returned to Uzbekistan since (Olcott 2007, 26). He has nevertheless had an important impact on religion in Central Asia, especially in Tajikistan, where the attitude of the authorities towards Islam has been more relaxed.

The second religious current of Indian origin that has been present in Central Asia for a few years is the Ahmadiyya, founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (1838–1908) in 1889 in response to the strong pressure by Protestant missionaries and the Hindu sect Arya Samaj, which is also considered a reform movement (Chamupati 2001; Lai and Sharma 1993). Mirza Ghulam Ahmad presented himself as the foretold Mahdi (Messiah), the ultimate mujaddid (renovator) and the incarnation of Jesus of the prophecies who had come to revitalise Islam and lead it to its final victory. He integrated elements from Hinduism into his teaching, particularly the figure of Krishna. A major tenet of his teaching was replacing the jihad of arms and force by jihad bil-lisan (by tongue): that is, proselytising Islam by preaching and peaceful means (Friedmann 1989; Servan-Schreiber 2002). Adopting missionary methods and organisation from the Protestant missions, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad gained followers in many countries within a few decades. After his death a schism divided the Ahmadiyya into two factions, although the borders between them are rather vague. The majority, the Qadani (the name of an Indian city) faction, insists on the prophetic status (as an incarnation of Jesus) of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and that authority over the community should pass to his caliphs. The other, smaller, faction, known as the Lahore school, considers the founding master of the movement to be merely a mujaddid with no prophetic powers, and that an anjuman (body of selected people) should run the community. Both factions have been fiercely oppressed in a large part of the Muslim world, especially in Pakistan (Kennedy 1989) and in Saudi Arabia, where they have been pronounced heretics and consequently barred from the pilgrimage to Mecca. Although the Ahmadiyya is disliked and repressed by the religious establishment in most Muslim countries, its disciples have been able to spread their movement all over the world, to Africa, Europe and the USA. In the socialist bloc they achieved a remarkable breakthrough in Albania, a country otherwise known for its isolationist and antireligious policies. In Central Asia the Ahmadiyya has been successful in Kyrgyzstan only (Rotar 2004), probably as a result the relative religious freedom there, which contrasts with the rigidity of the neighbouring states, which are generally more hostile to any sort of proselytism. Even though the Ahmadiyya has been met with hostility and strong criticism from mainstream Islam, the movement was officially recognised in Kyrgyzstan and legally registered at the Ministry of Justice and Spiritual Affairs in 2002; but this was cancelled in 2011 for ‘security reasons’. In 2011 the community requested a new registration but this was refused by the State Committee for Religious Affairs (Kyrgyz Officials Reject Muslim Sect 2011). Despite this negative response, the community continues to develop its activities. It is always discreet, and no signs of its official presence can be traced in the neighbouring states.

A new Islamic community of Indian origin in Central Asia: the Jamaat al-Tabligh

At the time of writing, the most influential Islamist movement of Indian origin is JT. It was founded in the late 1920s in the Indian province of Mewat, by Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi (1885–1944), a Sufi renowned all over British India. There are, however, disagreements as to whether the preaching of this religious leader had a Sufi character or not.10 Tabligh means ‘to deliver (the message)’, and JT aims at reviving this obligation, which it considers a fundamental duty of each Muslim. The members of this organisation, the Tablighis, follow strictly the rules of Islamic law. They observe religious dogmas, dress codes and the details of religious practice. Their activities are limited to the Muslim community, and their main objective is the spiritual awakening of Muslims worldwide. The movement has a non-political profile, thereby following the guidelines of its founder Muhammad Ilyas, who wanted to keep his community at a distance from the political debates in an India where the cleavages between Hindus and Muslims were already grave. In the beginning, the movement concentrated its activity mainly on Indian Muslims, trying to reinforce their faith and purify their practice of religion, which it often con- sidered as tainted with pre-Islamic practices. Later on, Tablighi missionaries spread the movement all over the world, including Western Europe, and more specifically France.11

