"Islam has a very bright future," declared Haj Othman Bin Rahim Jan, the khatib, or director, of a small but wellknown mosque situated in flat, irrigated orchard country outside this city of Tamerlane, the 14th century Mongol Conqueror.
The only difficulty would be if religion was forbidden. That would be a difficulty."
As the spoke, standing in stocking feet on thick handwoven carpets in the cool interior of the thick-walled mosque, aged Moslem Uzbeki men were slowly gathering outside for the muezzin to call them to Friday namaz, or prayer.
Here, on the site of the grave of one of islam's most famous ancient scholers, Imam Al-Bukhari, in the protective shade of 600-year-old "chinara" trees of the sycamore family, men had time to contemplate the divine order of things.
The khatib, a pleasant man with bright eyes, a ready smile and expansive manner, declared, "there is more progress for Islam here than in the Middle East. It's dying in the Arab world. They are not thinking of their religion, they are thinking of politics."
He estimated that Islam was "50-50" in Egypt and Saudi Arabia in its struggle with corrupting Western influences. "It's best in Syria," he said speaking with the assurance of one who has actually made the haj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, required of all moslems.
The khatib's views and the situation of his mosque neatly summarize the sense of well-being evident among the Soviet Union's steadily growing group of Moslem holy men, as well as the subtle and ever-present political shadings of their officially sanctioned positions within this atheist and actively anti-religious country.
Some Arab diplomats who visited Central Asia privately express doubts about official claims. One of them referred derisively to Moslem holy men in the Soviet Union as "civil service mullahs."
Moreover, there are only two official Moslem theological schools for a country with an estimated 50 million Moslems. That population figure makes the Soviet Union 4th fifth largest Moslem country in the world (after Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India).
While showing tolerance toward Central Asia's Moslems, the Soviet state has continued its struggle against religion in general. Local Central Asia leaders frequently urge party activists to help "extinguish survivals of the past -- especially religious beliefs" that they acknowledge "still persist" in the area.
Sanctioned religious practice aids the Soviets in their bombastic propaganda claims to have founded the freest society in human history. And existence of an official Moslem religion provides Moscow with a powerful diplomatic tool in wooing Arab and Asian nations, where Islam is the state religion.
"It's an out-reach operation, aimed abroad," said an American who visited Soviet Central Asia earlier this month and met with members of the Tashkent religious board.
'It is not surprise then that Khatib Jan should find Islam doing better in Soviet ally Syria than in pro-Western Saudi Arabia or Egypt. It is the kind of judgment that reinforces the views of the state itself.
Soviet Islam, like all other official aspects of Soviet life, is filled with political overtones that reflect the interests of the Kremlin.
For example, an Indonesian queried the communist journai New Times this year about an appeal by the Committee for Islamic solidarity to ensure that the rights of Soviet Moslems be preserved. Abdulla Nurullaev, a member of the Soviet Council for Religious Affairs, retorted that the appeal "has nothing to do with the truth." The government "guarantees to Moslems the right to profess their religion, to practice the Islamic cult."
Official Soviet Moslem literature published by the Moslem religious board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan pursues the same line, heavy with paeans to the Soviet Union.
In a recent edition of the board's slick-paper quarterly, Moslems of the Soviet East, for example, an article on "Islam and Justice" discusses koranic justice in broad terms, then adds:
"On our part, we, the Moslems of the Soviet Union, just like the rest of our Soviet people, with great pride can affirm the fact that we live in such a country where the principle of fair distribution of material benefits among all members of our society is predominant. The practice of building life on a novel footing in the Soviet Union has provided us with opportunity to permanently abolish such social maladies, as the unfair allocation of work and consequently, unjust distribution of material benefits."
The magazine, published in Arabic, English, French and Uzbeki, is now 10 years old and constitutes one of the board's principal means of spreading its message abroad. Its pages are filled with similar praise for the Soviet state by local Moslems and testimonials from foreign Moslem holy men, who write to say that after trips here their fears of religious repression in the Soviet Union were unfounded.
The board's head is 70-year Sheikh Ziyautdin Babakhanov, grand mufti of Central Asia and now in his third decade as effectual spiritual leader of all Soviet Moslems. The board says Moslems are more independent in religion than in pre-revolutionary times, when the czarist Interior Ministry appointed the grand mufti. Now he is elected by a group of imams. Grand Mufti Babakhanov, unfailingly projecting a bring future for his Soviet people, keeps a busy schedule of receptions for visiting Moslem delegations and trips abroad to religious conferences and Third World parleys backed by the Soviet government.
Western analysts say that one target of this activity is Saudi Arabia, whose conservative Moslem government flatly refuses to grant diplomatic recognition to the Soviet Union because of the Kremlin's atheist, antireligious policies and practices. The Soviets hotly deny this is their aim, saying the sheikh's activities, aside from being his own business, are nothing more than an accurate reflection of the truth of Islam in the Soviet Union.
Foreign holy men on official visits to the sheikh also are customarily shown the Imam Al-Bukhari Mosque here and the Medressah an official Moslem theological school in the ancient city of Bukhara.
Mukhtar Abdullah, the 50-year old director, has spent virtually his entire life at the Medressah, going there as a teacher in 1948, two years after it was reopened at the end of a long period of Stalinist repression of Moslems.
According to the director, the growth of Islam is a natural result of the school's enlightened curriculum as approved by the central religious board. In prerevolutionary times, he said, the "imams didn't explain the Korean because they didn't understand it themselves. This is the great difference between now and earlier."
Students are required to master Arabic, mathematics and geometry as well as other aspects of Moslem culture. "Mosiems now are gathering to listen at mosques, since the Koran is explained," Abdullah said. "They are very happy with these new imams and they write to say that before, they didn't understand."
Placing Central Asia in a historic context, the official quarterly recently gave the following account which was a clossic of the Soviet art of historic political distortion:
"The Moslem republics struggled side by side with Chrisdtians ones against czarism. With the help of Christian republics, Moslems were able to overcome their backwardness, to form their national governments and achieve unprecedented progress in their economy, science and culture. All achievements of our republics in their development is the result of cooperation at national level. Collaboration in its turn helped to get rid of distrust and hostility in the relations among religions."
This passage, in the quarterly Moslems of the Soviet Union is characterisic of much official Moslem writing. It is revealing in other ways as well: its paternalism and detectable unease about differences between the Asian and European republics underscore continuing official concerns for harmony and Slavic hegemony here in Central Asia.
The rapid growth of the Asian population while the European population remains static has set off unique public debates over the best way to assure the integration into Soviet culture of these new millions.
Next: Moslem population boom CAPTION: Picture, A farmers' market is located behind the Great Minaret of Khiva in Uzbekistan.