History, migration, and a mix of traditions: Tajiks drink vodka at a wedding celebration. (Credit: Evgeni Zotov/Flickr)
History, migration, and a mix of traditions: Tajiks drink vodka at a wedding celebration. (Credit: Evgeni Zotov, 'Wedding party'/Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) (via: bit.ly)

How international migration changes the role of religious communities

Debating the role of religion in the process of migrant integration is increasingly important.

This is unsurprising in light of the refugee crisis in Europe and the ongoing struggle against religious extremism worldwide. In the United States and in Western European countries, answering the following questions is vital:

How will the influx of migrants with different civilisational and religious heritages affect destination countries?   What is the role of religion in processes of cultural integration, the maintaining of transnational ties with home countries, and the preservation of traditions and languages in new environments?

Russia’s greatest migration links are with Central Asia. After the collapse of the USSR and the abandoning of state atheism, a process of religious revival took place in former USSR republics as former Soviet citizens identified as Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and adherents of other faiths. In Central Asia and the Caucasus, Islam officially became the most popularly practiced religion. Accordingly, migration from Central Asia to Russia is not only an economic, demographic, and social phenomenon, but also represents interaction between cultures, religions, and civilisations.

Islam in Central Asia should be understood as a pluralistic phenomenon, but a heavy research focus on macro-processes, religious policies, political Islam, and security has been a barrier to this. Criticism of existing research paradigms and discourses is justified because the social dimension of religious phenomena has been neglected, leading to Central Asian societies being perceived as passive objects of religious policies, state actions, and various external influences.

In recent years, interest in the relationship between migration and Islam has grown. This is due to large-scale labour migration from Central Asia to Russia and other countries.

Islam, the religion of a majority of Central Asian migrants, is a key feature of migrant life in destination countries. Many Central Asian migrants appear more religious in destination countries like Russia than in their home countries (de Cordier, 2015; Roche, 2014; Tucker, 2015). Bruno De Cordier (2013, p. 527) found that while a minority of migrants abandon religion under the influence of a host society, “a solid majority of the [Tajik] migrants, even among those who practice little at home, tend to do the opposite: rediscover the Islamic part of their background and continue to increase practice to some extent or another”. Noah Tucker (2015) has noted that some young labour migrants from Central Asia “embrace Islam as an identity that offers solidarity, a sense of belonging, and an explanation for economic hardship and discrimination that they experience” (Tucker, 2015, p. 3).

These trends are consistent with the global picture of immigrants’ religious life. The argument that immigrants become more religious when they migrate has mostly been applied to Muslim migrants in the West, focusing on France, other European countries, the US, and Canada. Similar trends with Central Asian migrants in Russia may have similar causes.

Research on Islam in Russia mostly deals with the state’s approach to Islam, focusing mainly on Russia’s own Muslims (e.g., Chechens and Tatars). Very little research has been conducted on the identity transformation of Central Asian migrants, especially their religious identity. Nor has research focused on the Islamic institutions active in migrant communities, such as mosques, madrassas, religious leaders, and activists.

Muslim migration from Central Asia to Russia has also raised questions of the relationship between rural and urban Islam. Stéphane Dudoignon, in the in-depth Allah’s Kolkhozes study, focuses on rural Islam in Tajikistan during the Soviet era. He points out that within the Soviet Union, in contrast to other countries, Islamic revival took place in the countryside, not in cities (2014). However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Central Asia embraced a wave of a large-scale migration from rural Central Asian areas to urban areas in Russia.

Rural Islam began to turn into urban Islam. This has had a profound influence on Islamic institutions, transforming mosques and religious communities by changing their social roles.

Tajikistan’s experience shows that rural communities are involved in the process of transnational urbanisation. Former villagers create their own ways of adapting and integrating into Russian urban societies. However, the influence of religion on such processes, particularly the various local forms of Islam found throughout Central Asia, has been very poorly studied.

