Published originally in Journal of Futures Studies

Looking for Alternatives Under COVID-19 Conditions: Islamic Religious Education in Kazakhstan

Futures Studies and Foresight in Kazakhstan

Futures studies and foresight seem quite established disciplines in the global academic world. Some scholars even trace their origins as far as the futuristic novels by Jules Verne, a French writer publishing in the 1860s and 1870s (Bell, 1996, p. 7). Nevertheless, for Kazakhstan, this is a completely unknown field. The first steps were made in February 2019 when the Qazaq Research Institute for Futures Studies (QRIFS) launched its activities. Making connections with different local organizations, QRIFS established fruitful cooperation with creative companies and educational institutions, public and private sectors, governmental structures, and production industries. After some time, QRIFS work has overcome countries’ boarders finding companions in the neighboring “stan” countries. Thus, in July 2020, Central Asian Futures & Foresight Association (CAFFA) came to life.

Using the best of the futures and foresight theories and practices, CAFFA grounds its work on the principle of contextuality continually questioning what is done and paying particular attention to places and peoples around. Therefore, narrative foresight (Milojevic and Inayatullah, 2015) seems to be an appropriate tool for building alternative perspectives in Central Asia for two reasons. Firstly, it resonates with breakthrough research of neurologists on humans in general, presenting them as symbolic species, i.e., using language to demonstrate a new mode of symbolic thinking (Deacon, 1998). Secondly, the narrative culture expressed in multiple epics and tales is a pivotal point of the nomadic culture in Central Asia (Chadwick and Žirmunskij, 2010).

That is why we are going to concentrate on the “seven questions” method (Milojevic and Inayatullah, 2015, p.158) that includes

  1. What is the history of the issue?
  2. What is your forecast if current trends continue?
  3. What are the critical assumptions you used in your forecasts?
  4. What are some alternative futures based on different assumptions?
  5. What is your preferred future?
  6. Which strategies can be used in order to realize your preferred future?
  7. What is a new narrative or metaphor for your preferred future?

These questions will be applied to Islamic education in Kazakhstan. Its importance becomes evident if we take into account that 70.2 percent of the population considers themselves Muslims (Kazakhstan Demographics Profile, 2019) and 66 percent of the youth in the Republic, the generation of the future, use Islam as an integral component of their identity (Umbetalieva, Rakisheva, and Teschendorf, 2016, p.114). In this context, such questions as “who teaches them?” and “what they learn?” become paramount. Narrative foresight can help launch a more profound reflection on the past and present unleashing imagination to build futures alternatives and come up with a new narrative.

Question 1: History of the Problem

Legitimization of Islam in the Republic during the time of independence raised some urgent issues in religious education. Firstly, during the Soviet era, the system of religious education that existed before was almost destroyed (Derbissali, 2011, p.179). That led to the second problem, namely, the absence of the developed institution of the ‘ulamāʾ or religious scholars. Researchers mention that in 1961, Kazakhstan had only twenty-five registered mosques, and none of the twenty-five imams had tertiary Islamic qualifications (Olcott 2009, 304-305). The lack of qualified Muslim clergy to nurture believers, edify them, and answer questions that naturally immerge during a spiritual quest was obvious.

In the 1990s, when the religious revival began as a reaction to the void after the collapse of the communist ideology, the number of officially registered mosques grew to one thousand. Extra four thousand operated without proper registration due to the almost unhindered religious freedom (Olcott 2009, 304-305). Kazakhstan held the status of the “least repressive post-Soviet Central Asian states with regard to freedom of religion or belief” (Kazakhstan: USCIRF, 2017, p.171). After October 13, 2011, the downward shift happened when President Nazarbayev signed the new legislation on registration requirements for religious organizations. As a result, the number of Islamic organizations and mosques dropped from 2,811 in 2011 to 2,229 in 2012 (Religious Conversions, 2017, p.154). If they were to continue their operation, mosques had to go under the jurisdiction of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Kazakhstan (SAMK), a semi-independent and heavily state-controlled body. In 2019 the SAMK had 2629 mosques and 4119 imams registered (Muzykina, 2019).

