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First Steps toward Civilizing the Russian Muslims

By:
Ismail Bey Gasprinskii
Document type:
Articles and Essays

First Steps toward Civilizing the Russian Muslims

Ismail Bey Gasprinskii

Commentary

Ismail Bey Gasprinskii (Crimea, 1851–1914), Tatar reformer, educator, and publicist, was the most influential architect of Islamic modernism among the Turkic subjects of the Russian Empire. Gasprinskii—also known by his Tatar name, Gasp1rali—was educated in both traditional Islamic and Russian schools, and was being trained for a career in the Russian military until he abandoned his studies to spend three years in France and the Ottoman Empire. Returning to Crimea in 1875, he became a school instructor and served four years as mayor of Bakhchisarai. From the early 1880s until his death, Gasprinskii devoted his efforts to challenging intellectual assumptions and sociocultural practices that he believed condemned Muslims to cultural inferiority in the face of modern Western technological, military, political, economic, and intellectual hegemony. His primary tool was print, notably the Russian- and Tatar-language newspaper Perevodchik/Tercüman (The Interpreter), which Gasprinskii founded and edited for the last thirty years of his life. Education stood at the center of his modernist project, and Gasprinskii also called for the development of a common Turkic literary language, the establishment of mutual-aid societies, and cooperation with the Russian government and people. Gasprinskii's influence, intellectually moderate and consummately practical, came to be felt throughout Turkic Russia as well as in Turkey, Egypt, and South Asia. The essay translated here assesses the first two decades of Islamic modernism in Russia, highlighting key directions and accomplishments and (although not included here) listing a bibliography of the “new” writing, fiction and nonfiction, that he felt defined the cutting edge of the new society.1 Alan W. Fisher, “A Model Leader for Asia, Ismail Gaspirali,” and Edward J. Lazzerini, “Ismail Bey Gasprinskii (Gaspirali): The Discourse of Modernism and the Russians,” pp. 29–47 and 48–70, in Edward A. Allworth, ed., Tatars of the Crimea, 2d ed. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998); Edward J. Lazzerini, “Ismail Bey Gasprinskii's Perevodchik/Tercüman: A Clarion of Modernism,” pp. 143– 156 in H. B. Paksoy, editor, Central Asian Monuments, (Istanbul, Turkey: Isis Press, 1992); Thomas Kuttner, “Russian Jadidism and the Islamic World: Ismail Gasprinskii in Cairo, 1908,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique (Annals of the Russian and Soviet World), volume 16, 1975, pp. 383–424; Hakan 0Kîrîmlî, National Movements and National Identity among the Crimean Tatars (1905–1916) (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996).

At the present time, despite the fact that the Muslim subjects of Russia lag far behind [other peoples], and that they share in so little of modern life, this great [Muslim] society is not all that incognizant [of what is happening around it]; and one cannot deny that within it a revival is taking place. Granted that this revival is not imposing; and so long as you do not pay close attention you will not even notice it. Yet it is enough for us that with some attention it can be observed, because it undoubtedly represents the beginning of progress and civilization.

Twenty or twenty-five years ago, God be praised, although a considerable number of [Muslim] religious works were published in Russia, only three items dealing with science and literature were written in our language [that is, all of the Turkic dialects of the Russian Empire]. Of these, one was the [Qutadghu] Bilik [The Wisdom of Royal Glory, by Yusuf Khass Hajib, 11th century] published by the Orientalist [Vasilii Vasil’evich] Radlov [Russia, 1837–1918], the second was the almanac of Qayyum Efendi Nasiri [Tatarstan, 1825–1902], and the third comprised the comedies of Mirza Fatih ‘Ali Akhundov [Azerbaijan, 1812–1878]. Two of these works appeared in Kazan, while the third was published in Tiflis. At that same time, a Turkic-language newspaper entitled Ekinği [The Sower] was founded in Baku by Hasan Bey Melikov [Zerdabi, Azerbaijan, 1842–1907]. Although it had only a brief existence [1875–1877], the newspaper cast a ray of light, like a lightning bolt, upon [long] dormant ideas.

