The so-called “children of the steppes” are a relatively recent addition to the international community, having only been widely known and a part of the western world for roughly several hundred years. Despite their late arrival into western culture, and forced service under the Russian Empire, the nomadic Kazakhs and their mysterious history are steeped in a rich cultural tradition which persists until today. The religion of these people is as diverse and wondrous as their history, including multiculturalism. As a result, religion in Kazakhstan has taken on a form unique to the world.
A Brief History of the Kazakhs
Some historian argue that the term “Kazak” share the same common root with the word “Cossack”, both of which mean "free spirited" or just "free" in the ancient Turkic language.
Cossacks were warriors warmongering East Slavic peoples who were heavily pastoral and favored the use of horses for warfare. In the 15th century, Cossacks were organized around small, independent communities who raided neighboring tribes and even larger civilized states, such as the one in Moscow. Eventually, they were absorbed into the Russian Empire and adapted the Russian dialects. It is during this time in the 16th and 17th centuries that Eastern Orthodox Christianity and other western influences began to make their way into the nomadic society, thus beginning a strong allegiance with the Russian Orthodox Christian Church and conflicts with the dominant Catholic Church based in Rome.
As for Kazakhs, they were also wandering in large steppes as free people and coming into contact with all their neighbors, developing open mind culture and curiosity toward the best ideas, technologies and cultural trends outside the world might offer. Slowly, Islamic culture spread into the steppes region and over time gained significant influence in culture and day-to-day life. This Islamic culture was firmly rooted in Kazakhstan’s distant ancestors who interacted with Persians for several millennia, even including Persian words into everyday Kazakh vocabulary. However, because of the unification of the nomadic, tribal peoples to rid the countryside of the Jungars, the Kazakh people developed a tradition of hostility towards outsiders. Nevertheless, it was precisely because of the Jungars and other invaders during the Middle Ages that the Kazakh national identity began to form. By the time of absorption into the Russian Empire, Kazakh identity was strong. The 19th and early 20th century Russian Empire used the region as an outpost to conduct warfare. Using rhetoric that promised expulsion of foreigners from the steppes, the Russians convinced the Kazakhs to fight alongside them against whomever they wanted.
The Russians were unable to rid the Kazakhs of their diverse cultural heritage, even during the rise of Soviet Communism. Included within the Kazakh religious tradition were distinct local forms of Islam, indigenous ancestor worship cults, and among the growing Slavic populations new forms of Russian Orthodox Christianity that utilized many of these local worship patterns to appeal to the Kazakhs and other ethnic minorities.
Under Soviet rule in early 20th century, the Kazakhs remained highly nomadic and agricultural. Most communities continued to utilize a lordly authoritarian system based on military campaigns. The Soviets did construct some industry, such as railroads and other so-called civilized western infrastructure such as education and healthcare. A regional divide within Kazakhstan soon emerged, with the northern Kazakhs settling firmly into Soviet development while the southern Kazakhs opting to continue agrarian nomadism. The north-south cultural gap soon entered into political conflict. The northern Kazakhs followed some political trends of the Russians and used the Russian education system to publish books and begin newspapers. A newly educated class of Kazakhs rose up to lead the burgeoning country. The northerners also inherited a critical view towards Islam and vocalized their criticism of Tatar mullahs. Another group of intellectuals were critical of everything Russian and looked to Kazakhstan’s Islamic heritage for intellectual inspiration. A third group of intelligentsia focused on Kazakh nationalism and opposed mainstream Russian influence. From this third class emerged a re-focus on tribal history and family structures. Others amongst the nationalist class traveled to Turkey to re-discover Turkic culture. Some traveled to Turkey and brought back heavily Islamicized intellectual ideas.