Where do imams receive formal education that makes them eligible for serving? Currently, Kazakhstan has a three-level structure of local Islamic institutions that focuses on nurturing Islamic clergy and prospective scholars. The first level includes madrasahs, a traditional form of education in the Muslim world since the 9th-10th centuries. In Kazakhstan, this form was re-launched in 2009 when the first Abu Hanifa Madrasah was opened after almost a hundred years of void in this realm (Derbissali, 2011, pp.194-195). Nowadays, there are nine of them, mostly concentrating in the country’s southern regions. They are officially registered with the Ministry of Education of the RK, and their curriculum includes 60 percent of Islamic theological disciplines and 40 percent of general education subjects. Madrasahs’ graduates receive a state diploma in Islamic Studies.

The second level includes the Republican Islamic Institute for Imams Advance Training in Almaty. Again, the institution’s official state registration took place on April 10, 2002. Local and foreign professors from Turkey and Egypt lecture in Kazakh and Arabica variety of fundamental Islamic theology courses as well as Kazakh Language and History of Kazakhstan (Derbissali, 2011, p.192). Imams graduated with state-recognized certificates (shahadah).

The first two levels’ successful graduates can enter Nur-Mubarak Egyptian Islamic Culture University, the first and only one university of a kind in Kazakhstan that was open on September 1, 2001. It is a bilateral project launched and supported by Kazakhstani and Egyptian governments thorough the Board of Trustees supervising its activities (Derbissali, 2011, p.186). The main objective of Nur-Mubarak University is to prepare specialists in Islamic Studies, train imam-khatyb, and enhance the general level of Islamic theology in Kazakhstan.

However, the local research on the problem demonstrates that reform is highly required because 76 % of the experts acknowledged the need for changes (Models of Islamic Education, 2016, pp. 346-358). They argued that the faculty teaching Islamic courses has a low professional level and needs to comply with the world practices taking into account the Kazakhstani context. The latter means the affirmation of Hanafi Madhhab and its role in the Kazakh cultural tradition. This aspiration is a result of a top-down promotion of the “Hanafi Project” to safeguard Hanafi orthodoxy in Kazakhstan and secure the country from the intervention of “radical forces” (Karimov 2018, 300-312). The propaganda started in the early 2000s reflecting a reductionist plan of shrinking Islam to a nationalistic element of a secular doctrine when practicing believers face growing ostracism in society.

Moreover, the statistics also say that among more than 4,000 acting Muslim ministers, only 545 (13%) had higher education in 2016 (Religion Becomes a Required and Positive Factor 2016). No surprise that Kazakhstani secular authorities and ordinary people express concern about the educational and intellectual level of imams in mosques around Kazakhstan (Bondal 2019).

Summing up, ambivalence marks the history of the issue. On the one hand, Kazakhstan has built its Islamic educational system from scratch after the Soviet regime almost destroyed it. There are three levels of Islamic educational institutions functioning in the Republic. Before the COVID-19, the enrollment was growing, keeping the gender balance among the students.

On the other hand, the state is the main initiator of any change in the education system. It closely watches all religious educational programs through different Ministries and sets the standards for Islamic education. Only graduates with a state diploma from a state-accredited institution can get a job within the SAMK system that is entirely accountable to the state.

Questions 2&3: The Current Stage and Assumptions

Therefore, from the perspective of narrative foresight, the metaphor that can describe the current situation with Islamic education in Kazakhstan can sound like this:

In 2020, Islamic education in Kazakhstan looks like a prisoner bound hand and foot, forced to follow his taskmaster. He is poorly fed, has no perspective for freedom, and is frequently turned into a scapegoat whenever needed to switch public attention from economic or political downfalls and collapse.