JT stands out among the other Islamic organisations because according to its founding fathers the religious mission of dawa should be seen as the personal duty of every Muslim, and not exclusively that of a limited circle of scholars and clerics (Ilyas 1944). Thus its preachers, who in obedience to the fundamental law of tabligh travel around the world to spread the message of Islam, are volunteers who have to finance their mission out of their own pocket. They are mostly men of various socio-professional backgrounds. They are trained in a series of courses, of differing length – from 3, 10, 20, 40 days to 4 months – that are suited to each person’s spiritual needs (Metcalf 2004; Masud 2000, 200). A new arrival has to pass several shorter courses to finish the four-month course which entitles him to the title of qadim, that is one of the elders of the house-group. Furthermore, JT has a new concept of missionary activity. Ever since the time of the Prophet and his first successors the traditional concept of dawa had been an integral part of the expansion of Islam and connected to jihad. It was thus a collective, not an individual, duty and the responsibility of the Islamic state. Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi carried out a radical reform of the concept: he transformed the jihad into a peaceful process – dawa – and made it a personal obligation of each believer. Members thus have to devote some of their energy and daily schedule to missionary activity if they want to be called good Muslims.12

According to some of the community members, the first disciples arrived in Central Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. These were a handful of students who had been sent with Soviet government scholarships to India, then in good relations with the USSR (Horn 1982). This should probably be considered, however, as representing a desire on the part of the Tablighis to establish their early presence in the area. The real presence of the community is a more recent development dating to after the dissolution of the Soviet Union when Central Asia opened up to various Islamic movements from the outside. JT had problems, however, in making its way in Central Asia, where the most influential Islamist movements from the beginning came from the Arab world, and more impor- tantly, from Turkey. The Turkish Islamic communities have benefited from a linguistic advantage in Central Asia (Balcı 2007). Though it is difficult to date precisely the formation of JT in the region, paradoxically it was only after 11 September 2001 that its presence acquired a tangible nature in some Central Asian cities. This event was in many ways pivotal as it caused the Central Asian governments to step up persecution of all religious organisations considered political and/or radical. However, since JT is apolitical, non-radical and pious, it was regarded by at least some local religious authorities as a possible antidote to radical or political Islamist organisations and indeed as a tool to supervise young people targeted by such organisations. As a result of this tolerance, and of the fact that its members, who go door-to-door to call people to prayer, dress in a Pakistani costume (shalvar kamis), the community rapidly became a visible phenomenon and a subject of great curiosity among clerics and researchers alike, who all have difficulties in grasping its real nature.

JT is not present in all the Central Asian states. Currently the movement is highly present in Kyrgyzstan, quite visible in Kazakhstan, hardly active in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, and completely absent in Turkmenistan.

The Uzbek authorities, in their effort to completely control Islam in all its manifesta- tions, deem this movement a potential threat to national security. They therefore formally prohibit the establishment of the organisation in Uzbekistan even though one of the most important and charismatic religious figures of the country, the former mufti of the republic, Muhammad Sadik Muhammad Yusuf, has stated that JT is apolitical and harmless (Rotar 2003). The few members who have tried to be active have been imprisoned. Several people have been arrested and imprisoned for conducting debates in a Tablighi manner (Saidazimova 2012). Anxious to fight effectively any form of radical Islam, the Uzbek regime associates every Islamic movement that is not registered at the Ministry of Justice with the radical Islamism of organisations like the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU)13 or Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT).14

In Tajikistan, the activists of JT do not enjoy legal status either, and the official attitude towards them swings between tolerance and repression. This is despite the fact that because of the participation (albeit largely cosmetic) of an Islamic political party – the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP) – in the ruling coalition, the authorities display good will towards Islam. It was the attitude of repression that predominated when I was in Dushanbe in August 2009, when several activists had just been imprisoned for belonging to an illegal Islamist movement (Tajikistan Jails Five Members of Islamic Group 2009). According to an expert on Tajik Islam, although it might seem paradoxical, the ban on JT undoubtedly originates with the Islamic component in the government. The IRP sees in JT a potential competitor, whereas the secular party in government would be ready to compromise with it, finding it not aggressive (my interview with Said Ahmad Kalandar, Tajik researcher, Dushanbe, July 2009).

