Sartori, Paolo, Visions of Justice: Sharī‘a and Cultural Change in Russia and Central Asia, Leiden & Boston: Brill (HdO, 24), 2016; Sartori, Paolo, Ulfat Abdurasulov, ed., Seeking Justice at the Court of the Khans of Khiva (19th–Early 20th Centuries), Leiden & Boston: Brill (Brill’s Inner Asian Library, 38), 2020; Sartori, Paolo, Danielle Ross, ed., Sharī‘a in the Russian Empire: The Reach and Limits of the Islamic Law in Central Eurasia (1550–1917), Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020

The history of Islam and its reform and modernisation movements in the former Russian Empire since the second half of the eighteenth century is, today, the subject of numerous debates, spurred on by the generational renewal of research in this field since the 2010s. Over the decade, half a century of research has been challenged en bloc, to the point that earlier works tend to fully disappear from bibliographies. At the centre of this criticism is the historiography of a set of reforms, of Muslim school education in particular, in different regions of the empire between 1881 and 1917, which historians have long grouped together under the label of ‘Jadidism’.

The arguments of this criticism against the research carried out between the Cold War period and the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR are of three kinds: 1) the neglect by this research of a wide variety of indigenous sources, largely manuscript, which gradually became accessible to international research after the fall of the Iron Curtain; 2) the focus of this research on numerically small intellectual circles, which found themselves at the origin, at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, of a press and literatures proceeding from European models; 3) an overestimation of the socioeconomic and cultural impacts of the Russian conquest of the Caucasus and Central Asia during the nineteenth century and, therefore, a lack of interest in the historical continuities that also characterised this period.

An example of this critique is offered by a set of publications written or coordinated by Paolo Sartori, a historian of Islamic law and Muslim legal practice in Central Asia from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth century. This set consists of a monographic work published in 2016 on the way Muslim litigants in Central Asia under Russian rule viewed Islamic law between the 1880s and the 1910s (mainly in the Emirate of Bukhara); a collection of documents published in 2020, in collaboration with the Uzbek historian Ulfat Abdurasulov, on the practice of justice at the court of Khiva, before and after the Russian conquest of 1873; finally, a critical article also published in 2020, in a collection on Muslim judicial practices in the Russian Empire, on the notion of taqlid or ‘conformity’ to Islamic jurisprudence, a notion central to the debates of the early twentieth century between ‘reformist’ and ‘conservative’ Muslim theologians and jurists.

If these publications are discussed here together, it is because they are extremely coherent. The argument developed by Paolo Sartori first relativises the role of the Muslim intelligentsias born from the 1880s onwards with the spread of printing and the first ‘Muslim’ press of the Russian Empire. The main source of these works is an abundant legal literature, including fatwas, treatises on rights and rare memoirs by jurists. Their thesis is that the colonial project of transforming the Sharia met with little resistance among Muslim socioeconomic elites, for the reason that this transformation predated Russian rule: it took place through a mutation of the status and practices of the muftis during the century that preceded the conquest. From the second half of the eighteenth century, especially in the Emirate of Bukhara after the advent of the Manghit dynasty from 1754 onwards, this change limited the mufti’s previous autonomy, reducing the fluidity of the legal field: the role of the mufti was restricted to the cataloguing of accepted positions within an established jurisprudential tradition (madhhab). And this madhhab was limited to a local version of the Hanafi School, largely specific to the Emirate of Bukhara and to the Khanate of Khiva, both under Russian protectorate after 1873. The meaning of the term ‘fatwa’ itself changed and became closer, in this context, to that of ‘quotation’, while in the opposite direction Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) was enriched with local content, integrating a growing number of extra-legal considerations.

