Bakhtiyar Babadjanov, a prominent scholar of Soviet Islam, sheds some light on how the Muslims of Soviet Central Asia were administered and guided in accordance with the orders of the Сommunist Party.

Bakhtiyar Babadjanov


Bakhtiyar M. Babadjanov, Visiting Researcher of the Institute of Iranian Studies (Austrian Academy), Vienna. He is a professor, historian, and scholar of Islamic studies. In 1996, he defended his PhD thesis on the political activities of the Sufi sheikhs of Naqshbandiya in Transoxiana. In 2007, he defended a doctoral thesis (Habilitation) titled “Kokand Khanate: Power, Politics, and Religion.” His research interests include: Islamic culture and the history of Sufism in Central Asia, the Russian Empire’s Islamic policy in Central Asia, Islamic institutions in the former USSR, the revival of Islam in the post-independence period, and the religious motivations behind modern jihadist ideology

SADUM (Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Central Asia) is an acronym that has been applied (since 1962) to the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan. Its founding was announced at the Congress (Qurultāi) of Representatives of Muslims of Central Asia and Kazakhstan (Tashkent, October 20-23, 1943).

The leaders of the delegations from the republics were:

Chair: Ishon Bobokhon (Uzbekistan), Abdulghaffar Shamsuddinof (Kazakhstan), Solih Bobokalanov (Tajikistan), Alimkhon-torah Shokirov (Kyrgyzstan), and Shaykh Anna-Ishan (Turkmenistan).

Invited delegates: Abdurahman Rasuliy, chair of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims in the European Parts of the USSR and Siberia; Halil Rahman, Imam khatib of the Moscow Mosque; and Qiyamuddin al-Qodiri, Imam khatib of the Cathedral Mosque of Kazan.

Ishon Bobokhon was unanimously elected as the “Mufti of the Five Republics of the Region” (i.e. Central Asia). Solih Mirod-Khwajah Solihi (Salihov) was elected as his deputy, and Ziauddin Bobokhonov was chosen to be Head Secretary. SADUM consisted of the 11-person Administration (Hay’at) and the 5-member Revisory Commission (Taftish hay’ati). Kadiyats (Qoziyotlar) were created in the republics, the chairs of which appointed the aforementioned heads of the delegations.

At the same time, the staff serving the departments within the Administration was determined (the Department of Fatwas [from 1958], the Department of Mosque Activity, and others).

The Mir-i-Arab madrasa was subsequently founded under the Administration (1946), followed by the Barakkhan madrasah (1956-1962, Tashkent) and the Higher Islamic Institute (from 1971). To prevent fatwas from contradicting existing state laws and the Constitution of the USSR, an advisory body for Judicial Matters was formed.

Fourth-year students at the Miri Arab madrasah, Bukhara, 1948

The first fatwa of Ishon Bobokhon (1943) was called “On the allowance to eat the food of the People of the Book [Jews and Christians] during travel and military activity” (Safar va jang-u jadalda Ahli Kitob ta‘omin isti‘moli haqinda fatvo) and was translated into several languages used by Soviet Muslims. The reason for this was that Muslim soldiers serving at the front during the Second World War were refusing to eat the pork in their rations (in particular, the tins that arrived from the US as part of the Lend-Lease Program), leading to cases of dystrophy and malnutrition. The fatwa allowed Muslim soldiers to eat “the food of the People of the Book,” thus eliminating the problem. Another fatwa of Ishon Bobokhon (1944) announced the legitimacy of jihad against the Fascists. Although these fatwas were not officially published, copies of their rulings circulated in several languages among soldiers at the front.

From 1947, the Administration began to print the journal Soviet Sharq Musulmonlari (Muslims of the Soviet East), regular publication of which began in 1968. The journal was translated into a number of languages (English, French, Arabic, and others). It included fatwas and decrees from the Administration, as well as commentary on government ordinances related to government religious policy, articles from imams, answers to believers’ questions, etc.

