Islam in contemporary Central Asia is usually discussed either from the point of view of regional security (and hence the focus on political activism and radicalism) or from that of theology (resulting in a focus on textual sources and their interpretation). We have very little by way of the ethnography of Islam in the region, with its focus on the lived expressions of Islam, of what it means to the ordinary inhabitants of the region, of Islam in practice. Sergei Abashin is one of the few to have worked in this vein, although the special issue of Central Asian Survey where this article appears shows that he has been joined by a younger cohort of anthropologists in this endeavour.
In this article, Abashin uses the work of Pierre Bourdieu (in Russian translation) on “the logic of practice” to investigate a religious conflict that erupted in the Tajik village of O. where he had done his fieldwork. Religious authority in the village had been contested by several families claiming sacred lineages of various types (hoja, ishan, tura, shaykh, mahsum, and haji, in the transliteration used here). The authority claimed by these groups was largely independent of any textual or scriptural sources, and the groups were well ensconced in Soviet institutions. This competition was transformed by the arrival of “Wahhabis” and by the village’s incorporation into the Tajik civil war. Abashin provides a deft, skillful examination of this episode to show how Islamic authority is contested in practice, and to argue that none of the binary divisions imposed on contemporary Central Asian Islam by scholars—traditionalism vs. fundamentalism, official vs. unofficial—can explain it fruitfully. “All parties,” he writes, “insisted upon their own version of ‘correct’ Islam and ‘orthodoxy’, and tried to present themselves as ‘real’ Muslims” (p. 269). Abashin concludes that the failure to recognise the fact that the definition of “real Islam” is the very core of politics can lead to highly problematic outcomes: “external ‘experts’ . . . in adhering to a model which opposes ‘traditionalists’ and ‘fundamentalists’, become hostages to one or the other of the parties in local struggles to interpret Islam. Worse still, they themselves become authors of particular interpretations of Islam and thus, becoming involved in the conflict, take it upon themselves to identify the ‘guilty’ and the ‘innocent’” (p. 283). One can only hope that this methodological insight is widely adopted in the literature, for it applies not just to local conflicts in remote villages, but to state-level politics as well.