Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Uzbek Ramadan Singers 'Exploit' Tradition

Impoverished people accused of viewing holy month of Ramadan as a chance to make a quick buck.
By Muazzam Ibragimova

Poverty-stricken Uzbeks appear to be increasingly exploiting Ramadan - the Muslim world's sacred month of fasting - to make extra money.


According to Islamic tradition, many adults and children go round local houses singing songs in praise of the fasting month, which ended on November 25.


Such songs are an integral part of Ramadan, and custom dictates that no singer should leave a house empty-handed.


But now elders in the eastern city of Andijan are complaining that growing numbers of people are abusing this custom to get money or food, as poverty has left them incapable of supporting their families.


People who once happily greeted the "singers of Ramadan" with a smile have noted that in recent years, and this year in particular, there have been far too many of them.


Typically, groups of children make repeat visits to homes, irritating their occupants who feel duty bound to give them something.


One of these children, Avazbek Juraev, a 12-year-old boy from Khakan, does not hide the fact that he makes a good living out of the practice.


"People give us money, but we usually take everything they give us - bread, samsa or fruit," he said. "After the singing ritual is over, we share the spoils among us - but I get more than the others."


Analysts recognise that Uzbekistan's grim economic situation has forced many into a life of begging. Twelve years of independence have done little to move the former Soviet republic toward a market economy, and many of its 25 million citizens are living in abject poverty.


Sociologist Bakhody Musaev told IWPR, "Today, most of the people in Uzbekistan are only concerned with surviving from one day to the next - and despair and distrust in what tomorrow will bring can be seen throughout society."


But many Andijan residents have little sympathy for those Ramadan singers who, they believe, are abusing the custom.


Reflecting a widespread view, Andijan pensioner Sobirjon Ibragimov said it amounted to blasphemy, especially since the songs being sung have little connection with the traditional lyrics.


"The songs used to have a special effect on people….so pure and exulted that you wanted to cry when you heard them. But what the children are singing today is without meaning or content," said Ibragimov.


According to Islamic theologians, the tradition goes back to the times of the Prophet Mohammed himself. During the fast, every day before the sun rose, his followers went from door to door, waking people up, congratulating them on the holy month and singing special songs - the lyrics of which have been passed down the generations.


Some religious authorities challenge the Andijanis who claim that the tradition has turned into a form of begging.


Ganijan Kori Kasymov, a teacher at the Said Mukhiddin Makhdum Islamic school in the region, said, "The person who comes to your home singing does not need a small sum from you or humble refreshments. The songs are not sung out of need."


And Kasymov is reluctant to criticise the children who have given Ramadan songs new lyrics, saying they've never been taught the original ones properly, "My complaints are directed more towards their parents and teachers - it is our obligation to provide them with the true words from the old religious books."


Muazzam Ibragimova is a correspondent for IWPR in Andijan.