In Kazakhstan, the presence of JT is tolerated but not legally approved: the authorities do not allow it to register with the Ministry of Justice and the State Committee for Religious Affairs. By leaving it without legal status they hope to prevent its politicisation. This means that the members can meet, but can at any moment be prohibited from preaching. Still, the members of JT in Kazakhstan are not subject to persecution and manage to preach rather freely; but in some remote cities they are sometimes arrested and questioned by the security forces (Rotar 2006). More recently, in December 2014 some Tablighis in Kazakhstan were arrested because of their alleged participation in radical and destructive Islamist movements (Corley 2014).

In Kyrgyzstan JT enjoys great freedom. It is allowed legally and officially to carry out its activities throughout the country. It can be found in Bishkek and Naryn, but more particularly in the south, in the heart of the Fergana Valley – Osh, Jalal-Abad and Batken – regions where religiosity has always been stronger. Several factors explain this more significant presence in Kyrgyzstan compared with its neighbours. In addition to the greater religious freedom, some particularities of the Islam promoted by JT facilitate its success in the country. JT members, who are commonly called in Kyrgyz davachi (those who practice dawa) (Toktogulova 2007), are not very learned, even amateurs. They therefore propagate a ‘minimalist Islam’ in the sense that the movement, as in all the countries where it is active, seeks first and foremost to reach out to young people, especially the poor and unemployed, divert them from bad habits (alcohol and drugs) and introduce them to the most important basics of Islam: how to pray and read the Quran and to engage in missionary activity that brings new recruits to the community. This reverberates with a population that has never been strongly Islamised and that mixes Islamic practices with elements of Shamanism or Tengrism. Furthermore, according to our field studies in the Osh region, where half of the population is Uzbek, JT’s members are almost exclusively Kyrgyz; there are almost no Uzbeks, even though the latter are usually more observant. A possible explanation, which needs further investigation, is that JT, targeting mainly ‘tepid’ Muslims, has little appeal among the more religious Uzbeks. This argument adds to the theory promoted by all the experts on JT (see for example Liow 2009, 142) that it has success among Muslims with little knowledge of Islam and among populations with weaker social bonds. Indeed, Kyrgyz society is poorer and more recently and superficially Islamised. Another explanation is the fact that the tablighi method of proselytism is more suited to Kyrgyz traditions in the sense that there is a good compat- ibility between the nomadism of Kyrgyz society and the travel methodology of proselyt- ism utilised by JT (Nastritdinov 2012).

In all the regions where JT is present the method of preaching is the same. Inherited from the founding fathers, it is taught by members who have been trained in India, Pakistan or Bangladesh, or via the Indian and Pakistani missionaries who came to Central Asia in the early 1990s. The members dedicate a great amount of their time to dawa, in compliance with Muhammad Ilyas’ stipulation that peaceful jihad is a personal obligation of each Muslim. Thus, often after the Friday noon prayer, a small group – usually four people – regularly moves in a specific direction and goes door-to-door to invite people to religious gatherings at the neighbourhood mosque. During our last field trip to Bishkek, in October 2010, we were invited to join such a walk, called in the community’s jargon gasht (patrol in Persian). Several such groups form, each with a designated leader, in order to patrol the entire neighbourhood. All branches of JT every- where also organise tours of duty lasting three or 40 days. Small groups go to a specific city, town or village, and spend three or 40 days there, during which members ‘patrol’ the surrounding area to ‘recruit’ as many believers as possible. The community leaders are difficult to identify as the movement aims to be egalitarian and without hierarchy (Reetz 2008). Each member is required to dedicate three days per month and 40 days per year to this missionary activity, which has become a sort of ‘pillar’ of Islam.

