Mahalla – Traditional Institution in Tajikistan and Civil Society in the West

by Saidbek Goziev (Author)
©2015 Monographs X, 186 Pages


The guiding theme of the book is a traditional institution of Tajik culture: mahalla – neighborhood. For centuries it has sustained the existence of Tajik culture, and in times of the greatest religious persecution in the USSR it has helped Islam to survive. In this book the author does not limit himself to the description of mahalla and the explanation of its social functions; a significant part of the book is constituted by a comparison of mahalla with the concept of civil society existing in contemporary Western culture. For this reason, the book examines differences between Eastern and Western cultures, in which the specificity of the first is collectivism, and the second individualism. The author’s considerations are based on two pillars: firstly, he has great knowledge on theoretical literature and field studies while secondly an important role has been played by the fact that he has spent a large part of his life as a resident of mahalla in Tajikistan before beginning his studies in the West. This very fact has allowed him to meet Western civil society as an observer. Precisely, the experience of living in these different societies permits the author to formulate his own opinions and conclusions, sometimes surprising to the reader.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Author
  • About the Book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Acknowledgements
  • Table of Content
  • Introduction
  • Methodology of data collection
  • 1.2.1. Hierarchy of data sources
  • 1.2.2. Analyses of historical and ethnographical literature concerning mahalla
  • 1.2.3. In-depth interviews with mahalla members
  • 1.2.4. Participant observation of daily life of mahalla and mahalla meetings (majlis)
  • Chapter 1: The cultural differences between the East and the West. (Western individualism versus the Eastern spirit of community)
  • 1.2. Western spirit of individualism versus Eastern spirit of community
  • Collectivism
  • Chapter 2: Mahalla
  • 2.1. Tajikistan
  • 2.1.1. Tajikistan – general Information
  • 2.1.2 Historical background
  • 2.1.3. Contemporary Tajikistan
  • 2.1.4 Structure of the society
  • Family
  • 2.1.5. Mahalla throughout history
  • 2.1.6. Early period
  • 2.1.7. The Soviet period of Mahalla
  • 2.1.8. Post-Soviet period of Mahalla
  • 2.2. Structure of mahalla
  • 2.2.1. Social composition of mahalla
  • 2.2.2. The Head of the Mahalla
  • 2.2.3 The role of mullah, the council of elders, and duties of mahalla members.
  • 2.2.4. The role of women in mahalla
  • 2.3. Mahalla and traditional informal social institutions in Tajikistan
  • Jamoat
  • 2.3.1 Avlod
  • 2.3.2 Qawm
  • 2.3.3 Gashtak or Davra
  • 2.3.4 Mushkilkusho
  • 2.3.5 Shinosbozi or jurabozi
  • Sufi Clerics
  • Chapter 3: Theories of civil society in Western social science
  • Chapter 4: Can mahalla be considered as a counterpart to Western civil society?
  • 4.1. The problem of legitimacy of comparison civil society and mahalla
  • 4.1.1. Equality versus Hierarchy- casus Putnam
  • 4.1.2 Mahalla and modernisation projects
  • 4.1.3 Is Mahalla a public benefit organization?
  • 4.1.4 Cultural values of the Tajik people
  • 4.1.5. Education
  • 4.2. Mahalla as a source of social capital
  • 4.2.1. Trust and cultural values of Tajiks
  • 4.2.2. Not only trust
  • 4.2.3. The role of the mahalla in relations with the state
  • 4.3 Conclusion
  • References
  • Appendix
  • Map of the Republic of Tajikistan
  • Field Research areas in Tajikistan.
  • Questionnaire for interview with mahalla members
  • Questions to respondent
  • Imprint
  • The list of mahallas in Jamoat Mirzo Rizo, Hisor region.
  • Schools in Jamoat Mirzo Rizo
  • Nations of Jamoat Mirzo Rizo
  • Respondent 1. The name of mahalla: Tuda
  • Imprint
  • Respondent 2. The name of mahalla: Nojii bolo
  • Imprint
  • Respondent 3. Dushanbe city- mahalla Zarafshon


My thesis topic focuses on first, understanding the function of mahalla — a traditional social institution in Tajikistan, which fulfills an important life-long role in promoting and preserving the cultural values of Tajiks, and second, on justifying the equivalence of mahalla to the concept of civil society in the West.

