The popularity of Islamic leaders in Uzbekistan is growing. With the rise of the internet and relative freedom of speech, imams and preachers are regaining influence they had lost – first to Soviet atheism and later, to former President Islam Karimov’s hard line against Islam. These religious leaders have established a presence on various online platforms and social media, amassing millions of followers. Some are even engaging in political discourse, crossing a line that was once strictly forbidden.
At first glance, Tashkent’s new approach toward religious freedom may seem irrational from the perspective of regime stability. Allowing Islamic leaders to gain influence in a country where 94 percent of the population professes Islam could be perceived as a threat to the secular government’s hold on power. However, with the rise of the internet and increased openness in Uzbekistan since 2016, banning Islam-related online content could prove even more destabilizing.
When Central Asia was occupied first by the Orthodox Russian Empire and later by the atheist Soviet Union, Moscow could not fully eliminate Islam in the region. Muslim clerics always posed a challenge to Russian/Soviet power. In an attempt to exert control over imams, Moscow established the Central Asian Muslim Spiritual Board (SADUM) in 1943. Under this arrangement, religious leaders pledged loyalty to the government in exchange for local control over everyday Islamic life.
This negotiated power balance is still very much in practice.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Tashkent, along with other Central Asian republics, recognized an opportunity to reinforce civic nationalism and national identity through Islam. As a cultural heritage, Islam served two purposes: to legitimize power and to unite the nation by de-Sovietizing the population. Although the Soviet regime of the 1980s had permitted “cultural Islam,” and the newly independent Central Asian republics possessed a ready-made collective identity, further efforts were made to unite diverse populations and build a more cohesive national identity through Islam. This was achieved by drawing on the deep history of Islam in the region and its enduring public attachment. In this sense, Islam served as an identity marker that predated the Soviet period.
Karimov spoke about Islam in his first inauguration speech and is even said to have held the Quran in one hand and the newly adopted constitution in the other. However, as Islamic radicalization increased in the region, stringent measures were implemented to regulate religious practices.
Despite imposing strict restrictions on religious practices, Karimov permitted certain imams to operate under his conditions. The most prominent among them was the late Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, widely referred to as “the sheikh.” He left Uzbekistan in the early 1990s due to growing pressure but returned in 2001. Although Muhammad Sodiq attributed his return to the desire of Uzbekistan’s Muslims for his presence, Tashkent also benefited from his cooperation. As a grand scholar, he stood against Islamic radicalism and educated people on moderate Islam while avoiding politics. This was during a time when neighboring Afghanistan, where the Taliban had just been dislodged from power, was embroiled in an insurgency and war that would last 20 years, and later when thousands of Uzbeks were joining the Islamic State and other radical Islamic groups.
In his later years, Muhammad Sodiq devoted himself to teaching moderate Islam in Uzbekistan and beyond through extensive writings, an online presence, and media materials. His immense popularity and legitimacy were such that, apart from Karimov, he was the only person whose death was mourned by hundreds of thousands of people crowding the streets of Tashkent.
The transfer of power from Karimov to Shavkat Mirziyoyev coincided with the widespread adoption of the internet in Uzbekistan. By 2022, the number of internet users had risen to over 31 million (up from 12 million in 2016). Over 10 million people actively used social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. As the number of internet users increased, so did the presence of imams on online platforms.
Recognizing the impossibility of maintaining strict control over religious interests, the new leadership in Uzbekistan adopted a strategy of co-opting religious institutions rather than opposing them. Between 2017 and 2021, employees of the country’s formal religious system launched 58 websites, 166 Telegram channels, 200 Facebook pages, and 21 YouTube channels, attracting thousands of followers. The most popular Islamic YouTube channel, AzonTV, for example, had 1.2 million subscribers before they rebranded as Fikrat and deleted their religious content this August, for reasons yet to be disclosed.
However, the popularity of these religious figures is tied to their legitimacy, which is derived from their formal positions within government-affiliated religious institutions. Tashkent controls the appointment of main imams and regulates the content and volume of religious sermons, print materials, and other media in the name of preventing Islamic radicalization, terrorism, and extremism.