The first conclusion states that the development which led Central Asian Muslim jurists to ‘think of Sharia in terms of content rather than process’ long predated the Russian conquest. The second conclusion is that there was no frontal opposition in the legal practice of the colonial period between taqlid and ijtihad. On the contrary, these notions are mutually linked by a dialectical relationship, which is itself at the origin of a ‘historical continuum’ between the eighteenth century in Central Asia, the Russian conquest of the 1860s-70s and the beginning of the Soviet period. However, it is a polemical vision of taqlid as a vector of stagnation, and of ijtihad as a key to socioeconomic and cultural progress, that is found in the memory of Jadidism as it crystallised and developed in the first two decades of the Soviet period and in the Writers’ Unions that were organised at the turn of the 1930s. Moreover, it was this vision, characteristic of the 1920s-30s, that fed the conceptions of Soviet historians and philologists and, beyond that, of their Western readers of the Cold War period.

In the wake of the Bloomington School and its works on a new diversity of manuscript sources, Paolo Sartori proposes to dust off this still very influential dialectic. His latest publications show how Muslim jurists in Central Asia under Russian rule preserved the ‘integrity of the hermeneutic method of taqlid’, despite growing pressure from the administration and the Russian ‘pretentious Orientalists’ who supported it. His conclusion on the canonisation of legal hermeneutics as a reflection of a local sensibility that predates colonisation leads to a vision of the colonial period as an ‘experience of change’.

The observation that the modernisation movements did not affect legal hermeneutics in Russian Central Asia leads Paolo Sartori to promote the notion of ‘historical continuum’. As for the ‘traditionalism’ attributed by the Jadids to the supposed supporters of taqlid, it is introduced here as reflecting the demands for smoothing the orthodoxy of the Sharia by the Jadid intelligentsia and by the Russian colonial administration. This polemical category was later seized upon by Soviet critics to denounce Central Asian Islam as intrinsically retrograde, perpetuating and amplifying the divide between ‘modernists’ and ‘traditionalists’, Jadid versus Qadim, which was characteristic of an extremely brief historical period. The interest of such considerations is that they rely on an emic approach that takes into account a large segment of the population (i.e., the socioeconomic elites concerned with everyday legal practice), on the basis of documentation in vernacular languages (Persian or Turki) but also in Russian, of a relative typological variety. This is an approach that a growing number of young historians of Islam in the former Russian Empire have been trying to develop since the end of the twentieth century, through the ever-increasing variety of primary sources made available for research.

This makes certain omissions all the more surprising. Firstly, the omission of a whole section of past research, so much decried today, on the historical sociology of Muslim ‘traditionalism’ in the Russian Empire. This research, which was quite dynamic in the 1990s, has revealed the impact of localised socioeconomic developments on the emergence of new conflictuality within Muslim communities, which could not be reduced to an opposition between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’, but which was hardly reflected, or only very imperfectly, in legal practice. Yet, in the Russian Empire Islamic theological-legal polemics particular to the period from the late eighteenth century to the Soviet period, and even up to the present day, respond primarily to local conflictuality. This is notably shown by Rebecca Gould and Shamil Shikhaliev in their work on Islamic reform in Dagestan (in the volume Sharī‘a in the Russian Empire, pp. 239-80), or older ones on a typical Volga-Ural institution of the end of the imperial period: the ‘second imam’ (ikinji imam) of quickly mushrooming suburbs, a result of the fragmentation of communities, itself a consequence of the quick expansion of ‘Muslim’ capitalism and Islamic philanthropy.

Perhaps one of the issues here is the organisation of research and the choice of particular focuses among historians of modern and contemporary Central Eurasia. In the near future, emic approaches will undoubtedly benefit from embracing a wider range of sources and placing themselves in a broader time frame — which Paolo Sartori does very well — in interregional comparative perspectives. These will undoubtedly underline how, for a century, ideological developments specific to the Volga-Ural region have been applied by Soviet critics and then by international historical research to a region, Central Asia, with a profoundly different political sociology. They may also lead us to question the way in which the very fixity of certain theological debates or religious literary productions of the colonial period (as well as of the Soviet era) testify, by their very conservatism, to the depth of the mutations then underway.

Stéphane Dudoignon, CNRS / GSRL, Paris