Usmon Boron

Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Humanities

20242025 Forum on Keywords

Usmon Boron

Religious Studies

University of Toronto

Usmon is a cultural anthropologist focusing on the interplay between tradition, secularity, and the modern state. His current book project, entitled “In the Shadow of Tradition: Soviet Secularism and Islamic Revival in Kyrgyzstan,” illuminates the rise of secularism in Soviet Central Asia and explores how Soviet secular categories continue to inform the lives of Central Asian Muslims. Some results of this research have been published in the journal Comparative Studies in Society and History. His work has been supported by the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Global Religion Research Initiative, ZEIT-Stiftung Ebelin und Gerd Bucerius, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. At Penn, he is expanding his research on contemporary Islam by examining the trajectory and ethics of Tablighi Jamaat, one of the world’s most influential Islamic movements, in contemporary Central Asia.

Toward an Ethics of Friendship: Tablighi Jamaat in Post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan

Espousing atheism as part of its state ideology, the USSR aspired to eradicate the  religions of its people. In Central Asia, the Soviet state had destroyed most Islamic institutions  by the late 1930s, thereby profoundly transforming local forms of life. Millions of Soviet  Muslims, as a result, became alienated from some of the key aspects of the Islamic tradition,  including the basics of theology and regular practices of virtue cultivation such as the ritual  prayer (namaz). Consequently, mainstream Islam in Central Asia came to be centered around  life-cycle rituals (i.e., male circumcision, the marriage ceremony, and funeral prayer) and  occasional practices such as uttering blessings, reciting short Quranic verses for the souls of the  deceased, and visiting shrines. Although more than thirty years have passed since the collapse of  the USSR, this non-observant form of Islam remains widespread in the region. Reflecting on this  legacy of Soviet secularization, the present essay makes two interrelated interventions into  secularism studies and the anthropology of Islam. First, I theorize Soviet secularism through  attending to the modern state’s aspiration to transcend and transform the particularities of lived  traditions, which reveals significant overlaps between communist and liberal modes of statecraft  and subject formation. Second, reflecting on a non-observant form of Islam in contemporary  Kyrgyzstan, I ask the following question: What remains of a tradition of virtue ethics when its  ethical disciplines and modes of abstract reasoning have all but vanished? [secularism, tradition,  doubt, Islam, Soviet Union, Central Asia]