SADUM Journal, 5th and 6th issues, Tashkent, 1947

The SADUM budget was made up of voluntary donations by Muslims and traditional offerings collected in mosques (Fitr, Khayr-ihson). The most stable source of income became the offerings collected at burial sites, or mazars (Baha’ al-Din Naqshbandi [Bukhara], Qutham ibn ʻAbbas [Samarkand], and Takht-i Sulaymon [Osh], among others), which were under the auspices of SADUM at the time. A certain legitimacy was given to this source of income by the fatwah (1948) with Hanafi (and, to a known degree, “Sufi”) argumentation of the law of pilgrimage/ziyara towards people who had reached the level of “saint/awliya’.” However, within SADUM there were religious scholars who initiated a fight against ziyara. In 1952, the above-mentioned qadi (Qoziy) from the Kyrgyz SSR, ʻAlimkhon-torah Shokirov, addressed an official letter to the mufti Ishon Bobokhon regarding “the impermissible Islamic rituals at the memorial site Takht-i Sulaymon” in the city of Osh (in the south of the Kyrgyz SSR). As a result, a number of fatwas were issued against ziyara, which was classified as “the worst sort of polytheism.”

In 1957, the Committee for the Affairs of Religious Cults under the Cabinet of Ministers of the Uzbek SSR, seeing in the mass return of the ritual of pilgrimage “dangerous signs of the return of religion” and “unsanctioned gatherings of believers,” attained official permission to close all objects of pilgrimage, instead recognizing them as architectural monuments of the past.

The Spiritual Administration was always forced to react to all special decrees of the Сommunist Party and governmental bodies

The Spiritual Administration was always forced to react to all special decrees of the Сommunist Party and governmental bodies, which sought to fight against traditional rituals (or, to use the awkward cliche of the time, “relics of the past”), many of which had come under fire from purist scholars over the course of centuries. SADUM’s fatwas—which were written in Uzbek and (less often) in Tajik, with the obligatory translation into Russian—often incorporated arguments from religious scholars from the past.

In addition, SADUM put out a number of fatwas delegitimizing the Birthday of the Prophet (Mawlud an-Nabi) and other traditional rituals. These messages to the imam-khatibs of the mosques proclaimed such rituals, especially those collective community activities that local people falsely considered Islamic tradition, to be “non-sharia” and “contradictory to Islam.” Particularly famous were SADUM’s anti-Sufi fatwahs, in which Sufism (locally “Ishanism”) was declared to contradict Sunnah.

The theological arguments put forth in the decisions of the mufti of SADUM typically referenced the Koran and the Hadith, will less frequent mention of the collections of Hanafite fatwas. In addition, in order to lend credence to some of the conclusions of the religious scholars, the creators of the fatwas turned to works from the Middle Ages and modern religious scholars of other madhhabs (or schools of thought), as well as fundamentalist religious scholars.

The Committee on Religious Cults, as a representative of the regime, supported this move. Like SADUM, it also sought to eliminate collective local traditional rites and rituals, seeing in them dangerous signs of permanent re-Islamization and the attracting of youth to this process.

SADUM demonstrated loyalty to the regime and readiness to cooperate with it. The body mediated several Soviet reforms, particularly surrounding the emancipation of women. However, it did not manage to enforce its own understanding of “proper religiosity.” Even open pressure on believers—using administrative tools and resources as well as symbolic capital—failed to produce a unified understanding of “correct Islam” and delegitimize traditional rituals and social practices preserved among believers. The identity of the believers fully conformed to traditional Islam (as they viewed it) and the realities of Soviet ideology.

Under the last mufti of SADUM, Muhammad-Sodiq Muhammad-Yusuf (1989–1993; died in 2015), the Administration’s operations began to change. Responsible parties from the Committee on Religious Cults could no longer control the actions of SADUM. For example, fatwas were no longer sent to the Committee on Religious Cults for confirmation and, in the majority of cases, were compiled in Arabic without a translation into Uzbek or Russian.

Under the last mufti of SADUM, Muhammad-Sodiq Muhammad-Yusuf, the Administration’s operations began to change

SADUM began to independently decide questions such as the opening of mosques and new places of study, the number of which grew sharply under Gorbachev during perestroika (for example, by 1991 there were 4,878 mosques and 10 madrasas in Uzbekistan). A number of old mosques and cemeteries were placed under SADUM’s oversight. Corresponding fatwahs were issued, along with rulings on the regulation of pilgrimage to gravesites in strict accordance with the Hanafite rite. It was then that the publication of the Administration journal Islom nuri (Light of Islam) began, and a number of publishing houses specializing in religious literature (primarily of a popular nature) appeared.

The end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s was a rather difficult period in the history of SADUM. Even before the fall of the USSR, the kaziyats of the republics began to conduct their affairs independently, and by the end of 1991, the breakup of SADUM had become a fact. In addition to political factors, the breakup of SADUM was motivated by the growing cleavage within Islam (between the so-called “Wahhabists” and the “Traditionalists”). There are currently no relations between the Spiritual Administrations of the five Central Asian countries.

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