In this dissertation, I will search for an answer to the question why the traditional institutions in Tajikistan, especially mahalla, are inadequately involved in the development process or even at times, are dismissed from it. In my opinion, mahalla, as a social institution, is open to economic and political transformations because its structure is dynamic and flexible The centuries-long history of mahalla manifests its vitality in various political and economic fields, albeit it also demonstrates how mahalla upholds values by carefully protecting them and discouraging change.

An historical sketch of mahalla illustrates the process of its development and adaptation throughout the pre-Soviet, Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Its survival during the anti-religious and anti-nationalist propaganda launched by the Soviets is an evidence of the inrootedness of mahalla into the social fabric of daily life. As a social institution, mahalla sustains its own unwritten rules and codes of behavior, that altogether are based on cultural values. This reflects the peculiarity of Tajikistan, and leaves open the hope that mahalla can be used to implement various changes to enhance the lives of the Tajiks.

The structure of the dissertation is organized in such a way as to reach the above formulated aims. In the first chapter, I will work to explain the differences between the Western and Eastern cultures. On the basis of the scientific literature that I had been reviewing, I examined the opposing differences between these cultures: individualism- collectivism. I will work to justify that individualism is still an alien concept to Tajik society, whereas the spirit of community and collectivism have been ones of the prior hallmarks of Tajik culture throughout all its history.

In the second chapter, I will provide general information about mahalla and its history, structure and functions that are performed in relations to its members. As a part of this chapter, the description of informal institutions of Tajik society such as avlod, qawm, jamomad, mashwarat and gashtak are touched ← 1 | 2 → upon1. Due to their existence, the structure of Tajik society is different from the structure of all Western societies that I have studied. All these institutions play an important role in the life of every Tajik. The strength and power of these institutions show that they have significant sway on the economic conditions of the mahalla, and they can counterpart any unfavorable policies initiated by the state authorities. The third chapter contains general characteristics of civil society in the West and a discussion of some theories concerning this concept. Particular attention is devoted to the views of Piotr Glinski.

In the fourth chapter, I will pursue answering such central question, “Can mahalla be considered a counterpart to the Western concept of civil society?”. Subsequently, I discuss the views that might preclude the recognition of mahalla as civil society institution: referring to Robert Putnam’s point of view: the civil society cannot be embodied in a hierarchic society, and modernization theories stating that in the process of modernization, the traditional social institutions should be eliminated and replaced by new ones so in the case of Tajikistan it would be NGO’s replacement of mahalla.

Addressing to the view that mahalla is the equivalent of Western civil society, I will justify characterizing mahalla as a public benefit and point to cultural factors that produce a significantly higher social capital than is possible in Western society. At the end of the chapter, I will analyze the role of mahalla as a mediator between its members and the state administration. In the final portions of this chapter the specific attention is to be paid to justifying the view that through an appropriate legal basis, mahalla could be utilized as an instrument to bring Tajikistan closer to the notions of Western democracy.

In the West, with exception of Poland, mahalla has not commonly been the subject of scientific research. In Poland, several texts concerning mahalla were published. The texts were based on actual Polish field studies. I am pleased to say that my personal views about the social role of mahalla fall fully in line with assessments of Polish researchers. I see this as confirmation that my belief about mahalla being used as an instrument of political transformation is not idiosyncratic, taking into account the fact that the author is an ethnic Tajik. ← 2 | 3 →

Methodology of data collection

1.2.1.Hierarchy of data sources

During my research, I used several tools and methods to deepen the understanding of the subject and to collect a diverse array of data for explanation and analysis. This paper will present data sources and discuss the chosen methodological topics related to the data collection process. These methods include:

reading ethnographic literature concerning mahalla and reviewing the archives of mahalla;

the conducting of interviews with members of various mahallas and representatives of the international aid organizations working in Tajikistan;

an analysis of publications concerning traditional institutions in Tajikistan;

a participant’s observation of life in mahalla, based on the author’s own experience.