The meetings take place in the neighbourhood mosque, because JT does not have its own premises. After the patrol, the men report briefly to a leader, called the amir, who then assembles all the believers. A member of each group takes the floor to report to the group how many households they visited, what the responses were, and the opinions and the reservations of the people that they visited. After this briefing the amir gives a long sermon, called a beyan, which usually centres on a commentary to a passage from the Quran or on a hadith.15

Jamaat al-Tabligh and other Islamic actors in Central Asia

An overview of the mutual relations and perceptions between JT and other Islamic movements and organisations is not an easy task. Although they might frequent the same areas, the various Islamic groups do not mingle with each other; in some cases they actually ignore each other.

The first Islamic actor that JT encountered upon its arrival in Central Asia was official or state Islam. This heritage of the Soviet period is part of the state’s effort to control religion via institutions: the State Committee for Religious Affairs, which is part of the government, and the Directorate for Spiritual Affairs, led by a mufti, a qazi or a shaykh al-islam.16 In all the Central Asian countries JT has bad relations with the official structures that do not always understand the nature of this organisation and even less so its objectives. The dress style of its members and their long beards are enough to annoy the representatives of the state who cultivate a Western appearance.17 Official Islam is thus somewhat anxious about this movement represented by young uneducated activists who are very effective in their missionary quest, to a point where they actually succeed in filling up the mosques in certain cities. Even if the official religious authorities do not like the movement, they do however tolerate its disciples. This is because it is difficult to exclude them from the mosque, since they respect the law and are not guilty of misconduct. In Kyrgyzstan the movement, enjoying legal status and officially registered, has benefited to such an extent that the Directorate for Spiritual Affairs has created a department for dawa, to supervise Islamic missionary activities. Thus the number of people in each gasht, the locations they are to cover and the amount of money allocated to it, like all the other rules for spreading Islam, are negotiated between the official authorities and JT members. The state has even tried to impose a dress code, though with little success: the JT missionaries prefer, it seems, to wear clothes directly imported from India or Pakistan (my interview with Ravshan Eratov, an official in the section responsible for sermons in the State Committee for Religious Affairs in Kyrgyzstan, July 2009).

JT is not the only Islamic organisation independent of the authorities and involved in missionary activities. The other movements are, however, illegal, as they are deemed political and radical. One such is HT. Present in several cities in Central Asia, predomi- nantly in the Fergana valley, HT is extremely secretive in its activities. Openly political, it has a utopian programme, which would restore a global Caliphate and unite the entire Muslim community into a great ummah; this has led to its being banned and severely repressed in all the Central Asian states, especially Uzbekistan, where its presence was rather strong in the early 2000s. Ties between this movement and JT are close to non- existent, an assertion which is however difficult to prove because HT is clandestine and therefore does not lend itself to sociological research. Clearly, however, its organisational structure and ideology are at odds with those of JT, and this gives one reason to doubt any possible collusion between the two movements. Asked about what they thought about HT, JT members expressed their disagreements with its methods. They also pointed out that the leaders of their own movement prohibit any mention of politics, which is perceived as fitna, a source of discord and division within the Islamic community. In fact a comparison between the two movements, JT and HT, is to a large extent irrelevant, as the two groups differ in their nature and in the objectives they have in Central Asia. HT does not seek to promote any religious activity but is primarily, even exclusively, interested in the restora- tion of the Caliphate. HT is not a purely religious movement involved in Islamic education or in the propagation of any kind of Islamic ideology, but a political and utopian move- ment with the aim of toppling ‘corrupt’ regimes. However, despite the deep differences between JT and HT, Central Asian authorities very often do not make a distinction between them, treating them both as radical and dangerous movements that threaten the stability of the region (see Mandaville 2003).

