Shuaib Bahman

Muharram Mourning Ceremonies in Central Asia

Date of publication : October 26, 2016 12:22 pm
Muslim devotees take part in a mourning procession marking the day of Ashura in Baku, Azerbaijan on October 12, 2015. Shiite Muslims are observing the Ashura, the tenth day of the first Islamic month of Muharram, to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, in the Iraqi city of Karbala in the seventh century.

Commemoration of Imam Husayn's uprising has unique features in each of the countries of Central Asia. These features depend on the country's ethnic and religious characteristics as well as population size and distribution. For example, the people of Tajikistan have a strong cultural connection with Iran, and their cultural customs and religious traditions are often similar to those of Iran. Therefore, Shia Muslims in this country attach particular importance to Muharram mourning ceremonies; they try to commemorate Imam Husayn's (PBUH) uprising, especially on Tasu'a and Ashura days. Tajikistan's Sunni Muslims, too, have great reverence for the Ahl al-Bayt and Shia Imams, especially Imam Husayn (PBUH). However, the Islamic Council of Ulema, which is regarded as the highest religious institution in Tajikistan and is close to the government, believes that the Ashura ceremonies held by the Shias may trigger interdenominational strife among Muslims. As a result, the government has imposed some restrictions on Ashura ceremonies.
In Uzbekistan, too, given the government's sensitivity about the Shias, people still try to hold the mourning ceremonies secretly in their homes, as they did during the Soviet era. That said, in recent years, religious ceremonies have to some extent been revived in Uzbekistan. For example, in the Uzbek cities of Samarkand, Bukhara, and Tashkent, mourning ceremonies for Imam Husayn (PBUH) are held in mosques. In addition to Shia Muslims, who diligently participate in the mourning gatherings and distribute food, Sunni men and women, too, attend these gatherings and even donate money for the ceremonies.
In Turkmenistan, the month of Muharram, particularly the day of Ashura, is of particular importance to Shia Muslims. Before Soviet domination, Shia-style mourning ceremonies were held in some parts of Turkmenistan. However, After the Communists came to power, for more than 70 years, people were not allowed to hold the Muharram ceremonies publicly; hence, they held the ceremonies secretly in private homes. Since Turkmenistan's independence, Azerbaijanis, Afghans, and Iranians residing in Turkmenistan (women, men, children, and teenagers), along with Turkmens, have been participating together in mourning ceremonies in Shia mosques. Currently, in all areas where there are Shia Muslims, even with no mosques, people gather together in private homes and hold the mourning ceremonies.
In Kazakhstan, the number of indigenous Shias is very small. Most of the followers of Shia Islam in this country are Iranians, Afghans, and Azerbaijanis residing in Kazakhstan. Since the absolute majority of the Shias are the émigrés and exiles of the Stalin era, they are dispersed throughout Kazakhstan's vast territories. Even so, as most of them are of Azerbaijani descent, their customs, traditions, beliefs, and culture are quite similar. As a result, they observe the Muharram ceremonies, which are among the most prominent and widespread Shia ceremonies, in a similar fashion. That said, despite Kazakhstan's considerable Shia population, there are no official mosques for them, and even the unofficial places of worship for Shias are always in danger of being shut down. Moreover, the Kazakh police keep Shia Muslims under surveillance on important days of observance such as the Muharram days, particularly the Ashura day.
Shia Muslims in Kyrgyzstan have a better situation than the other countries of Central Asia because of the relatively open political environment. However, this country has hardly any indigenous Shias, and all of them are immigrants. Thus Kyrgyzstan's Shia population is made up of Azerbaijani, Afghan, Tajik, Pakistani, and Iranian nationals, each participating in mourning ceremonies for Imam Husayn (PBUH), in their place of residence.

Shuaib Bahman, a PhD. in international relations, is the senior expert at Eurasia Affairs and guest contributor to IRAS.

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