Prozorov, S. M., ed., Islam na territorii byvshei Rossiiskoi imperii : entsiklopedicheskii slovar’ [Islam in the Territories of the Former Russian Empire: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary], vol. 2, Moscow: Nauka – Vostochnaia Literatura, 2018, 648 p., forewords in Russian and English, ill., bilingual indexes

It is quite uneasy for even a modest participant in an editorial production to report on it himself. The act is, by the way, obviously contrary to the ethics of critical monitoring. Nevertheless, it can also be an opportunity for taking some distance from, and to critically reflect on, the place that a particular research, individual or collective, occupies or may be brought to occupy in a dynamic of knowledge construction. This is particularly the case of large-scale collaborative projects such as those we will discuss here: encyclopaedias of Islam in the former Russian Empire, the ex-USSR and the current Russian Federation, which have come to the light in Moscow but also in Russia’s regions since the mid-1990s. In particular through the most ambitious of them: the one coordinated from the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences by Sviatoslav M. Prozorov, in fascicles, then in volumes since 1996, and the various echoes that this publication has had in the provinces, where it has spurred on undertakings comparable in subject matter and ambition though dissimilar in purpose.

There is certainly not enough space here to review the countless reflections that the work coordinated by Prozorov and his team (of seventy-six authors — including the present one — from fourteen countries for this second volume, made of two hundred and twenty-five articles) offers of the revival, since the end of the Soviet period, of the history and social sciences of Islam in what is known today as Central Eurasia. However, a purpose of Wikistan is to examine the possible interactions between the academic institution research and civil society, and the contribution of fundamental research to the evolution of representations. So it may not be out of place to question here the overall vision that, despite the lack of a real planning of articles and the modesty of the print run (500 copies), the coordinators intended to propose of Islam, at a time when many a former Soviet country has been asking itself a lot about the place of religion in society.

Our main observation is that of an approach to Islam as heritage, the coherence of which is all the more striking that, as said above, it results from the individual choices of the authors. This is clearly expressed, in this volume as in the previous one of the same encyclopaedia (published in 2006), by the dominance of historians, archaeologists and palaeographers in the panel of authors as well as by a rich central booklet of colour illustrations that highlights a selection of monuments of mainly ancient architecture. As is often the case in encyclopaedic literature, the themes focus on the biographies of great figures of the Islamic past of Central Eurasia (including several scholars and gnostics of the short twentieth century). They are completed by articles on the history of the institutions and currents of Islam in Russia and the USSR (several regional muftiates of the Soviet period but also North Caucasian ‘Muridism’ or the Volga Tatar ‘Euroislam’ of the 1990s-2000s), on some reference works among which madrasa literature (foremost amid them, of course, the Hidaya) and regional historical chronicles (such as an early-seventeenth-century Darband-nama), and on a range of localities and holy places related to the history and memory of Islam (with special interest in this volume for border towns of the modern period like Astrakhan or Orenburg). Rare are the cross-cutting topics (‘Music and Islam’, ‘Zakat’) dealt with in a regional historical perspective, from the viewpoint of the debates they gave rise to in the Russian Empire and the USSR. If anthropology is present (articles by S. Abashin, A. Krämer. . .), it is through the ethnography of traditional feminine and masculine ritual sociability, treated in terms of historical survivals.


In a brief foreword on current Islamological research in Russia (pp. 18-20 for the English version), S. M. Prozorov speaks out against what he calls the idealisation of Islam and the extreme diversification of present discourses on it, especially in social media — calling for the creation of an ‘Institute of Islamic Studies’ which, supervised by the Academy of Sciences, would become a hegemonic prescriber of cognitive norms (on the scale of Russia or the former USSR: this is not specified). Overall, the encyclopaedia seems to have wanted to turn its back on the intense, often violent public debates that have been raging throughout the post-Soviet area for more than three decades about Islam in society. Its publishers claim to represent a ‘serious Islamology’, based on documents and field research, detached from the polemics of the time — while proposing something that is the exact opposite: actually, this volume, through its disciplinary and thematic orientations and its editorial choices, appears largely if not explicitly as a concerted response to these debates.

