Vol. 3    Issue 12   01-15 November 2008
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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
The Holy Quran A Pictorial Gallery
Muslim Minorities in Non-Islamic Milieus
Virtual Museum of Islamic Arts and Culture


Central Asia occupies an important place in the history of human civilization. About 2000 years ago the horse was domesticated for the first time in the steppes of Central Asia. A number of ancient caravan routes that linked China with the Near East and Europe—known as the Silk Road—crossed Central Asia from the third century BC to the 19th century AD. Kazakhstan’s ancient city Traz was located along the Silk Road. Archaeologists in Kazakhstan have discovered coins, statues, vases, textiles and other artefacts whose origins can be traced to India, Byzantium, Persia and China.

Islam reached Kazakhstan in the 10th century. The Mongol hordes overran Central Asia in the 13th century and Kazakhstan, like other states in the region, came under Mongol rule, which lasted for about two centuries. A nomadic Kazakh empire emerged in the 15th century.

Habitat and population

Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s largest and most prosperous state. It is the world’s largest land-locked country with an area of 2.7 million square kilometres, larger than that of the whole of Western Europe. Kazakhstan is the 9th largest country in the world and shares borders with Russia, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and China. The country’s terrain is conspicuously diverse, comprising lowlands, arid steppes, deltas, snow-capped mountains, deserts, valleys and shining cities. Winters are cold and summers hot. The temperature in winter often drops to minus 20 degrees Celsius, covering the ground in a thick blanket of ice and snow for months on end. Astana, a shining and flourishing modern city, is the country’s capital.

Kazakhstan’s population is 15.4 million. It has one of the lowest population densities in the world with just 14 people for every square kilometre. Kazakhstan’s population is heterogeneous, with the ethnic Kazakhs making up over half of the population. Ethnic Russians comprise about a quarter of the population. In addition, there are smaller minorities of Ukrainians, Germans, Chechens, Kurds and Koreans.


The Kazakhs are a Turkic-speaking hybrid ethnic group, which emerged out of intermarriages between Turkish and Mongol tribes in the 15th century. The world population of ethnic Kazakhs is around 14 million. Of these, about 8 million live in Kazakhstan, 1.7 million in other former republics of the Soviet Union and the remaining in other countries. Nearly 1.2 million Kazakhs live in China.

During the Soviet era, a large number of dissidents were exiled to penal labour camps (gulags) in Kazakhstan. Consequently, it has one of the most ethnically heterogeneous countries in the world, counting some 100 different ethnic groups.

Russian imperialism

The Russians began advancing into the Kazakh steppes in the 18th century and by the mid-19th century all of Kazakhstan had become a part of the Russian Empire. Curiously, substantial numbers of Kazakhs entered the fold of Islam during the Russian occupation of the country. The Russian czarina Catherine the Great invited Muslim scholars and Sufis from different parts of Central Asia to Kazakhstan in the hope that the conversion of the nomadic Kazakhs would bring stability to the region. Kazakhstan became a part of the Soviet Union in the early decades of the 20th century.

Russian imperialism had a devastating impact on Kazakh society. During the 1922 Civil War and the Soviet collectivization drive of 1929-34, approximately 3.3 million Kazakhs died and another 1.3 million were driven into exile, educing the population to about one-third of what it had been in 1916. In 1927 the Russian authorities systematically carried out a policy of forced settlement of ethnic Russians in steppe territories, as a result of which the percentage of Kazakhs in the region’s population fell from 75% in 1900 to about 30% in 1959. During the aggressive anti-religious campaign launched by the Soviet authorities, a large number of Kazakh religious leaders and functionaries were killed and scores of mosques and madrasas were closed down.

Between 1949 and 1989 the USSR tested more than 500 nuclear devices in north-eastern Kazakhstan—the equivalent of 20,000 Hiroshima bombs. Kazakhstan gained independence after 200 years of Russian domination in December 1991. After independence, Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up its nuclear arsenal—the only country in the world to do so.


