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Reforming Islam

Preserving Islamic Tradition: Abu Nasr Qursawi and the Beginnings of Modern Reformism by Nathan Spannaus, Oxford University Press, US $74.00, Pp 352, August 2019 ISBN 978-0190251789

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the Muslim communities’ relationship with the Tsarist empire underwent a drastic change when they were incorporated in the imperial structure in 1788. Although tsarist Russia had occupied Muslim regions in the fifteenth century, the Muslim religious authority had remained fairly autonomous until 1788. The change in 1788 led to the founding of an official hierarchy among the Muslims that significantly changed the Muslim discourse as well. The change in the Muslim discourse brought Muslim reformism in the center of discussion among Muslim scholars. One of the leading reformist Muslim scholars of that era was Abu Nasr Qursawi (1776-1812) whose writings directly or indirectly impacted the discourse in the entire Muslim world. In Preserving Islamic Tradition, Nathan Spannaus provides us for the first time a detailed profile and analysis of the life and works of Abu Nasr Qursawi.

Abu Nasr Qursawi (1776-1812) is an important figure and scholar among the Muslim communities in the Russian Empire in the 19th century. He was a prolific writer who engaged with significant questions of religious authority and the role of scripture. His contributions to Islamic law or fiqh and theology or kalam were significant. Nathan Spannaus says that Abu Nasr Qursawi articulated ideas that challenged the conventional wisdom among Muslim scholars. Abu Nasr Qursawi believed that the ulemas’ (Islamic scholars) conventional wisdom was flawed and detrimental to Islam. He was very critical of ‘taqlid’ (blindly following an Islamic scholar) among Muslims and articulated a broad reformist agenda to exclude practices and beliefs that he believed were scripturally unjustified.

It was but natural that Abu Nasr Qursawi’s reformist program drew other ulema’s ire. Nathan Spannaus says that the controversy reached its apex in 1808 when the ulema of Bokhara condemned him for heresy and he was nearly executed by the ruling emir, who exiled him from the emirate. Abu Nasr Qursawi’s reform program had implications for the wider Muslim community. Nathan Spannaus writes, “His lifetime fell within a transitional historical era, one that saw the relationship between the Russian state and its Muslim subjects irrevocably altered. The role of the ulema, who had previously been the foremost authorities within their communities, was transformed in the process. Muslims, scholars and laypeople alike, were grappling with these changes, which were unprecedented within their society. It was within this context that Abu Nasr Qursawi developed his reformist project, which was aimed at the Muslim community as a whole.”

Nathan Spannaus says that Abu Nasr Qursawi’s significance continued long after his death, and his ideas and the controversy surrounding them shaped the discourse among the Muslims of the Russian Empire into the 20th century. He attracted several ulemas to his views, none more important than Shihab al-Din Marjani (1818-1889), the single most prominent scholar of the region, who put forward his own, project of religious reform, based in large part on Abu Nasr Qursawi’s.

Nathan Spannaus says that Abu Nasr Qursawi’s reformism involves important questions such as the interaction between European imperialism and Islamic thought and how the latter is shaped by western political domination are thought and how the latter is shaped by Western political domination are significant historiographical issues within Islamic studies. The Russian Empire was one of the very earliest European states to implement direct rule over large Muslim populations, and an analysis of how Volga-Ural Muslims, particularly the ulema, responded to tsarist rule has much to contribute to these discussions of the transformation of Islamic tradition and its adaptation in the modern period. These issues are of marked relevance for the relationship between Islamic discourses and institutions and the modern state. The study of Abu Nasr Qursawi can help expand our understanding of the intersection of postclassical thought, religious reformism, and early modernist movements.

The focus of studies on Islam has been on what is produced in the Middle East and South Asia although Islamic scholars from outside the Middle East and South Asia have been producing a significant amount of new and revolutionary ideas. Nathan Spannaus’ effort to shift the focus of his research to the Volga-Ural Muslim region in the Russian Empire is commendable because the efforts of Muslim scholars to reform Islam had gone largely unnoticed. In his research, Nathan Spannaus has used published and unpublished works in Arabic and Tatar and other languages. Many of these sources were unknown to western scholars of Islam. The result is a meticulously researched scholarly work. Preserving Islamic Tradition is a milestone in the study of the history of Islamic ideas not only in the Volga-Ural region but also the history of Islamic ideas as a whole. Nathan Spannaus has shown a new direction to the scholars of Islamic thought for future research.

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