A captivating illustration of the current rapprochement between the religious personnel of Islam and the scientific institutions of the Federation of Russia, the present encyclopaedia ― the first of a series of dictionaries on Islam in varied regions of the country ― is introduced as the result of an initiative by the Spiritual Board of the Muslims (infra: SBM) of the Nizhny Novgorod Region of Russia. This organisation’s young and extremely active Chairman, Gömer Häzrät Idrisov, was able to federate the efforts of a wide range of religious and secular funds and organisations for the support of an editorial project intended for the rehabilitation of the image of Russia’s Islam, frequently deteriorated for a couple of decades in the country’s main mass media. In this aim, accent is systematically put, in the volumes of this series, on the indigenous traditions of Islam and on their indissociable links with the most ancient populations of the distinct region that is dealt with in each volume. This allows the SBM of Nizhny Novgorod, now one of the most active and authoritative regional Muslim boards of the Federation of Russia, to promote the idea of Islam as a traditional religion of the country besides Orthodoxy, viz. to defend it against suspicion of political power and part of the public opinion, and to designate as alien those Islamic movements and trends that are of recent appearance ― and almost never appear in the dictionaries of this series.
Symbolically, the present volume, the first of the series, is devoted to the city and region of Nizhny Novgorod. After the theological publications launched by the SBM during the past fifteen years, the prominence of the city and of the region among Russia’s Islam is now underlined thanks to the new enlargement of local lore (kraevedenie), to the study of Islam and of Muslim populations, as this specific set of disciplines and erudition used to be practiced in Russia in the Tsarist period. Nowadays as in the early twentieth century, in Nizhny Novgorod this study is centred on Tatar villages and local communities of Muslim followers, with special interest in the history of religious and ethical education. Significant part of the present dictionary has been based on the private archive of parents, descendants and fellow countrymen of mosque imams of the past. This specificity provides the volume ― as well as most other volumes of the same collection ― with an invaluable documentary value, and makes it a possible basis for the orientation of further research. Indeed the very modest demographic significance of the Nizhny Novgorod Region, as far as Islam is concerned (currently 1% of Muslim Tatars), did not suggest that it might become a centre for the current renewal of Islamic studies in the former RSFSR. However, the antiquity of Turkic settlement at this crossroads of the Volga and Oka River basins, as well as the very role played by the Muslim suburb of Kanavino during the yearly Fair of Nizhny Novgorod (250,000 visitors from all over the world of Islam every year in the early twentieth century), and the great Muslim congresses of the early twentieth century, and nowadays the economic importance of the city (a centre of immigration from all over the former Soviet Union) all contribute to enhance the region’s significance from the viewpoint of the history of Islam.
Written by a team of Tatar scholars from Nizhny Novgorod itself, secondarily from Kazan and Moscow, the substantial articles of this genuine encyclopaedic dictionary deal with the varied aspects of the history and social sciences of Islam in the Middle Volga Region. As in the other volumes of the same collection, each article is followed by a short bibliography of secondary but also of primary sources (archive documents, manuscripts, early-twentieth-century Muslim press, etc.). The main categories of subjects include: (1) a large majority of bibliographical articles, comparatively less important in the following volumes (most of these articles are devoted to religious personnel of Islam, from Catherine II’s reforms in the late eighteenth century to the present, with little data on figureheads active in the USSR after the Red Terror; a number of articles also deal with modern and contemporary Tatar intellectuals originating from or active in the Nizhny Novgorod Region like early-twentieth-century theoretician of Turkic nationalism Yusuf Aqchura, reformist theologian Musa Jar-Allah Bigi, etc.); (2) populations and ethnic groups (from the mysterious Burtas mentioned by primary sources from the eighth to the seventeenth century to the dominant Mishar Tatars); (3) facts and events of varied size and significance (from the Waysi [Vaisov] religious, gnostic and military movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century to the large Muslim congresses organised in the early twentieth century in Nizhny Novgorod [pp. 37-41], or to the recent publication of books on the history of the Muslims in the Volga Region); (4) a large variety of institutions and social bodies (from innumerable madrasas [pp. 99-107] and various categories of the religious personnel of Islam itself ― the traditional abyz in particular [from Arabic حافظ], or the akhun of the Spiritual Assembly created by Catherine II [from Persian آخوند] ― to the mid-sixteenth-century Bashkir & Mesheriak Army, or to Muslim charities in early-twentieth-century Nizhny Novgorod); (5) technical terms pertaining to the Islamic theology and law (like adat [عادت], akida [عقیده], bid‘at [بدعت], waqf [وقف], etc., on which the SBM and Tatar secular intellectuals often share the same reformist or modernist views). Contrary to the following volumes of the collection, this first attempt gives no room to geographical articles on distinct places, either rural or urban. Even the highly symbolic village of Safajay, the object of several monographs since the end of the Soviet period [e.g., infra No. 376], is mentioned only through its famous late nineteenth and early-twentieth-century madrasa.
In all, this genuine and well-published, attractive encyclopaedia offers a relatively varied illustration of the state of our knowledge on the history of Islam in a peripheral and minority region of the world of Islam. Its lacunae partly reflect those of the current scholarship. As far as history is concerned, these gaps regard primarily, as in other regions of Russia’s Islam, early mediaeval history and archaeology, the early modern period after the establishment of Russian dominance, and the Soviet period itself ― which is dealt with in the present volume only through lists and articles of repressed imams of the 1930s. The present situation of Islam is almost completely neglected, and tackled almost exclusively by articles on the SBM itself, or on its satellite institutions and organisations like the Medina Publishing House.