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How the Shiites Live in Kyrgyzstan: Report from the Imam Ali Mosque

The only mosque of the Twelver Shiites of Kyrgyzstan is located in Bishkek.

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The article was co-authored by Argen Baktybek uulu.

*This publication was prepared as a series of CABAR.asia articles dedicated to raising awareness on religious diversity in Central Asian countries. The authors do not seek to promote any religion.

It seems impossible to determine the number of citizens who relate themselves to any religious branch in Kyrgyzstan. The situation is similar for the Shiite community who live in Kyrgyzstan. Hajji Ilgar Radzhov is the imam of the Shiite mosque, who agreed to tell in detail about this issue and told us about the activities of the mosque.

The blue dome of the Imam Ali Mosque. Photo: CABAR.asia

The mosque of the Twelver Shiites is located in a quiet district of Bishkek among low-rise houses. The rising blue dome of the mosque can be seen from afar. A low fence encloses the building, which has an oriental style yard.

Ilgar Radzhov. Photo: CABAR.asia

Construction of the mosque was initiated by the Azerbaijan diaspora in 2002. The mosque is the only one in Kyrgyzstan. According to imam Ilgar Radzhov, all necessary documents were prepared and executed on time: certificates from the ministry of justice, approvals from the muftiate, State Commission for Religious Affairs, Bishkekglavarkhitektura, and other agencies.

The official opening ceremony was held on February 18, 2004. The mosque was named after Imam Ali.

We came for the interview when the imam was preparing a report for the law-enforcement bodies regarding the events to be held soon in the mosque. Police officers patrol the district during holidays or official meetings to prevent any incidents.

The imam of the Shiite mosque welcomed us with open arms and started the tour.

Footwear racks are located to the left and right of the mosque entrance – you cannot enter the mosque in your shoes.

A pulpit, a so-called minbar – a pulpit from which the imam delivers a sermon – is located in the main hall on the first floor, right in front of the entrance.

A rack for “muhr” – a clay stamp which the Shiites put their forehead on when prostrating in the prayer, just like the prophet and his followers did – is hanging on the left of the entrance.

“We have hadiths where the prophet said that God gave us earth for purification and for sajda (prostration – author’s note). Where there’s no water, Islam allows purifying with earth for praying. According to the Shiites, the prostration should be upon the earth,” Radzhov said.

According to him, previously mosques looked otherwise – they were just stands with date palm branches on them and people prostrated themselves on the earth only. Therefore, Shiites touch a pressed clay object – muhr – with their forehead when prostrating.

Muhr, a clay stamp, which the Shiites touch when prostrating. Photo: CABAR.asia
Imam is delivering a sermon from a minbar. Photo: CABAR.asia
Shiites prostrate on the earth during a feast’s prayer of Kurman Ait. Photo: CABAR.asia

There are stairs to the left of the main entrance, which leads upwards – where women pray. From the second floor they can see what happens in the main hall. In the centre, there’s a TV, which shows the main hall in real time mode.

For women, who come to the mosque with children, there’s a separate room with toshoks (a hand-made mattress sewn from pieces of fabric and filled with cotton or wool – author’s note).

Second floor of the mosque, room for women. Photo: CABAR.asia

The mosque is equipped with microphones and several speakers for better audibility. The sermons are delivered here in Azerbaijan and Persian, Quran and hadiths are cited in Arabic.

The “mihrab” (a niche where the imam stands during salat – author’s note) of the mosque is decorated with ceramics, which contain ayahs from the Holy Scriptures.

Ceramics behind the imam’s minbar. Photo: CABAR.asia

About the Shiism

Shiism and Sunnism are the main branches of Islam. The followers of both branches worship Prophet Mohammad, recognise the Quran as the holy book, perform salat five times a day while facing toward the holy city of Mecca, fast during the month of Ramadan, pay zakat (poor-due – editor’s note) and have many other similar features.

However, the key difference is that the Sunni after the death of the prophet recognised the authority of Mohammad’s loyal supporters, namely Abu Bakr As-Siddiq and then Umar ibn Al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan, and Ali ibn Abu Talib, and then declared them as righteous caliphs.