1.2.2.Analyses of historical and ethnographical literature concerning mahalla

For the reason of existing several sources of data, it would be logical to think about hierarchy of the sources of this dissertation. The ethnographic and historical literatures provided the core of the research. It would have been impossible to write about this subject without knowledge about the history and the creation of the traditional institutions, especially mahalla. The main sources concerning the history of mahalla are Narshakhi’s book, “History of Bukhara”, Sukhareva’s book, “Квартальная община позднефеодального города Бухары (Quarterly community of late feudal city Bukhara)” and Sadriddin Ayni’s books concerning the daily life in the mahallas of Bukhara.

It should be noted that there is almost a complete absence of Western sources on mahalla. As I have stated above, it has not been the subject of scientific research, except in Poland. In my dissertation, I have referenced Arabic, English, Polish, Russian and Tajik sources. The papers written by Western authors were useful as instrument in such degree to prevent the appearance of any possible pro-Tajik bias in my research.

1.2.3.In-depth interviews with mahalla members

To collect primary source data, I conducted a focus group and semi-structured interviews with key informants (mahalla members, members of council of elders and Rais- the head of mahalla), and also performed an analysis of secondary ← 3 | 4 → sources. The data received was mostly qualitative, which added some peculiarity to the description of the results of the study. I hope this method helped me to receive answers to the hypothesis mentioned in the introduction. I also prepared questionnaires for the semi-structured interviews with the key informants – head of mahallas, members of mahalla, mulla and council of elders. I had open interviews and was a participant observer in different parts of Tajikistan: Badakhshan autonomous region (mountainous province in the east of Tajikistan), Dushanbe (capital city), Hisor2, Fayzabad3, Shahrinaw4, Tursunzoda5 and Sughd region (northern part of Tajikistan). I had conducted 60 interviews, however, I only have recorded 25 of them. I had 15 interviews with different mahallas in Hisor region, five interviews in Dushanbe, and three with people from the Sughd Region and two in Gorno-Badakhshan (Autonomous Province). The questionnaire and the subjects of the focus group interviews are included in the appendix that provides an opportunity for a detailed review.

As it was mentioned before, I did not record all interviews. However I had used all of them in my dissertation. I chose these regions because of the complexity of geographical, economic and identical factors. Further in my dissertation I will give more information about differences between regions in Tajikistan. Additionally, in some regions mahalla includes all traditional functions and some mahallas are less traditional.

I conducted my field research during summers of 2010, 2011 and 2012 while on vacation in my home country. The 10 interviews of the 25 total were con ← 4 | 5 → ducted at participant homes, 8 were conducted in mosques after prayer, 4 were in teahouses and 3 were in offices. The average time of my interviews lasted from 1 to 1.5 hour. At the same time interviewees were not in hurry. Beforehand, I arranged time to do my interview comfortably to last at least one hour. Most respondents proposed to conduct interviews at their homes. As previously mentioned, eight were conducted in mosque after prayer.

I selected participants according to the following criteria: social status and position of influence in the life of mahalla (for example, the head of mahalla, vice head of mahalla, member of council of elders). Moreover, the majority of my respondents are highly educated. Thus I selected mahalla members with high education and who are very active in everyday life. As for gender characteristics – 20 respondents were men and 5 were women in the main group. The representation of women is much lower because men publically participate in everyday life of mahalla, because women are occupied with family issues6.


X, 186
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
gesellschaftliche Institution westliche Bürgergesellschaft Islam moralische Werte
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. X, 185 pp., 16 b/w fig., 3 tables, 1 graph

Biographical notes

Saidbek Goziev (Author)

Saidbek Goziev studied International Relations at the Tajik State University in Dushanbe (Tajikistan). He earned his MA in Politics and Society from the University of Lancaster (United Kingdom) and his PhD in Social Sciences from the Graduate School for Social Research at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. His main research interests lie in Sociology, Politics, Diplomacy, History, Religion, Cultural Studies and Anthropology.


Title: Mahalla – Traditional Institution in Tajikistan and Civil Society in the West
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198 pages