Across the four Moslem-oriented Soviet border republics, the subdued, carefully controlled face of Islam betrays barely a flicker of interest in the explosive Moslem revival storming through the nations to the south.
A recent tour of Turkmenia, Tadzhikistan, Uzbekistan and here in Azerbaidzhan revealed no detectable signs that the estimated 25 million Moslems of the Soviet Transcaucasus and Central Asia are stirred by the fundamentalist nationalism that has engulfed Iran and rocked governments in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Although Soviet Moslems have ethnic and religious ties to the people of neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, a combination of radically altered living conditions and pervasive authoritarian control directed from far away Moscow has effectively walled off Soviet Islam from the tumult elsewhere.
Some faint tracings of Moslem resentment against the Soviet system can be found here and there in private, unofficial contacts with citizens of these areas. But there is no evidence that such festering frustration or anger could coalesce into a pan-Islamic challenge to Soviet power.
The docile holymen who guide the officially approved and watched mosques of Soviet Islam vigilantly guard against such things. They walk arm in-arm with the communist government, overseeing the survival of their faith in a hostile world and carefully charting the slow but steady growth of Moslem mosques and clergy. In interviews, several made clear that they do not share revivalist sentiments.
While the clandestine Soviet radio in this Caspian Sea oil port beams Farsi-language support for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini into neighboring Iran, Azerbaidzhani religious leaders blandly label the upheavals there "a political, not a religious movement" and of little concern to their own Shiite, Azerbaidzhani-speaking followers.
Tashkent's Imam Yousoufkhan Shakirov is vice chairman of the dominant Moslem religious board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, which represents perhaps 18 million potential believers of Moslem heritage. He described the dichotomy this way:
"As a religious leader, I think religion should be separated from politics.
It is not a religious question when Kurds and Iranians shoot each other. It's a political question. The events in Iran only have influence on people who haven't chosen the right road yet . . . To stand on the Soviet road is to stand on the right road.
"We want friendly relations along the lines of our religion, but their system is their thing. If Iran wants a bourgeois republic and Afghanistan wants a socialist, it is their business. Our spiritual board wishes both the Afghan and Iranian people great success. But ad for what kind of difference Khomeini makes here, there isn't any."
The imam made a further distinction, extolling the Soviet constitution which ostensibly guarantes freedom of religion. "You have Moslem law in Iran, while here all religions have equal rights and I think all our religious leaders agree to this. If you are talking about a struggle between the state and Moslems, it does not exist here."
Later, he added, "religion plays a different role in different countries. For example, in Iran, all the laws are to be based on the Koran. But Iraq and Syria are not the same."
In the aggressively secularized world of Soviet Islam, religion plays hardly any active role. Although the U.S.S.R. is the fifth most populous Islamic nation (after Indonesia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India), life in the Moslem-dominated republic does not pulse to the cries of mullahs from minarets. The dominant themes are those of party, work and family.
In the oasis city of Ashkhabad, at the edge of the barren Kara-Kum desert and less than 20 miles from the Iranian border in the Kopet-Dag mountains, Moslem Turkmeni believers worship quietly at home. Their capital city, home to some 200,000 Turkmenis who consider themselves Moslems, has no mosque.
In fabled Tashkent, rebuilt into a modern Soviet city after the extensive 1966 earthquake, Moslem Uzbek families who gather for evening television typically are treated to concerts of Europe's great classical composers, beamed by satelite from Moscow, 1,400 miles to the west.
The official media attacks such traditional Moslem rites as the paying of a bride price and lavish partying at such family celebrations as the circumcision of an infant. Atheist propaganda proceeds in factory, farm, and meeting.
The muftis and their assistants, aware of the savage repressions of Islam in earlier decades of Soviet power and careful not to set back the slow renaissance of the faith during the 15-year era of President Leonid Brezhnev, find no trouble living on these terms.
"It's not a secret this is a communist country," observed Imam Shakirov."
It is impossible to say how many active "belivers" there are in Central Asia but the number must be far less than the population. Open prayer at work or school, common in the Middle East is virtiually extinct here. "Young people don't have time for it," said Imam Shakirov. But an aged Turk man in Ashkhabad confided: "They don't allow us to pray. It's dangerous."
There are about 200 officially approved cathedral mosques across Central Asia, and more are being opened each year, officials say. Tadzhiki religious leaders say crowds of up to 25,000 are common at Moslem holidays in Dushanbe -- once Stalinabad -- a capital with more than 400,000 residents. iThe Tashkent central mosque reports normal crowds of 5,000 at Friday prayer. t
Some Western analysts say there is an active undergroudn of unofficial mosques led by imams who are anti-Soviet and pan-Islamic advactes of the Moslem brotherhood. But it can be concluded that the atheist government would not allow Islam to expand at the official level if there was no need to do so.
Western reports of local resentment over Great Russian dominance of economic decisions must be weighed against the positive effects of Soviet power in Central Asia. Before the revolution, must of the populace was controlled and brutally exploited by emirs who ruled with the consent of the czars.
If Soviet authoritarian rule has brought setbacks to Islam, it also has brought peace and substantial prosperity to peoples who had virtually no knowledge of industrial processes, public health, public schooling or written language.
The social dislocations and severe exploitation that marked rapid industrailization in Islamic countries such as Iran -- helping trigger the present wave of anger -- have been muted here. Soviet Moslems in general live better material lives than the bulk of their kinsmen in Iran and Afghanistan. Although a few elderly beggers daily drift through the noontime crowd at the central teahouse in Dushanbe, and children avidly seek chewing gum from foreigners, the crushing poverty of the lands to the south, once part of life here as well, has been all but abolished.
" our prophet said poverty stands very close to lack of faith," according to Shakirov, who predicted that as local living standards rise, Islam will prosper as well. He added carefully, "I don't forsee any conflict with the state."
Accentuating the cultural submersion of Islam and the contrasting life -styles is the continued physical isolation form Muslems to the south.
No streams of believers making the hajj, the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, can be found at airports in this region. Religious authorities say only a handful -- perhaps not more than 50 a year from all four republics -- makes the journey. Most of them seem to be the holymen themselves or students at the two religious colleges operated with state acquiescence in Samarkand and Tashkent.
Iman Shakirov, like most Soviet Moslems a Sunni, said the journey is complicated by the fact that the Soviet Union and Saudi Arabia do not have diplomatic relations, requiring pilgrims to make arrangements through third countries.
Here in Baku, the deputy chairman of the Shiite-dominated Transcaucasus Moslem Board, asserted, hajj conditions are difficult anyway and not every Moslem considers it obligatory." Imam Khadzi Ismail Akhmedov added that Shiite believers "must leave everything behind and even divorce their wives" to make the journey.