by Eren Tasar, Associate Professor, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

During one mild winter in the early 2000s, when I was living in Uzbekistan, I befriended Patrick Hatcher, a historian who was doing his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago on the Qarakhanids. We decided to make a tour of Qashqadaryo province: He wished to visits the tombs of some of the saints whose writings he was studying, and I wanted to observe shrine pilgrimage. Our travels took us to one of the most out-of-the-way holy places I’ve ever visited, the Katta Langar shrine and mosque, located in the mountainous Qamashi district. There are conflicting reports about who is actually buried there, but scholars attribute the structure to the Timurids. I remember well the shaykh’s touching hospitality and his surprise that visitors had made it to his isolated village. I remember also how, over tea and honeyed almonds, he recounted that even Katta Langar had not remained untouched by Soviet antireligious repression. (For better or worse, the village’s seclusion is a thing of the past: Katta Langar is now an offbeat tourist destination, in large part because of a 2019 documentary from the BBC Uzbek Service concerning the eighth-century Qur’an once associated with the town, various portions of which were confiscated by Tsarist and Soviet authorities, and which are now either lost or housed in collections from St. Petersburg to Tashkent.) Unfortunately, beyond the steep climb one had to undertake to get to the shrine, and the sense of absolute quiet and serenity pervading the place as the sun started to set, I don’t remember much else.

Imagine my delight, then, nearly ten years later, to stumble upon a reference to the shrine while working in the archival collections of the Council for the Affairs of Religious Cults (CARC). Created during World War II, this bureaucracy was responsible for managing the affairs of all officially recognized religious institutions other than the Russian Orthodox Church. Unsurprisingly, its writ came to include exhaustive reporting on “unofficial” religious life as well; this became especially important during periods of heightened sensitivity about religion, such as the early 1960s and early 1980s.  

I encountered the following brief account in a compilation of all too succinct reports on shrines in the province prepared during Khrushchev’s antireligious campaign. Dating from 1965, the reports starts by relating that the mosque

started functioning more than 500 years ago. It sits at the foot of a hill. At present it is used as storage for the collective farm. In 1961 the mausoleum and gatehouse were renovated, plastered, painted and embellished with simple stencil. Playing an active role in this work were local residents Burkhan-Bobo, an Afghan national who died in 1963; the former basmach Nadyrov Nuzrulla, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 1946 for anti-Soviet activity; and the priest-akhun Altyev Khudainazar. It was they who hoisted three green flags wrapped in Chinese silk blankets with the image of a sword, a spear, and a human palm. And they wrapped the gravestones within the mausoleum in cotton fabric. Each gravestone was wrapped in 20 meters of fabric. In the conversation that took place with Altyev on June 24, 1965, the latter asserted that the images on the flags represent instruments of punishment against the people for leaving Islam. After explaining to the believers the hostile content of the “emblems” and the flags’ color [green, the color of Islam], they removed them from the mausoleum and unwrapped the gravestones. 

By dint of its economy (though this report is the longest in the file) and structure, this account differs little from thousands of others sprinkled across the archival collections of CARC’s provincial representatives in the Soviet Union. It commences with a bareboned description of the locale, references whatever misdeed(s) might be taking place there, and lists the perpetrators involved. Unlike many similar reports from the immediate postwar decades, and the Brezhnev era, it concludes with an obligatory reference to the actions taken by the reporting official to enforce compliance (in this case, convincing the believers to take down the flags and fabric). In content the report marks a substantial departure from the tenor of reports from the 1940s and 1950s, which I have analyzed in detail elsewhere. Many CARC documents from the immediate postwar decades evince an ethnographic sensitivity, curiosity, and ambience of joyous chaos that I surmise reflects the late Stalin and early Khrushchev government’s disinterest in religion and outright neglect of Islam. By contrast, this report’s author distills the scene before him into the most economical, predictable, and uninspiring formulae, despite its intrinsic interest.

Yet despite its formal structure and the author’s evident disinterest in providing a comprehensive panorama of the backdrop to the events he describes, historians can harness the reporter’s biases to extract insight about the time and setting. For example, the author is clearly taking a cue from Khrushchev’s (and Stalin’s) playbook in highlighting the religious figures’ foreign origins: One is an Afghan, while the second, Nuzrulla, is alleged to have been a resistance fighter (basmachi). We might surmise that the reason for mentioning his prison sentence has less to do with any real culpability--since a bona fide basmachi would have been executed--than to hint that Nuzrulla might have fallen under foreign influence. Most importantly, the reference to Chinese silk gestures to the migration of well over one hundred thousand Muslims from Xinjiang during the Great Leap Forward, a piece of context that the author most certainly would have incorporated into his text in earlier decades to showcase his political acumen, if nothing else. Somebody brought the silk from China. All this suggests that, even as the dust from Khrushchev’s antireligious campaign slowly settled, an isolated shrine (whose remoteness I can personally confirm!) represented a “transnational” nexus of sacred space that registered on the unwritten radar screen of pilgrims from across Central Asia.   

More difficult to gauge is the significance of the images on the flags: a sword, a spear, and a palm. Their inclusion in the report may be an alarmist fabrication: in the early 1960s, as Dr. Paolo Sartori reminds me, at the height of decolonization, flags with swords were associated with political Islam. On the other hand, when I shared this document with him, Sartori also noted that the sword appears frequently in prayer amulets, and that, moreover, the association of the human palm with Fatima’s hand in amulets and talismans lends credibility to the account.

Whatever their import, the Soviet part of the story is that the bureaucrat’s version doesn’t add up: Why would Altyev confide in a CARC official that he and his colleagues had hoisted the flags to punish apostates and/or munafiqin? And in the more plausible scenario that the author came to this shrine in the guise of a pilgrim, why would his incognito visit precipitate the flags’ removal? Though we can’t be sure what is being embellished, for my money it is the author’s assertion about “instruments of punishment” again people who had left Islam. A minor shrine such as Katta Langar was hardly a hotbed of atheistic activism, any more than it is a focus of propaganda today.

Of course, one can never be sure. Perhaps defiant displays of resistance to atheism could be found only well off the beaten path in Khrushchev’s Soviet Union. Whatever the truth of the matter, one thing seems clear: CARC files easily rival Soviet ethnographic accounts for the quality of information about the social (and empirical) history of Islam. The analysis of these two bodies of source material has barely commenced. Let the work begin!