Other Islamic movements in the competitive market of Central Asian Islam are those originating in Turkey; their activities in the region have been facilitated by linguistic proximity to the local Turkic languages and good relations between the Turkish govern- ment and most of the Central Asian governments. These movements, however, do not really compete with JT, which approaches a different audience. First are the followers of the Naqshbandiyya.18 One of the brotherhood’s masters, Osman Nuri Topbaş, has opened several moderate madrassahs in Central Asia. The works of this Naqshbandi master have been translated into several Central Asian languages as well as into Russian and can easily be obtained in most kiosks close to the mosques in the main Central Asian cities (particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan). Another Turkish Islamist movement, the Süleymancılar, called after its founder Süleyman Tunahan (1881–1959), also has a weighty presence in Central Asia, running several Quranic schools without official sanction from the Directorates for Spiritual Affairs.19 Finally, also very active in Central Asia is the comparatively recently founded and powerful Turkish brotherhood of Nurcu founded by Said Nursi (1876–1960). One of the current branches of the brotherhood is led by Fethullah Gülen (born 1938) (see Balcı 2003). This Turkish branch of the brotherhood practises a less aggressive and more subtle proselytism than other brotherhoods, focusing on long-term goals. It is in fact fairly divided, and has not had any confrontation with JT. We can say the same about the other Islamic movements originating in Turkey. The Turkish movements actually address themselves to more educated individuals and operate within the sphere of Turkish influence, for example in the sector of educational coopera- tion or in the commercial environment between Turkey and Central Asia. The impression is that different movements do not know about each other, and that they are even indifferent to the discourse and actions of other Islamic movements. In some countries, for example Azerbaijan, the issue of Islam arises in the same terms, but in Azerbaijan, unlike in Central Asia, the Directorate for Spiritual Affairs regularly organises dialogue meetings between the different movements.

Finally, it is important to consider the current relations between the Tabligh networks in Central Asia and those in the Indian subcontinent. As mentioned above, JT was established in Central Asia by preachers from India, Pakistan and even Bangladesh in the early 1990s, and in a second wave in the early 2000s. In recent years, very few Tablighi representatives have been coming from India and its close neighbours to continue the work started by their predecessors. On the other hand, field research in October 2009 in New Delhi, Deoband and Lucknow made us aware of the lively traffic of Tablighis from Central Asia into India.

The historic centre of JT is still located in the heart of Nizamuddin in the traditional quarter of Delhi, and continues to receive Tablighis from around the world, including from Central Asia. We went there to conduct several interviews. Every day, at every hour, disciples arrived unannounced and were welcomed by the centre without any organised host structure noticeable to the outside observer. Visitors come to this centre as part of their three-day, 40-day or four-month training courses. Every evening the great spiritual masters of JT give a beyan, which is translated from Urdu into Arabic, Russian, English or any other language, depending on the groups present.20

Pilgrims coming from the former USSR must have been numerous, because on each of my visits there were at least ten, and we often saw new arrivals. Young Kazakhs, Kyrgyz, Tajiks, Tatars and Chechens were there to hear the sermon in Urdu, translated by their Tatar interpreter, who was obviously accustomed to the centre. To our surprise, there were also two Uzbeks from Kokand, who had landed in the centre quite by chance. Our interviews showed that in recent years the traffic has been going in one direction only: Central Asians have been on pilgrimage to India, while Indian missionaries no longer feel the need to go to the former USSR to spread their message.

After spending several days or weeks in the Nizamuddin centre, the visitors continue their pilgrimage to the other JT strongholds, especially in Deoband, Kolkata, Mumbai and Lucknow. To our surprise no Central Asian students were enrolled in the long-term courses in the religious institutions in these places. The officials we met, including the rector of Dar al-Ulum (the largest madrassah in the city of Deoband), told us that since September 2001 the Indian authorities have no longer allowed them to receive foreign students for a long period, except for a few Malaysians and Indonesians. However, the JT travelling missionaries come to these cities for short, three-day stops before going on to other cities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In Deoband we actually met some Tajik pilgrims, in a home designed especially for visitors, dar al dhuyuf, who were planning to continue their pilgrimage to Lucknow.

