Militant-Weary Uzbeks Tout Mystic

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BUKHARA, Uzbekistan Growing up in what was the Soviet Union, Gofurjon Razzokov learned about Islam from his grandmother, who would lean over his bed and whisper into his ear poems and stories of Islamic mystics and holy men.

Now, from a city so famous for spiritualism that locals say the sun doesnt shine on Bukhara, it is Bukhara that shines on the sun, Razzokov is spreading his grandmothers message.

It is Sufism, an Islamic philosophy heavy on spiritual development. Sufism is part of the mainstream Sunni branch of Islam, to which most Asian Moslems adhere, and Sufism is particularly popular in Central Asia.

Its a message that the government of Uzbekistan is gingerly encouraging as a homegrown counterweight to the radicalism of the Islamic militants it is battling.

It is also a message likely to infuriate fundamentalists, who regard Sufis as corrupters of Islam and consider their veneration of local saints and pilgrimages to their tombs to be anti-Islamic. Fundamentalists say such practices detract from the worship of one god.

Islamic fundamentalists "see Sufism as a pollution of Islam, so to put Sufism forth as the real Central Asian Islam is a way of combating other forms of political Islam," says Vernon Schubel, an expert on Sufism at Kenyon College in Ohio. "I think the government sees this as a kind of inoculation."

By teaching Sufi philosophy, "our people and our army will be stronger and better able to defend the homeland," says Najmiddin Komilov, a top government official who writes books about Sufism.

The battles focal point is a tree-lined complex just outside the city that houses the grave of Bahauddin Naqshband, a 14th-century Islamic mystic who preached the need for spiritual development and the importance of work.

Naqshbands devotees spread his message throughout Central Asia, where millions embrace his philosophy.

Fundamentalists preach a strict version of Islam and call for creation of a theocratic state. Naqshbandis agree Islamic law must be followed, but government-appointed Naqshbandi leaders in Uzbekistan dont stress this point. Instead, they point to their tolerance of other religions.

The government, which has banned fundamentalist literature and jailed hundreds of Islamic activists, encourages scholars who advocate Sufi philosophy.

In Bukhara, billboards feature Naqshbands quotes such as, "The heart is with the beloved [God]; the hand is at work." The citys main street, once named after Lenin, is now named Bahauddin Naqshbandi Prospekt.

The government also helped fund the restoration of Naqshbands tomb, which was closed in Soviet times, and the tombs of other Islamic saints.

In his office at the side of a medieval mosque, Razzokov, the government-appointed mufti, or religious leader of Bukhara, speaks passionately against fundamentalists, who have been known to destroy tombs that Sufis venerate.

But while Sufi ideas are spread in Uzbekistan, the government is likely to oppose the formation of Sufi brotherhoods, groups of devotees to a saintly leader, that traditionally have been political hotbeds. "They are not encouraging the institution of the Naqshbandi," Schubel says. "They are encouraging the ideals of Bahauddin Naqshband as the state allows scholars to present them."