In addition to labour migration and transnational Islamic networks, Muslim communities in Tajikistan have also been connected to other regions of the world like South Asia, the Middle East, and Europe via new communication technologies and the internet. This has led to a diversification of Islamic sensibilities, as well as to conflicts between younger and older generations (Olimova, 2005; Harris 2006; Olimova and Fathi, 2007). However, no studies have examined how these changes affected the role and place of the mosque in society or how religious life, intra-communal government, philanthropy, and inter-community relations have been affected. Islam in Central Asia is therefore seen as a singular phenomenon.

More detailed case-studies could offer deeper understanding of the transformation of Muslim communities amidst the re-Islamisation of local and trans-local phenomena, simultaneously shaping understanding of the impact processes of migrant integration on host societies.

Migrant networks

In recent decades, migration from Tajikistan to Russia has led to the formation of Tajik communities in numerous Russian cities and regions. These communities have different characteristics, reflecting the way migration from Tajikistan to Russia has changed and the type of migratory flows which have dominated at different times.

Usually, researchers see networks as providing social capital for migrants. Alongside material and human capital (education, qualifications, knowledge), networks are important resources, playing a role in motivating people to migrate and providing opportunities in destination countries.

Tajik labour migration to Russia is largely made up of seasonal and circular migration whereby people travel between places of permanent residence and places they work. In 2011, 62% of all Tajik migrants working in Russia were seasonal workers[1] and circular migrants[2] (Danzer, Dietz, Gatskova, 2013). Seasonal and circular migrants make periodic trips to foreign worksites, remaining in close contact with their country of origin. In the words of Nina Glick-Schiller, they “develop and support multiple family, economic, social, organizational, religious and political relations that cross borders” (Glick-Schiller et al., 1992).

Transnational migration networks and communities connect spaces. Migrant households in Russia participate in migration networks in order to stay included in the life of local communities in Tajikistan (Bröwn, Olimova, Boboev, 2010). Tajik migrant networks tend to reproduce the social ties of the sending society. Structurally, the networks are based on different levels of solidarity:

  • Kinship networks (avlod, toifa);
  • Local connections (village, mahalla);
  • Compatriots region and country-wide networks;
  • Friendship or ‘comrade’ networks (gap, gashtak).

Networks reflect the social organisation of particular Tajik groups that generate transnational migration. Local and kinship network levels are most active (see table 1).

Table 1: Sources of help for Tajik migrants abroad

Fellow villagers45.2
Compatriots from the same region20.1
People of the same nationality9.8
National and cultural diaspora associations2.0
Other diaspora organisations3.6
People of the same religion3.5
Migrant organizations2.8
Trade union0.0

Source: ILO (2010, p. 41).

Kinship networks are usually formed on the basis of avlods – patronymic groups which go back to one ancestor. Typically, these narrow networks include small migrant groups (brigades) or individual migrants, which are included within broader compatriot networks. Kinship networks made up of entrepreneurs, small traders, and sellers of agricultural products are also significant, who use network solidarity for employment, housing needs, assistance processing documents, and for business. They depend on the transnational kinship network for economic success.

In addition to kinship networks, other networks are based on camaraderie. These are peer groups that meet periodically to exchange opinions on wide/ranging issues and to have fun together. Such groups are referred to as gap or gashtak.

Network activity depends on the intensity of communication among migrants. According to a 2014 survey, over 50% of migrants meet with fellow countrymen at least once a week (including those who work with fellow countrymen and relatives).[3]

Table. 2: Type of help received by Tajik migrants in Russia (%)

Fellow citizens




Financial support34.910.6
Legal support5.576.6
Assistance in the initial period of settlement (accommodation, registration)57.427.7
Vocational training4.714.9
“Roof” (forms of protection and patronage)4.414.9
Moral support8.227.7

Source: ILO (2010, p. 41)

Migration networks are networks of trust. Tilly defines networks of trust as branched interpersonal relationships in which people weigh up valuable long-term resources against the risk of abuse by others (2004, p.3). This also applies to labour migration, where networks of trust become the main means of survival and economic benefit in an atmosphere of constant risk and uncertainty.

Migrants make decisions and choices based on their understanding of what is beneficial or not, legal or illegal, good or bad, decent or indecent. Their knowledge, motives, and moral attitudes shape their responses to external factors. Tradition, culture, religion, and values of migrants tend to predominate over rational calculations. This is especially true for networks of Tajik migrants in Russia.