As Stalin’s influence grew, so did his quest to crush intellectual ideas that were different from the mainstream Soviet ideals. Stalin moved in many people from all over eastern Europe into the Kazakh region with hopes to squash national identity, especially religious identity. Settlers continued to move into Kazakhstan into the 1960s, even after the death of Stalin. Soviet Russia used Kazakhstan once again as a military outpost but this time for nuclear weapons and as a giant space for factory production. Despite the Soviet policy against popular religion, Kazakhs continued to secretly practice their various faiths throughout this time. In 1992, Kazakhstan obtained its independence from Russia, finally, after several centuries of servitude and colonization. All of the different ethnic groups that were now part of the new Kazakhstan did not help the cause of a national identity. This diverse national identity, however, perhaps saved Kazakhstan from being swallowed into the emerging militant-Islam movement during the ‘90s. Kazakhstan walked the tightrope between being an Islamic nation, like the rest of the Central Asian countries, and a part of the ex-Soviet bloc of countries that were not dissuaded from international opportunities. As a result, Kazakhstan developed a diplomatic relationship with China and the USA, skillfully finding common ground with the world’s new powers. Such diplomacy led to the most stabilized people on the ground out of all of the ex-Soviet Central Asian countries. For the first time since before the Russian influence, Soviet or otherwise, the Kazakh people were free to not only choose their religion but also to practice it as openly as they liked.
Religion in Modern Kazakhstan
The multiplicity of faiths in Kazakhstan is astounding considering its lengthy history of religious oppression. Islam is the majority religion with over 70% of the country’s population practicing. Over 25% of the country’s population practices mostly Russian Orthodox Christianity while there also exist small populations of Buddhists and Jews.
Islam in Kazakhstan is not quite like the Islam elsewhere. For the most part, this is because the Islamic holy book, the Koran, was not allowed to be read or even seen under Soviet rule. Therefore, for most of the 20th century, Muslims in Kazakhstan were forced to practice Islam in secret, often covering Islamic practices with “folk” practices which were difficult to be seen as either religious or simply cultural. Many practicing Muslims thus began to favor this heterodox form of Islam that believes in the power of jinn, magic, ancestral spirits, talismans, and superstition. These people became used to the practice of Islamic-Shamanism. Shamans used music, trances, and spirit-world healing systems to practice. Because of the dire need to disguise their religious practice, music became the primary means of religious practice. Shamans are called bakhsy, which means “musical magician.” The bakhsys play bow-stringed instruments in religious musical therapy for depression, anxiety, and other common ailments.
Jinn are supernatural creatures that live in inanimate things like trees and stones and are made of clay originally. They are trickster entities who interfere frequently in human affairs. Shamans cast spells to heal people afflicted with various Jinn-related problems. Similarly, shamans use charms inscribed with Koranic verses to either ward off evil or as antidotes to evil ailments. Other superstitions permeate throughout Kazakh culture, such as when pregnant women visit other households they are not allowed to touch gifted food out of fear that they will give birth to a girl, an unlucky omen. Now that the people can freely identify which their religious community, aside from the folk-Islam, there are more than 2,300 mosques , most of which are officially Sunni.
The Russian Orthodox Christian Church took hold in the late 19th century as Russian missionaries tried to convert many Kazakhs, however many Christian in Kazakhstan are Germans and Slavic groups. Since independence in the ‘90s, a re-emergence of Orthodox churches has led to many villages to adopt Orthodox education systems in localities where a large population of Christians live. Officially, there are at least 281 active churches and monasteries, including a spiritual academy and a theological missionary college. All of the Christian institutions are deeply affiliated with their brethren in larger countries, such as in Russia or the Ukraine.
Kazakhstan is also home to about 150-300 thousand catholic Christians. In recognition of great tolerance among the faiths in Kazakhstan, the late Pope John Paul II paid a visit to Astana in September 2001. This landmark event took place only a couple of weeks after the terrible terrorist acts of September 11, which had a negative fallout on the perception of Islam in the West. The late Pope’s visit to Astana on these dramatic days to a predominantly Muslim nation, sent a strong message about the need to seek mutual understanding among religions. During the meeting with President Nursultan Nazarbayev, the late Pope expressed his gratitude for preservation of peace and spiritual accord, stability in relations between the religions of Kazakhstan. As a pledge of further strengthening relations between the Holy See and Kazakhstan, President Nazarbayev was awarded with the Order of Pious - the highest award which was honorably given only to 15 persons.
