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The notion that Islamic religious practices and institutions among Inner Asian nomads differed from those of their sedentary neighbors in a variety of substantial ways underlies much of the historiography of these communities, and of Islamic Central Asia more generally. This idea originated among a variety of outside observers, both in the Islamic world, and among European and Russian observers; it also became widespread particularly among Russophile nomadic elites, and as a result during the Soviet era became internalized in the historical and ethnographic literature among descendants of these nomadic communities. Today we see these ideas espoused among both secular academics was well as among Salafist theologians. In these accounts the nature of nomadism supposedly led nomads to eschew intellectual aspects of Islamic faith, gravitating instead toward supposedly “less intellectual” Sufism.
The endurance of these assumptions and clichés are partly due to the problem of sources. For the period before the mid-18th century we possess very few internal sources of any sort on Islamic practices and institutions among these nomads, but an examination of the Islamic revival among the Kazakh nomads (by far the largest nomadic group in Muslim Inner Asia), that occurred through the 19th century into the Soviet era, demonstrates the emergence of religious institutions and practices that not only differed little from their sedentary neighbors, but also demonstrates a particular attentiveness within the Kazakh ‘ulama to Sunni orthodoxy and Islamic reformism, and Salafism. An examination of the Islamic revival among the Kazakh nomads furnishes us with substantial evidence with which to reevaluate older assumptions of religiosity among nomads.
Allen Frank earned his Ph.D. in 1994 at Indiana University from the Department of Central Eurasian Studies. He has published widely on the religious history of Muslim communities in Russia, Kazakhstan, and Xinjiang, focusing particularly on Turkic manuscript sources of the 19th and 20th centuries. His publications include, Muslim Religious Institutions in Imperial Russia: the Islamic World of Novouzensk District and the Kazakh Inner Horde, 1780-1910 (Brill, 2001), The Cambridge History of Inner Asia: the Chingisid Era (co-editor, 2009), Bukhara and the Muslims of Russia: Sufism, Education and the Paradox of Islamic Prestige (Brill, 2012), and Sadwaqas Ghïlmani, Biographies of the Islamic Scholars of Our Times, co-editor, (forthcoming 2015). Dr. Frank lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.
The 2014-15 seminar series, Eurasian Empires & Central Asian Peoples: The Backlands in World History, is co-sponsored by the UCLA Program on Central Asia and the Center for Near Eastern Studies. Click here for more information about the series.