Each of the three above-mentioned books would have deserved a distinct comment. However, if the present reviewer has preferred to devote them one, an exceptional feature in the Central Eurasian Reader, it is because of the common themes and ideas that are present in them. First, they are assembled by their common interest in the history of Islam. Second comes they deal with Islam as it developed in regions of the present-day Federation of Russia very rarely in the focus of Islamic studies. Third, these works have been written by ethnographers, all originating from the regions described, or in the case of the book on Islam in Western Siberia, with participation of ethnographers ― which is also relevant for our purpose.
But let’s begin with the beginning. Islam in Russia has nowadays become extraordinarily popular. This is indeed part of the overall tendency in the world of growing interest in Islam and the Muslim societies, as a reflection of the political and geopolitical transformations of the past decades. In the framework of this overall book of studies on Islam have been appearing a number of clearly xenophobic ‘studies’ and publications that seek to oppose Islam to other religions and to the world as a whole. They attribute a whole set of negative characteristics to Islam and Muslims, depicts the history and culture of the world of Islam exclusively in dark tones. Unfortunately, Russia’s public opinion and research have not escaped this trend. The books reviewed here belong, on the contrary, to an opposite category of less massively distributed but more scientifically based approaches to this subject. Each has adopted a different structure, although all present the same monographic genre of narrative, combining excursus into history and ethnographical descriptions.
The book by A. V. Syzranov on Islam in the Astrakhan Territory consists of five chapters: the first four ones give a characteristic of the history of Islam in the Lower Volga Region from the Middle Age to our days, while the fifth one is devoted to a detailed description and analysis of the practices and representations of local Muslims. The historical part of the book speaks of the Khazar Khaganate and of the Golden Horde, with more detail of the Khanate of Astrakhan and of the formation of diverse groups of the region’s modern Muslim populations. It then deals with the policy of the Russian Empire towards Islam, and with the peculiarities of the life of Astrakhan Muslims under Russian dominance, as well as with the history of regional Islam in the Soviet and present periods.
The book by A. Iarlykapov on Islam among the Steppe Noghais is made of three chapters built up on a more economic chronological order (the pre-Soviet, the Soviet and the present periods), with evocations of Noghai culture in each of these three chapters. The author notably depicts the specificities of nomadic Islam and its interactions with the Muslim polities of Central Asia and of the Caucasus. He evokes the life of the Noghai community of believers in the Russian Empire, the participation of the Noghais in the post-WWI civil war, the repression of Islamic practice and institutions by the Bolsheviks, the means of survival of Islam during the Soviet period, and the transformation of Islam during the past two decades.
As to the book on the history of Islam in Western Siberia, it constitutes the first of a planned series of three volumes. The first chapter is devoted to the region and its geographical and cultural countryside; the second and the third ones deal with the sources of the mediaeval and modern periods, and with the existing historiography. The authors describe in detail the composition of Siberia’s Muslim population, its origins and ethnic particularities, before exposing at length the materials of their considerations: oral traditions (diverse genres of oral creation, proper names, etc.), written traditions (genealogies, legends, historical works, tombstone inscriptions, official documents, Russian chronicles, works by Russian geographers and ethnographers, travelogues, administrative documents, statistics, etc.), and material artefacts (jewels, amulets, archaeological discoveries, worship buildings and places, drawings, photographs, coins, etc.). Detailed paragraphs are also devoted to the history of the study if Siberian Islam.
A common point of all these authors is their mobilisation and critical utilisation of the biggest available amount of primary written documentation, including a wide range of archive documents, combined with rich field materials collected by each during years or decades of personal fieldwork. All these studies are also devoted to peripheral regions of Islam in the present Federation of Russia ― the main historical centres of which are located in the Middle Volga Region and in the North-Eastern Caucasus. This peripheral character raises a lot of interesting and productive questions. For instance, how does Islam develop in the absence of intimate relations with major religious and cultural centres and of the pressure of a strong dogmatic tradition? Or how does Islam interact with local, pre-Islamic customs and representations?
