Revival of Islam in Kazakhstan as part of the Muslim community in the post-Soviet space

The policy of the Soviet state and the activities of the party in relation to religion was determined by the key directions of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. In 1909, in his article “On the workers' party attitude toward religion,” he wrote: “Religion is the opium for the people--this dictum by Karl Marx is the cornerstone of Marxism’s entire outlook on religion. All religions and churches of today, all kinds of religious organizations, Marxism always views them as the tools of bourgeois reactionism, designed to promote the exploitation and poisoning of the working class.” As far as this matter is concerned, V. Lenin views the purpose of the party as an instrument to fight religion, and the path in this path is in atheistic propaganda. At the same time, the Soviet government by its decree “On Freedom of Conscience, Church and Religious Societies” dated 5 February 1918 declared the introduction of the institute of freedom of conscience as one of its priorities.

Russian historian F. Sinitsyn writes, “However, freedom of conscience in the Soviet Union was generally interpreted in a one-sided wrongful fashion--exclusively as freedom not to believe in God, freedom to engage in anti-religious propaganda. It was argued that “in the Soviet country, following a religion is the matter of individual conscience, while conducting anti-religious propaganda is the duty of every conscientious citizen” [1].

In addition to the propaganda of atheism, state agencies in the 1920s and 1930s carried out mass arrests and persecution of clergy and religious preachers. Up until 1939, the state had pursued the policy of liquidating organized religious life by state bodies administratively, in particular through the NKVD. In general, across different periods of the Soviet era, the state’s policy with respect to religion was characterized by phases of religious crackdowns and plans for soonest destruction of religion and the church.

Despite these difficulties and obstacles, the year of 1990 was the starting point for the Islamic revival across the post-Soviet space. The collapse of the Soviet Union, followed by the liberalization and democratization of the Soviet society, had ushered in certain changes in the socio-economic and political spheres of life in the post-Soviet countries, including Kazakhstan. The way people perceived religion had undergone certain changes, in particular the views on Islam--which manifested itself in a renewed interest in Islamic values and beliefs. The growing interest in the foundations of Islam, mainly among young males, the newly open opportunities to practice a faith openly instead of in the hide, has resulted in a significant growth of the Muslim communities. The believers view Islam as the most important regulator in their personal and social life, a faith that plays an increasingly important role.

The revival of Islam in the 1990s Kazakhstan was mainly due to such factors as a liberal religious legislation which allowed for a variety of religious associations to function, the formation of the Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK), and authorities’ cooperation with said Administration.

To a certain extent, the Islamic revival was also made possible through the help Kazakhstan received from the Arab Muslim countries, enabling its integration into the Muslim world. Arab foundations popped up across Kazakhstan, building a great number of mosques. However, there was a lack of knowledgeable imams in the country, so young Kazakhs began to travel abroad for the religious studies, while Arab preachers started to come to Kazakhstan from those lands. The Arabic language courses begin to open, as well as private Islam universities: the Kazakh-Kuwait University in Shymkent in 1992, he Kazakh-Arab University in Almaty. Both universities operated for almost the entire decade, the teaching was in the Arabic language, surrounded by an entire ecosystem of teaching courses and religious colleges taking in kids from a very young age. The universities issued state-approved certificates of higher education; however, both had been closed later on.

The Islamic revival had generated a great amount of interest among the various age and social categories of Muslims, prompting them to study religious rites, the Arabic language, the Quran, the history of Islam, which resulted in the many circles and centers for the study of the foundations of Islam to be opened in the 1990s. M. Murtazin notes that in the period between 1990 and 1995, the Islamic education experienced a period of rapid growth which had been initiated by not only Muslim clerics but also many secular activists who, having suffered through the era of atheistic suppression of the believers’ feelings and sentiments, had sought in religious and faith an outlet to express their new spiritual and educational aspirations [2]. Thus, the number of young people who sought an Islamic education had grown rapidly, however they had to seek it abroad.

