David Tyson’s (1997) essay “Shrine Pilgrimage in Turkmenistan as a Means to Understand Islam among Turkmen” is a mind-enriching and liberating piece that expands our understanding of the state of Islam among the people living in Turkmenistan. More importantly, I was beholden about the intense piousness of the Turkmen after gaining more knowledge about popular Islam, which includes the people’s seriousness at the height of every pilgrimage, as if transforming them into a state of sanctity and solemnity.
By imparting a valuable fragment about the history of the shrine pilgrimages in Turkmenistan, Tyson effectively broadened my mental horizon to which, eventually, I was given more reasons to believe that the religious value of shrine pilgrimage goes directly proportional to the devoutness of the pilgrims. For without these pilgrims, the real worth of these shrines would begin to decline to the point of ceasing to be an important part in the lives of the Islamic community.
A careful reading of Tyson’s essay can truly open one’s mind to the history behind these shrines which is largely responsible for their ability to attract Muslims from across the many different parts of the world. For a while I had little idea about the shine pilgrimages in Turkmenistan although I have heard different stories before about flocks of individuals traveling to shrines to practice their faith and reinforce their beliefs.
After reading Tyson’s essay, I learned about the number of holy sites in Turkmenistan as well as the activities that the faithful people do, activities that are closely associated with these holy sites. A number of these shrines have survived the years and the challenges of the times. During those previous years before today, legends have accumulated which demarcate one shrine from the rest. For example, Paraw Bibi is said to have cursed a jealous woman to turn into a black stone after she turned Paraw Bibi to the invading infidel militaries in return for a promise of the enemies not to continue with the siege.
In the end, Paraw Bibi commanded the mountain to split so that she can enter and preserve her virtue and purity away from the invading forces. Thus, today we have the Paraw Bibi shrine in western Turkmenistan where pilgrims visit to seek cure for insanity and infertility. Interestingly, groups were also formed out of the reverence for Paraw Bibi such as the Gizilarbat Paraw Bibi Youth Club, a group which esteems Paraw Bibi as worthy of emulation because of her steadfast conviction and bravery amidst the dangers that were coming her way.
I have also learned about the other Muslim shrines in Turkmenistan which have their own respective significances in the lives of the faithful pilgrims. For instance, the history behind the shrine of Khoja Yusup Baba gives an enlightening account as to why Muslims revere the site like the rest of the holy shrines in Turkmenistan. Back in the Soviet period, the shrine has gained much importance that it has been declared as an official architectural monument and as one among the four official and legal mosques throughout the country.
As a result, the shrine which is also said to be the burial site of Khoja Yusup Baba, one of the first in line among Sufi masters, has been constantly visited by state officials, tourists, informants and scholars as well as those who seek to restore the beauty of the shrine. Due to its apparent significance to the Islamic community, it has been said that two pilgrimages to the shrine is equivalent to one visit to Mecca. Thus, it is no surprise that pilgrims constantly flock to the shrine precisely because of its apparent significance to the lives of the pious Muslims.
But even with all these protective measures and significance given to the shrine, anti-religious activists continue to harbor threats to the shrine because of what they as the shrine’s negative effect on the Muslim population. One of the reasons to this is that a caretaker who also serves as an Imam had been alleged to have no religious training needed to be able to truly understand the significance of the shrine and its connections with the Islamic faith.
I have also learned that aside from the practices and rituals strongly attached to the prayers during pilgrimages to the holy shrines in Turkmenistan, there are also preparations for the site’s memorial meal such as sacrifices and offerings. These preparations are usually done a few days after a member of the family has died or after something favorable has happened such as a child’s graduation from school. More importantly, these offerings and sacrifices at done in the shrines specifically at shrines erected for the respective saint.
As a result, shrines usually have specific areas where pilgrims can cook or make their offerings as well as a guest house so that the pilgrims who have traveled from far places or countries can have a place to stay after a long journey to the shrine. The usual practice is that pilgrims make these sacrifices and offerings when they have traveled from afar just to pay respect after a favorable outcome has resulted from an intercession asked from the saint.
Through the years the practice of pilgrimage to these holy shrines in Turkmenistan has become widespread and popular, thus giving a new set of policies from the Turkmen state government in relation to the Islamic faith and community. Tyson’s essay gives critical insight into the ways in which Turkmenistan has reacted in the developments with the pilgrimages through the years both in religious and governmental aspects. In my opinion, shrine visitation is important because it reinforces one’s religious beliefs and concretizes one’s faith into pious actions.
Although it can be said that Islam can still be able to survive even without these shrine pilgrimages, these pilgrimages nevertheless contribute to the growth of the faithful as members of the Islamic community. These pilgrimages also gives the faithful a sense of history worth looking back into and coming into close contact with. Shrine visitations are important precisely because of the positive influence it gives both to the religious and the religion as a whole.