Saparmurat Niyazov also known as 'Turkmenbashy' (Head of the Turkmen) was the leader of Turkmenistan from 1985 until his death in 2006. He was the first president of the country in 1991, following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He was First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party from 1985 until 1991. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, he continued to lead Turkmenistan for 15 years until his death in 2006.
Turkmen media referred to him using the title "His Excellency Saparmurat 'Turkmenbashy,' President of Turkmenistan and Chairman of the Cabinet of Ministers". He successfully created a cult of personality surrounding his leadership, matched only by the Kim Dynasty of North Korea.
His self-given title 'Turkmenbashy,' meaning 'Head of the Turkmen,' referred to his position as the founder and president of the Association of Turkmen of the World. In 1999, the Assembly of Turkmenistan declared Niyazov President for Life of Turkmenistan.
What is the Ruhnama?
The Ruhnama, 'The Book of the Soul', is a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov. It combined spiritual and moral guidance, an autobiography and revisionist Turkmen history; not all of the book has been proven as factual and therefore has been met with much scepticism outside of Turkmenistan.
It was intended as a form of 'spiritual guidance of the nation' and the basis of the nation's arts and literature. This was done by creating a positive image of the Turkmen people, a heroic interpretation of its history, the reintroduction of Turkmen customs and the definition of "moral, family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmen - 'Turkmenization.'
This would be accomplished by the book being the centre of the Turkmen universe. As such, the book was seen everywhere in Turkmen society during the time that President Niyazov was in power in the country.
The Ruhnama was introduced to Turkmen culture in a gradual but eventually pervasive way. Copies were first placed in schools and libraries for all to read, but eventually, the book became a requirement to pass even a driving test or apply for a job in Turkmenistan.
Later on, it became mandatory to read Ruhnama in schools, universities and governmental organisations - a crucial part of the curriculum. In order to be hired for a governmental position, interviews were conducted surrounding one's knowledge of the Ruhnama.
In March 2006, President Niyazov was recorded as saying that he had interceded with God to ensure that any student who read the book three times would automatically get into heaven.
This was a controversial topic in a predominantly Muslim country, who's religion already has a book by God - the Qur'an.
History of the Ruhnama
The original idea for what became the Ruhnama came during the last days of the Turkmen SSR, when during a convention of Government officials. They thought it would be beneficial to write a comprehensive history book about the Turkmen People, which until then was almost non-existent or written entirely in the context of Soviet Historiography.
The Book was initially written as a collaboration between the Turkmen State University and several other institutes in Ashgabat, sponsored by the Turkmen Presidency.
In 1994, after the book's completion, Niyazov was unhappy with the end result and ordered the book to be withdrawn and established a committee to rewrite the book.
The second copy of book again failed to meet Niyazov's standards, so he again ordered it withdrawn - this time claiming himself as the sole author.
Upon issuing the first copy of the Ruhnama in 2001, Niyazov stated that it would "eliminate all shortcomings, to raise the spirit of the Turkmen people".
In 2004, Niyazov issued a second volume, covering morals, philosophy and life conduct. The book was a substantial part, if not the most crucial part of Niyazov's personality cult and his administration's policy of 'Turkmenization.'
After the books publication, the teaching of algebra, physics and physical education effectively ended in Turkmenistan. In its place, students were told to memorize the Ruhnama and chant slogans praising President Niyazov.
In August 2005, the book was launched into space. The first part of the Ruhnama was launched into orbit and is supposed to orbit the Earth for the next 150 years - immortalising the book.
The Ruhnama in Turkmen Society
Knowledge of the Ruhnama is compulsory in Turkmenistan, imposed on religious communities and society in general. Although, since Niyazov's death in 2006, the government has eased many of the rules and regulations surrounding the book.
However, the work is still an important pillar of Turkmen society. It is a main component of education from primary school to university.
Knowledge of the text is required for passing education exams, holding any state employment and to qualify for a driving license. In the past, students were expected to memorize entire passages, if not the entire book.
The Ruhnama was also present in official state ceremonies. It was seen both physically on stage, as well as in the performance itself, with participants holding the book and often reciting it.
Public criticism of the Ruhnama was unthinkable.
Even a small insult to the book or its text was seen as the equivalent to showing disrespect to President Niyazov himself, and harshly punished by the law.
In Ashgabat, the country's capital, a huge mechanical statue is dedicated to the book. Each evening at 8:00 pm, the cover opens and a recording of a passage from the book is played with an accompanying video for all local residents to come and see.
"The Ruhnama is a holy book" was carved into one side of the entrance arches at Central Asia's largest mosque in Niyazov's hometown, and "The Qur'an is Allah's book" was carved into the other, creating much controversy amongst followers of the Islamic faith in Turkmenistan, as well as across the world.
Citizens of Turkmenistan cannot escape the book in their daily life. Direct quote are inscribed on Ashgabat's array of fountains, monuments and official buildings.' The book is widely available and has been translated into 41 languages.
Controversy Surrounding the Ruhnama
The government of Turkmenistan required bookstores and government offices to display it prominently - and mosques to keep it as prominent as the Qur'an.
After some imams refused to comply with this demand, alleging that compliance would be blasphemous, the state reportedly demolished mosques that did not comply with the demand.
As such, the Turkmen regime has received much criticism from Muslim communities and leaders around the world who don't believe it to be on the same level as the Qur'an.
Atlas Obscura (2018). 'Giant Ruhnama.' https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/giant-ruhnama.
Halford, M (2010). 'Shadow of the Ruhnama.' https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/shadow-of-the-ruhnama.