The story of a young schoolboy falling from the fifth floor in an attempt to escape from his teacher’s beatings sparked heated discussion among netizens in Uzbekistan. The boy ended up with multiple broken bones and other injuries. The teacher, Yusuf, opened a hujra (literally meaning “cell” or “room” in Arabic), an underground illegal religious school, for about 15 children in his rental apartment in Tashkent and took 200,000 Uzbek som ($15) from each parent to teach Islam. Local media report that he frequently beat his students. Yusuf is currently serving a 15 day term of imprisonment as an administrative punishment.
Local news outlets are rife with such stories, as the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) has made a point of publishing about their hujra raids, though with limited details. For example, the Main Department of Internal Affairs of Tashkent city reported that in February 2023 they had ended the activities of a few people who were teaching their “personal religious concepts” arbitrarily, without having any formal religious education or license. Two of them were teaching at a local study center, “Yasin education,” while another had opened a Telegram group channel and taught Islam to three people. One married couple was allegedly teaching Islam to children in their home.
Uzbekistan is a Muslim majority country, but has a strictly secular government. Citizens enjoy a constitutional right to profess any, or no, religious belief. After seven decades of Soviet-promoted atheism and three decades of Karimov’s iron fist against Islam, the trend of living publicly religious lives is growing more apparent.
Yet religiosity in Uzbekistan must remain within the boundaries of state sanctioned Islam only. Religious materials are created and disseminated to the public, both in print and online, only after “a positive conclusion of theological expertise,” often by the Committee of the Religious Affairs of Uzbekistan. Tashkent also controls the appointment of imams at local mosques and oversees the content of their sermons. Imams and other Islamic religious figures are cautious in their activities and remain moderate in their preaching.
A de facto ban on minors attending mosques was lifted in 2020, with Tashkent reminding the public that there is no restriction on children attending collective prayers provided they are “accompanied by their fathers, brothers, and close relatives.” There is, however, no formal religious schools for children until they receive their secondary or vocational education. Religious values and traditions are taught informally by parents or other guardians of children at home. Children also have access to a variety of religious books and online media materials under the supervision of their parents. Yet some parents still send their children to hujras.
The number of hujras that operate across the country is unknown. In 2017, 33 such schools were shut down, according to government statements. But in the first half of 2018, MIA closed 116 such underground schools.
Hujras often share certain similarities, although each is organized separately. Teachers at hujras more often than not have no official religious education. Most often they teach at private premises – at their own home or at private study centers claiming they teach Arabic, not Islam. They typically have a very modest number of students, but in some cases the number of students can be as high as 40. Hujras find students through personal networks. Although most students are young, there are some cases in which adults also study Islam with them. Last year in April, for example, the Department of Internal Affairs of Ferghana region arrested a woman who was providing religious education at a private study center. Eleven of her 19 students were adults.
Beating students at hujras is not common, yet it still happens. In 2021, for example, two brothers, one of whom was an imam at a local mosque in Tashkent region, were arrested after it was found that they provided religious education to children illegally. The imam’s brother conducted his teachings at his home, where around two dozen children lived and studied. Children that did not study well were punished with beatings and starvation.
In 2020, another man was arrested in Tashkent for opening a hujra in his apartment. He reportedly beat his students with a kitchen rolling pin. Video footage of the police raid on his apartment showed severe bruises on one student’s body.
Hujras highlight a specific problem: People want their children to get a religious education but for many, it is not currently attainable. Article 8 of the Law on Liberty of Conscience and Religious Organizations states that the education system in the country is separated from religion and religious subjects (disciplines) cannot be included in school curriculums. Religious educational institutions are an exception to this provision; there are 15 religious education institutions operating across Uzbekistan, including three higher and 10 secondary education institutions. Two of them are only for girls. Students are admitted to religious education institutions only after they graduate secondary school or vocational education colleges, reaching 16-17 years old. Entrance exams to those formal education institutions remain highly competitive.
Many parents want their children to get a proper Islamic education at a young age, when it is most efficient to learn the Quran by heart and to adopt religious norms of behavior into their everyday life. To cater to this desire, religious leaders and scholars in Uzbekistan have taken some steps that are legally within their capacity. Hundreds of books about different aspects of Islam – aqida, Quran, hadeeth, marriage, the Islamic economy, behavior, and others – have been published in recent years. They sometimes organize public online donation campaigns to deliver books to local mosques for free too. On social media platforms and websites, they provide free tutorials (for example, to learn to read the Quran and write Arabic) and lectures. But those do not involve direct interaction between a tutor and a student. What parents seem to want is someone taking responsibility for supervising their children’s progress in religious studies. And so they resort to hujras.
Punishment for opening a hujra and providing religious education is administrative only (under article 241 of the Administrative Code of the country). In most cases, perpetrators pay a fine of a couple hundred dollars. In some cases they are sentenced to 10 to 15 days in prison. Only after repeated cases can they face criminal charges.
Until there are more options for Uzbekistan’s youth, as well as its adults, to gain religious education legally, the activities of clandestine hujras are likely to continue despite government efforts to close them down. In a country where Islam is by far the dominant religion, it remains difficult for Uzbek families to navigate its place in their modern lives. Government restrictions, paradoxically, push religious education further underground, where the risks of transmitting ignorant or potentially radical interpretations is greater.