At the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, both Russia and Kazakhstan presented great difficulties in terms of obtaining a religious education, because Islamic education had been almost completely destroyed during the Soviet era, especially since the time when a number of resolutions against religious schools were adopted in the mid-1920s. [2, p. 93]. In contrast to pre-Soviet times, when the Islamic community had been fully equipped with higher and secondary religious educational institutions, the Soviet government by the 1930s had closed all Muslim educational institutions in the internal regions of Russia. Up until 1989, Uzbekistan was the only place the Muslims of the Soviet Union could obtain a religious education--at in the Bukhara secondary specialized madrasah “Mir-Arab” (since 1946) and the Tashkent Islamic Institute named after Imam Al-Bukhari (since 1980) which was the Soviet Union’s only higher Islamic educational institution. In Kazakhstan, in 2016 there were 99 Islamic educational institutions which were primary and secondary educational institutions of the “madrasah” type [2, p. 98]. Up until today, the only higher Islamic educational institutions in Kazakhstan is the Egyptian University of Islamic Culture “Nur-Mubarak”, which was opened in 2003 (and renamed into “Kazakh-Egyptian University “Nur”” in 2012).  

During the first post-Soviet decades, thousands of young Muslims from Russia, Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet republics of Central Asia, unable to receive religious education in their homeland, had left to study at foreign Islamic educational institutions in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey etc. As of 2013, approximately 400 Kazakh citizens were studying to obtain a higher education in the Arab countries: more than 200 of them in Egypt, 59 in Saudi Arabia, more than 60 in Pakistan and other countries. In 2011, the number of such students exceeded five hundred. Thus, many hundreds of young people had gone through the Islamic system of education of the nineties--the period of an unrestricted Islamic revival of the 1900s-2000s [4], [5].

The theologians returning in their homeland after obtaining higher Islamic education at the foreign Islamic educational institutions, including in the Arab countries, as well as parts of local Muslims who did not know the elementary dogmatic foundations of Islam, could not read the Quran in the original language, and whose knowledge and skillsets were obtained in unofficial cells and educational centres and who were financed from foreign sources, had begun imposing more stringent requirements on their fellow believers in terms of compliance with the religious rites, and underscoring that the local version of Islam was “imperfect”. An intra-confessional conflict began to brew between representatives of official and non-traditional Islam. A small digression is prompted here to offer a brief description of the religious situation in Kazakhstan.

Kazakhstan is a multi-confessional country. Islam is the most popular confessions, with approximately 70% of the population practicing it; the second largest denomination is Orthodox Christianity (the Moscow Patriarchate Russian Orthodox Church, with about 26% of population as believers); of the other confessions, the most visible are Roman Catholics, Protestants, Lutherans, and Jews. The overwhelming majority of the country’s Muslims adhere to the version of Islam that is traditional for Kazakhstan, which is the Hanafi madhhab of the Sunni denomination, the most loyal to the state and people’s traditions. In Islam, there are several madhhabs (theological and legal schools): Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki and Hanbali. Each madhhab bears the name of one of the authoritative legal scholars of the peak of the Arab Caliphate. Among the four madhhabs, the Hanafi madhhab is considered the most liberal, while the Hanbali madhhab is viewed as the most radical. This is precisely why it was the Hanafi madhhab that was most widespread on the periphery of the Islamic world, in particular, across almost the entire territory of the former Soviet Union inhabited by the Muslims. This is quite understandable, because Islam was spread not only by the sword as it was done during the first Arab conquests, but also by the necessity to win the trust of the local populations. Therefore, the first preachers had to adapt to local traditions, and find a compromise with them [6].   