Surprisingly, in contrast to other Central Asian Islamic networks, those of JT resort very little to trade in their quest for knowledge. Thus young Central Asians we met in these Indian cities were conducting no business in parallel to their religious activity, except for the Uzbeks, who in order to obtain an exit visa from their country and an entry visa to India were obliged to engage in some kind of trade between India and their country. Those we met, for example, got Indian business visas because they were in automobile spare parts that were unobtainable in Uzbekistan.


The mutual influences between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia in the religious field are very ancient; they were especially intensive during the Mughal period. The colonisation of Central Asia by Tsarist Russia in the nineteenth century considerably reduced them, however, and the Soviet period with its antireligious policy further dis- rupted them, even though relations between the Soviet Union and India were very cordial. Although several Indo-Pakistani groups have been contributing to the Islamic revival in Central Asia, it is JT that sends the largest number of missionaries and that effectively reaches young people in Central Asia seeking spiritual nourishment, especially in the Kyrgyz cities which are very affected by poverty and unemployment, and where it is easier for JT to be active, because of relative religious liberty in Kyrgyzstan. For instance, the Turkish Süleymancılar movement mentioned earlier manages a madrassah where new elites are formed. This group is also active in business and commerce between Turkey and Kyrgyzstan, as are other Turkish movements. In addition, the official Turkish religious organisation, the Diyanet, a sort of Ministry for Religious Affairs, cooperates intensively with Central Asia, and in Kyrgyzstan has opened a faculty of theology where some of the new Islamic elites are formed.

Indo-Pakistani Islamic influence in Central Asia should not be overstated. It is not more important than the influence of Turkey or the Arab world. The new religious elites are formed more by foundations from Turkey and the Arab world than by Indo-Pakistani movements. More Central Asian students go to study in Turkey, Egypt and Syria (at least before the uprising) than in madrassahs in India and Pakistan. Indo-Pakistani Islam has yet to have an impact on the political relations between the Central Asian states and the Indian subcontinent. Confined to marginalised young people, Indo-Pakistani Islam has no hold on the elites and has no political pretensions. However despite the fact that this ‘tablighi Islam’ is being spread mainly at the popular levels of society and is not very active at the top of the religious establishment, I noted new developments during my latest period of field research. In December 2014 the Kyrgyz government appointed a new mufti at the top of the official religious establishment: Maksat Toktomushev, who was previously very active in JT and indeed among the most prestigious Tablighi leaders in the country. In 2009 I had incidentally conducted an interview with him in a suburb of Bishkek. This development is probably the sign of the very impressive implementation of JT in the country, at least in terms of members and grassroots influence, as JT is not involved in the management of madrassahs and other religious establishments but as we have seen gives priority to the ‘door-to-door’ method of proselytism.

The Islamic organisations from India and Pakistan, especially JT, should therefore be considered as transnational organisations concerned with spirituality. JT is growing increasingly in influence, and establishing itself intensely and quickly in Central Asia, but so far it carries no political weight; it has been apolitical ever since its foundation. However, its diffusion throughout Central Asia, and its proselytism of young people, could in the coming years enable it to burst out of the circle of the marginalised and introduce itself to the elites. Its current non-political stance does not mean that it will never be politicised in the future, especially if the socio-economic conditions continue to deteriorate.


1. The adjective ‘Mughal’ is derived from ‘Mongol’, as Babur was a descendant of Genghiz Khan (1155/1162–c. 1227) on his maternal line and of Timur-i Leng (1336–1405) on his paternal line. For the history of the Mughal Empire, see Roux (1986).

2. On the history of relations between India and Central Asia, see the special issue of Cahiers d’Asie Centrale 1996 (1) (, especially the contri- butions by Margarita Filanovich, Jürgen Paul, Thierry Zarcone and Bahtiyor Babadjanov. See also Beisembiev (2007).

3. Babur was a follower of Khwaja Ahrar (see below), who also gave the emperor his Muslim name – Zahir al Din Muhammad.

4. This periodisation is according to Algar (1990). The most recent and extensive study of the brotherhood is Weismann (2007).