The authors of all three books have been building problematic out of these issues, defending notably the notion of “popular Islam” nourished by a number of pre-Islamic and non-Islamic elements. All provide detailed depictions of local cosmologies and demonologies, of survivals of shamanic practice and of animist representations, of agrarian rituals, of local versions of Islamic calendar and family rituals, of pilgrimages to holy places. We see in their works how Islamic and non-Islamic representations neighbour with each other and interknit for creating a united cultural entity. It is particularly remarkable that the authors have non only endeavoured to reconstructs individual representations, but have also followed their transformations through written sources and oral inquiries, tracing the dramatic history and oblivion of lots of elements of culture, the conflicts between different cosmographic systems, and the adjustment of Islam to constantly changing contexts and conditions.
A. Iarlykapov, for instance, provides interesting information on the Noghai institution of the yilli molla, a connoisseur of theology who also commands to the spirits (yins = djinns) and can heal people with the latter’s help. In this figurehead of Noghai Islam one can observe the perfect interlink of ‘orthodox’ and ‘popular’ elements of Islam, which is impossible to detach from one another. In his depiction of holy places in the Astrakhan Region, a theme of many research works by specialists of Islam in the Caucasus and Central Asia, A. Syzranov suggests a long tradition of exchanges between these two regions. He observes in particular the migration through Astrakhan of a number of cults from the Caucasus and from Central Asia. Holy places offer another example of the way Islam borrows custom, beliefs and practices from other, vernacular traditions. The latter are then integrated into a new religious system in which they act without contradicting the Muslim faith and identity.
Indeed the belief in spirits and the cult of holy places has almost always raised objections and condemnations from ‘orthodox’ Muslims and accusations of ‘association’ (shirk). At the same time, for many they constitute part and parcel of Islamic practice, and contrary to one can see in a lot of normative publications, this is not the researcher’s work to take party pro or contra. If in everyday ethnographic practice one can observe lots of expressions of local cultures (regional or social), any attempt of interpreting them as independent phenomena completely detached from restrictive written norms leads to a methodological cul-de-sac, and to the adoption of a normative viewpoint and posture very close to those of fundamentalists ― a position that, in the course of the twentieth century, was quite often that of ethnographers and even more often that of specialists of Oriental studies.
A lot of other aspects are dealt with in the three books reviewed here. Such is the case notably of the current processes observable in Russia’s Islam, beginning with the restoration of local communities and of their confessional institutions, the renewal and transformation of religious practice, the appearance of new Islamic religious currents and tendencies extremely critical to traditional rituals and eager to conquer leading positions among believers. The reader remembers that it is precisely in Astrakhan that took place in June 1990 the constituent assembly of the All-Soviet Party of the Islamic Revival, which gave birth to a number of Islamist organisations in the whole Soviet space. He will remember that it is in Astrakhan that were founded a lot of those so-called ‘Wahhabi’ communities that have since then gradually been excluded from the Northern Caucasus. A. Iarlykapov also evokes at length the progression of radical and literalist movements among the Noghais. Of course this theme requires more detail studies, permanent monitoring and reinterpretations and will, no doubt, remain a major subject of investigation for our authors.
The reviewer would like to add just a few words on the contribution by ethnographers to the study of Islam. The fact is that during the Soviet period access to the study of Islam within the USSR, in its peripheral regions in particular, was restrained to professional islamologists. In the country of the soviets, there no more Islam than sex. Ethnography remained alone in its face-à-face with local Islam and tried to mobilise its own resources for the understanding of the situation of Muslim practice and consciousness. More recently, when the subject ceased to be out of reach of the public debate, islamologists have tried to appear as the exclusive possible commentators on past and present-day Islam in the former Soviet Union, accusing their colleagues from other disciplines of ignoring the history of Islam and of its sacred texts.
This reproach is indeed founded: This ignorance or neglect has given way to innumerable misinterpretations and doubtful definitions, beginning with the highly questionable notion of ‘popular Islam’. At the same time, Islam is not only made of texts ― by the way, often mutually contradictory ―, but also of living people with their visions of the things, their practices, their stereotypes, and their own contradictions. And this is why ethnographers continue and will continue to write on Islam. They will continue to study the way written rules and norms are adjusted in everyday life, without hesitating to question the islamological ‘truth’. The three reviewed books suggest to which extent ethnography has preserved till our days its contribution to the study of Russia’s Islam, and must continue to try hard not to lose the position it has conquered in the course of recent history.