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The Ruhnama (The Book of the Soul) is a book written by Saparmurat Niyazov, the President of Turkmenistan from 1990 to 2006, combining spiritual/moral guidance, autobiography and revisionist history; much of it is of dubious or disputed factuality and accuracy. The text includes many stories and poems, including those by Sufi poet Magtymguly Pyragy. It was intended as the "spiritual guidance of the nation" and the basis of the nation's arts and literature, by creating a positive image of the Turkmen people, a heroic interpretation of its history, the review of Turkmen customs and the definition of "moral, family, social and religious norms for modern Turkmens". This would be accomplished by the book being the "centre" of the Turkmen universe.
The Ruhnama was introduced to Turkmen culture in a gradual but eventually pervasive way. Niyazov first placed copies in the nation's schools and libraries but eventually went as far as to make an exam on its teachings an element of the driving test. It was mandatory to read Ruhnama in schools, universities and governmental organisations. New governmental employees were tested on the book at job interviews.
In March 2006, 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. After the death of Niyazov in December 2006, its popularity remained high. In December 2009, President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov still strongly recommended that the government use the Ruhnama as an instrument of youth education.
Niyazov issued the work's first volume in 2001, saying it would "eliminate all shortcomings, to raise the spirit of the Turkmens". In 2004, Niyazov issued a second volume, covering morals, philosophy and life conduct. The book was a substantial part of Niyazov's personality cult and his administration's policy of Turkmenization. The government 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 some mosques.
In May 2004, the government-controlled website Turkmenistan: The Golden Age released a statement announcing the phasing out of "several educational and scientific directions and subjects of minor importance". The teaching of algebra, physics and physical education effectively ended in Turkmenistan. In place, students were encouraged to memorize the Ruhnama and chant slogans praising President Niyazov. A 30-year-old engineer reported that "all [his son] learns is passages from the Ruhnama, and he has started telling me off because he has memorised more of the book than me".
In August 2005, the first part of the Ruhnama was launched into orbit so that it could "conquer space" as well. It is supposed to orbit Earth for the next 150 years.
In 2011, several years after Niyazov's death, the Ruhnama was removed as a mandatory subject in Turkmen schools. However, it was noted that books written by Berdymukhamedov, Niyazov's successor, had begun to be included in coursework. There were concerns that the cult around Niyazov would simply be replaced by another cult around Berdymukhamedov.
The Ruhnama's role in society
Knowledge of the Ruhnama is compulsory, imposed on religious communities and society generally. The work is the main component of education from primary school to university. Knowledge of the text (up to the ability to recite passages from it exactly) is required for passing education exams, holding any state employment and to qualify for a driving license. Official ceremonies have featured hundreds of singing Turkmens holding and performing choreography with the book.
In 2002 it was reported that "[w]hatever people might think of the book in private, public criticism of the work would be unthinkable." Public criticism of or even insufficient reverence to the text was seen as the equivalent to showing disrespect to the President himself, and harshly punished by dispossession, imprisonment or torture of the offender or the offender's whole family if the violation were grave enough. Since Niyazov's death, punishment for disrespect of the book is in a questionable status.[clarification needed]
There is an enormous mechanical statue of the book in Ashgabat, the country's capital. Each evening at 8:00 pm, the cover opens and a recording of a passage from the book is played with accompanying video.
Months after President Niyazov's death in December 2006, the Ruhnama's grip on the Turkmen public appeared undiminished, the AP's Benjamin Harvey reported in May 2007. Television stations featured solemn readings from the book. "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, wrote Harvey, adding: 'Posters of the Ruhnama flank the roads of the capital city, Ashgabat, alongside likenesses of Niyazov. Quotations from it are inscribed on the desert city's fantastic array of fountains, monuments and official buildings.'
Michael Denison, of the United Kingdom's University of Leeds, told the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs' IRIN News: "I don't think [the Ruhnama] will be disavowed [...] It might just [become] rather perfunctory." Others hope for restoration of full secondary and tertiary education and changes to the curriculum, which were cut back and reformed under Niyazov to be based primarily on the Ruhnama.
Questions remain about whether Niyazov actually wrote the Ruhnama himself; an anonymous scholar quoted in The New Yorker claimed that Niyazov was "somewhat illiterate". The book has been translated into 41 languages.
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