Tengrism has historically been the predominant religion among the peoples of Central Asia, including the Turks, Mongols, Xiongnu, Bulgars and Huns. Tengrism combines animism with shamanism and the cult of ancestors, and it worships Tengri, a supreme power which is associated with the sky. Tengri is the force behind nature which determines everything from the weather to the fate of individuals and nations. Tengri, say Tengrists, is the unknowable One who knows everything and who judges people’s actions as good or bad and rewards them accordingly.
Altan Tobchi, “The Golden Summary of the Principles of Statecraft as Established by the Ancient Khans,” is a seventeenth-century Mongolian chronicle. Genghis Khan says in the Altan Tobchi: “I have not become Lord thanks to my own bravery and strength, I have become Lord thanks to the love of our mighty father Tengri. I have defeated my enemies thanks to the assistance of our father Tengri. I have not become Khan thanks to my own all-embracing prowess. I have become Lord thanks to the love of our father Khan Tengri. I have defeated alien enemies thanks to the mercy of our father Khan Tengri.”
Tengrists believe in spirits too. There are spirits of trees, mountains, planets and ancestors, and they are either evil, benevolent, or of mixed temperament. Chosen mediums, or shamans, can contact the spirits and convince them to intercede on our behalf or to reveal the future for us. Some shamans have powers that resemble those of spirits, like the power of prophecy or the ability to cast spells. Genghis Khan was a Tengrist, and so were all Mongol rulers until the early fourteenth-century when some, such as Özbeg Khan in the Golden Horde, converted to Islam. To this day it is common for Mongolians to refer to their country as Munkh khukh tengri, the land of the “eternal blue sky.” This is not a weather report as much as a hope concerning divine protection.
There has been a revival of Tengrism in Central Asia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Or rather, some academics and politicians have sought to promote Tengrism as an indigenous alternative to foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam. Neo-Tengrists are particularly active in Kyrgyzstan where a scientific center for Tengrist studies has been set up in the capital Bishkek and observers argue that 60 percent of the rural population follow some Tengrist traditions.
Vague in its moral precepts, Tengrism mixes easily with other religions, including Christianity and Islam. “Tengrism, first of all, is not a religion,” says Dastan Sarygulov, a leader of the Tengrist movement in Kyrgyzstan, but calls it instead a “world view” and a “life style.” More than anything, however, Tengrism is a political program designed to provide a sense of community for the newly independent Kyrgyz state as well as a bond of solidarity between the various peoples of the steppes. Tengrist references connect to an imaginary world of nomadism, gers, cattle breeding and close contact with nature, which is radically different from the imaginary worlds both of the Soviet era and of the contemporary West.
In 2011 a proponent of Tengrism, Kubanychbek Tezekbaev, was put on trial in Kyrgyzstan for inciting religious and ethnic hatred because of statements he made in an interview describing Muslim mullahs as ”former alcoholics and murderers.” Tezekbaev is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam in his country, especially among young people, calling it a danger to the nation’s future. Tezekbaev has spoken out against the use of Islamic head scarfs among women and urged young men not to grow long beards. He calls himself a half-Muslim. “I don’t fully follow Islam, I just partially follow some Muslim rituals. I am a pure Kyrgyz.”