Reviews

The essential purpose of this annotated bibliography is to document Islamic pamphlets that were available in Kazakhstan during a given point of time:  The literature described here has been collected around sacred places in the cities of Almaty and Turkistan during three weeks in October 2005 (the date 1995 is erroneously provided on p. iii).  The bibliography thus provides a snapshot of what sorts on inexpensive Islamic literature was available to Muslims in these two places at that specific moment.  Another aim of the bibliography is to explore how the content of this literature reflects current Islamic debates in Kazakhstan—a country where one can observe, as elsewhere in Central Asia, tensions between, on the one hand, adherents of traditional Islamic practices, especially Sufism and rites associated with Sufism (such as the veneration of saints and shrines), and on the hand other rationalist proponents of reforming the way Islam is practiced.

The book is opened with a well-informed and useful overview of the history of Islamic publishing in present-day Kazakhstan, from the early nineteenth century to our days.  Relying notably on pioneering and now classical works by Abrar Karimullin (on the history of Arabic and Turkic-language printing in the Volga region) and by Subhanberdina & Seifullina (on the history of book printing among the Kazakhs), the author judiciously notices that the Kazakh oral epic tradition has remained central to the dissemination of Kazakh Islamic knowledge throughout the Russian Imperial period, then strongly influencing the form of mass-market publishing.  A.J.F. also points out the key role played by Muslim printing houses in Orenburg, Ufa, and especially Kazan in the creation of a distinctly Kazakh market for inexpensive Islamic literature.  A vast body of texts, particularly Islamic texts, was used especially in the Hanafi curriculum: Such works formed the basis of the earliest print publications in the early nineteenth century, and remained the stock-in-trade of Islamic publishers down to 1917.  The proportion of Kazakh-language works published in Russia was substantial:  It demonstrates the emergence of a unique Kazakh market in this period, and can be viewed as the foundation of modern-day Kazakh-language mass-market publishing, “if not of the Kazakh literary language itself (p. vii)”.  The Soviet period is rapidly evoked through the evocation of a necessarily limited underground production of Islamic samizdat.  The current period, partly documented by Bruce Privratsky’s informed and thoughtful ethnographic work, focuses on the evolution of Islamic publishing into a profit-oriented enterprise in the years following independence—which does not prevent many publishers to display clear ideological biases in their publications.  In southern Kazakhstan, many Uzbek-language pamphlets are available, both locally produced and imported from Uzbekistan—among the latter, a number of publications of the higher official religious authorities of this country.

A second introductory chapter is devoted to ideological and theological currents in Kazakhstan mass-market Islamic publishing, which permits the author to put right a number of lasting stereotypes on “Islam in the steppe.”  The first key aspect is the existence of a strong current of Islamic reformism—A.J.F. introduces Islamic reformism and its early modern history in Russia and the Steppe in a synthetic sub-chapter.  As to “folk Islam”, in the line of B. Privratsky’s work (and his own previous publications on the Tsarist period) the author assesses that, rather than a survival of shamanic views and practices it should be seen as “a surprisingly unified system of Islamic rituals deriving from Sufi practices and conceptions (p. xi)”.  A.J.F. still adds that despite the clear Islamic, and especially Sufi antecedents, and the near-universality of this sort of ‘popular Islam’ in Muslim communities world-wide, Kazakh Muslims have partially assimilated rationalist Soviet and reformist assumptions depicting these practices as somehow ‘sub-Islamic’.  As a result, the practice of these traditions occurs in a context in which many Kazakh believers now differentiate between ‘incorrect’ popular practices and ‘correct’ reformist ones—the Soviet legacy determining in many respects the way Islam is evolving in Kazakhstan today.  If before 1917 virtually the only type of education available to Kazakhs was Islamic education, after 1930 the only education legally available to them was secular Soviet education.  For this reason during the Soviet period Kazakhs, most of whom have been learning Russian, if not forgetting Kazakh, have become culturally quite distinct from their ancestors, and have had very little exposure to Islam, or to religion in general.  Besides, the Soviet period is also characterised as an era during which reformist trends have been almost continuously encouraged by the official authorities of Islam, especially by Ziya al-Din Khan Babakhan (1908-82, a scholar whose family was originating from Sayram, in southern Kazakhstan) during his long tenure (from 1957 to his death) as the Mufti of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan.  By January 1990, Kazakhstan had its own muftiyyat, the Religious Board of Kazakhstani Muslims, which has continued the Soviet practice of appointing the imams of the country’s Muslim congregations, further reinforcing the prominence of reformist ideas in the country—a theological orientation quite evident in Islamic publishing.  Reformist Islam appears particularly appealing among many formerly secularised and urban Kazakhstanis, who were isolated from traditional Kazakh practices, and also adhere to the rationalist conceptions of religiosity characteristic of both Soviet secularism and Islamic reformism.  From this viewpoint the publications coming from southern Kazakhstan, notably those collected by the author in the holy city of Turkistan, differ considerably from the works published in Almaty: there, many titles consist of works devoted to local Sufi figures and practices, and particularly to local shrines.  His collection and catalogue allow the author to conclude that overall, in Kazakhstan today the same sorts of theological debates between Islamic reformism and Central Asian traditionalism that have characterised the Islamic history of the Kazakh steppe throughout modern times are evident in “popular” Islamic literature circulating there—the relative openness of the debate in Kazakhstan reflecting the theological peculiarities of markets in, respectively, a reformist centre such as Almaty, and a centre of traditionalism like Turkistan.