The teachings of Imam Abu Hanifa, the founder of the Hanafi madhhab, attach great importance to the national traditions of a local population that has converted to Islam. According to this madhhab, customs are used as the basis for issuing fatwas, that is, a religious verdict on a particular issue. If this way of life, tradition, characteristic of a certain people do not contradict the Islamic Shariah, then it may be used or acted upon in society without prohibition or limitation. If a custom resolves an issue for which there is no verdict in the Quran or in the hadiths of the Prophet or in the fatwas of Islamic ulema through the traditions of the local population, then such a custom is perceived as a fatwa. Besides, the Hanafi madhhab allows pre-Islamic canons to be used as a basis for issuing fatwas. Thus, the Kazakh version of Islam was loyal to many traditional customs of the nomads, such as kalym, pre-arranged marriage, levirate marriage, and others. However, the traditions and actions of the people that have been formed in accordance with their pre-Islamic worldview and way of life should not contradict the Islamic Sharia. This is how the madhhab founded by Abu Hanifa was adapted to local conditions, was flexible and capable of sharing the positive and negative aspects of the traditions of the Kazakh people, thereby ensuring these traditions and customs were in harmony with the canons of Islam [7, pp. 18-20].

The revival of Islam in Kazakhstan has been characterized not only by an increase in the number of Muslims practicing the Hanafi madhhab, but also by the emergence and growth of practicioners of non-traditional forms of Islam. The opponents of the adherents of the traditional Hanafi madhhab are called Salafis, and the ideological trend in Islam which they follow is called Salafism. The notion of Salafi/Salafism had begun to be actively used in academic scientific and Muslim literature only since late 19th century. In the conditions of the strict atheistic policies of the state, the Salafi discourse among the Muslims of the Soviet Union was completely absent.

The scientists distinguish between three forms of Salafism in the post-Soviet space: 1) religious Salafism whose followers advocate strict adherence to the idea of one God, compliance with the requirements of the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, for a literal understanding of what is set forth in the Quran and authentic hadiths, and only accept as authoritative sources what is passed on from the words of Salaf Salih (“righteous predecessors”)--the first generations of Muslims led by Prophet Muhammad. Religious Salafism is also called Puritan Salafism which preaches what Puritan Salafis call True Islam; it does not pursue any political goals and rejects violence;

2) political Salafism, when against the backdrop of the political confrontation of the 1990s Salafism had turned from a form of a religious ideology into a politically-oriented movement aimed not only against the official religious structures which adhered to traditional forms of Islam, but also against the secular authorities who sided with the official clergy and began to take steps to counter Salafism; the ideologues of political Salafism often advocate the creation of a godly society within the framework of an Islamic state;

3) jihadist Salafism, which was catalysed by the armed political conflicts in the North Caucasus, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and even Kyrgyzstan. Religious Salafism had quickly gained a foothold in the ranks of tens of thousands of young Muslims living in the post-Soviet space and engulfed participants in armed conflicts, equipping them with the slogans of waging a religious jihad war against the secular authorities; as a result, a jihadist Salafism had been formed as a new form of Salafism manifesting itself through armed attacks and terrorist acts against official religious structures and the state at all levels. Jihadist Salafism stands ready to inflict violence in the name of building an Islamic caliphate, ready to wage a war for world reconstruction [8], [9]

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Salafism began to spread widely across the Muslim post-Soviet space. M. Murtazin notes the following main factors “which have contributed to the spread of form of Islam such as Salafism, which was completely new and never-before-seen across the post-Soviet space:

  • the methods of religious preaching and education that existed in the Soviet years were extremely poor; the “Soviet” mullahs were not able to satisfy the enormous interest in Islam which rose rapidly among the Muslims after the fall of the communist regime; unlike more traditional forms of Islam, the Salafi religious propaganda was very active and held a significant amount of interest to the Muslim youngsters who were looking not only for a new ideological basis for professing Islam but also for a socially motivated basis for the effective manifestation of their religious feelings in those circumstances; Salafi religious sermons were fully in sync with aspirations of the Muslim youth;
  • from the early 1990s, the various manifestations of Salafism had been supported from abroad in an environment of an almost complete absence of control over foreign religious influence in post-Soviet countries, with international Islamic organizations and foundations becoming more and more active;
  • the young Muslims who had obtained their education from foreign religious censers in different parts of the Muslim world, from the countries of the Arabian Peninsula to Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan, began to return in their homeland and spread Salafism. With them, they brought to the mosques and religious educational institutions sermons and knowledge that was starkly different in form and content from the more traditional local forms of religion, and at the same time created an entire network of Salafi websites not so much in the languages of the post-Soviet Muslim countries, but in the Russian language which all the young people in all those countries could read and understand [8].