Even though a few works such as the tale of Tahir ve Zühre [Tahir and Zühre] were available [at that time], these cannot be included [in our discussion] because of their lack of literary significance. [Among Muslims] the state of general knowledge was regrettably pitiful. Unaware of the discoveries of Johannes Kepler [German astronomer, 1571–1630] and [Isaac] Newton [English physicist, 1642–1727], Muslim society viewed the world and universe through the eyes of Ptolemy [ancient astronomer, 2nd century], and was heedless of both contemporary affairs and the lifestyles of other nations. In short, whatever may have been the circumstance of the civilized world 400 years ago, we Muslims find ourselves today in exactly the same circumstances; that is, we are 400 years behind!

But now, in this same Islamic world characterized by a dearth of knowledge, a lack of information, and torpor, one can discern a slight revival, a degree of awakening and understanding. This revival is not the result of some external influence, but is a marvelous, natural phenomenon born from within.

In 1881 we published an essay in Russian entitled Russkoe musul’mantsvo [Russian Islam]. Therein we called upon Muslims to write and translate works concerning science, literature, and contemporary progress. Praise God, for we were fortunate that our appeal coincided with the intentions and thoughts of many others. As a result, today, some twenty years later, as many as 300 scientific and literary works have been published in our own language. I realize that for a people numbering in the millions, the publication of 300 items in twenty years is not a great deal. Nevertheless, compared with the three works that I mentioned above, 100 times those three is not insignificant.

Generally speaking, the contents of these 300 national works are such as to encourage people to read and learn. Among the books themselves are those that discuss geography, introductory philosophy, astronomy, the preservation of health, and other useful knowledge. “New method” primers and reading books, plays, and one or two national novels make up the literary contributions.

The authors of the above are young mullas who have been trained in our national madrasas [seminaries] and who, through self-education, have acquired scientific knowledge. But those youth who have entered the [Russian] gymnasia and universities have not yet shown a service to our national literature. Although the mullas have taken many steps forward, these others have just made a beginning.

There is a very simple explanation for this regrettable state of affairs. While our enlightened, educated Muslims know Russian and European languages, and while they enter various professions such as medicine, engineering, mining, and law, they are unable to read and write in their own national language! There is no educated Russian who does not read and write his own native tongue, no educated Austrian, Pole, Georgian, or Armenian who is not literate in his own national language. Unfortunately, this is not the case with our people.

Above all else, Islam makes two demands [on its adherents]: one is education, the other is prayer. As a consequence, in every place where Muslims are found, a maktab [primary school] is built for the former and a mosque for the latter. Depending upon the locality, they are constructed either of stone, wood, or felt cloth. Those of sedentary Muslims are found in fixed places; those of the nomads are portable and travel along with them. Everyone knows that the Islamic world's largest and most important buildings and building complexes consist of maktabs and mosques. In every village, in every quarter, somehow or other one will find a place of instruction. In Russia, at a time when education was hardly considered, and there were only two Russian schools to be found in the whole country, every Muslim village had one maktab apiece. But if in former days these schools sufficed and were competent, we must all acknowledge that to meet the demands of today they are in need of reform.

For several years I was in the teaching profession, and [during that time] I became intimately acquainted with conditions in the Russian schools and Muslim maktabs. [In the latter] the poor students would rock at their reading desks for six or seven hours every day for five or six years. There were many nights when I was unable to sleep because of my bitterness and regret at seeing them deprived of the ability to write and of a knowledge of the catechism and other matters, and their inability to acquire, in the end, anything other than the talent for repeating an Arabic sentence.

