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Through the analysis of strategic dissents among Muslim theologians and Sufi guides of the Urals region at the turn of the twentieth century, we shall deal with the role of Islam in a former periphery of the Christian and Muslim worlds transformed into a continental crossroads by Russia’s conquest of Central Asia. Making the city of Troitsk an Islamic spiritual centre for the expanding Russian Empire, the Sufi guide and madrasa teacher Shaykh Zayn-Allah Rasuli’s (1833-1917) designs benefited from Russia’s expansion southwards, Sufism becoming a key associate of Russia’s “civilizing mission.” Beyond the sharp inner divisions brought about by the growth of Muslim capital and by competition for private sponsorship, the success of the Rasuliyya sheds light on the many bridges between different protagonists such as independent Sufi masters, Russia’s accredited Muslim religious personnel, Muslim economic entrepreneurs, and the Urals region’s Tsarist administration. As writer Claudio Magris would put it, Russia’s state machine since the Aufklärung century helped her Muslim subjects with modernization and conquest of new rights. During this time, the “black” people, peasants and clerics, represented reaction, backward populism, but also from time to time genuine popular demands for liberty, autonomy, a right to difference justified by sacred history, refusing to be erased by such or such form of Jacobinism. In short, the eternal conflict between Reason, progressive and tyrannical, and sense of identity, now conservative, now liberal. The very figure of Shaykh Zayn-Allah, his personal links with the Spiritual Assembly and his common celebration by Muslim journals often mutually opposed like the Shura and Din wa Ma‘ishat open numerous perspectives on the articulation between modernism and conservatism. Our reading will cast light, in particular, on the adoption of the “new method” (usul-i jadid) of Islamic teaching by Sufi masters of the Urals as an instrument of penetration of the Steppe – Russia’s colonial modernization going hand in hand with the development of Muslim missions.
Stéphane A. Dudoignon is a CNRS Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Turkish, Ottoman, Balkan and Central Asian Studies (a Combined Research Team of the CNRS, EHESS and Collège de France, in Paris). An historian of Islam in modern-day Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East, he recently edited Allah’s Kolkhozes: Migration, De-Stalinization, Privatization and the New Muslim Congregations in the Soviet Realm (1950s-2000s), Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 2014, and authored Marginal Hegemons: The Baluch, Sunnism and the State in Iran (1928-2013), forthcoming at Hurst & Co., London. Since 2008, Dudoignon has been editing the Central Eurasian Reader English-language bibliographical journal. He has received project grants from the Japan Foundation, Tokyo, the European Foundation for Research, Strasbourg, the Volkswagen Foundation, Hannover, NWO, Amsterdam, CNRS, Paris, and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He currently works on the Muslim hagiographic processes in the countries of the former USSR, on the impact of Oriental studies on Islamic religious thought and practice in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on the history of Iranian Baluch migration to the harbor of Karachi in connection with religious and political mobilization in the Delta of the Indus River, from the late nineteenth century to our days.
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, the Center for Near Eastern Studies, the Center for the Study of Religion, and the Center for European and Eurasian Studies. Click here for more information about the series.
Photo Credit: The Illustrated Times, 1862