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SPECIAL REPORT: The Ruhnama and Islam

April 16, 2008

©  Reflections on the Ruhnama
By Steve in Wisconsin
Publication date:  April 16, 2008

According to the World Almanac the religious composition of Turkmenistan is 89% Muslim, 9% orthodox Christian, and (presumably) 2% atheist or “other”. Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy the Great identified himself with Islam, mentioned the Qur’an and the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) in his Ruhnama books, and had grand mosques constructed in Ashgabat, Gokdepe and Gypjak. And yet, he decreed that the Ruhnama be placed in all mosques – furthermore at least one mosque is inscribed with a verse from Ruhnama on its wall. Naturally one might ask:

“What place is there (if any) for Ruhnama in Islam?”

A good question. About 50% of this blog’s visitor traffic comes from Muslim countries; obviously there is an interest (or at least curiosity) in Turkmenbashy’s philosophical and spiritual outlook from followers of Islam.

Before I discuss what I have now termed “Ruhnama-Islam”, I want to share an article that is fairly standard reporting in the international media.

On 3 June, 2004, two and a half years before Turkmenbashy’s death, the BBC carried the following story.

Mosque to carry Niyazov’s stamp

[Full text: ] – The president of Turkmenistan, Saparmurat Niyazov, has ordered that his own words be inscribed alongside verses of the Koran on a new mosque being built just outside the capital Ashgabat, intended to be the biggest in all Asia.

The president announced that craftsmen would add lines from his book called “the Ruhnama” on the immense façade.

Mr Niyazov, known generally as Turkmenbashi or Leader of the Turkmens, is president for life in Turkmenistan but his absolute temporal power is now taking on an ever more spiritual overtone.

The new mosque is vast, with ample room for 10,000 worshippers.

There is a 50-metre-high dome, which has just been set into place by helicopter, and minarets twice as tall, towering above Turkmenbashi’s ancestral village, the site chosen for what Mr Niyazov hopes will become a place of pilgrimage.

Now he has gone further and ordered that the façade will be inscribed with phrases from the Ruhnama – the Book of the Soul – a collection of his musings which is required reading in schools.

Aphorisms like “smile at one another” make up much of the text, along with guidelines for good manners.

Speaking on television, Turkmenbashi, said it was sensible to have at least some writings people could understand, in Turkmen not just Arabic.

Religious crackdown
It is the latest stage in what seems like a blurring between Turkmenbashi’s earthly power and religious authority.

Local people say the Ruhnama is now often placed in the doorway of mosques so that worshippers can touch it on their way in.

And two years ago, when Turkmenbashi reached the age of 62, some officials made much of this being the life span of the Prophet Mohammed.

The president’s critics in exile accuse him of deliberately propagating the impression that he is almost a prophet but Turkmenbashi himself has always been careful to avoid going too far towards sacrilege.

Turkmenistan as a Muslim country has a board of Islamic scholars – or Muftiat – in charge of religious affairs.

In March, the authorities arrested the chief Mufti, Nasrullah Ibn Ibadullah, and sent him to jail for more than 20 years.

It is not clear why.

Some say he was accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Turkmenbashi but there is also talk that he was planning to set up an Islamic party, presumably finding support among those who find the president’s semi-religious dimension unacceptable.

[End.]

The Ruhnama states specifically:
The Qur’an, the book of Allah, the Most Exalted, is the first and the most important reference book of the Turkmens… God’s book, the Qur’an, is sacred and cannot be replaced or compared to any other book.
[I:21]
Turkmenbashy is adament about this; Ruhnama is not intended to replace Islam’s sacred text. It is, however, considered by its author to be a ‘holy book’ tasked with supplementing the Qur’an by introducing Turkmen values, traditions, history and spiritual philosophy.

Turkmenbashy writes:

My dear people!

Turkmen people have purified and developed their old traditions for centuries, and brought them to our time; they did not give up their customs and traditions when they changed religion.

Their previous beliefs, customs, and traditions played a significant role in the acceptance of Islam by the Turkmen people’s own will. They declared to the instructors of Islam that they would accept Islam as their religion on the condition that the best manners of their former customs and traditions had to live together with Islam. Since the instructors of Islam realized that Turkmen beliefs and customs coming from the past could not damage the new religion, they set people free in choosing Islam as their religion.

[II:362, 363.]

Islam was subsequently embraced by the Turkmens who continued to retain many of their previous beliefs and practices.