School time was being wasted. The teaching of skills, techniques, the Russian language, and other matters was [so inadequate] that a fifth-year maktab student could neither perform his daily prayers properly nor write a simple letter. A remedy had to be found for this state of affairs. It was necessary to complete the teaching of religion well and in a short time, and then to find a way to provide [the students] with the skills, languages, and information needed for today's world.

It was because of this that we opened a discussion of the “new method” in 1884 in Terjuman [The Interpreter], the newspaper that we had founded in 1883. A graded and phonetic primer was published, and a maktab in Bakhchisarai was changed over to this method and system. The visible progress made by the students of this maktab compelled other schools to adopt the method. In six months, after mastering reading and writing in the Turkic language and the four basic arithmetical processes, the novice students had begun lessons to learn Arabic, and were reading a book that taught the elements of religion. [Their successes] reverberated in far-off provinces, and today the “phonetic method” has spread all the way to Chinese Turkistan. [In the intervening period] over 500 old [method] maktabs have been reformed. Because the opportunity presented itself, Russian language teachers have been invited to a number of maktabs, and one hears that perfect Russian has been acquired with ease (for example, in maktabs in Bakhchisarai, Sheki, Kuldzha, Shirvan, Nakchivan, and other places).

Great success has been achieved in awakening public opinion concerning the maktab, because Muslims are an alert people who, once they are exposed to something, come to know and understand it. Consequently, I am hopeful that there will be other reforms and that the idea of change will not be reserved only for primary schools. Reform of Arab madrasas as well has been engraved on the heart of the nation. After spending eight or ten years studying grammar, which is the primary section of the Arabic and Islamic sciences, and after “imprisoned in the madrasa” for 15 years, the student does not know Arabic. He will have come across the names of [religious scholars such as Abu Hamid Muhammad al-]Ghazzali [1058–1111], [Muhammad ibn Isma‘il al-]Bukhari [810–870], and [Sa‘d al-Din] Taftazani [1322–1389], but will have had no acquaintance with the likes of ‘Ali Husayn Ibn Sina [scientist and philosopher, 980–1037], [Abu Ibrahim al-]Farabi [lexicographer, died 961], or Ibn Khaldun [historian, 1332–1406]. Consequently, it dawns on many men that this is not a very sound or reasonable way to terminate their education. Thanks to this [realization], and with the intention of renovating the educational method, they have been rather successful in reforming and reorganizing the following madrasas: the Zinjirli in Bakhchisarai, the Barudi in Kazan, the Osmanov in Ufa, and the Husaynov in Orenburg. In order to facilitate the reaching of Arabic, newly organized grammar books have been published. For example, there are the works of Ahmed Hadi Efendi Maksudi [1867–1941] [published] in Kazan.

The search for knowledge does not take this path alone. Profiting from the state-run primary schools, Muslim students are entering [Russian] gymnasia and universities in order to become acquainted with contemporary progress and learning, and the number who complete [these schools] is increasing. Twenty years ago one of our people had received a university education; now such people number more than 100. Fifty Muslim young men who have received a [Russian] higher education and who have entered the professions of engineering, medicine, law, et cetera, can be found in Baku alone. There are also those who have been educated in, and returned home from, French and German universities.

It is noteworthy that there is a greater number of Muslims in the southern provinces who study Russian than there is in the inner provinces. We hope that our coreligionists up and down the Volga will recognize that they are being delinquent in this matter, and that they will endeavor to become acquainted with contemporary progress through a knowledge of the Russian language. There are thousands of scientific and technical works written in Russian; it is necessary to profit from them.

In a similar way, the national theater is the product of recent years. Besides the comedies of Mirza Fatih ‘Ali [Akhundov], which have been around for some time, several new comedies have been written and published. Theatrical plays in the national language have appeared in Baku, Karabagh, Gendzhe, and Bakhchisarai. In Baku, a permanent theatrical company has been formed, and one or two plays have been translated from Russian. Armenian, Georgian, and Jewish girls serve the roles of women. We are thankful [for all of this], but it cannot be denied that our theater rests on one leg.