A specific feature of this response is its opposition to the often politicised transnational visions that are expressed in social media, through the treatment of Islam as a regionalised civilizational heritage. A heritage derived from traditions developed in the territory of the former Russian Empire, preserved during the Soviet period thanks to the work of a few — to whom tribute is paid —, before undergoing new developments today. (See for instance the articles on the Soviet Tatar cleric ‘Abd al-Khabir Yarullin, pp. 457-9, or on the present-day Tajik religious poet and calligrapher Ibrahim Naqqash, pp. 185-6). In the end, many of the transformations particular to the Tsarist or Soviet periods — starting with the impact of specific socioeconomic contexts on the cultures of Muslim holiness, which are attested to in the current hagiographic experiences — appear little.

As for the current extreme diversification of ‘Islamic discourse’, perhaps it could have become the subject of a critical treatment by the encyclopaedia, as a phenomenon in its own right, in a notice for example on the religious Internet or on cyber-Islam in the former USSR, compared with other periods of recent history (with the early twentieth century for instance, in relation with the development of a ‘Muslim’ press in the Russian Empire from the 1880s onwards). Some explanations too, in a slightly developed foreword, could also have lightened the role that academic research intends to occupy in the religious field – a role advocated by the entire encyclopaedia and its project for an Institute of Islamic Studies


This absence of critical distance, combined with the adoption by public research of more or less assumed position of prescriber, can be found in other comparable editorial initiatives, of which the regions of Russia have been the crucible over the last fifteen years, in the wake of that of the Institute of Oriental Studies. A prescriptive position, in this case, is all the more pronounced as these initiatives combine human science research with Muslim religious personnel from a variety of religious institutions, cultural and educational. We will take one of them as an example: the encyclopaedia of Islam in the regions of the Russian Federation published in Nizhny Novgorod since 2007 by the Medina Foundation and its young president, Dämir Mukhetdinov (b. 1977), the supreme authority of Islam in this former fair town, which has become in the Soviet period, under the name of Gorky, the major industrial centre of the upper Volga Basin.

The first opus in the collection deals with the Nizhny Novgorod region itself (D. V. Mukhetdinov, ed., Islam v Rossiiskoi Federatsii [Islam in the Russian Federation], vol. 1, Islam na Nizhegorodchine [Islam in the Nizhny Novgorod Region]), Nizhny Novgorod: Medina, 2007). Like the other volumes, it expands and amplifies several features of the encyclopaedia produced by the Institute of Oriental Studies of Moscow — starting with the aspiration, explicit here, to offer a politically correct view of Islam in the context of present-day Russia. Like its Muscovite model, it is more a dictionary than an encyclopaedia, focusing on the defence of historical continuity of Muslim religious thought, sociability and practice beyond the hiatuses of the ‘Soviet century’. To this end, it draws on a combination of legacies: firstly, of the institutional framework of the muftiates inherited from the Tsarist and Soviet eras, of which the role of conservatory is exemplified here; secondly, of the historical Sufi Paths (turuq), of the Naqshbandiyya especially, and of their main representatives in the region during the twentieth century too; finally, of the institution of the madrasa (see the long developments on it, pp. 99-107) as transmitter of the Hanafi madhhab (confessional system), which has been historically dominant in Sunni Turkic Islam, from the Balkans to the Gates of Gansu, and of which Medina has become a major promoter in Russia.

Based on historical written documentation — to the detriment of such social sciences as anthropology or sociology, which are this time completely absent —, the collection combines local erudition (Rus. kraevedenie, a set of disciplines that lie at the heart of territorialized memory processes in the post-Soviet world), academic humanities (history, Tatar philology and philosophy are the three disciplines representing academic research) and the historic discourses of the main confessional institutions of the region (including the Spiritual Direction of Muslims of the Nizhniy Novgorod Region, the Husayn Fayzkhan Islamic Institute of the city and the Islamic Congress of Russia). To be remarked, too: a close association of the Nizhny Novgorod scholars with academic centres of Kazan, the Volga Tatar metropolis, home to a major Muslim Spiritual Directorate which plays an axial role in the enactment of religious norms through the Russian Federation.


