Allen Frank has made his mark in the historiography of Islam and Islamic culture in the Russian Empire (in the eighteenth century – 1917) in two important and interconnected ways: (1) by uncovering, translating (into English), and providing textual analysis of a number of rare indigenous manuscripts that reveal the institutional bases and socio-cultural practices of Muslims in the Volga-Urals region and the Kazakh steppe, and (2) by unapologetically critiquing and challenging the persistent focus in recent scholarship on modernist and nationalist discourses in the region, at the expense of non-modernist and local alternative approaches to understanding diverse Muslim identities. This book, along with his An Islamic Biographical Dictionary of the Eastern Kazakh Steppe 1770-1912: Qurban-‘Ali Khalidi (co-authored with Mirkasyim A. Usmanov) [Brill, 2005] and numerous articles and other books, plus several reference works on regional Islamic terminology and practices, provide a body of scholarship that in itself opens new worlds for the researcher of the Islamic history of Russia. Alas, most of his books are published by small or specialty presses, so that they are prohibitively expensive for most people—which perhaps explains why so much historical scholarship still presents the Kazakh nomads and other non-urban Muslims as “superficially Islamicised,” an indictment impossible to contemplate if one is familiar with the evidence of lively Muslim communities that Frank provides in all of his work.
This book has as its foundation the Tawarikhi-i Alti Ata, a manuscript history, written in 1910 by two Tatar village imams (father and son), of the predominantly Tatar Muslim rural communities in one district of Samara Province, bordering on the lands of the Kazakh Inner Horde and the Ural Cossack Host. After introductory material placing the communities in their geographical, economic and ethnographic contexts, the bulk of the book examines each of several “Muslim institutions”—religious figures and administrators, mosques, educational institutions and teachers, rituals (e.g., prayers, pilgrimage), and lastly, these institutions among Kazakhs and Muslim Cossacks. In each case, we learn about how these institutions functioned and what roles they played—from why and how mosques were built (there is rich material here for architectural historians) to methods of fundraising for education, to types of prayers performed. A. J. Frank presents both general comparative information on the broader Volga-Ural region (and Kazakh steppe) and information from Novouzensk district itself, drawn from the manuscript. The result is an incredibly rich and detailed analysis of the diverse local Muslim communities in the Russian Empire.
Conceptually, A. J. Frank follows Michael Kemper in seeking to understand the “Islamic discourse” of the region, and he argues that the foundational elements of that discourse are in these local Islamic institutions. Frank’s analysis reveals an “autonomy” of Muslim institutions from the non-Muslim world—they inhabited an Islamic world, although they cooperated with (rather than confronted, he argues) Russian laws and institutions, as necessary. In this local history, he has uncovered a vibrancy of institutions that does not fit well with presumptions in modernist and nationalist scholarship, especially of the “reactionary” forces against which Jadids positioned themselves. While Frank appropriately situates Novouzensk in a broad context, we will look forward to the uncovering and analytical uses of other such manuscript histories to expand our understanding of Muslim identities and practices under Russian rule.