A Discussion with Abdurakhim Nazarov, Imam Khatib, Umar Ibni Abdulaziz Mosque, Tajikistan

With: Abdurakhim Nazarov

December 18, 2010

Background: This discussion is background for a consultation on faith and development in South and Central Asia in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on January 10-11, 2011. The interview was by telephone between Michael Bodakowski and Abdurakhim Nazarov; Tajik-English interpretation was provided by Manizha Haitova. In this conversation, Imam Khatib Nazarov discusses his role as a Muslim leader engaged in social welfare programming in Tajikistan. He describes programs on HIV/AIDS prevention, imam training, and how Muslim teachings inform his dissemination of social welfare information. Low education levels is a challenge that hinders active involvement of imams in development programming; however, he argues that given the influential position held by imams in society, the effort is nonetheless worthwhile. He discusses relationships between government and religious institutions and the revival of Islamic education post-USSR. He describes gender challenges in Tajikistan as largely shaped by cultural tradition, not religious teachings.

How did you come to the position you are in today?

I was born in 1964 in Tajikistan, into a very religious family where my parents educated me on the importance of religion. After I graduated from high school, I attended the Tajik National University and studied the history of Eastern Countries. During the Soviet period, there were not many Islamic Institutes, so I could not learn about Islam and religion. Thus, when I was young, I was not taught about Islam through formal schooling; my first teacher was my grandfather and my first education in Islam was through the family. Many years later, I was taught by some very famous theologians in Tajikistan, including Mahdumi Ahmed, Cedric Rakmon and others.

In the Soviet period there were barriers to receiving Islamic education. Special Agents and the KGB were always watching our actions, so I tried to do my work without being detected. In the district where I live now, in Dushanbe, in each family there were at least one or two students who were educated in private. We tried to join together and collect people to study Islamic education, even though we were all afraid of the government. Given the security concerns and secrecy, it was very difficult to maintain a sense of structure and cohesiveness in the community.

After graduation from university, I spent two years in Afghanistan with the military. After returning to Tajikistan, I was involved in small business training. I continued my Islamic education, and also became a teacher and eventually an Islamic leader. I have had the fortune of having many followers, and an additional 25 to 30 people have also become religious leaders after following my instruction. I taught Islamic education in Dushanbe where there are facilities for religious education. The main topics of our educational curriculum were related to the Hadith and Islamic law. I provided higher education to religious leaders.

In 2004, I became an imam at “Umar Ibni Abdulaziz” mosque, one of the biggest mosques in the city of Dushanbe. Until last year, I was also a teacher at the Islamic University. This year I have had a lot of work with both responsibilities, so I stopped teaching. Now I just continue my work as an imam. I have a family, a wife and three children.

What roles do imams play today in development work in Tajikistan?

Looking at my mosque specifically, it is located in a central area of Dushanbe. Before, it was quite a small congregation, and we only had a few regular parishioners. Now, it is one of the biggest mosques in Dushanbe. We provide informational sessions on social issues, including on HIV, to our parishioners; most people that come to our mosque are very well educated including doctors and teachers. That is one of the characteristics of our mosque.

In addition to speaking to my parishioners, I started my activities with the Center on Mental Health and HIV/AIDS three years ago, with the goal of providing training on HIV related issues to imam khatibs from different parts of Tajikistan (khatib refers to one that delivers a prayer service). We provide five day training sessions which include mostly scientific facts, as well as information from Islamic teachings on prevention, treatment, care, and support for HIV. It is also an opportunity for the group to network with imam khatibs working on similar issues.

Generally, it is easy to educate and teach people about HIV prevention, though it has at times proven difficult to keep the imam khatibs together, to adapt information to for their needs, and to find role models for them to follow.

For the past two years, the Center, with my assistance, monitors the imam khatibs and evaluates their progress. As a result of the training sessions, the imam khatibs have started to connect with HIV infected people. We see that people are beginning to change their attitudes about HIV. Religion is very important in changing attitudes. There are a number of educational TV programs on HIV/AIDS issues, but the people in Tajikistan also look to the religious community and leaders for guidance; so, it is important for imam khatibs to engage in HIV prevention work. I have been very moved from my involvement in the program; I can see real change developing in our society. We must continue to invite the imam khatibs into social life.

How do you provide information from a Muslim viewpoint?