The result is a fascinating panorama in many respects — certainly tanks to the mass of factual information that it contains but also, and perhaps above all, because of its production of a special blurring of boundaries between the academic, religious and political fields, characteristic of the former East Bloc in general (see the works of the sociologist Patrick Michel). This blurring is typical, in particular, of the expertise of the religious phenomenon, especially in relation to Hanafi Sunni Islam, as it has been redeveloping since the late 1990s in Russia, the Caucasus and Central Asia, in the context of the ‘struggle against terrorism’. From this viewpoint, the neighbouring of notices that one might be tempted to call catechetic on the Hadith, the concept of halal or the salat (five-time daily prayer) with biographies of scholars of Oriental studies oftentimes connected, in their lifetime, with prominent clerics questions the continuity of the presence of Oriental studies in the religious field, specific to the Russian-Soviet field and still insufficiently questioned despite the recent multiplication of individual or collective projects on the legacies of Soviet oriental studies.

It remains to be seen what combination of factors has allowed this current dominance, in both Russian and international research, of a patrimonial approach to Islam, specifically centred on the former Russian-Soviet domain. One of these factors probably lies in the philosophical and disciplinary profile of a substantial part of human and social-science research on modern and contemporary Central Eurasia, as it has developed internationally since the late 1980s. Partly dominated by historians working with ‘Oriental sources’, and continuing to rely on many assumptions particular to the Cold War period, it has tended to focus on Islam – on Sufism, especially – as a prominent historical vector – long seen, from a culturalist perspective, as a factor of ‘resistance’ or, more recently, ‘resilience’ in the face of a sovietisation (another ill-defined concept). The importance of this vector is only just beginning to be relativized, as an important part of the academic literature on modern-day Central Eurasia remains dominated by Islam-centred approaches.

A second factor in the primacy of a heritage approach centred on the valorisation of the Hanafi Sunni Muslim confessional tradition (madhhab) as it has developed from Central Asia over more than a millennium, probably comes from the geopolitical context in which the relative renewal of research has taken place over the last three decades. Indeed, the period was marked from the outset by armed conflicts linked to the gradual dissolution of the USSR (the Afghan jihad since 1979, the Qarabagh war from 1987, the civil war in Tajikistan in 1991-97, the wars of independence in Chechnya, etc.); it was then impacted by the watchwords of the ‘anti-terrorist struggle’, concomitant in the countries of the former USSR of the repression of transnational proselytizing movements, Muslim in particular, politicised or not, perceived as threats to the region’s ‘stability’ (the Pakistan-based Tablighi-Jama’at, the Nurcus from Turkey, the Hizb al-Tahrir of Palestinian origin, the Egyptian Muslim Brother movement. . .). These policies, it should be noted, were developed within a specific multinational framework: that of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the growth of which during the same period favoured an overall security approach to religion in general, to Islam in particular, by the Organisation’s member states, whether they had a majority or minority Muslim population.

A third identifiable factor, also specific to the former Soviet space, is the local and regional scale in which the rediscovery and revaluation of Islam, and its anchoring in historically defined territories and human groups, has taken place over the last thirty years. To be convinced of this, suffice to look at a set of Muslim hagiographical experiences as they have developed since the early 1990s throughout the Caucasus, Central Asia and Russia – experiences centred on the celebration of men of God (much more rarely women, we tried to explain why in a session of EPHE’s Central Eurasian Workshop) active during the 20th century within particular, essentially local and regional, sometimes ethnic communities. These groups have developed, often with participation of kraeved-s or of local academics, hagiographic productions focused on the sanctification of territories that have their origin from the demographic engineering of the Soviet period. (This engineering consisted, in the Soviet South, of the resettlement of rural populations, together with local, sometimes ethnic economic specialisations, sometimes on the scale of a collective farm or even of a brigade of production, as amply suggested by the ‘Allah’s Kolkhozes’ project of the Volkswagen Foundation, in 2014). It is on this basis that, since the late 20th century, a series of processes of valorisation of the territories and communities resulting from these transformations has been developing, through the cult of contemporary Muslim saints celebrated as community founders. Far from constituting an isolate or a conservatory, as has been thought here and there since the Cold War, Soviet Islam and its current revaluations as a legacy bear the deep mark of a succession of very contemporary contexts, the clarification of which could show of great profit for present-day research.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, CNRS/GSRL, Paris