In turn, Shiites recognised only Ali ibn Abu Talib and his kindred as the lawful rulers of the Muslims. Over time, independent branches shaped within both the Shiite community and the Sunnis.

Today, when it comes to the Shiites, we often mean Twelver Shiites due to their widespread distribution. The representatives of this branch live in the territory of Iran, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Afghanistan, Turkey and other world countries. According to the study of Pew Research Centre (research centre, United States of America – editor’s note), the number of Shiites is 10-13 per cent of the total number of Muslims in the world.

The Twelver Shiites recognise 12 righteous imams from the family line of Ali ibn Abu Talib and Fatima Zahra (the prophet’s daughter – author’s note) as their rulers. They also believe that the last so-called “hidden” imam Mahdi will come back as the messiah in due time. The Twelver Shiites live in expectation of these events up to now.

“Kyrgyzstan has become a new home to me”

The long-time worshipper of the Shiite mosque, Ali Mansuri, was somehow lost when we asked him about his first acquaintance with the Shiism.

I am a Khazar, a Turkmen born in Afghanistan, and a Shiite from birth. Kyrgyzstan has become a new home to me. I’ve been living here for more than 10 years as a refugee.

Ali Mansuri and his son. Photo: CABAR.asia

I married a Kyrgyz girl and we have three children. I don’t feel myself stranger here. Kyrgyzstan is a very free country and I have never experienced any intolerance or aggression from anyone in terms of religion.

We regularly attend the Imam Ali mosque, and also we can freely attend other mosques or pray namaz with other brothers in religion. My children can do the same.

Sometimes I see their wonder when I use the stone for prostration. But when I explain it is a muhr, no one wonders anymore.

Imam Ilgar Radzhov studied at the Jamiat ul Mustafa University in the Iranian city of Qom, where I obtained a religious degree of Hujjat al-Islam, one of the supreme religious titles in Shiism.

“The representatives of the Azerbaijan diaspora invited me. At first, I taught Persian language at the National University (J.Balasagyn Kyrgyz National University – editor’s note), and then at the Bishkek Humanities University (from July 2019 – Bishkek State University – editor’s note). Afterwards, I started my activity as imam, obtained a residence permit, and then I received the citizenship of Kyrgyzstan. Now I am the citizen of Kyrgyzstan,” Radzhov said.

According to him, about 17 thousand Azerbaijanians, whose majority are the Shiites, live in Kyrgyzstan.  Many of them live in the south of the country, some in Northern regions, but this mosque is often attended by those who live in the capital.

According to the imam, 150 to 350 people gather in the mosque during religious events:

Our mosque is attended not only by the Shiites. Representatives of the Sunni branch can also pray namaz here, our doors are always open. Islam means unification and we are trying to move in this direction.

According to him, the same is true about the Shiites who can attend the Sunni mosque and pray namaz there whenever they cannot attend their mosque.

“The Shiites pray on the square together with other Muslims during religious holidays, and take local imams as their “own”. In my opinion, those people who try to make the issues regarding the clashes between the Shiites and Sunnis more seemingly significant are the enemies of Islam. The Almighty in his holy book said all believers are brothers and these are the words of God because believers should have brotherhood,” imam said.

After the namaz, the worshippers perform dhikr by using the beads, telling sacred words. Photo: CABAR.asia
The worshipper is reciting the poetry dedicated to Imam Ali at the Ghadir Khom celebration. Photo: CABAR.asia
The worshippers wish to the imam that Allah accept the prayer. Photo: CABAR.asia

The mosque is funded by voluntary donations. The parishioners pay utilities every month; the community tackles all other financial issues on its own. According to the imam, every time the mosque asked for help, there were always people who helped.

Donations are not raised on a going basis, but a donation box is available in the month of Ramadan for voluntary donations. The representatives of the muftiate seal it and open it at the end of the holy month. The mosque hands over 50 per cent of the money raised to the muftiate and the remaining money among those in need.

The mosque also takes part in charity and provides relief to orphans and to the retirement home. Sometimes some institutions ask for money instead of foodstuff to repair the premises, and the parishioners always donate readily.

This publication was produced under IWPR project «Forging links and raising voices to combat radicalization in Central Asia»

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