“Ma as-salam,” she said as she handed me my room key after completing the check in. She was efficient, well-dressed and polite.
“Is the meat halal?” I asked. “Yes,” she said, with a smile, “it is all halal.” I was relieved. This was my first visit to Kazakhstan and having experienced the destruction of even the most basic Islamic norms in Uzbekistan three years ago, I needed to be cautious. In Uzbekistan, I had seen pig farms all the way from Samarqand to Bukhara, both being the mysterious and romantic cities of my childhood, both being associated with personalities noble in my memory: Bukhara with Imam Bukhari and Samarqand with Abu al-Layth Samarqandi, the renowned exegete of the Qur’an.
Despite what the lady at the front desk said, the first time I walked into the hotel restaurant I found out that there was no distinction between beef and pork on the buffet table; everything was next to each other. There was a terrible smell in food; even cheese and vegetables had the same smell. When I asked the cook about how they separate halal from non-halal meat, the young man stared at me; he did not know what I was talking about. I had already asked him if he was a Muslim and he had very proudly said, yes. When I came downstairs without eating anything, there was the same lady at the counter. I asked her again about halal and non-halal, she repeated the same answer which she had given me yesterday; after a few more questions, I realised that what she meant that their hotel had halal pork!
After a few more minutes of conversation, I realised that she has no idea of halal and haram. This was, however, only the beginning of the shock. Within the next four days, I was to find out the true extent of destruction of Islam in this ninth largest country in the world – the world’s largest landlocked country with an area greater than entire Western Europe. This destruction happened during the Russians occupation which began in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century, all of Kazakhstan was part of the Russian Empire.
Most of the terrible crimes against Kazakh people were committed following the 1917 Russian Revolution and the entire religious infrastructure and educational institutes were destroyed between 1917 and 1991. Kazakhstan declared itself an independent country on December 16, 1991, becoming the last Soviet republic to do so. But just like the other Republics of the former USSR, the communist-era leader, Nursultan Nazarbayev, became the country’s new president and the euphoria of Islamic resurgence in Central Asia died out. Officially, more than half of 16.2 million people are Muslim, but there are only a few remains of Islam in reality.
This destruction is fundamental; that is, it was systematic, organised, and brutal. It plucked out hundreds of years of history of these people from their consciousness by removing the basic building blocks of an Islamic polity. Russians were thorough in their ruthlessness; they destroyed mosques, madrasas, slaughtered religious scholars, and killed everyone who publically professed Islam. Compared to the Russian colonisation of Central Asia, the British seem benign. In India, Egypt, and all other lands of Islam where British occupiers ruled during the 19th and 20th centuries, there remains a strong fundamental presence of Islam in the lives of people.
The difference in the benign nature of the colonisers notwithstanding, behind this fundamental reconfiguration of Muslim lands stands a one-man institution, that of the maulvi, which is ultimately responsible for the survival of the basic knowledge of Islam during the last three centuries which have been the most devastating for Muslims in their entire history. It is the maulvi who has kept the low flame of Islam flickering in the darkness of the colonial era and even now. He was degraded, devalued, kept in contempt, in a state of perpetual poverty, but nothing severed his ties to the religion he was hoping to keep alive in a polity going the other way; his was a lonely calling. Even in lands where one would not expect this destruction, it is the maulvi who has been instrumental in keeping this flame alive
A few years ago, I was in a small hillside town of Morocco, where the sound of adhan was an enchanting experience. But when I went to the mosque, I found that the maulvi and myself constituted the entire congregation. The maulvi had dutifully called out the adhan, but no one came. Then he called out the iqama and no one came; then he led the prayer and before we departed, he said, this is what he experiences every day, but that does not deter him from his calling.
The maulvis of the Indian subcontinent are far more than mere keepers of faith; they have also kept Islamic scholarship in a few places across the subcontinent alive. While it is true that most mosque-maulvi have little knowledge of religion, they are at least able to lead congregational prayers and perform the rites of birth, marriage, and death in a polity where most educated people have no idea what to do in these situations. Imagine the state of a society from where even these fundamental rites of one’s passage through life have disappeared! Can our educated men and women, who even call adhan in the ears of their newly born babies, show some more dignity and self-respect by respecting the maulvi of their masjid?