According to 2014 data, 94.5% of Tajik migrants working in Russia identified as Muslims, while only 2.6% did not. A small number of interviewees professed other faiths. Islamic traditions have been seen to shape migrant networks. Migrant network behaviour is impacted by Tajik and Russian legislation, by informal migration practices within Russia (shaping the perceptions and reality of legality/illegality, labour relations, and the use of intermediaries.), and also by Islamic norms and traditions.

For example, informal Russian labour market practices regulate the activities of foremen in migrant work brigades, but so does Sharia. Mediators follow both Tajik and Russian informal ‘rules of the game’, but at the same time account for the cultural norms adopted in different migrant environments.

The high level of trust in migrant networks is a consequence of migrants’ continued social compliance with their parent society. This is mainly true of migrants from rural areas, but because labour migration from Tajikistan is predominantly rural (74% of Tajikistan’s population lives in rural areas and the level of labour migration from rural areas is several times higher than from cities), rural social institutions persist more prominently in migrant communities.

Social control in the migrant environment is based on the transnational existence of family, clan, and land structures and the preservation of mutual assistance and family responsibility traditions. If a migrant borrows money in Russia, then, if necessary, his relatives in Tajikistan will pay off the debt regardless of the debtor’s financial position. Brednikova and Pachenkov noted this aspect of the functioning of migration networks. The authors emphasise that “the trusted ones are those who can be controlled” (1999, p. 49).

Extended family and compatriot networks control the behaviour of Tajik migrants through public opinion in villages and mahallas in their homeland. Members of a migrant’s family who remain at home with their property are a guarantee of creditworthiness for the migrant. The same is true of a migrant, family or related group’s reputation.

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of family reputation in Tajik society. It is an important factor in a choice of marriage partner, in business, and in employment. In the event that a migrant in Russia deceives someone, he loses his ‘trust credit’, both in Russia and in his mahalla or village. In extreme cases, he will be ostracised and excluded from related networks. At the same time, his family and relatives will lose their place in the social hierarchy of their village and their access to the system of local support will be limited.

Sometimes it is impossible to collect information on a person, his family, or relatives, in which case the equivalent of a good reputation for short-term contacts during the period of migration is adherence to Islamic ethics norms, and devotional practices like daily prayer.

Network interaction

Migrant networks exist alongside religious networks. These include classical Islamic networks, societies, and parties uniting followers of various trends of Islam, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hizbut-Tahrir, and Tablighi Jamaat. They also include educational networks connecting Islamic religious scholars and their students; They include Sufi networks and networks of Islamic intellectuals.

The interaction of migrant networks with networks of other kinds is seen by Mukomel as a “blurring” of compatriot networks, in which network functions shift to religious and work needs. This occurs with brigades, intermediaries, Russian organisations which provide services (for example, registration assistance) to migrants, and virtual networks (2014, p.91-92). Areas in which religious networks replace compatriot networks include service provision and the raising of charitable funds. To some extent, interviews confirm this.

The fact that Muslim norms and values affect the functioning of Tajik migration networks explains the involvement of networks in religious activities. It is the networks, communities, and brigades that provide for the religious and ritual needs of most migrants. They organise funerals, mourning ceremonies, and religious rituals: 34.8% of all surveyed migrants organised ceremonies including funerals and mourning ceremonies; 18.9% of all respondents organised religious rituals such as Mavlyud and Tarobeh (ILO, 2010, p. 39). A leader of a construction brigade often performs the role of a religious leader (imam) in prayer.

Labour force migration creates fertile ground for the development of transnational religious networks. It is very important that they grow on the basis of trust. Migrants create short-term social connections and often work in the informal labour market segment. They therefore experience an acute lack of trust. Islamic ethics create the basis for migrant networks to develop in religious terms. In turn, religious networks often solve migrants’ livelihood problems regarding employment and document processing.

Relations with migrants and networks of other Muslim groups such as Dagestanis, Azerbaijanis, Uzbeks, and Kyrgyz are often based on Islamic integration. Tajik migrants easily come into contact with and enter into partnerships with other Muslims. The logic is that if their partner deceives them then Allah will punish him; a true believer seeks to avoid deceit and the inevitable punishment. If a potential partner is not Muslim or is Muslim by name only then there is no trust and thus a partnership is undesirable.

