Reviews

N. Farkhshatov and M. Isogai, historians of Islam and its institutions in Russia in the late Tsarist and early Soviet periods, propose a fac simile edition of the manuscript autobiography of Hasan ‘Ata’ ‘Abashi, preceded by a short introduction in English and Russian. The Imam of a suburban village of Kazan, Sulabashi, Hasan ‘Ata ‘Abashi (حسن عطاء عبشی, Mukhametov for Russian sources, 1863-1936) was also the creator of a madrasa influential in the Middle Volga Region and a figure of the Spiritual Assembly of the Muslims of Russia, in Ufa – until his arrest and deportation in January 1932, at the height of a campaign of expropriation which targeted, in all the south of the USSR, the religious personnel of Islam. Written in Volga Tatar in January 1928, the text, annotated by the author, was copied the same month, by an anonymous scribe, in pen and blue ink in a very simple writing in the reformed Arabic alphabet, on the pages of three assembled school notebooks. Preserved in the Department of Rare Books of the Library of the University of Kazan, the text had already been analysed in detail by Ildus Zahidullin (‘Häsängata Gabäshi khatiräse’, Fänni Tatarstan 2015/2: 122-39).

In their brief introduction, the two editors place its current rediscovery in the context of the integration of an ever-increasing number of Tatar and Bashkir autobiographical sources into the contemporary historiography of the Volga-Ural region of the long nineteenth century — especially from the viewpoint of the development there of an Islamic reform (islah) movement, from the end of the eighteenth century onwards. M. N. Farkhshatov and M. Isogai point to the antecedents of ‘Abashi (a paternal line of peasant-owners established as imams, teachers, calligraphers and tombstone carvers; a maternal line closely related to the renowned scholarly polygraph Shihab al-Din Marjani). They highlight the quality and diversity of his intellectual training in Kazan (with, among others, orientologists such as Gotval’d or Katanov), the innovative character of his work as a historian (his ‘Comprehensive History of Turkic Peoples’ in particular, published in Ufa in 1909), and finally the importance of his public action as a moderniser of the paternal madrasa and as a Judge (qazi) at the Assembly of Ufa. They also evoke his post-revolutionary political action between the First Congress of the Muslims of Russia, in May 1917, and the closure of the madrasa of Sulabashi by the Soviet authorities eleven years later, followed by the expropriation of ‘Abashi in 1932, his arrest and deportation.

As the editors suggest, the text, in the form of a pre-typescript, was written by ‘Abashi, perhaps for regional political and police authorities, for self-justification, presenting himself as a ‘destitute imam’ working for ‘the poorest’ at a time when, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, the clouds were gathering over Soviet Muslim scholars and their institutions. ‘My autobiography’ thus belongs to the memorial phase of what historians still call ‘Jadidism’ — a set of Islamic reform initiatives that, from the early 1880s onward, focused on introducing modern (jadid) methods of teaching in the confessional schools of Russia’s Muslim population. This memorial phase began at the end of the 1920s in Russia itself, as well as in the Caucasus and Central Asia, with the multiplication of retrospective testimonies, combined with the development, first in the Volga-Ural region and then further south, of a genre of historical novel that sought to establish Islamic reform as the intellectual heritage of the Muslims of the USSR — a literary genre that current historians of Islamic reform in Russia and the USSR tend to neglect, despite the heuristic issues it represents.

Largely represented in the press and in the edition in Turkic languages of the USSR between 1928 and 1936, this selective memory of the Jadid moment has long nourished and conditioned the Soviet historiography of the Volga-Urals and of Islam in the Russian Empire. This is why, probably, this historiography has long been insisting so much on school reform (to which ‘Abashi has devoted the most part of his testimony of 1928) and showed less interest in other, notably political aspects of ‘Jadidism’ as it developed between the end of Alexander II’s reign and the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution. (To be convinced of their significance for ‘Abashi, one needs only to look at the paragraphs he dedicates, in ‘My Autobiography’ [pp. 14 ff.], to the elections to the local elective assemblies — the zemstva at regional level and the city dumas — inherited from the Great Reforms of the 1860s–70s.) Besides, the edition of such a source further sheds light on the key role played, in the development of a modern Islamic schooling, by semi-rural institutions closely connected to the Muslim suburbs and marketplaces of the major cities of the Volga-Ural region.

Stéphane Dudoignon,  CNRS/GSRL, Paris
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