Following up, if the trends described above continue, then by 2041, most of the imams in Kazakhstan can receive only local training, and we can assume the following:

  1. The quality of that education will be quite low;
  2. The curriculum will be narrowly focused that can lead to worldview dogmatization;
  3. Restrictive measures and close control of religious educational institutions will grow;
  4. A desire to go abroad and get an education there, e.g., in Turkey or Egypt will increase among potential students;
  5. As a reaction, the so-called “foreign” Islam will gain the ground in the Republic, thus provoking counteractions from the government.

Nevertheless, let us think about some alternative perspectives and scenarios for Islamic education in Kazakhstan.

Questions 4: Recounting Alternative Futures

To imagine some possible scenarios of the Islamic education future, we will use the method developed by Jim Dator and his colleagues at the Manoa School (Dator, 2009). Instead of building scenarios from scratch, the approach suggests some context for integrating seven essential components (population, energy, economy, environment, culture, technology, and governance). Their quality leads to four types of generic futures (Foresight Manual, 2018, p.37):

  1. “Continued Growth” (acceleration of the present);
  2. “Collapse” (extinction or a lower stage of the present);
  3. “Discipline” (highly controlled/regulated future);
  4. “Transformation” (radical transformation of life, including humanity).

In addition to these four defined contexts, we will add the COVID-19 factor and see what alternative images can come up.

Photo: Xavier Potau Source: Flickr

Reviving Khalīfah attitude. The global community has successfully won the battle against COVID-19, and the world now can unmask and breathe in deeply. Students go back to their studies. The pandemic time triggered the revival of such a key Islamic concept as khalīfah or viceregency of humans on the Earth. There were multiple voices in Muslim societies around the world that COVID-19 was a punishment from Allah because humans have forsaken their duties of the Earth stewards. Now Kazakhstani educators and researches are making a unique contribution to the revival of this concept. They launched a new international educational platform that unified all known works of Al-Farabi, a prominent Central Asian Muslim thinker of the 9th-10th centuries C.E., the author of Mabādiʾa ārāʾ ahl al-madīnat al-fāḍilah (On the Perfect State). In that tract, he discussed many highly sought-after today ideas of building a society of happiness and prosperity based on Islamic principles. The khalīfah concept has become foundational not only for future imams but all Islamic professionals who receive their education at different universities around Kazakhstan.

Photo: Maymona Source: Flickr

A Quest for Karāmah. Even the second lockdown and strict quarantine measures did not help Kazakhstan to overcome widespread COVID-19. After the country’s economy sank into the deepest crisis, the society drowned in depression. People are looking for condolence and comforting. Mosques have become the primary centers for the spiritual-emotional help. Their nurturing and educational activity focuses on karāmah or a concept of dignity. It encompasses acknowledging themselves as Allah’s creations, submitting to Him, following His commands, and striving for the restoration of social well-being. Though the attendance of religious places is still limited, the SAMK initiative group and some former professors of Nur-Mubarak University – they lost their jobs like many others – have developed and launched the educational platform Ḥikmatan Wāsia. It hosts Islamic courses of different complexity, and anyone can receive a state-accredited diploma in Islamic Studies upon passing online exams. Thus, helping others build their dignity, former public institutions professors found the way to keep their karāmah.

Photo: Faraz Ahmad Source: Flickr

Revisiting ‘Ilm Al-Akhlāk. The pandemic has seriously affected the economy of Kazakhstan. It did not collapse but barely survives. Therefore, the government imposed strong restrictions and control on all spheres of life. To legitimize Islam in the secular society, Kazakhstani Muslim scholars focus on the ethical norms of the religion, promoting them in teaching courses and public debates. A high interest arose in the society, especially among the youth, to a “science of virtues” (‘ilm al-akhlāk) that deals with proper conduct, personal character, and such qualities as self-mastery, justice, temperance, honesty, uprightness, and courage. Young people are not satisfied with the “traditional Islam” version promoted by government officials, state-controlled madrasahs, and universities. The underground movement is gradually emerging betting on akhlāk as a foundation for a new society to come. Members of that movement (akhlāqiyūn) are primarily known for reviving and popularizing the ancient art of calligraphy and miniature. Being denied access to printing and publishing facilities, they create handmade leaflets and posters that propagate their ideas.

