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Allen J. Frank, "Muslim Cultural Decline in Imperial Russia: A Manufactured Crisis" Bregel Lecture

On November 12, Dr. Allen J. Frank gave the 2014 Bregel Lecture, sponsored by the Department of Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University and the Dennis Sinor Research Institute.

Dr. Frank began by talking about the fundamental flaws of much of the research that has been done on the Islamic modernist trend within the 19th and early 20th Russian Empire known as “Jadidism.” In much of the literature, Jadids represented the sole salvation of an Islamic way of life that was threatened both by the corruption of the ulama, or Islamic clergy, as well as the oppression by the tsarist government. Another thread of this narrative holds that there was virtually no public life in Muslim societies in the Russian empire until 1905. In this narrative, “traditionalist” members of the ulama who opposed the Jadids were obscurantist, sclerotic, and reactionary, clinging to power primarily for its own sake, unlike the selfless Jadids. Ultimately, the Islamic modernists, particularly those among the Tatars, are held to have won, with rationalism and modernism taking the day.

This interpretation of the Jadids is possible only by an overreliance on sources favored by Jadids, such as newspapers and pamphlets, as well as an uncritical reading of these works. In fact, the works of Jadids represent a narrow section of the Islamic writings produced during the late Imperial period, which saw an Islamic renaissance with the production of numerous hagiographies, shrine catalogues, Islamic biographies, and sacral histories. The sheer number of Islamic sources available contradicts the Jadidist claim of cultural and religious stagnation. Indeed, many of these forms of historical notation continued well into the Soviet period.

Furthermore, the narrative of a political and cultural passivity in Islamic society is contradicted by most available non-Jadid-centric sources. Muslim populations used a variety of administrative methods, for example, to avoid the sporadic Christianization attempts of government officials. The benighted status of the Muslims of the empire is also highly questionable, as, on average, Tatar and Kazakh communities enjoyed high social and economic status than did the average Russian. This privilege was not a gift, but rather had been negotiated by the subjects of the Russian state even before the conquests of Kazan and Astrakhan. Throughout the history of Imperial Russia, mullahs and other Islamic officials played an active role in negotiating their status with the state.

Just as there was an active discourse on the place of Muslims and Islamic society within the Russian Empire, there was likewise a vibrant trend in the religious and educational fields. While the educational methodology of the Jadids was supposedly “relevant” when compared to the scholastic and sclerotic methods of the traditional ulama, this narrative is supported only by Jadid sources. In fact this situation is a false dichotomy, as, for the Jadids, the only correct reform was Jadidist reform, with all other viewpoints, whether conservative or simply a different type of reform, were lumped together under the heading of “Qadimist.”

Despite Jadidist claims, the methodology of Bukharan madrasas was not inherently insular, but rather looked to and measured itself against a variety of other forms of education, including both Jadidist schools and secular Russian universities. Likewise, there was widespread contact between the Islamic institutions inside as well as outside of the Russian empire. Claims of the lack of rigor of the madrasa were either exaggerated or entirely fabricated, while the effectiveness of the Jadidist methods has been largely oversold.

The success of the Jadids is questionable at best, with multiple accounts describing popular hostility to the supposedly triumphant methodology. The opponents of the Jadids, rather than attacking them solely on reactionary grounds took Jadids to task for the inefficaciousness of their methodology. However, scholars could and did adopt aspects of the Jadidist pedagogy without aligning themselves with the Jadids per se. The advancement of girl’s education as being the sole domain of the Jadids is often overstated, as well. The struggle between the Jadids and the Qadimis was similarly overstated, as many of the “Qadimi” writings mention the Jadids only in passing.

The argument that, prior to the Jadids, the Muslim societies of Russia and Central Asia were moribund and resistant to reform is to miss the variety of ways in which reform was pursued over the course of the Islamic renaissance. It is only by looking at the Jadids more critically scholars can begin to appreciate the true richness of Islamic society in Central Asia in the 19th and early 20th centuries.