Date: Tue, 4 Nov 1997 09:40:07 LCL
Uzbek Muslim Branch Preaches Tolerance
By Stephen Kinzer, New York Times, 4 November 1997
BUKHARA, Uzbekistan -- From a tree-shaded campus a few miles outside this ancient capital, one of the world's largest Muslim orders seeks to radiate tolerance and peace throughout the world.
The Nakshbandi order, named after its 14th-century founder, preaches an all-embracing form of Islam that abhors sectarianism and orthodoxy. For several centuries, it was the state religion in this part of Central Asia, and today it claims 40 million adherents in dozens of countries.
Largely because of the order's roots here, Bukhara is a holy place in much of the Muslim world.
"When I was on my pilgrimage to Mecca," said Sharif Akmedov, a 48-year-old truck driver, "I met a group of people who asked me where I was from, and when I said, 'Bukhara,' there was all kinds of excitement." With evident pride, he added, "People were crowding around to meet someone from Nakshbandi's town."
The sage who founded the order, Khazreti Mohammed Bakhauddin Nakshbandi, was born in 1318, soon after a Sufi prophet passed through his village near Bukhara. Because the prophet had foreseen the imminent birth of a saint there, the boy was placed in the care of Sufi masters and spent his formative years absorbing their teachings.
Nakshbandi remained a Sufi all his life, and his order is considered part of the Sufi tradition, which represents the mystical branch of Islam. But in his mature years he abandoned and even reversed many traditional Sufi beliefs.
"Before Nakshbandi the Sufis were mainly ascetics dedicated to the contemplative life," said Israil Subhonov, director of the government-sponsored Center for Nakshbandi Research here.
"He believed something very different -- that work is the key to a good life," Subhonov said. "One of his principles was, 'Give your hands to work and your soul to God.' He believed that the best way to serve God is to have a good heart. If you have that, God will shine into the world through your heart."
The Nakshbandis do not seek temporal power, and the founder himself turned aside several invitations to join the court of the Mongol warrior Tamerlane. In the 1920s, however, several Nakshbandi leaders joined fierce revolts against Soviet rule in Central Asia. Partly as a result, the Soviet Union banned Nakshbandi activities and sought to crush the sect.
A visit to the Nakshbandi complex here shows how completely the effort failed. Pilgrims from across Uzbekistan and many foreign countries wander reverently among the buildings, tombs and monuments. There are many women, who are welcomed and allowed to pray in the central mosque.
On a recent afternoon, several dozen pilgrims sought enlightenment by walking in slow circles around the Stone of Desire, a black slab beneath which Nakshbandi is buried, and by kissing the walls of mosques nearby.
"They are ignorant people," said a religious teacher who was watching them. "According to our religion there is holiness only in God, not in any object on this earth. Unfortunately there are many people who don't understand this simple truth, but if they draw strength from doing these things, good for them."
Teachers and others who work at the center spend much of their time instructing pilgrims and tending to the order's administrative work. They pray and reflect regularly, but because theirs is not a contemplative order, their daily routine is not much different from that of other people.
The newest building at the complex is a museum, which the Government built after a celebration in 1993 to mark the 675th anniversary of Nakshbandi's birth. Turgut Ozal, who was president of Turkey until his death in 1993, identified closely with the order, contributing $45,000 to construction of the museum.
When the leader of the Nakshbandi order died last year, he had already named a successor. But in accordance with tradition, no one but the successor himself knows his identity. It may take years before he feels ready to reveal himself.
Until he does, the order is being directed by one of its most prominent members, Muhtor Abdullo Oghli. Dressed in a simple gray cloak and a white turban decorated with light strands of gold embroidery, he paused for a few minutes to give a group of visitors an impromptu lesson in Nakshbandi philosophy.
"Our movement is based on tolerance, cooperation and friendship," Muhtor began. "We respect all religions and beliefs. Even an atheist can be a perfect human being. What matters is what you do in this world."
"Once the Prophet Mohammed was sitting with his students when a funeral procession passed," the mullah continued. "The prophet stood up in respect, and one of the students asked, 'Why are you standing? That funeral is for a Jewish person.' He replied, 'Nevertheless, he was a human being.' "
The mullah told another story about Mohammed: "At one moment Islamic troops took a city and began killing the children, but the Prophet Mohammed stopped them. When they told him the people in this city were infidels, he reminded them that they themselves had all been infidels until recently."
"The Koran tells us not to force people to accept any religion," he added. "Allah authorized the Prophet Mohammed to spread the holy word, but not to put faith into people's souls. Only Allah Himself can do that."
Such beliefs have placed the Nakshbandis at odds with fundamentalists in many countries, and in some places their adepts have even been forced underground.
"There are people who have used Allah and the Muslim religion to pursue political goals," Muhtor said, with gentle disapproval. "Allah has never allowed such people to reach Paradise."
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company