5. The Shaybanids were descendants of Genghis Khan; they led the horde known inter alia as Uzbeks, which conquered Central Asia from the Timurids and dominated most of it from 1529 until the beginning of the eighteenth century.

6. There is extensive literature on the Jadid reform movement, which occupies a considerable place in the history of socio-political ideas of the Muslim peoples of Central Asia. See for example Khalid (1999).

7. This is, of course a simplified description. For the complex relationship between Deobandi and Aligarh thinking see Kucukcan (1994).

8. Recent studies on Islam in the Soviet era emphasise the relative nature of the repression. Ambivalence characterised the Soviet response to Islam; repression in the 1930s did not prevent the authorities then and especially in the following decades from turning a blind eye to underground and illegal Islamic activities. See in this regard Dudoignon and Noack (2014).

9. See his silsila:

10. This is a question that continues to divide researchers. Even the contemporary disciples of the movement cannot agree on the relationship between their movement and Sufism. See in this respect the very enlightening article by Marc Gaborieau (2006).

11. It has been very active since the 1960s, especially among North African immigrant communities. The well-known organisation Foi et Pratique, which is very active in poor suburbs all over France, is an offshoot of JT. See also Khedimella (2002).

12. On various forms and notions of proselytisation, including the key concepts of dawa, tabligh and jihad, see Masud (2000), 79–121.

13. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan is the country’s most radical jihadist organisation. It was founded in the early years of independence. Based on various Islamist groups that proliferated in the Uzbek part of the Fergana valley in the early 1990s, the party was transformed into a powerful paramilitary organisation that greatly worried the Uzbek authorities. The movement took refuge in Tajikistan during the civil war there (1992–1997) and made it a fertile ground for its activities. After the Tajik national reconciliation the movement moved to Afghanistan and increasingly drew nearer to the Taliban and al-Qaida, which proved to be fatal to the movement: during the November 2001 US bombing, the military commander of the party, Juma Namangani, was killed. Tahir Yoldashev, the political leader, survived the attack, but has apparently failed to rehabilitate the movement. He is said to be in a critical condition in Waziristan. On the history and development of this political militant organisation, see IFRI (2008), 32.

14. Hizb ut-Tahrir is an Islamist party founded in Jordan in the 1950s. Its headquarters are now in London. It arrived in Central Asia in the 1990s. Utopian, the party advocates the reinstatement of the Caliphate to unite all Muslims around the world. Although it has not resorted to force, it has a very hostile and radical discourse against the regimes of Central Asia, which in turn respond with harsh repression. Because of its clandestine nature very few serious studies have been written on this movement. Among them are: Chaudet (2006), Taji-Farouki (1996) and Karagiannis (2005).

15. Mussa Khedimellah, who has studied the movement in the French suburbs, has observed the same missionary practice. See Khedimellah (2001).

16. On the organisation of Islam in each Central Asian country, see ICG (2003).

17. In Kazakhstan, during our field trip in July 2009, we witnessed quite a strange situation: Although the JT members prayed five times a day behind him, the imam of the great mosque had no idea who they were and what they did. During my interview with him after the Friday prayer, he admitted that he did not even want to address them, and therefore asked me to explain to him the objectives of the davachi. The result was that I spoke more than the imam I had come to interview, and I had the impression of having taught him many things about his fellow co-religionists influenced by JT.

18. Three websites allow one to gain a general overview of this brotherhood and the ideas of its leader: in French,; in Turkish, (the monthly journal of the movement); also in Turkish,, a site linked to its community.

19. One of the leaders of the Süleymancü movement whom we met in Bishkek in July 2009 gave us the figure of 19 institutions in Kyrgyzstan and 42 in Kazakhstan. The size of these schools varies; a madrassah may accommodate from 20 to more than 300 students. The website provides important information about the ideas of the spiritual master Süleyman Tunahan.

20. During our stay there was even a translation into French, given by a young French-Moroccan for a group of French, North African and Turkish backgrounds.

This article was originally published in Religion, State, and Society.