The catalogue obtained provides invaluable data on books in circulation in the autumn 2005, the photography of a particular moment in the history of Islamic book-printing in Central Asia.  The volume is concluded with the publication of some facsimiles and translations. Each notice, besides a detailed description of the book (author, editor, publisher, place and date of publication, print run, language(s), ISBN, number of pages, and last but by far not least: the place of purchase), provides invaluable data on the history of the text and on its successive publications in Central Asia or Russia since the nineteenth century.  Given the shortness of the author’s journey, a remarkable effort has been made for identifying the authors.  Three centres of Islamic publishing have been identified in Kazakhstan since independence: Almaty (the centre of Islamic publishing in general as far as Kazakhstan is concerned), and the cities of Shymkent and Turkistan in the southern part of the country. The bibliography is divided up into varied genres:

Indeed, the outburst of Islamic publishing in the former USSR since 1991 remains still relatively limited, if compared with the massive scale of Islamic publishing in Russia before 1917.  In Kazakhstan, it to a large degree reveals a conscious continuity with the pre-Soviet traditions, and attests of a wide range of Islamic publications.  At the same time, Soviet-era criticisms, evidently still circulating in Kazakhstani society, continue to exert a strong influence on the content of Islamic literature.  This influence is reinforced with that of Islamic reformist trends, coming from authors from both inside Kazakhstan or from the former Russian-Soviet domain (see the place devoted in calendars-almanacs to early-twentieth century reformist authors like Isma‘il Ghasprali [1851-1914], Mir Ya‘qub Dawlat-ughli [1885-1935], or Khalil Dustmuhammad-ughli [1883-1939]), and from abroad (mainly Saudi Araba or Iraq as far as the Near-East is concerned).  Numerous texts, both reformist and traditionalist, defend the prerogatives of traditional authorities of Islam: for instance treatises on prayer often offer warnings to the readers that prayers designated for healing afflictions should only be performed by Islamic healers, “possessing a number of specifically Islamic qualities:”  First the healer (emshi, täwip [from the Arabic tabib through a Persian intermediary]) must have a master who gave him or her a formal blessing (bata); second, the person who obtained the blessing must perform the five daily prayers, observe the Ramadan fast, perform ablutions, and be clean; third, he or she must have his own personal path that comes from the ancestors—this insistence on a combination of spiritual and genealogical affiliation being a key feature of healing in Central Asia.

In short, this apparently modest but successfully ambitious book offers an exceptionally sharp insight on the state of the Islamic discourse and the Islamic debate in Central Asia, twenty years after Gorbachev’s coming to power in the former USSR.  The innumerable misprints that have been brought about by a hastily preparation do not manage to hamper the reading nor the proper understanding of Allen J. Frank’s captivating work. Some critics indeed may be expressed, for instance on the fact that the author, a deserving pupil of Devin DeWeese and of the particularly fertile School of Bloomington, has focused his attention on pilgrimage places, totally forgetting other spaces of Islamic religious practice and thought, notably the madrasas that are conspicuous by their weak representation from the present collection though they both produce and absorb a vast majority of the Islamic literature printed or sold in Central Asia, in the form of innumerable textbooks of varied size and content.  One may also deplore—as the author himself does in a prolepsis worth of those used by Kazakhstani scholars of Islam themselves—the qualification of the studied literature as “popular” or “intended for a popular audience (p. iii).” Given the wide typology of the genres here represented, and the openness of their respective authorships and readerships, it seems simplistic to use such a restrictive appellation, heavily connoted by the legacy of social sciences studies—both Western and Soviet—of Central Asian Islam.  The same could be said of an apparently more felicitous expression, that of “mass-market” Islamic publishing: this too does not reflect the very functioning of the Islamic book market in modern-day Central Asia, a key feature of which is the printing of religious literature for limited readerships.  (I think, in particular, to a number of recently printed collections of mystical poetry edited at their expense by wives, sons, daughters or disciples of relatively numerous underground authors of the Soviet period.)  “Inexpensive Islamic literature” seems more appropriate, and represents a real progress towards more simplicity and lesser systematisation in dealing with the modern history of Islam in Central Eurasia.  However, the most deplorably restrictive and inappropriate denomination proposed by Allen J. Frank remains probably that given of his book’s very title, for the simple reason that his work is much more than a mere bibliography: Under this cover, it proposes to the international readership no less than a captivating and very detailed insight into the world of Islamic discourse in modern-day Central Asia.  In the future, ethnographers and specialists of Russian and Soviet studies will be deprived of the possibility to argue of the inaccessibility of primary sources, which may contribute to a deep and long awaited renewal of collective perceptions of Islam in Central Asia.  (For a review of another contribution in the same spirit by the same author, see our review of his “Islamic Debates” in infra 473.)

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: I-1.1.A-4