Institutional Islam existed in Soviet Tajikistan in the form of legal institutions: Kaziat, a few mosques, and official mullahs. At the same time, informal Islamic institutions existed in the form of small local religious communities connected by student-teacher branches of religious networks, and Sufi sheikhs and their murids. Network activities proceeded informally or underground and were based on common trust and devotion.

Migration to Russia has a dual effect on migrants: On one hand, there is a growing number of agnostics, atheists, and converts to other religions; On the other hand, the proportion of strictly practising Muslims and religious activists is increasing. Accordingly, the proportion of non-practising Muslims and so-called ‘ethnic Muslims’ is decreasing. This corresponds to the global picture of migrant religious life. A number of studies have shown that many immigrants, including Muslims, became more religious when they emigrated to Western countries (Foly & Hoge, 2007).


Among the most important centres for both migration and religious networks are mosques. 25.4% of Tajik migrants go to a mosque weekly or more often (ILO, 2010, p. 40). Mosques are generally understood as centres of religious life and religious education, but this does not reflect the depth of Islamic traditions. Mosques are very flexible and have broad and versatile functions. The movement of rural Muslims and their mosques into Russian cities has added an unusual variety of organisation to religious life. For example, there are now unprecedented numbers of mobile mosques: mosques inside buses which tour Moscow to serve people on the move.

Mosques help individuals set goals, provide ritual and social solidarity, support social communication, serve cultural and educational functions, and facilitate mutual aid and charity. Their basis is trust and authority. The most important function mosques provide for migrants is the religious, moral, and ethical leadership of daily spiritual life through imams and the wider religious community. Mosques and religious networks are also extremely important in cases of illness, accidents, and death (including sending dead bodies home).

Mosques or individual imams sometimes establish ties with diaspora organisations to solve migrant problems. This is typical for Kyrgyz migrants.

The role of the mosque in migrant integration

Post-Soviet migration from Central Asia has changed mosques in Russian cities. Migrant integration within Russian society has become one of their chief functions, including helping migrants find work, housing and legal assistance, protection, and security. It is through mosques and the religious community that migrants integrate into the host society.

For example, in Tomsk, migrants at the White Mosque have established close ties with Tatars from the local religious community’s older generation. The overwhelming majority of migrants are rural youth who are interested in leading rituals, in the daily practice of Islam, and in urban life. Young migrants support elderly Tatars, who they see as mentors and teachers, fathers, uncles, and grandfathers. Young rural migrants from Central Asia have been able to join in with the social life of the city due to close ties with local older Tatar men.

Migrants from Central Asian countries, including Tajikistan, become integrated into the life of Russian mosque themselves through roles as deputies for imams or hatibs, and through the practice of reading sermons in Arabic, Tatar, Russian, and migrant languages (Tajik, Uzbek, Kyrgyz or mixed Turkic; Bukhari-zade, 2015).

Mosques and the globalisation of Islam

The overwhelming majority of migrants from Tajikistan are from rural areas, devotees at small mosques where the community is made up of relatives, neighbours and friends. On Fridays, they may visit a larger mosque in a nearby town, but there the imam or hatib, and most of the worshipers are likely to belong to a single stream of Islam. In contrast, mosques in Russia are host to a variety of branches of Islam: Sunni Hanafi, Sunni Shafi’I Mazhab, Shia, Ismaili, etc.

Migration forces people to leave ‘localism’ at home and to adapt to new religious practices alongside adapting to conditions in urban environments.


The goal of this paper has been to improve understanding of the role of religion among Tajik migrant networks and of religion’s impact on the integration of Tajik rural migrants in Russian cities.

Methodologically drawing on sociological and anthropological fieldwork, predominantly interviews with Tajik migrants in Moscow, Tomsk (Russia), and Isfara (Tajikistan) between 2014 and 2016, and theoretically situated within the broader study of transnationalism and social networks, we have explored the role of Islam in Tajik migrants’ integration in Russian cities, the role of religious institutions, and the interaction between migrant social networks, Islamic networks, and Russian institutions.

