Focusing notably on the cantons of Buinsk and Mamadysh, the authors highlight a long neglected and still largely ignored page of the history of Sufism in the Middle Volga region: its developments during the Soviet period, before and after the Red Terror of the mid-1930s. Making use of the arch-classical anti-Sufi monograph by Z. Muzaffari (Ishanlar-darwishlar, Kazan, 1931), but also of a range of primary documents from the OGPU (preserved nowadays in the exceptionally accessible archive of the UFSB in the Republic of Tatarstan), I. Minnullin and A. Minvaliev have endeavoured to reconstruct the biography of prominent figureheads of Sufism in the Middle-Volga Region and elements of their public activity. Such is the case of ‘Ali Bik-Tahirov, Ahmad-Safa Bikqulov and Muhammad Bashirov, through their arrests respectively in 1932, 1930, and 1920 under common accusations of stirring up the people against the Bolshevik authorities or against the creation of kolkhozes. After WWII the apparent lack of interest of Soviet authorities in the “ishan question” gives way to a slightly more intense production of documents. The authors focus on two different Sufi networks.
First comes the Naqshbandi ishans and madrasa of the village of Kizliau (nowadays Kurmanaevo, district of Nurlat, Tatarstan), through the prolongation of their teaching after the closure of the madrasa already in 1918 (and the departure of Imam Hasan b. ‘Ubayd-Allah [Gubaidullin] to Samarqand), and the repressions of 1937. The first written documents on this network’s post-WWII activity appear in the mid-1950s in the form of reports on the upsurge of ishans’ activity in the district under the leadership of a disciple of Hasan b. ‘Ubayd-Allah, ‘Abd al-Bari Mulukov [Muliukov, d. 1958]. Second comes the example of the “Chistay tariqat” ― the common denomination of the network of Naqshbandi Shaykh and Imam Muhammad-Dhakir Kamalov (d. 1893), of Chistay [Chistopol’], to which are often metonymically ascribed, especially in Kizliau, all those Naqshbandi murids not directly attached to the Kizliau path. Distinguished by its historical links with prominent master Shaykh Zayn-Allah of Troitsk (1833-1917), this network has found new developments in Kazan from the 1950s onwards under the direction of ‘Arif-Allah ‘Ayn-Allah (Garifulla Gainullin, d. 1984, who had become in 1935-6, during a stay in a fish trust of Makhachkala, a disciple of Bayazid Khayr-Allah, a pupil of Shaykh Zayn-Allah).
Even more interestingly that it rarely happens in present-day historiography of Soviet Sufism, the authors briefly insist on the impact of the return of prisoners from the Gulag in 1955-6 on the revival of Sufi practice from this periods onwards. They also evoke the significance of the funerals of prominent masters like those of Wali-Ahmad Ishan, of the “Kizliau tariqat,” in 1952 ― i.e., during Stalin’s lifetime ― as vectors of social mobilisation. The still embryonic utilisation of oral sources has also permitted the authors to reconstruct the links between the official Muslim religious board and the Sufi paths, notably in the case of the Kizliau network, in the 1940s-50s. Paradoxically, however, their primary reliance on a scanty written documentation and their extreme reluctance to abandon the relative comfort of the Institute of History, on the Kremlin Hill in Kazan, have not permitted them to cast light, through the collection of available oral testimonies, on the evolutions that have taken place during the more recent decades of the Soviet period. Besides, such an inquiry in oral history would have allowed the authors to shed light on aspects of Sufi activity very seldom attested in administrative sources ― notably on the preservation and transmission of Islamic learning, on which the article displays extremely few data, besides usual and rather vague allusions to the regular organisation of dhikr ceremonies. This being said, it remains to underline the productive contribution of this short study to the ongoing rediscovery of the modern and contemporary history of Sufism in the Volga Region, and to the reassessment of the central role played by rural, sometimes remote areas in the historical developments of the Soviet period.