Reviews

“Islam and politics:” this binomial appears in innumerable wordings on Central Eurasian modern and contemporary societies.  It is the subject of academic meetings and publications in which government orders and short-term political preoccupations have been exerting an ever growing influence over the three past decades, in the aftermath of the ‘Islamic’ Revolution in Iran.  Fortunately, no external pressure of such a kind seems to have conditioned the content of either the present colloquium (in Kazan, on May 1-2, 2004), or that of its proceedings:  Both were initiatives of the French Institute of Central Asian Studies (IFEAC, Tashkent)—an institution principally authorised by its very status to develop on the long turn original and ambitious projects, far from the requisites of diplomatic headquarters.  Moreover, the volume is distinguished from the bulk of publications with an analogous title by its refusal of the ‘Orientalist’ vision of Islam that is still vivid in the academic circles of both the former USSR and Western Europe—a vision characterised by the overvaluation of a classical and normative Islam, and by the establishment of a strong dichotomy between ‘traditional’ and ‘reformed’ religion.  (See on this point the comment published on the Russian version of the same volume by a prominent anthropologist of the Caucasus, Vladimir Bobrovnikov, in the prestigious Muscovite journals NZ and Vostok.)  One can also rejoice oneself (as does Bobrovnikov in his review) that contrary to a majority of recent contributions, little room has been devoted in the present volume to what M. Laruelle and S. Peyrouse call “Muslim extremism”, and that the authors deal at length with majority practices—notably with the question of everyday relations between varied kinds of religious institutions, on the first hand, and political authorities on the second hand.

At the same time, the volume stands back from previous initiatives and publications by the IFEAC, notably by its authors’ weak interest in history.  It also betrays the lack of familiarity of a number of its contributors with Islamic culture and with the vernacular languages of the region here considered.  These shortcomings have given way to numerous more or less significant mistakes, and to some howlers—extensively described by Bobrovnikov in his review of the Russian version.  (From this viewpoint, the French translation of papers written in Russian is, alas, not outdone:  A pilgrim back from the hajj is said returning “from the medina” instead of from Medina [p. 245]; terms of Arabic origin are transcribed from a modern Tatar or Russian orthography, which makes them hard to recognise, for example bidgat instead of the more famous bid‘a [p. 51]; the “gösher, a systematisation of the sadak [sic, p. 49],” has not been recognised as what it is, i.e. the ‘ushr, the tax on the fortieth part of the income, very different in its principle from the sadaqa, the legal alms repeatedly re-interpreted by Russia’s legislation since the late eighteenth century).  Moreover, a majority of the contributions remain limited to the level of a wide and rather abstract generality, sometimes ending with the formulation of overused stereotypes (e.g. on “traditional” Islam seen as essentially “non-political”, p. 51) and to a number of factual errors or ill-chosen remarks (for instance on the adoption of Islam by the majority of the population in Chechnya and Dagestan in the sixteenth, instead of the eighteenth-nineteenth century; on the creation of the Spiritual Directorate of the Muslims of Middle Asia in 1941 instead of 1943, etc.).  In a lot of cases, the edition work shows rather approximate: about the North-Caucasian scholar Lazgin Damulla, for instance, one could write without turning a hair that “he had studied between 1910 and 1920 in Egypt with Muhammad ‘Abduh,” who had died in 1905 (p. 256).  To say nothing of proper names re-transcribed from the Russian in such a way as to render them unrecognisable: “Trimingem” for Trimingham (a famous historian of mystical paths in Islam), “Arne K. Zaifert” for Arne Clemens Seifert (a former diplomat of the GDR who is active since the late 1990s in conflict resolution in Tajikistan).

Indeed the present volume also bears testimony of a progress if compared with many publications of the end of the Cold War period, especially through its contributors’ interest in contemporary phenomena and by an overall effort for cutting up with the normative vision of numerous ethnographers from Russia and Central Asia.  However, a number of the papers do not offer an identifiable disciplinary profile and, therefore, a coherent vision:  Judging by the footnotes, most are constructed on a more or less regular reading of the national and regional press (in Russian language, since publications in vernacular languages are loftily neglected by most contributors to the volume).  Four contributions manage to stand out in this collection, each of them to be resituated in the rich individual path of its respective author: Radvanyi Jean, “Quelques réponses à une question non posée: l’islam et le recensement de la population de Russie en 2002,” 159-69, tab. (infra 440); Babadjanov  Bakhtyar & Olcott Martha Brill, “Sécularisme et islam politique en Asie Centrale,” 323-36 (infra 463); Abachine Sergueï, “Le soufisme ‘populaire’ en Asie Centrale,” 309-22 (infra 454); Muminov Ashirbek, “Chami-Damulla et son rôle dans la constitution d’un “islam soviétique,” 241-61, ill. (infra 484).

More subtle than a majority of the contributions of the same volume, in spite of its cut-and-dried aspect, the paper on ‘popular’ Sufism in Central Asia, written by a Moscow-based ethnologist with a significant fieldwork experience in the Fergana Valley, begins with a critical assessment of most blatant Western stereotypes on the alleged structure and influence of Islamic mystical paths (otherwise called ‘brotherhoods’) in Central Asia.  This useful preamble is followed by a captivating study on the role played by the sacred lineages of pirs and on the religious motives of their ceremonies and of their authority.  Through the question of the dividing-up of Transoxiana into sacred territories in the aftermath of the Arab conquest, the author questions the idea of the decay of Sufism toward “Ishanism”.  This concept launched in the 1970s by the Soviet ethnographer Olga Sukhareva (on her, see in supra 68 the review of the article by Naumova) has been re-appropriated without a great critical effort by a number of Western specialists of Sufism in Central Asia—according to an overall process of borrowing from Russian and Soviet ethnography that perpetuates the most deplorable European and North-American intellectual customs of the Cold War period.  Stressing that the so-called “decay” of Sufism actually is a characteristic feature of “real” Sufism (a rather unfortunate expression), the author casts light on the way ‘anomalies’ denunciated by some remote observers—such as kinship systems functioning on a fixed territory, proximity relations with a spiritual master, village legends on the activity of a local saint, etc.—have constituted during the Soviet period the basis of the Sufi “infrastructure”.  Through its conclusive postulates on the central role of un-normed Sufism in the political sociability of Central Asia, the paper sketches perspectives for a renewal of the study of Islam in this region of the world.  At the same time, it confirms the existence of a strong essentialist trend in the Russian anthropology of Central Asia, based on the ‘Orientalist’ primacy of religion in local societies perceived as typically “traditional” (see also the review by Alexandre Papas in infra 454).

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: I-5.3.A-427