| Education

Kazakhstani mosques teach religious literacy

By Alexander Bogatik


Aksakals undergo training in a mosque in Astana August 23. [Saduakas Gylmani Mosque photo obtained by Alexander Bogatik]

Aksakals undergo training in a mosque in Astana August 23. [Saduakas Gylmani Mosque photo obtained by Alexander Bogatik]

ASTANA -- Religious literacy classes are under way in all of the country's mosques, the Spiritual Administration for the Muslims of Kazakhstan (DUMK) reported.

The effort comes as hundreds of radicalised Kazakhstanis fight alongside militants in Syria and Iraq.

"The same programme is running in North Kazakhstan Province too," Gulmira Beisenbina, an analyst at the North Kazakhstan Province (NKP) Administration for Religious Affairs, told Caravanserai. "Our central mosque [in Petropavlovsk] teaches classes for adults and youth."

Classes for both men and women are taking place, Aziz Jumagaliyeva, spokeswoman for the KazakhStan for Peace youth movement and chief of the NKP Administration for Religious Affairs Centre for Analysis and Development of Inter-Faith Relations, told Caravanserai.

"Muslims who attend such courses have the opportunity to learn about religion from a trusted source and develop an immunity to radicalism," she added. "It's better to prevent misconceptions about religion than to deal with the consequences."

In Kostanay city, Muslims may take a two-month-long course of study that culminates in a certificate.

"The lessons take place at a local mosque in the 9th microdistrict," a source from the Akmeshit (White) Mosque in Kostanay, told Caravanserai.

After participants graduate, "they assemble a new group of students", he said.

Fifty residents of Kostanay graduated in late September.

"Everyone who completes this course becomes another one of our helpers in the fight against terrorism and extremism," Imam Shokan haji Amirkhanov of the city mosque in Kostanay said recently on Alau-TV, the local TV station.

Teaching young and old alike

The majority of students are young, but older attendees have courses of their own.

The focus on de-radicalising younger Kazakhstanis is no accident, given how young adults are the likeliest to become extremists and terrorists.

Only a tenth of suspected extremists arrested in Kazakhstan are older than 40, according to the government.

"Lectures and conversations touch on a broad swath of issues -- religious, moral and behavioural," Januzak Turdaliyev, who completed the course in Zhambyl, told Caravanserai. "After all, students don't fully understand many sides of issues. Doubts or contradictions can arise. It's good that we're getting answers from the official clergy in mosques."

News about terrorist attacks and arrests in Kazakhstan, including the deadly attacks in Aktobe and in Almaty in June and July, dismays him, Turdaliyev said.

"It's very painful ... that these criminals fuse Islam and crime into a single whole," he saaid. "Islam is a religion of virtue and compassion."

The number of young Kazakhstanis attending mosque has grown sharply in recent years, Bolat, an elderly resident of Taraz who withheld his last name, told Caravanserai.

"It's good that people are drawn to Allah," he said. "But it's bad if Islam is an empty phrase ... or worse, if they misunderstand it and become terrorists."

Meanwhile, an Astana mosque is hosting six-month-long religious literacy courses for aksakals (community elders). Chief Imam Jumanazar Sadyrkhanov of Saduakas Gylmani Mosque leads the courses for elders.

At the end of the year, the current batch of attendees is expected to receive certificates.

New books for Muslims

Dedicated literature is available for Kazakhstanis who attend the religious courses.

In July, DUMK commissioned the book Gibadat (Worship) for entry-level religious literacy courses. The author is Pavlodar imam Khasan Amankulov. The book explains basics of Islam and challenges that Muslims face in daily life.

One way to improve outreach would be for instructors and imams to lecture and publish in Russian, Taraz theologian Sanjar Suleimenov told Caravanserai.

"Many arrested extremists in Kazakhstan can't speak Kazakh," he said. "They attended mosques but didn't understand the sermons. Religious knowledge needs to be accessible in Russian."

Imams improve own skills

In order to better work with Muslims, imams are deepening their knowledge of religion and learning the art of rhetoric.

Imams are studying at seminars and also at the DUMK Islamic Institute for Continuing Education for Imams in Almaty.

"The institute's teachers are .. professors, Al-Azhar University (Egypt) alumni and instructors with advanced degrees from religious universities in Bukhara and Tashkent," Kenjeali Konyratbayuly, director of the institute, said in an October 20 meeting in Astana with Supreme Mufti Yerjan haji Malgajuly Mayamerov, according to muftiyat.kz.

The courses last two months, he added.

A seminar for imams titled "The Identity of an Imam" took place October 7-10 in Kostanay. During the event, participants explored how to work with Muslims, focusing on the importance of working with youth and women.

Similar educational events are taking place all across Kazakhstan.

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