The selection of imams typically favors moderate clerics with formal education in Uzbekistan. For example, all chairmen of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, from Ishan Babakhan ibn Abdulmajidkhan, who held the position of mufti of SADUM in 1943-1957, to Muhammad Sodiq Muhammad Yusuf, who was the mufti during the transition years (1989-1993), to mufti Usmakhan Alimov, had their first formal education in Uzbekistan – mostly in the Mir-i-Arab madarasa in Bukhara and Tashkent Islamic Institute – and then went to study abroad. The current chairman, Nuriddin Kholiknazarov, is also famed for his moderation. He is known as the “imam of compromise.”
In other words, it is difficult in today’s Uzbekistan for anyone to gain the trust of thousands without being affiliated with a formal, governmental religious institution in the country. Without a license and support from state-affiliated institutions, it is impossible.
In 2018, the Ministry of Justice of Uzbekistan listed 40 online profiles, YouTube and Telegram channels, social media accounts, and web pages as “extremist and terrorist.” This list has since grown to 198 entries. For the past year, arrests over spreading religious content that is found extremist by the committee, even nasheeds, religious songs, have relatively increased. People are cautious about who to listen to and whose preaching they follow for security reasons and the safest option is always imams with an affiliation to formal institutions.
Local imams rarely organize sermons or gatherings with locals or speak live on online platforms on their own. Livestreams on YouTube channels, for example, typically occur only during the holy month of Ramadan and feature recitations of the Quran and occasional sermons. Abror Mukhtor Aliy, a famous and controversial religious blogger and deputy head of the Teaching Qur’an Tajweed department at the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, is one of the few exceptions. He speaks on a wide range of topics, including international and domestic politics, while remaining moderate.
Spontaneous live Q&A sessions are not usually streamed, and topics for discussion are pre-planned, possibly with oversight from formal institutions. Imams only occasionally speak about political matters and when they do, they faithfully support the official narrative. For instance, during last year’s unrest in Karakalpakstan, imams urged people to stay at home and appreciate peaceful times.
Similarly, when the General Prosecutor’s Office warned citizens against joining foreign armies after a video of two Uzbek citizens allegedly being captured by Ukrainian forces went viral, the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan echoed this warning in the language of Shariah. “It is not permissible for Muslims to unite with non-believers and fight against another non-religious group,” the board stated, quoting from Imam Muhammad’s As-Siyarul-Kabir.
Despite concerns within Uzbek society about growing “Islamization,” Islamic leaders enjoy significant support in urban areas, particularly among the well-off. This may be linked to economic stability, as people tend to turn to religion after fulfilling their basic needs. However, this popularity is not solely due to the fact that Islamic leaders represent millions of locals who identify as Muslims. Identifying as a Muslim is different from following Islam thoroughly. Imams are popular among certain segments of society, while for many others, religion is just another aspect of their identity. This can be observed by looking at different online sites – the most popular ones are not Islamic platforms, but news and entertainment channels.
On Uzbek YouTube, the most followed channels are the comedy team Million Jamoasi, with almost 3 million subscribers, and Turfa Olam, a channel for various stories and news with over 1.7 million followers. In contrast, famous Islamic figures have fewer subscribers. Abror Mukhtor Aliy, for example, has over half a million subscribers, while the official YouTube channel of the Muslim Board of Uzbekistan, Muslim.uz, has only 379,000 followers.
Telegram is another popular app in Uzbekistan. However, even there, channels run by local Islamic leaders are not the most popular among the public. Zikr Ahlidan So’rang (Ask People of Knowledge/Remembrance), launched by the late Sheikh Muhammad Sodiq to answer questions on religion, has less than 150,000 followers. In comparison, the news Telegram channel Kun.uz has nearly 1.2 million.
Islamic leaders of Uzbekistan do enjoy popularity and a degree of influence, but their legitimacy mostly stems from the formal positions they hold. They keep a low profile and guide the public on socioeconomic matters mostly. Yet their popularity is only growing along with trust and respect offered by the masses. This trend reflects the changing social and political landscape in Uzbekistan, as well as the evolving relationship between religion and the state.