AbstractsWomens Studies

Toward a Sacred Topography of Central Asia: Shrines, Pilgrimage, and Gender in Kyrgyzstan

by Jennifer Rose Webster

Institution: University of Washington
Degree: PhD
Year: 2015
Keywords: Central Asia; Islam; Kyrgyz; Pilgrimage; Shrine; Women; History
Record ID: 2062151
Full text PDF: http://hdl.handle.net/1773/33189


This dissertation explores the complex relationship that people have with shrines in southern Kyrgyzstan from the 1950s to the present. In particular, I look at how people, especially women, identify themselves as Muslims and how their religious beliefs and practices associated with shrines and pilgrimage have evolved in response to political, social, and cultural influences in the dynamic region of Central Asia. During both the Soviet and post-Soviet eras, there has been ongoing change in how different members of Kyrgyz society have sought to demarcate Islam. Through an interdisciplinary approach that combines ethnographic and historic methodologies, I examine these contested negotiations and definitions of religious identities. The integration of a diverse range of sources – interviews, observations, administrative reports, newspaper articles, travel accounts, legends, and photographs – brings to light both individual and group perceptions of the central role of shrines to Islam as it is practiced in Kyrgyzstan. My analysis reveals how seventy years of Soviet rule did, and did not, disrupt rhythms of shrine veneration through attempts to redefine the cultural and economic functions of shrines. Through a series of four case studies, I investigate key themes associated with shrines: ethnicity, legends, gender, and health. The shrines of southern Kyrgyzstan are places that invite a multi-national and multi-ethnic base of pilgrims; however, recent attempts to limit pilgrims and visitors to those who regard themselves as Kyrgyz have had significant effects on certain shrines, like Sulaiman Too in Osh. Legends allow people to negotiate their community's relationship with the historic and imagined past, thereby allowing them to transform the mundane, such as through the legends of Arslanbob Ata. Shrines are key sites for women to express themselves as Muslims through ritual and requests. Many shrines, such as Safed Bulan in Jalalabad oblast, have spaces that are directly intended for female pilgrims. Health and healing are vital aspects of shrines in Central Asia both in terms of the miracles associated with shrines and the power that is believed to transfer between shrines and indigenous healers. The shrine of Hazrati Ayub, which is located on the grounds of the Jalalabad sanatorium, represents a shrine that is both well-known for its healing capacity and for its appeal to non-indigenous biomedical practitioners. By drawing comparisons between these shrines and other shrines from neighboring regions, I illustrate the intricacies of shrine practices in southern Kyrgyzstan and their pivotal role in ongoing debates about the proper place and definition of Islam in Central Asia. Furthermore, I demonstrate the connection between contemporary practices of Islam and those during the Soviet, and more distant, pasts.