We try to integrate examples from our lives and examples from the life of the Holy Prophet, peace be upon him. We teach that the first people on our planet were Adam and Eve, and that all diseases are tests for people in the world. We also provide the parishioners with examples from the life of the Prophet, peace be upon him, and teach how during his life, the Prophet made it a point to learn from different people and different points of view. Specifically, as an example, I provide information from the Hadith; the Prophet said: "Feed the hungry, visit the patient and help the suffering." Visiting the sick teaches many important values, including the fact that he [the patient] is not alone in their suffering and sorrow, because he has loving brothers, friends, relatives, and neighbors to help him through his pain and suffering. Visiting a patient means that he is not forgotten. Visiting a patient means that he is still an active member of society, and that society is waiting for his recovery to continue his role in life. In visiting the sick, we have a reminder of the Creator and our constant need of Him.

Many think that HIV/AIDS is only communicable through intravenous drug usage or through sex workers etc; migrants and children with the disease also carry a stigma. I teach that we can learn from the life of the Prophet. In addition, I provide statistical and scientific information as well as relevant sources from the history of Islamic society.

One thing I have learned from my involvement in these programs is that if we want to provide imams with information and knowledge on a sensitive topic, we need to invite very competent and prestigious leaders that have authority among the population, including religious leaders, who know Islam well and can communicate clearly and articulately. It is not in our tradition to speak openly on these topics.

When we conducted our trainings at the Center, we tried to invite famous religious leaders who have influence among the general public. An example is Imam Khoji Mirzo, who is famous in Tajikistan. When he provides information on HIV, people listen to and accept the information because of his status in the community. Another example is from Dushanbe is Saidov Abdulbasir, who was also a participant in our program. When he provided information in a mosque in Dushanbe, his lecture was recorded and distributed all over Tajikistan, and had very good results. I want to emphasize that the authority of religious leaders plays a strong role in the dissemination of information to the general public.

We also need leaders involved in HIV prevention and social development activities to have a secular/scientific education, not just a religious education. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, education for Islamic leaders has been limited. Imam khatibs have only received religious education, and very little education in secular subjects including mathematics and science. Last year I traveled to America for a program sponsored by the American Embassy in Tajikistan to exchange ideas and engage with American religious communities. We were invited to see religious institutions in six different states. While I was there I had a meeting with an Afghan man who was a translator and an interpreter. I spoke about my knowledge of American history, and my colleagues and partners were surprised that a religious leader would know information about American history. Sometimes people are surprised to find out that I have not only been trained in Islamic education, but also have a secular education from the university.

How did you learn about the imam khatib training program, and how did you first become involved in development work?

As I mentioned, participants of our mosque are mainly intellectuals—doctors, teachers, and social workers from different organizations. One of the members of our mosque is a staff member from the Center of Mental Health and HIV/AIDS. One day he described the program that he operates and we spoke about the discrimination faced by people living with HIV in Tajikistan. He suggested that we should inform our congregations and provide information to the greater population, conveying the correct attitude that people should have. I was invited to participate as a trainer for this program.

The program has two different parts. First, there is information that is transmitted to the general public through the work of Muslim religious leaders. Second, there is the care and support that we provide for people living with HIV/AIDS.

Following the success of the program, the Global Fund to Fights AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria approached us to involve religious leaders in another project as well.

How is the Global Fund project organized?

I was not involved in the project directly, but the Global Fund and CAPP (Central Asia Prevention Program) has started to use our model of HIV/AIDS prevention involving the participation of religious leaders. One month ago, however, I participated in one of the Global Fund training seminars. The other participants were young religious leaders.

Are there challenges to engaging religious leaders in development?

Because of the nature of development work, it is important that the information is spread to as wide an audience as possible; we need to make civic education a priority. There are some religious leaders, however, who do not want to talk about the issues. Some of the leaders are not educated themselves and they do not see the intellectual and social benefits of conversations on social issues.

What are your interactions with government?

Of course, we interact with the government on some level. Every mosque is under the control/supervision of the government; the government, however, does not directly supervise my sermons and my teachings. All of my speeches are based on the knowledge I got through my training, but the Ministry of Education and Health approves the content of the training program. A memorandum of understanding with the ministry included all the content that would be included in the trainings.

In 2011, the government will start to distribute prepared sermons to imam khatibs, including on development issues. As of now, the government has prepared 52 sermons to address development issues, but how they work in practice is yet to be seen. Until now, I have written my own speeches and sermons.

What about gender issues in the country?

