By Tajik Service (RFE/RL) correspondent Kayumars Ato
DUSHANBE, September 3, 2010 (RFE/RL) -- When Bibi Zaynura's ex-husband's
failure to pay alimony made it difficult for her to support her young
children, the Muslim woman first turned to the Tajik state for assistance.
But when official channels brought no results, Zaynura followed the advice
of other women in her village located just outside Dushanbe and sought the
help of a religious leader.
In consultation with the hadith and the guidance of the Koran, the
imam-khatib of the local mosque spoke to Zaynura's ex-husband and reminded
him of his responsibility to care for his former wife and children.
"We all live in the same village, and the mullah can speak to my husband
and reason with him. It's possible that this problem was solved much
faster with the mullah's help, because (my husband) wanted to prevent any
rumors from circulating in the mosque."
Where the state had failed, the imam provided Zaynura the solution she was
looking for, and she is not alone. Even as the Tajik government maintains
tight control on religion, the majority Muslim population is increasingly
turning to Shari'a law -- which is not sanctioned by the state -- to
resolve disputes, family affairs, and personal matters.
One resident of the northern city of Khujand, explains
why his family eventually went to a mullah to help them settle a family
argument over inheritance from their grandfather.
"If we took this issue to court, we would have to cut all our family ties.
Thank God, our mullah, who is an intellectual and respectable man, solved
our problem peacefully."
Following decades of suppression under the Soviet Union, religion has a
prominent place among Tajiks today.
Said Ahmadov, former head of the Committee for Religious Affairs in
Tajikistan, told RFE/RL in early August that there has been an increase in
the observance of Shari'a law among Tajikistan's majority Muslim
population since the country's independence nearly 20 years ago. A Gallup
poll released this week (August 31) found that 85 percent of Tajiks said
religion was an important part of their life, with only 12 percent saying
it did not, making Tajikistan first among Central Asian states in terms of
But religious allegiance is not the only factor that leads Tajiks to let
religious institutions weigh in on their problems.
In some cases, fear of corruption in state courts factors into the
decision, with Tajiks saying that court officials sometimes request bribes
in exchange for a particular verdict. In others, people prefer the
personal approach of a religious leader they know to the formulaic
approach of a state bureaucrat. And sometimes going the route of a
religious decision is simply the cheapest alternative.
Islam "has many laws that are close to human nature and make one's life
pleasant," explains Zubaidulloh Rozik, a member of the Council of Ulema of
the Islamic Revival Party. "When we explain to them the benefit of the
teachings of Islam they understand, they agree, and they really express
Rozik notes, that "as they say, going to the court has a high cost while
going to see two mullahs, does not cost anything." But he says people
"talk, they listen to advice" and they understand that "from the method of
advice their problem will be resolved."
Qobiljon Boev, leader of the Fatwa Department of the Council of Ulema
(religious leaders) of the Islamic Center of Tajikistan, says most of the
people who appeal to religious leaders seek not only solutions to their
problems, but rulings on the good or evil of their actions from the
perspective of Shari'a.
Boev says the majority of appeals brought before mullahs concern divorce
cases. Often, after a couple has split up, they regret the decision and
choose to live together again.
He points out that while this would not contradict state law, it would be
haraam (forbidden) under Shari'a law.
Religious officials maintain that consulting Shari'a law does not conflict
with the secular law of the state, and say it can be applied to many
aspects of society that are regulated by secular law.
Referring to court punishments of thieves and drunks, Roziq of the Council
of Ulema of the Islamic Revival Party of Tajikistan argues that consulting
a religious leader is more effective in changing such behavior.
When a thief or alcoholic is released from jail or a rehabilitation
center, he or she will inevitably turn again to stealing or drinking,
Rozik says, whereas religious intervention provides better results.
"Some behavioral problems in some young people happen after they are
affected by 'dark forces.' We read some surahs with them and they get
Strolling through the streets of Dushanbe, the influence of religion is
ever-present. One can see young people listening to sermons instead of pop
music. Religious speeches and sermons are used as ring tones, and groups
of students can be seen listening to the speeches and sermons of their
favorite imam-khatibs out loud on their phones.
The number of people attending Friday prayer also continues to rise, to
the extent that some mosques have been required to build second or even
third floors and widen the area of worship to house all the attendees.
Since he took office in 1992 following a bloody civil war that resulted in
the defeat of a mostly Islamic opposition, the government under President
Emomali Rahmon has prohibited polygamy, banned the wearing of the hijab in
government offices and in universities, and has outlawed prayer outside of
But Said Ahmadov, former head of the Committee for Religious Affairs of
Tajikistan, says that 70 years of living under communism has made people
more focused on religion and its benefits.
"Using this awareness," he explains, "they are trying to follow Shari'a
law. In the meantime this positive move disclosed many shortcomings of
Tajik secular law."
"People have by now gained more knowledge of Islamic culture and Shari'a
rules. And the fact that some secular laws have not been properly
implemented or are not being followed appropriately plays a role here."
Professor Ibrahim Usmon, dean of the journalism faculty at Tajik State
National University, says there are some who are attempting to rapidly
apply Shari'a law to the lives of Tajik citizens.
He says that this goal, which he argues is in contradiction with the
secular law of the government and more precisely with the government's
policies, has the potential to lead to radicalization.
According to Professor Usmon and other analysts, if Shari'a law continues
to be implemented on the current scale, Tajikistan will little by little
exchange the secular business suit with the robes of Shari'a.
But Akrami Abduqahor, a resident of Dushanbe, believes that Sharia has
become so integrated into the lives of Tajiks that the government cannot
dislodge it by imposing secular laws.
"If you go to universities, you'll still see girls wearing the hijab
(despite the government's ban). Recently, authorities in some villages
detained mullahs who taught religious classes to children. There is no
guarantee that these campaigns will eliminate hijab or stop mullahs from
(RFE/RL correspondent Ella Mitchell translated and contributed to this