Uzbeks make a stan on diversity

Headshot of Stephen Scourfield
Stephen ScourfieldThe West Australian
Uzbekistan is mostly Muslim but is home to scores of different nationalities.
Camera IconUzbekistan is mostly Muslim but is home to scores of different nationalities. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

Of all the countries that are home to the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims, the oldest Koran in the world lives here in Uzbekistan, which many consider the most secular Islamic country.

In an unimposing new Library of Spiritual Administration in the oldest part of Tashkent, a city of 350 sunny days a year, this Koran written by Othman, the third caliph (Muslim leader) between AD644 and AD646, not much more than a decade after Muhammad’s death, lies open for all to see.

Yes, here off Khast Imom Square, in an area dating to the 16th century, I am standing before the oldest Koran in the world, and so, right next to me, are a couple of girls in singlets and short Western skirts, with uncovered heads. A couple of chaps in shorts and sandals join us. “So that’s it, then,” one says.

Yes, that’s it, and the symbolism of this moment is enormous.

Wide streets and green parks are a hallmark of Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Camera IconWide streets and green parks are a hallmark of Tashkent, Uzbekistan. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

Uzbekistan may sound strange, faraway, unknown, and uncomfortably too close to Afghanistan, and yet it shows us what a secular Islamist country looks like.

Some roots of that lie in the Jadids movement in the early 20th century. The Jadids not only bravely and skilfully confronted the Soviets for the way they were using the area for mining and agriculture while neglecting the people, but then set out to reshape Islamic thinking, embracing technology, education and women’s rights.

The Jadids also focused on Islam, seeing in it nationalism as much as religion and putting in the footings of this progressive, socially inclusive, secular Muslim nation.

Indeed, I sit in the library with the world’s oldest Koran, with its 338 pages of buckskin, and consider these things as people come and go. More bareheaded women; lighthearted children; thoughtful men.

Local women in Uzbek dress in the old part of Tashkent.
Camera IconLocal women in Uzbek dress in the old part of Tashkent. Credit: The West Australian

There are no clothing rules here, in a country that is 80 per cent Muslim but home to some 65 nationalities.

Uzbekistan is a place used to challenge and change. It is used to shock waves of all sorts. In the 6th century BC, people here practised Zoroastrianism (a good thought, good word, good deed each day). They converted to Buddhism, then to Islam in the 7th century, to Sufism in the 8th century and the city was destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1219. It rose under Emir Temur, still considered by many “the father of the nation”, in the 14th century. It was taken over by Tsarist Russia in 1865, and became a Soviet republic after the Russian Revolution of 1917. In World War II, 1.5 million men fought the nazis and half a million did not return.

After the Soviet collapse of 1991, Uzbekistan became independent.

That moment in 1991 cannot be underestimated — it was the loss of the only way of life they knew.

But these are indeed a resourceful people. Take the example of their language.

The Uzbek language was founded in the 16th century, using the Arabic language. After it was conquered by the Russian empire in 1865, and through the Tsarist and Soviet eras to 1991, Russian was the official language, written in the Cyrillic alphabet. With independence, Uzbek became the official language again. There was the choice of alphabet to use — Arabic, Cyrillic or Latin.

Today, Uzbek is written with the Latin alphabet but many Uzbek signs in Tashkent are in Cyrillic, as this was the native alphabet for so long here. Oh, and young people increasingly speak English.

These are an adaptable and resourceful people, used to tremors.

Memorial to the Tashkent earthquake of 1966 at the epicentre.
Camera IconMemorial to the Tashkent earthquake of 1966 at the epicentre. Credit: Stephen Scourfield/The West Australian

For though Tashkent’s history may date back 2200 years, and it may have been one of the important trading points on the Great Silk Road between Asia and Europe, the modern city as we see it today had a distinctive moment of birth.

The earthquake came in the early hours, shaking the city while most people were still in their homes. Some say 200,000 were left homeless; some say 300,000.

Some say the earthquake in the city of Tashkent in April 1966 measured as much as nine on the Richter scale, some eight, but 7.5 with aftershocks seems to be the most reliable record.

Many of the homes were mud and straw but their roofs perched separately on a sort of scaffold, which helped.

These are a resourceful people and Tashkent, a city of just over two million people, is one of the most pleasant cities in which to spend time, and watch people with a mix mostly of Muslim and Russian histories, focused on being purely Uzbek.

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