In the 1990s, the mosques became the first ground where rivalry between young Salafi preachers and imams of the traditional theological school unfolded. The following theological issues were at the core of dispute in this rivalry:

  • Differences in religious beliefs about Allah. The Salafis hold the position that understand God as a specific image, with all those names, epithets and specific physical manifestations that are discussed in the Quran and hadiths. The traditionalists, on the other hand, adhere to the perception of Allah as a transcendental entity whose description and existential characteristics can be interpreted speculatively but cannot be represented in specific images.
  • Differences in theological decisions. The Salafis demand strict and literal adherence to everything that was defined by the “righteous predecessors” (Salaf Salih) in the matters of doctrine, dogma and religious practice in the first decades of Islam, while traditionalists rely on the later teachings of traditional theologian (Hanafi and Shafi'i) Sunni madhhabs, and also on the dogmatic provisions of the Ash'arite and Maturidite schools of Kalam.
  • Differences in the sphere of religious practice. The Salafis sharply oppose the religious innovations (bid'ah) which they perceived to include practically all the rituals that had not existed at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. They considere as such not only additional prayers and post-prayer activities in a mosque, but also home religious rituals related to the birth of children, marriage, funeral, as well as celebrations of the birthdays of the Prophet Muhammad (mawlida).
  • Mutual accusations of polytheism (shirk) and lack of belief (takfir). The Salafis are especially negative towards the Shiites who, they claim, have denigrated many Salaf Salihs and deified only one of them, the fourth righteous Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib; the Salafis also sharply condemn the Sufi rituals of worshipping the places of burial of saints (awliyd) and asking their solicitation before Allah (tawassul). According to the Salafis, these and many other religious acts constituted a manifestation of polytheism (shirk) and deviation from the true faith. In their defense, the traditionalists for their part also accused the Salafis of violating the canons of Islam and misinterpreting the Quran.” [8, pp. 162-164]

(The various aspects of these theological topics within the religious Salafism have been the matter of a discussion in the “Nine Muslims case;” the information materials on this case were posted on a number of internet resources).


  1. Fedor Sinitsyn. The Soviet nation and the issue of nationality in the USSR. 1933-1945
  2. M. Murtazin. On the system of Islamic education in the post-Soviet Muslim space // Russia and the new states of Eurasia. Issue no. 2 (43), 2019. pp. 88-102
  3. M. Murtazin. The Socio-political aspect of re-Islamization within the post-Soviet space // Russia and the new states of Eurasia. Issue no. 4 (43), 2018. pp. 167-175
  4. A.A. Mustafaeva. Islamic revival in Kazakhstan in the 1990s // Bulletin of Kazakh National University, series “Oriental Studies”, 2013. no. 4 (65). pp. 19-23
  5. Kazakhstan returns its students from the Arab countries. 17 June 2013, IA Total Kazakhstan ( svoih_stu dentov)
  6. S. Akimbekov. Hanafi madhhab and modern Kazakhstan // Express-Kazakhstan, 2011. 20 September.
  7. Twenty questions and answers on current topics in the sphere of religion. Issue no.5: Religion and Society / a compilation by A.Abdrasilkyzy, Zh.Abdraman, A.Adilbaev, Ye.Ongarov, M.Isakhan, K.Samanbekov, I.Berdaliyev, Sh.Bozhbanbayeva, Z. Nokerbekova. - Astana: ADR RK, 2014. 42 p. pp. 18-20
  8. M.F.Murtazin. The Salafi discourse in the post-Soviet space // Russia and the new states of Eurasia. Issue no. 4 (45), 2019. pp. 88-102
  9. Muhammad Garabey. How do Wahhabis differ from Salafis? (чем ваххабиты отличаются от салафитов/17358252)

R.D. Karymsakova