Transnational migration networks connect different localities and ensure the economic success of migration. Tajik migrant networks reproduce the social ties of the sending society. Religion and religious institutions play an important role in the integration of rural migrants in Russian cities.

Islamic institutions provide a social continuum for Tajik migrants in Russia. Mosques and their religious communities allow migrants to accumulate social capital, establish civic participation, and conduct charitable work, which enhance personal management skills and shape the identities which allow migrants to participate in Russian society.

At the same time, the impact of large-scale migration from Tajikistan to Russia is changing Islamic institutions like the mosque and the religious community, and the ways in which the religious life of Muslims in Russia and Tajikistan is organised. This impacts society in Russia and Tajikistan too.


Saodat Olimova

Former Senior Researcher at the Tajik Academy of Sciences

Muzaffar Olimov

Professor of History at the Tajik State National University



Russian language references:

Abashin, S., Chikadze, E. (2008). Economic Migrants from Central Asia: Study of the transformation of identity, norms of behaviour and types of social ties. CISR. Available at http://cisr.ru/files/otchet_econom_mogranty.pdf

Brednikova O., Pachenkov O. (2000). The ethnicity of the ‘ethnic economy’ and social networks of migrants. In Ed. O. Brednikova, V. Voronkova, and E. Chikadze. (Eds.). Ethnicity and economics: Articles from the St. Petersburg seminar of 9-12 September 1999. CISR, Issues 8. pp. 47-54.

Bukhari-zade, N. (2015, January 26). Old and new Muslims of Moscow: Cautious attitudes. Fergana. Available at http://www.fergananews.com/articles/8383

Danzer, A., Dietz, B., Gatskova, K. (2013). Household Survey of Tajikistan: Migration, Remittances and the Labor Market. Institute for East and Southeast European Studies: Regensburg.

Mobile mosques will run in Moscow. (2015, February 10). Ansar. Available at http://www.ansar.ru/rfsng/

Mukomel, V.I. (2014). The diaspora is a partner for the development of Tajikistan. IOM.

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English language references:

Allievi, S., Nielsen, J., (Ed.). (2003). Muslim Networks and Transnational Communities in and across Europe. Leiden-Boston: Brill

Arkesh, I.R. (2011). Immigrants’ Religious Participation in the United States. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34 (4). pp. 643-661.

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[1] Seasonal migrants are migrant workers whose work depends by nature on seasonal conditions and is performed for only part of the year. Here, the migrants who repeatedly came to Russia and whose last visit was less than 6 months.

[2] Circular migration is “An unhindered movement of people between countries, including temporary or long-term, which can be beneficial for all participants if it occurs voluntarily and is related to labor needs of countries of origin and destination” (World Migration Report 2008: Managing Labor Mobility in the Evolving Global Economy Geneva, IOM, 2008. P. 492).

[3] 22.1% meet fellow migrants every day or almost every day; 16.6% meet several times a week;15.4% meet weekly.

The views and opinions expressed in this publication are those of the original author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views and opinions of the Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute, its co-founders, or its staff members.
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Professor of history at the Tajik State National University,

Muzaffar Olimov was formerly an associate in the al-Farabi Carnegie Program on Central Asia, the director of the SHARQ (ORIENS) Research Center, and a senior scientist at the Tajik Academy of Sciences Institute of Language, Literature, and Oriental Studies. Olimov’s published research focuses on history, religion, ethnology, and security in Central and South Asia. His recent work includes research on Islam in contemporary Tajikistan, human capital in Tajikistan, and labour migration in the region. Olimov is also a professor of history at Tajik State National University.
Saodat Olimova

Independent researcher,

Saodat Olimova was formerly an associate in the al-Farabi Carnegie Program on Central Asia and head of the public opinion department at the SHARQ (ORIENS) Research Center in Dushanbe, Tajikistan. She is an internationally recognized expert on labour migration, Islam and society, and political and social issues more generally in Central Asia. Prior to her work at SHARQ, Olimova was the department head and a senior researcher at the Tajik Academy of Sciences’ Institute of World Economy and International Relations.