Fatima Sartbaeva is a doctoral candidate of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying female shamans among Muslim Kyrgyz.
Is there a compatibility between Islam and shamanism in Central Asia? How do nomadic Kazakhs and Kyrgyz intertwine Islam and shamanism in their religious cosmology? And are there any contradictions between Islam and shamanism among Kazakh and Kyrgyz?
In answering these questions, I sat down and spoke with Professor Oraz Sapashev of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. An ethnic Kazakh from Altay, Kazakhstan, and a scholar of Central Eurasian Turkic languages and culture, Sapashev shed some light on the relationship between shamanism and Islam. The following excerpt is a translation of our conversation in Russian.
Q: Could you tell me more about Altay and its cultural history?
A: Altay has been the crossroad of diverse cultures. … According to sources, our nation, [the] Turkic nation has been constructed on the basis of assimilation from Sakha, Altay Skif, and Gunn, who came from the territory of Eastern Turkestan. … In the world, there are nations that have several forefathers, which represent several cultures. The same goes for our nation. … We have deep roots in Indo–European … cultures. We’ve been influenced by Iranian [culture], even if we won’t pay attention to the language; in our worldview, world understanding, material culture, it intertwines with Iranian culture.
Q: How have nomadic Kazakh and Kyrgyz intertwined Islam and shamanism?
A: Our Turks have accepted Islam easily, without resistance. … In Islam the image of Allah is one, He is invisible, He is the one. He is accepted as Tengri or the one who lives in the sky. This image is beautiful. These two images of Tengri and Allah found compatibility. They intertwined into one. Up to this day our people call … “Tengirim jarilgasin,” we say, for instance. “Allah give us health.” … Instead of Allah we say Tengri. … But we are Muslims. … The Turks became ardent Muslims after the Arabs, and became defenders of Islam. Of course, in 1000 years there were some changes to the Islamic rules among Turks. These rules closely intertwined with our understandings, with our worldview and culture, and specifically with shamanism. A new kind of Islam appeared, or a sort of Sufi interpretation.
Q: Are there any contradictions between Islam and shamanism amongst Kazakh and Kyrgyz?
A: We still recite prayers to the honor of our “aruaks,” spirits of dead ancestors. But in classical Islam this is not envisioned. There is no understanding of reading the Qur’an for one’s own dead as it’s forbidden in Islam. According to Islam, a person recites prayers to ask for forgiveness, and to ask for protection and peace. But we read Qur’an to honor the dead. Turkic Islam is far from fundamentalism. It is nomadic. It intertwines with a worldview that is connected to nature. Turks would like to honor their dead and pray for their peace. I’m against separating Kazakh and Kyrgyz, because it is the same people. Turkic culture is one, with one world understanding.
Professor Sapashev spoke of some Central Asian Muslims who practice rituals that are considered bidah, or heretical in Islam. Are there other cultural norms in different regions where Muslims engage in bidah? Who gets to define what bidah is? Is some form of bidah almost inevitable when there is a great mixture of culture and tradition, like in Central or South Asia?