Book One of the Ruhnama begins with the following benediction:
IN THE NAME OF ALLAH, THE MOST EXALTED
My Beloved People!
My Dear Nation,

This book, written with the help of inspiration sent to my heart by the God who created this wonderful universe and who is able to do whatever He wills, is Turkmen Ruhnama.
[I:9]

Many of the world’s writers cite God as “inspiration” – poets, novelists, philosophers – and the reader must keep in mind the difference between “inspired by God” and “written by God”. Turkmenbashy does not claim God to be the author of Ruhnama, therefore, the Ruhnama is not superior to (or equal to) the Qur’an.

The U.S. Department of State, in its International Religious Freedom Report 2006, states:
The Government [of Turkmenistan] has incorporated some aspects of Islamic tradition in its effort to redefine a national identity… Despite its embrace of certain aspects of Islamic culture, the Government is concerned about foreign Islamic influence and the interpretation of Islam by local believers. The Government promotes moderate Islam, mostly based on religious and national traditions. To further regulate Islamic teaching, in January 2006, the Government published the book National and Religious Traditions of Turkmen Since Ancient Times, which contains numerous references to following the president’s spiritual guides Ruhnama and Ruhnama II. The president publicly encouraged all clerics to “read the book in mosques,” and declared, “he doesn’t want Turkmen religious rituals to create disagreements among believers.”
[Underlined emphasis added.]
The report further states:
The Government recognizes only Sunni Muslim holy days as national holidays. These include Gurban Bairam (Eid al-Adha), a three-day holiday commemorating the end of the Hajj, and Oraza-Bairam (Eid al-Fitr), commmemorating the end of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting… There is no official religious instruction in public schools; however, the Government requires all public schools and institutes of higher learning to hold regular instruction on the Ruhnama. The Ministry of Education requires that each child bring a personal copy of the Ruhnama to school.
[Underlined emphasis added.]
The fact that students are not required to bring copies of the Qur’an to school should not be interpreted to mean that Turkmenbashy was trying to create a parallel religion. The Ruhnama has a place in general education as it contains extensive writings related to history, patriotism, Turkmen customs, the importance of schooling, etc.

The Ruhnama:  A ‘holy’ book, not a ‘religious’ book
In Book One, p. 21, Turkmenbashy writes:
Allah, the Almighty, the Omnipotent, in the Qur’an that He sent to Prophet Muhammad, said that Noah, Moses, Christ and Muhammad are elevated spirits. The Turkmens’ Ruhnama is not a religious book.
Turkmenbashy makes a distinction between a ‘religious’ book (meaning the message is considered sacred as sent by God, such as the Qur’an) in contrast with a ‘holy’ book (meaning the message is ‘inspired’ by God). Therefore we find in Book Two of Ruhnama such passages as:
Whenever you take Ruhnama in your hand, remember you are turning it into a drop pouring into the Ocean of the Turkmen Soul! Then, the comfort, pleasure and bliss of a drop reaching the Ocean shall fill your heart.

Do not read Ruhnama hastily; let every bit of thought penetrate your heart!

Read Ruhnama on a table or on something like a prayer rug!*

Read Ruhnama as if you are saying your prayers; saying prayers means speaking of God and listening to His creatures rather than speaking of His creatures.*

Read Ruhnama all your life! Read it again and again in childhood, adolescence, boyhood, youth, adulthood and old age since Ruhnama’s pearls of meaning spill out new aspects of every phase of life.
[II: 30, 32]

*  Note: The implication is that Ruhnama should be included as part of a Muslim’s daily devotions and studies – not in preference to the Qur’an, but in addition to it. The word ‘Holy’ – often used in conjunction with the Ruhnama – is compatible with several of Webster’s definitions:

HO’LY, “1. Properly, whole, entire or perfect, in a moral sense., 3. Proceeding from pious principles, or directed to pious purposes; 4. Perfectly just and good.”

Although Ruhnama is written primarily for Muslims, Turkmenbashy’s vision of a future Golden Age (emanating from a peaceful, prosperous and spiritually enlightened Turkmenistan) has the potential to transform the world, Muslim and non-Muslim alike.
Each nation is a rose planted by Allah in the garden of the earth.
[I:201, 202]
Ruhnama-Islam
There are different branches of Islam; different degrees of conforming to the Qur’an; differences in interpretation. The same situation exists in Christianity and in other religions. I consider “Ruhnama-Islam” a distinct branch of Islam, much like the Sufis are considered a separate entity apart from Sunnis and Shi’ites. The spiritual leader of the 5th Golden Age is Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy the Great – His guidance is always with us in spirit.

Turkmenbashy writes:

One of the factors that differentiates Turkmens from other nations is our approach towards religion… [Our nation] has accepted Islam with its own interpretations. It managed to synthesize pre-Islamic beliefs and traditions with Islamic ones without deviating from the essence of Islamic principles.
[I:173]
Turkmenbashy’s “own interpretations” of Islam are far from fundamentalist, but they are largely consistent with those held in the ex-Soviet republics having a Muslim majority.