Photo: Pomo Mama Source: Flickr

Hi-tech Mawāhib. The pandemic COVID-19 served like a break time to reconsider the human-AI balance pushing tremendously the coming of the singularity era that Ray Kurzweil initially predicted for 2045. With its critical breakthroughs in biomedicine and AI technologies, Kazakhstan turned into a central AsiaEuro transit point linking South-East countries with the rest of the world. Now Muslim societies of Asia-Pacific are on the global frontline. Therefore, Islamic education in Kazakhstan focuses on Islamic Finance and Banking, Islamic Biomedicine, Chemistry, and Programming. Being integrated into the GlobalMuslimEdNet learning system, Kazakhstani Islamic institutions have access to all necessary resources that make their students top-level professionals. The system includes all the latest innovations, scientific projects, emerging technologies, and other things that come accompanied with legal judgments of the best Muslim fuqaha (jurists) who now widely use Big Data and AI in their work. The AI Sheikh Azamat_KAZ that represents the Kazakhstani scholars’ opinions, is highly respected for its consistency and progressive views. This systemic approach is a real mawāhib, the contribution to and of the Muslim world in this new transformed reality.

Questions 5-6: Envisioning the Preferred and Moving There

Now, we have reached a crossroad with several options, and like an ancient knight-vityaz in Russian fairytales have to choose what route to take. In other words, we need to answer the question, “What future will be preferable?” Norman Henchey, a Canadian futurist, defines the preferable future as what we want to have happened (Henchey 1978). It does not yet exist and requires a clear vision that moves reality beyond the present toward the best possible. To make it speak to people’s hearts, we can summarize it as a vision statement that will help move forward.

Therefore, the preferred future for Islamic education in Kazakhstan can sound like this:

By 2041, Islamic education in Kazakhstan becomes a beacon of religious education in the Muslim world due to its critically innovative approach and radical reform in the education system. Graduates of this system are firmly rooted in the classical Islamic heritage yet actively contribute to the development of the contemporary Muslim thought that reflects the needs of a rapidly changing world, providing believers with a stronghold in times of turbulent uncertainties. A modern imam is a polymath that widely uses technology to fulfill God’s will.

For someone, it might sound like a fiction introduction. However, specific steps can take place today to make the preferable future real using it and paving the path to it. Of course, the list of potential steps is not exhaustive, but include the paramount points:

  • Kazakhstan establishes a genuine state-religion separation secured through the legislation and the Constitution, thus promoting the execution of authentic religious liberty;
  • The Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Kazakhstan collaborate on developing new requirements for religious, educational institutions registration, thus ensuring their variety – from state-sponsored to private and independent;
  • The curriculum of Islamic educational institutions includes futures literacy and futures studies that empower the youth to get ready for changes, generate them, and use the future to innovate the present;
  • The SAMK system is reconsidered and changed; imams obtain a renewed status in the society that focuses on their personal, spiritual, professional, and civic traits and rights, not only duties.

Closing with Question 7

Now, if things work right, a new metaphor for Islamic education can sound very inspiring:

By 2041, Islamic education in Kazakhstan is like Ibn Battuta, the Space-Traveler that merges the best of the heritage and the most innovative of the present to create an unthinkable future.

This statement points out how the reform of Islamic religious education in Kazakhstan may go, thus bringing crucial changes to the spiritual life of the whole country in the long run. Through narrative foresight, the process can become more personalized and internalized, bring new perspectives and metaphors that will ensure the success of the endeavor. The very nature of narrative foresight can awake the creative component that Islamic educational organizations in the Republic and the Muslim world, in general, should promote in knowledge acquisition and production.


Yelena V. Muzykina
e-mail: [email protected]


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