Nathan Spannaus’ Dissertation on Abu Nasr al-Qursaw

Nathan Spannaus, Islamic Thought and Revivalism in the Russian Empire: an Intellectual Biography of Abu Nasr Qursawi (1776-1812). PhD Thesis. McGill University, Montreal, 2012. 275 p. The history of Muslim communities of Inner Russia is now in the focus of international scholarship. Not only are scholars publishing and translating Arabic-script written sources, but they are also preparing fundamental monographs involving a careful discussion of various aspects of the social history of Islam in Russia.[1] 

Nathan Spannaus devoted his dissertation to a life story and oeuvre of the prominent Tatar theologian Abu Nasr Qursawi. Consulting reference works on Islamic legal and theological terminology and history the Author successfully pursued the goal of bringing Qursawi’s discussion into the broader Islamic studies context. By doing so, Spannaus is following in the footsteps of Prof. Michael Kemper who undertook a similar project (on a larger chronological scale and source base) in 1998.[2] By moving away from misconceptions of the (post)Soviet historiography, the Author decided to judge Qursawi’s ideas by looking directly at his rich written oeuvre chiefly preserved in the manuscript depositories of Kazan’ and St Petersburg. The work is divided into five chapters, analyzing Qursawi’s biography, his views on legal issues with a special emphasis on ijtihad (independent reasoning in Islamic law on the basis of Qur’an and Sunna) as well as on theological questions of the Divine attributes. In the appendices the Author placed typed texts of important letters and extracts from Qursawi’s writings accompanied by an English translation. The author’s references to valuable manuscripts of Qursawi’s works outside of Russia (namely in Uzbekistan and Turkey) are intriguing and might be used for the possible publication of Qursawi’s books in the original Arabic, though the Author himself most of the time was unable to consult these copies. Here I can add that the prominence of local museums for the global history of Islam in Russia is not yet fully apprehended, because it is in Tiumen’ museum that a full copy of Qursawi’s Sharh muhtasar al-Manar is located[3], while other known copies from ‘metropolitan’ archives are defective (p. 36, 117, footnote 12). Such circumstance can sometimes be crucial as the Author acknowledges inferiority of our knowledge of Qursawi’s view on usul al-fiqh. In passing (p. 73), the Author paid attention to an important feature of the linguistic strategies in the Islamic discourse of the Volga-Ural basin: the rival scholars were “speaking each other’s language”. The same phenomenon is detected in the modern Muslim texts in Russia, where authors of opposite views are using the same linguistic apparatus establishing a common ground for debates and a shared sociolect.[4] While trying to put Qursawi in historical context, Spannaus misses a spectrum of rival and relatively independent scholars untouched or only hinted to in the biographical dictionaries extensively used in his Thesis. To create such a context it is almost inevitable to go through a bulk of literature in the manuscript form which was in circulation among the Muslims of Russia in the 18th-19th centuries. Such an approach would really put Qursawi in the context of Islamic thought in Russia from within, rather than through presenting an outside view of the governmental management of religion (though the Author made a prominent reference to an anonymous local Tabaqat al-hanafiyya to contextualize Qursawi’s views on the ranks of scholars (p.146)). This is a rather difficult task given the state of manuscript studies in Kazan’ (where almost all collections of Islamic manuscripts remain uncatalogued) and even in St Petersburg nowadays, but otherwise, we see Qursawi only in the context of state intervention in the religious sphere (based mainly on Danil’ Azamatov’s account on the history of Muslim Spiritual Assembly in Ufa). To be precise, the Author is discussing the views of the opponents of Qursawi, but it remains an open question why scholars of similar education and background with Qursawi were taking views opposite those of Qursawi. However, departing from the state politics towards ‘ulama’ and the application of Islamic law, Spannaus established a link between marginalization of (official) Islamic scholars, akhunds in the first place, and Qursawi’s call for ijtihad: “the fard kifaya of legal reasoning devolves to Muslims on an individual level to ensure the continuation of the shari‘a within their community” (p. 150). The Author portrays Qursawi’s ‘reforms’ as an answer to the governmental pressure on the status of Islamic scholars which inevitably led to the transformation of Islamic legal practice. In this respect the Author underlines that the state’s intervention in the theological sphere was minimal, while legal matters were of more serious concern to the state. The Author makes a distinction about the extent of Qursawi’s modernism in different fields of Islamic knowledge: while regarding theological aspects Qursawi revised only particular issues, in terms of law he declared ijtihad obligatory and therefore blurred “the line distinguishing the ‘ulama’ from the community as a whole” (p. 214). Spannaus points out the difference between the context of religious reform of the early 19th century and the context of “modern cultural reform” at the turn of the 20th century. In contrast to the later Tatar Jadids, the main goal of Qursawi, in the Author’s mind, was “reforming and preserving Islamic tradition in and of itself, rather than engaging with European imperial rule” (p. 223). Therefore, the Author completely denies the idea that ‘Abd al-Nasir Qursawi himself was part of Jadidism, rather his writings were appropriated by later modernists. Importantly: the sort of theological writings produced by Qursawi were generally deemed useless by the Jadids (p. 224). The publication of this thesis is highly desirable not only for the international English-speaking audience, but also for Tatar/Russian readers in Tatarstan. Spannaus’ challenging of the long-standing concept of Tatar ‘Enlightenment’ will hopefully intensify the multidisciplinary study of the rich Islamic written heritage in Russia only slightly touched upon over the last twenty years.

[1] Allen J. Frank, Islamic Historiography and ‘Bulghar’ Identity among the Tatars and Bashkirs of Russia (Leiden: Brill, 1998); idem, Muslim Religious Institutions in Imperial Russia: the Islamic World of Novouzensk District and the Kazakh Inner Horde, 1780-1910 (Leiden: Brill, 2001); idem, Bukhara and the Muslims of Russia. Sufism, Education, and the Paradox of Islamic Prestige (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012); James H. Meyer, Turkic Worlds: Community Representation and Collective Identity in the Russian and Ottoman Empires, 1870-1914. PhD Thesis (Brown University, 2007); Mustafa O. Tuna, Imperial Russia’s Muslims: Inroads of Modernity. PhD Thesis (Princeton University, 2009).

[2] Kemper M. Sufis und Gelehrte in Tatarien und Baschkirien, 1789-1889. Der islamische Diskurs unter russischer Herrschaft (Berlin: Klaus Schwarz Verlag, 1998).

[3] Tiumen’ Regional Museum, MS VF 6765 (No. 19064), 133 folios. This manuscript was copied in the first half of the 19th century, goes back to the local Biktimerovs’ library (Novoat’ialovo village) and was brought there from Qustanay. See: Alfrid Bustanov, Knizhnaia kul’tura sibirskikh musul’man (Moscow: Mardjani Publishing House, 2013), 43-63 (esp. p. 51, footnote 9).

[4] Alfrid Bustanov/ Michael Kemper, “Valiulla Iakupov’s Tatar Islamic Traditionalism,” in: Asiatische Studien, Heft 1, 2013 (forthcoming).