Reform and Contention in Central Asian Islam: A Historical Perspective

Much of the debate over Islam in post-Soviet Central Asia is cast in monolithic terms: Islam is contrasted to secularism, fundamentalism to democracy. In considering complex issues in mutually exclusive categories, we reduce each side to a homogeneous whole. Yet, Central Asia, in common with the rest of the Muslim world, is heir to a rich tradition of debate and contention. An awareness of this tradition, which is still very much alive today, helps refine our understanding of the place of Islam in contemporary Central Asian societies.

For two centuries now, Muslims have been engaged in a debate about their place in the world, about what it means to be Muslim in the modern world. This debate takes different forms at different times and in different places, but out of this debate emerge understandings of the role Islam should have in society – and indeed what Islam itself is.

The debates about Islam's contemporary role in Central Asia's development have historical precedents. Perhaps the most pertinent example is the broad cultural reform movement called Jadidism, which arose at the turn of the 20th century. The movement comprised a group of intellectuals, who sought to interpret their Muslim heritage in light of the imperatives facing their society as a result of Russian conquest.

The Jadids formulated a harsh critique of turn-of-the-century Central Asian society, attributing the "decline" and "degeneration" of their community to its departure from the true path of "pure" Islam. When Muslims followed "pure" Islam, the Jadids argued, they were recognized as world leaders in the sphere of education. In addition, Muslim empires reached their apex in terms of power. Conversely, corruption of the faith was perceived as contributing to a decline in education and innovation. It was also seen as a major factor in the Islamic world's political and military decline. Thus, the solution advocated by Jadids was a "return" to "pure Islam."

But "pure Islam" had a unique meaning for the Jadids. It was an Islam based on a rationalist interpretation of the scriptural texts, the prerequisite of which was mastery of "contemporary" or modern knowledge. Knowledge, indeed, became the panacea for all ills of society and faith. It was knowledge that made nations strong and wealthy, and allowed them to embark on the path to progress. "Pure" Islam thus became for the Jadids synonymous with progress and civilization. This is clearly visible in the early works of leading Jadidist theoreticians, including Hamza Hakimzoda, Abdurauf Fitrat, and Abdulhamid Cho'lpon. These thinkers were as fascinated by progress and technology, as they were concerned about taking their society on the path of "pure" Islam.

At the same time, in seeking a "pure" Islam, the Jadids began to see Islam itself as a self-contained system of knowledge, separable from the rest of life. In this can be seen the roots of an indigenous tradition of secularism that is very much at home in an Islamic context.

Jadidism was clearly a movement for change from within Islam, although not an Islam untouched by outside forces. Were the Jadids Muslims or modernists, "insiders" or "outsiders"? Perhaps their case can help us understand the futility of such dichotomies. The Jadids faced vigorous opposition from within their society. But the very existence of the debate points to the dynamic nature of Islamic identities.

The cataclysmic changes imposed by the Russian revolution of 1917 changed drastically the context in which the debate over Jadidism occurred. The Tsarist state was replaced by a much more activist Soviet one, with a deeply held mission of social and cultural transformation. Within the Bolshevik context, religion was generally considered an impediment to social progress in the Marxist sense of the term.

The Jadids' own trajectory took them toward favoring a radical agenda of highly secularized social and cultural change. But the contention and debate over Islam never ceased, even in the darkest days of Stalinist repression, and it is alive today as well. The debates of today take a different form. The social, political, and global context today is just too different for the Jadids' ideas to be directly accessible.

There are enormous differences between various stripes of Islam. The reformist, modernist view of Islam articulated by the Jadids survived the Soviet period among the small group of clerics officially recognized by the regime. For other Muslims, "pure" Islam in today's conditions means something else: it can mean rejecting precisely those aspects of modern life that fascinated the Jadids (and their intellectual descendants). This takes the form of a rigorous excision from daily life of many customs and habits that entered Central Asian life during the Soviet period. (These are the people usually dubbed "Wahhabis," although the usage is completely incorrect.) For others still, a "return" to Islam might mean giving Islam central place in the political arena.

But we must remember the most widely accepted view today sees Islam as an aspect of national culture, an understanding that comes directly as result of the Soviet experience of Central Asia.

Adeeb Khalid is an associate professor of history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

Reform and Contention in Central Asian Islam: A Historical Perspective

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