Regarding gender, in Sharia law, women are treated in an equal way to men, but some Muslims do not follow the true rules of Sharia. We have three sides in this country that complicate issues of gender. First we have the Constitution which says that men and women are guaranteed equal rights. Second we have traditional rules; most problems come from customs that are not necessarily “Muslim,” but rather cultural traditions. Third, we have Islamic law, or Sharia, which teaches gender equality.

As an example, when a woman gets married and goes to her husband’s house, it is not necessary that the woman has to be a house keeper, according to Islamic law. Our population, however, does not accept this. For Central Asian people, the women should be a house keeper and that is all. However, this is more closely related to traditional cultural teachings, and not Islamic or Sharia law. In our information sessions in the mosque, we are starting to teach that women also have equal rights in Islam. There are many more examples than the one I just cited.

What about the role of education and faith-inspired actors in the country?

Looking at Islamic education—Islamic madrasas reappeared after the destruction of the USSR. There are also modern Islamic Institutes that started in 2006. Before 2006, Islamic education was integrated with science and secular subjects. Since 2006, The Islamic Institute of Tajikistan has begun to integrate a new model of Islamic education, separating the religious and secular spheres. In Islamic education in Tajikistan, the quantity of education varies, and sometimes, students have to seek additional Islamic instruction from teachers; sometimes this is in the open, sometimes in secret. Also, as I said, some religious leaders are not educated outside of the Islamic context.

In general, we have good universities. The Medical University of Tajikistan, prepares good specialists. Also the national university of Tajikistan is well known for its faculty of Oriental Studies; during the Soviet period it was the best department. But now, the level of education in the University has decreased; I am not sure why exactly, but we have seen decreasing ability of our teachers themselves.

Are there madrasas outside of the capital?

We have higher Islamic education in Dushanbe. There are not any madrasas in rural areas. Earlier there were some groups, but after the new law in 2009 on religious movements in Tajikistan, these groups were destroyed. Now, there are only two madrasas in Dunshanbe that teach middle school and high school level education.

Do some madrasas continue to function unofficially?

There are some Muslim groups, but not madrasas that work unofficially.

What about conflict and peacebuilding? To what level are faith actors involved, in what way, and would you say they have been successful?

One important point that I would like to make is that all the people in the world are part of one home. The world is one large house where we all live together. Right now, as we are having this discussion, I am here in my house, and you are in America in your house, but we are in connected together in one room. Information spreads very fast in our society and in our world. We have a fast changing world. That said, conflict in some places in the world has a tremendous amount of influence on other regions and countries.

Regarding conflict and conflict resolution in Tajikistan, an important point is that all people believe in their religious leaders. They look to their religious leaders for various types of guidance. Therefore, religious leaders have the ability to reach the community; they are held in high regard. Things are improving because the religious leaders are more educated and they can explain sensitive issues to people using both the scientific and the religious perspective. So, I think that religious leaders can play an important role in conflict resolution, though in general, I think they need to be more active.

Do you have any specific examples of how religious leaders are engaged in peacebuilding work?

There are hundreds of examples. One example is from the Rasht district where there was serious conflict between two villages over the distribution of water. It was a serious issue because many people were involved, including high level authority figures; there were several misunderstandings.

One day, the religious leaders in this village approached those involved in the dispute and were able to solve the problem. Everyone wondered how an old man who [an imam khatib] was not famous was able to solve the issues in this village. This is because old religious leaders are very close to the community and they have been involved with the families there for many years. Speaking about myself as an imam khatib, when I was a child, I used to sing songs with the children from my community, and I was with them during the happy days and the bad days. That is why the people understand me and they listen to what I have to say; I am intimately connected to the family and the community. There are many other similar examples of local conflicts being solved by religious leaders.

What networks do you belong to or do you know of and how are these helpful? What organizations do you collaborate with?

We have the Imams Unity group which gathers together to discuss mutual problems and challenges we face in our development work. We meet quite regularly but it depends on the problems we are facing. Sometimes, if a special problem arises, we meet on an urgent basis, but mostly we meet once or twice a month.

What kinds of issues do you think should be addressed during the Dhaka consultation? What are the most important gaps in knowledge at the intersection of faith and development?

I am interested to see if other countries are facing similar development challenges, particularly on gender inequality. Are the issues the same as in Tajikistan? Sometimes we see our women as slaves and house-keepers and I wonder if it is the same in other Islamic countries. Second, I am curious to see what other methods Muslim leaders are engaging in to provide information to their community and what results these programs are yielding. I also want to learn about attitudes in secular countries towards Muslims, Christians and other religious people.

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