This jubilee publication is devoted to the life and work of three successive Babakhanov Muftis of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan from 1943 to 1989, and the chiefs of the Department of International Relations of the Muslim Organisations of the USSR from 1962 to 1989: Ishan Baba Khan (1858-1957), his son Ishan Ziya al-Din Khan (1908-82), and the latter’s son and successor Ishan Shams al-Din Khan. In a line typical of the 2000s ― a period of intense struggle against every kind of ‘Wahhabi’ influence in Uzbekistan ― the book is oriented towards the rehabilitation of the main figureheads of “official” Islam in Soviet Central Asia through their introduction as being the promoters of a “purification” (Rus. ochishchenie) of Islam, and zealous strugglers against all the illicit practices (bid‘at) accumulated in the course of centuries. (In the Soviet period itself, the religious personnel of the Central Asian Muftiyyat used to introduce themselves as the bearers of a modernisation movement.) In spite of this orientation, and of the lack of a critical apparatus of any kind, this monograph displays some useful biographical information on particularly significant protagonists of the religious field in the post-WWII Soviet Union. Moreover, it provides us with interesting insights on the content of the hagiographic which is going on for a couple of decades in the Muslim peopled regions of the former USSR.
The first chapter is a short reminder of the history of the Naqshbandiyya Sufi path in Central Asia (through exemplae from the lives of great masters of the past like Mahmud Anjir Faghnawi, and the development of a Naqshbandi community [jama‘at] in Tashkent by Ishan Baba Khan himself). The latter’s biography classically begins with mention of his shajara up to its early ninth-century CE legendary founders Yuwamshab and Tawus Begim, through Qazi Bayzawi, to Mulla ‘Abd al-Majid b. Yunus Khan Khwaja Ishan ― a disciple of Miyan Ghulam Qadir Sahibzada in Bukhara, then the mudarris of the Mu-yi Mubarak Madrasa of Tashkent, and Ishan Baba Khan’s father and master. Unfortunately, a key event of Ishan Bana Khan’s personal life is mentioned in passing, despite its significance for the latter, and for the stepmother/son relationship in the Uzbek society at large: his adoption, after his mother’s untimely death, by his paternal aunt Bibi Sara, who played a significant role in the boy and young man’s education, as well as in his second marriage after the death of a first spouse (p. 27). Among the aspects developed in the core of the Ishan Baba Khan’s biography can be mentioned: the claim of a reformist and Jadid intellectual through his contacts during his studies in the Mir-i ‘Arab Madrasa of Bukhara (1870-5); Ishan Baba Khan’s imprisonments, with his son Ziya al-Din, in 1937 and in 1941, the confiscation of his properties and of the library that he had received from his second wife’s grandfather ‘Abd al-Sattar Akhund; the creation of a Muslim spiritual centre in 1943 and its location by its newly appointed chief Ishan Baba Khan in the Hazrat-i Imam neighbourhood of Tashkent; Ishan Baba Khan’s meeting with Stalin in Moscow and the creation of the Muslim Spiritual Board of Middle Asia and Kazakhstan; the reopening of the Mir-i ‘Arab Madrasa in 1945, its links with the Naqshbandiyya, and the work of some of its major figureheads in the Soviet period (with special mention for mudarris Damulla Ghulam-Jan Izami [1890-1991]); the reopening of the Barak Khan Madrasa of Tashkent as the seat of the SADUM (since 2007 again a madrasa), and of the Tilla Shaykh Mosque as a maktab.
The following chapter follows the same pattern, with a first subchapter on Ziya al-Din Khan’s studies in the Kukaldash and Barak Khan Madrasas of Tashkent, then under strong reformist and Shafi‘i influence of Syrian born Muhammad al-Tarabulusi, alias Shami Damulla, notably on the revival of the study of al-Bukhari’s arch-classical Hadith collection al-Sahih (on Shami Damulla’s work in Central Asia, see Central Eurasian Reader 1 : reviews No. 462 & 484), last shortly in al-Azhar in Cairo. The next sections deal with varied aspects of Ziya al-Din’s activity as the Executive Secretary and, from 1957 to his retirement in October 1982, as the Chairman of the SADUM: his meetings and correspondences with Islamic religious leaders outside the USSR; the role played by the SADUM in the successive editions of the Qur’an in 1957, 1960, and 1968, as well as in the venue of large international religious conferences like the al-Bukhari Congress of August 1974 in Samarqand (which later served as models for those convened till our days, on analogous themes, by the newly independent states of Central Asia). Separate paragraphs also deal with the participation of ‘ulama from Soviet Central Asia in international conferences abroad. The narrative continues with the opening of the al-Bukhari Institute of Islamic Studies of Tashkent in 1971, and ends up with the short mention of Ziya al-Din Khan’s main positions.
The short chapter devoted to his son Shams al-Din’s term as head of the SADUM (1982-9) and as an ambassador of independent Uzbekistan in varied Arab countries (1991-2003) notably deals with his close personal connections with several academic institutions of Oriental Studies in Tashkent ― a key feature in the curriculum of numerous religious activists in late Soviet Central Asia. A fifth chapter has been added on some other members of the dynasty, with particular developments on Ishan Baba Khan’s daughter Sofiia Khan (b. 1921), through an interview given in 2007 to the Russian Muslim newspaper Medina al’-Islam, where she evokes her activity as a teacher of religion and ethics, as well as the social and moral signification of being an ishan. The six and seventh chapters consist of testimonies on the Babakhanov Muftis by members of the religious personnel of Islam from Russia, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan (with notations on the everyday collaboration between the SADUM and the other main regional spiritual boards of the USSR), and by colleagues, employees, disciples, and visitors of Ishan Ziya al-Din Khan’s. The appendixes contain notably translations of fatwas by Ishan Ziya al-Din Khan and a short introduction of the Babakhanov Muftis Foundation. The rich illustrations display a selection of photographs of the three successive Muftis in their official occupations.
The book is based for the most part on the author’s conversations with a number of witnesses, on personal memoirs by protagonists and observers of the history of Islam in Soviet Central Asia ― from Sofiia Babakhanova to Gömer Hazrat Idrisov (the current Bukhara-educated charismatic Chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Board of Nizhny Novgorod), and on varied biographical works on Ishan Baba Khan (including a still manuscript eulogy on his action as a Naqshbandi shaykh by Damulla Izami of Bukhara). The author often reproduces fragments of the discourse of his three heroes, especially the speeches by Ziya al-Din Khan to the numerous international conferences and congresses he attended or presided along his long career (unfortunately, without mention of the sources, either manuscript or published, of these texts). The political context of the time, the interaction between the Soviet state and the personnel of the SADUM, and the multiple internecine conflicts within the community of believers in Central Asia are indeed absent from this essentially apologetic narrative. (For instance, the author evokes at length the international conferences of September 1979 in Dushanbe and September 1980 in Tashkent without mentioning the Iranian Revolution of February 1979, nor its tremendous impact on the debates of the time on the place of Islam in Soviet society.)