While most Kazakhs are Muslim or other ethnic groups are Russian Orthodox Christian, there are some Ashkenazi Jews who number less than 40,000. They are mainly Russian and speak Russian, but many are actually from old World War 2 Holocaust refugee families. The synagogue in Almaty adheres to a form of Hasidism called Chasidism. These Jews uses Kabbalah philosophy as a method to approach everyday life. They believe that God intervenes in nearly every aspect of daily life. More mystical than other forms of Judaism, these Jews use a form of meditation to control desire and other strong urges which may go against God’s plan. In addition to synagogues, the government officially sanctions Jewish day schools. Unlike many former Soviet countries, anti-Semitism is not an active concern in Kazakhstan.
The last of the big world religions present in Kazakhstan is Buddhism. Buddhism came to Central Asia in the early centuries of the Common Era via the Silk Road, as many routes took merchants from India into what is now known as China, Greece, Egypt, and Russia. Places like Kazakhstan emerged as oasis stopping points along these routes. To this day, some communities maintain their Buddhist faith, having adopted Mahayana Buddhism for themselves. Many of these Buddhists worship to divine bodhisattvas to protect them from everyday concerns like death or drought. This form of Mahayana Buddhism may seem closer to the folk-Islam and mystical Sufi Islam than the carefully constructed Orthodox Christian institution.
One national religious initiative that has gained prominence since independence from the Soviet Union is Kazakhstan’s determination to develop its interfaith and interethnic diversity in a holistic, well-meaning manner. Recently, the city of Astana hosted a 4th Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. Representatives from the United States and elsewhere organized the Congress which was held in late May. Among the participants were Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a leading moderate Muslim leader in the U.S., mostly known for his Cordoba Initiative, Rev. Robert Chase of Intersections International, a multi-faith social justice organization, Rev. Leonid Kishkovsky, director of external affairs from the Orthodox Church of America, Rabbi Andrew Baker, a chairman of OSCE, an organization combating anti-Semitism, Daisy Khan, a Muslim women’s rights activist, and William Vendley, General Secretary of the World Conference for Religions of Peace. The President of Kazakhstan Nursultan Nazarbayev pushed the idea for a Congress forward to help Kazakhstan’s faiths dialogue with each other about mounting religious tensions growing in the world, especially after the September 11th attacks in New York City.
Aside from their dialogues, participants in the Congress visited the museum and memorial complex devoted to victims of political repression. The Museum is located in Akmol and opened in 2007 to remember the 20,000 women who were held in the ALZHIR camp and died. ALZHIR is a Russian acronym for the Akmolinskii Camp for Wives of Traitors of the Motherland. Needless to say, the 20,000 women who died during Stalin’s reign of terror have largely been forgotten in modern times. The Congress’s representatives laid flowers and prayed in their local languages. They all wished for the end of such events in world history.
Elsewhere at the Congress’s proceedings, President Nazarbayev met with the UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova. They discussed international collaboration to promote religious tolerance and peace through cooperation internationally, fitting with the theme of the Congress. UNESCO’s presence at the Congress added great prestige to the proceedings.
The main theme of the Congress was fitting to Kazakhstan’s overall religious culture: “Peace and Harmony as a Choice of Mankind.” The theme adequately tapped into the country’s history of diversity, culture of tolerance, and recent agenda to combat oppression left in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Using Kazakhstan as a venue for such a Congress symbolically represents the attention the world must give to the issues of religious tolerance and mounting violence. The representatives worked together to find innovative ways to potentially solve at least one leg of global political tension created in the guise of religious difference.