Turkmenbashy required placement of the Ruhnama alongside the Qur’an in mosques because, in addition to teaching Turkmen values and ethics, the Ruhnama neutralizes the potentially violent responses that fundamentalist branches of Islam offer as a legitimate response to transgressions of the Qur’an’s literal interpretation.

Read the following excerpts from the Ruhnama and consider them opposed to the violent and destructive acts committed by some groups in the name of Islam:
You must love humanity!

The meaning of life is mutual love and affection.
The golden principle of your happiness is hidden in your affection for the world and life.
[I:244]

The main objective of our state is to educate excellent people who will be praised in world literatures, who have good spirits, who are generous, brave and bold, and who set great goals. Every member of our nation should be comfortable. But they should first be knowledgeable, consistent and have a progressive view of the world.
[I:299]

Our ancestors never looked down on other nations or believers of other religions, who lived within the borders of the states they established… The Turkmen have never hurt other nations and members of other religions and never touched the sanctity of others.
[II:156, 157]

It is therefore impossible for a sincere student of Ruhnama to harm other people based on political or religious ideological differences.

What about damage to the property of others? Turkmenbashy writes:

At the beginning of the Christian era, Roman historian Pompey Trog wrote this about our ancestors: “A sense of justice was not taught to them; to the contrary, it was a fruit of their essence of thought. Violating somebody else’s property was deemed as the biggest crime… No wonder there would have been no blood shed or wars for centuries long, if other administrations had such an idea and thought of meritocracy concerning violation of people’s property.”
[II:158]
Turkmenbashy teaches us to respect the property of others. Within Ruhnama-Islam there is no justification to commit bombings or other destructive acts – even if directed at unoccupied buildings or infrastructure.

Turkmenbashy’s message of peace is a pillar of moderate Islam. Rather than condemnation, studying the Ruhnama should be encouraged – both in Turkmenistan and throughout Central Asia, the Middle East and elsewhere.

Turkmenbashy writes:
How beautiful has God created the world that we live in. If our inner world is not as beautiful, pure, clean and worth loving as our outer world, our soul does not develop and remains immature. The food of the soul is love! The wing of the soul is love!

God has created the universe, the whole world, the sons of Adam, the crown of all the creatures, from His love, His mercy, His light and His soul. The sons of Adam love, swim in the sea of compassion, purify and mature in this world and go back to God.
[II:218, 219.]

Turkmenbashy’s message of love and harmony among all the world’s peoples transcends religious denominationalism and is central to his vision of a future Golden Age.
Islam advises purity, simplicity, the clearness of hopes and thoughts, and generosity, and forbids fraud, parsimony, and cruelty.

Islam is a religion founded on the basis of love and respect, and does not oppress the people from other religions, and does not prevent them from practicing their religion.

[II:363.]

Those who have studied Ruhnama know that the two-volume book promotes non-violence, honesty in the workplace, love of family and kin, respect for other religions, and a doctrine of national neutrality – which alludes to peaceful co-existance with neighboring countries.

While acknowledging Islam and the importance of spirituality in personal and national advancement, the Ruhnama stresses that Islam is a religion of peace. There is no room for violence and terrorism in Turkmenbashy’s philosophy.

President Berdymukhamedov’s “reforms” open the door for extremism
President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who assumed office shortly after Turkmenbashy’s untimely (and suspicious) death, became Head of State in a country that was peaceful, prosperous and largely immune from regional conflict. I credit Saparmyrat Turkmenbashy and his Ruhnama philosophy with accomplishing this.

Often hailed by the West as a reformist, President Berdymukhamedov is quickly dismantling his predecessor’s legacy as part of his country’s “new” image. Most of his reforms are meaningless and designed to placate foreign governments – but his efforts to eradicate the Ruhnama are proving successful and playing into the hands of Islamic extremists.

Militant Islam is making rapid inroads in Central Asia, and yet the generation of youth taught Ruhnama’s peaceful principles while Turkmenbashy was president were largely disinterested in religious fundamentalism. By downplaying the importance of the Ruhnama teachings President Berdymukhamedov is taking down the ‘firewall’ that has thus far protected the State from Islamic extremism.

President Berdymukhamedov’s primary objective should be what is best for the country, its citizens and the whole of Central Asia. A peaceful Turkmenistan is in everyone’s interest – it promotes economic growth, regional security, and raises the standard of living for the Turkmen people. The country’s recent policy shift away from Ruhnama should be halted, and the positive aspects of the book promoted once again.

[End.]

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