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Kyrgyzstan's Sky Worshippers Seek Recognition

Tengrists pray to their ancestors, to the spirits of nature, and to Tengri, the eternal blue sky, to cleanse and empower them. (Photo: David Trilling)

Arslanbek Maliyev grew disillusioned with Islam when he realized foreign missionaries who came to Kyrgyzstan following the collapse of the Soviet Union were more concerned with building mosques than they were with education.

“They are not interested in our education system, in progress,” Maliyev, a former member of parliament, said of the missionaries, most of whom hailed from Arabic-speaking countries. Maliyev, who today runs an organization dedicated to promoting Kyrgyz culture, said that after he read the Koran, he came to the conclusion that many tenets of Islam didn’t blend well with the nomadic traditions of the Kyrgyz.

Before the communist era, before the arrival of Islam, many on the Central Asian steppe followed an ancient Turkic set of beliefs: Sometimes described as animism, sometimes as paganism or shamanism, devotees these days call their ethnocentric ideology Tengrism. Claiming as many as 50,000 followers in Kyrgyzstan today, believers are fighting for state recognition. There is also a growing, albeit small, Tengrist movement in neighboring Kazakhstan.

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Bakyt Ibraimov is an Osh-based journalist.

Kyrgyzstan's Sky Worshippers Seek Recognition

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