One notices traces of awakening and progress among Muslim women, who have remained even further behind in comparison with Muslim men. If you want proof [of progress in this area], I can only give you a little. In the last days of winter there is a white flower that grows in the snow; surely you know it. If this blooming flower is not proof that summer has arrived, it is a certain sign that the beginning of summer is near. There are some signs just like this one [with regard to the advancement of our women]. Twenty-five years ago [Khanifa Khanim,] the respected wife of Hasan Bey [Melikov Zerdabi] (who was one of our journalists), was the only Muslim woman who had received an education; now there exist perhaps twenty such women. In St. Petersburg, in a women's medical [nursing?] school, three Muslim women are studying medical science, and one is practicing medicine. It is well known that two Muslim women are writing, and their results are being published. Let them be examples and models for emerging authors. This world is one of hope; why should we despair?

Charity, giving alms, and helping others are fundamental to the Islamic faith. Because of this, God be praised, we can say that there is no one who does not tithe, give alms and [other assistance]. All contribute within their means, and thus every year a great deal of money is dispensed in this way. Nevertheless, while there are those who help themselves to these charities, there are others too ashamed to do so and, as a result, go hungry. Aware that there is a lot for some and nothing for others, the public has begun to rectify the situation. In recent years, to provide order to charitable activities and to increase the opportunities for such projects, the idea of the “charitable society” has emerged. Twenty-five years ago in all of Russia there was only one Muslim charitable society, in Vladikavkaz. Today such societies have been established and are performing their tasks in each of the following places: Khankerman, Kazan, Troitsk, Semipalatinsk, Ufa, and Hadzhi Terhan.

[The extent of] publishing activity and the book trade is the most concrete testimony to the degree of advancement and progress of a nation; it is the most direct proof. Twenty years ago there were two printing presses in Muslim hands: that of the ‘Abdullin Tag publishing house in Kazan, and of the Insizade press in Tiflis. Now there exist the “Terjuman” press in Bakhchisarai, the press of Ilias Mirza Boragani [1852–1942] in St. Petersburg, of the Karimov brothers in Kazan, of Mulla [Ghilman ibn] Ibrahim Karimov [1841–1902] in Orenburg, and of Doctor Akhundov and ‘Ali Merdan Bey [Topchibashev, 1862–1934] in Baku. In all, we have progressed from two such establishments to eight.

I am leaving it up to each reader to make his own evaluation as to the degree of progress and advancement that has been made in each of the areas [of Muslim life] about which I have been writing.

Bibliography references:

Ismail Bey Gasprinskii, Mebadi-yi Temeddün-i Islamiyan-i Rus (First Steps Toward Civilizing the Russian Muslims), translated from Tatar by Edward J. Lazzerini in “Gadidism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: A View from Within,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique (Annals of the Russian and Soviet World), volume 16, number 2, April-June 1975, pp. 245–277. First published in 1901. Introduction by Edward J. Lazzerini.

Notes:

1. Alan W. Fisher, “A Model Leader for Asia, Ismail Gaspirali,” and Edward J. Lazzerini, “Ismail Bey Gasprinskii (Gaspirali): The Discourse of Modernism and the Russians,” pp. 29–47 and 48–70, in Edward A. Allworth, ed., Tatars of the Crimea, 2d ed. (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1998); Edward J. Lazzerini, “Ismail Bey Gasprinskii's Perevodchik/Tercüman: A Clarion of Modernism,” pp. 143– 156 in H. B. Paksoy, editor, Central Asian Monuments, (Istanbul, Turkey: Isis Press, 1992); Thomas Kuttner, “Russian Jadidism and the Islamic World: Ismail Gasprinskii in Cairo, 1908,” Cahiers du monde russe et soviétique (Annals of the Russian and Soviet World), volume 16, 1975, pp. 383–424; Hakan 0Kîrîmlî, National Movements and National Identity among the Crimean Tatars (1905–1916) (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1996).

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