Agriculture and livestock farming are the main occupations in the country. The northern region of Kazakhstan has fertile grasslands. In the former Soviet Union, almost 14% of farmland was located in Kazakhstan and one-fourth of the grain in the Soviet Union was produced here. Kazakhstan is the seventh largest producer of wheat in the world.

Kazakhstan has rich natural and mineral resources, especially fossil fuel reserves. It has some of the largest metal deposits in the world. Kazakhstan’s oil reserves are approximately 35 billion barrels, which are expected to rise to 100 billion barrels by 2015. The country’s major exports are oil, uranium, ferrous and non-ferrous metals, grain, chemicals, wool, meat and coal. According to World Bank estimates, Kazakhstan’s GDP per capita is $11,000.

There is extensive trade between Kazakhstan and China. Kazakhstan is Xinjiang’s largest trading partner. From 1990 to 1992 Kazakhstan’s imports from China rose from less than 4% to 44% of its total. About half of the trade between Kazakhstan and China is on a barter basis.

Trade relations between Kazakhstan and China have greatly expanded in recent years. During his 1994 visit to Central Asian states, the Chinese premier Li Peng said that China intended to build a “new Silk Road” in the region through massive investments which would surpass all other foreign investments. In 1996 Li Peng travelled to Kazakhstan to sign an exclusive agreement for Chinese rights to the Ozen oil field, the largest oil field in Kazakhstan and perhaps in the whole of Central Asia. An oil pipeline from Kazakhstan to China was opened in 2005. In 2009, China will finish work on a pipeline from Kazakhstan to Xinjiang, which will carry 400,000 barrels a day.

Since independence, there has been major foreign investment in the Caspian oil sector which has brought rapid economic growth. In 1993 the Kazakhstan government entered into a joint venture with the American oil giant Chevron. An oil pipeline linking the Tengiz oil field in western Kazakhstan to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiysk was opened in 2001. Multi-national corporations are playing an increasingly large role in the economies of Central Asia. In Kazakhstan foreign firms are estimated to control more than 60% of electric power output. In 2000, Kazakhstan became the first former Soviet republic to repay all of its debt to the International Monetary Fund, seven years ahead of schedule.

Despite the economic boom, poverty in the country remains widespread and Kazakhstan continues to face problems of unemployment and inflation. About 13.8 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line. Nomadism, with its fragile economic base and ubiquitous insecurity, is still a way of life for hundreds of thousands of Kazakhs.

Government and politics

Kazakhstan is a republic with a parliament. The republic’s constitution, which was adopted in January 1993, espouses secularism but guarantees freedom of religion. The constitution makes no mention of Islam as part of the state’s identity. Muslim feasts are not declared as national holidays.

Nursultan Nazarbayev, Kazakhstan’s president, came to power in 1989 as secretary of the communist party of Kazakhstan and was elected president the following year. He was re-elected president after independence. Elections in December 2005 returned him for a fourth seven-year term. Nazarbayev, a self-proclaimed atheist, rules the country with an iron hand, suppressing political freedom and with a state-controlled media. Several opposition leaders and journalists have been killed in recent years.

Islamic resurgence

Muslim scholars and Sufis have left a deep and enduring imprint on Kazakhstan’s religious and cultural life. The Mongol onslaught in the 13th century, the Russian conquests from the 16th to the 19th centuries and Soviet tyranny failed to undermine the religious identity of the Kazakhs. In 1960 there were 10,500 madrasas in Kazakhstan with 2 million students.

Like other states in Central Asia, Kazakhstan has witnessed a wave of Islamic resurgence in recent years. Several mosques, which were closed down during the Soviet era, have reopened and new mosques and scores of madrasas have been built. Unfortunately, there is a yawning gap between the Kazakh people’s Islamic identity and aspirations and the secular pretensions of the political elite.

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