The Remarkable Life of Zainap Maksudova: Alfrid Bustanov on his New Research Project

This post is the continuation of a discussion of Bustanov’s documentary: “The Legacy of Siberian Muslims” 

Despite still being at the beginning of his career, Bustanov has published numerous books and articles on a diverse array of topics in English, Russian, and Tatar.  The documentary discussed in our previous article was part of a broader research agenda, the results of which Bustanov published in Russian: Knizhnaia kul’tura sibirskikh musul’man (Moscow: Marjani Publishing House, 2013). 

He is currently editing his dissertation research – “Settling the Past: Soviet Oriental Projects in Leningrad and Alma-Ata” – into a monograph for publication.  In cooperation with his advisor, Michael Kemper, Bustanov recently completed Islamic Authority and the Russian Language: Studies on Texts from the North Caucasus, European Russia and Western Siberia (Amsterdam: Pegasus Publishing House, 2012), as well as a facsimile and Russian translation of a biographical dictionary of Daghestani Islamic scholars: Nazir ad-Durgeli: Uslada umov v biografiiakh dagestanskikh uchionykh, trans. A. Shikhsaidov, M. Kemper, A. Bustanov (Moscow: Marjani Publishing House, 2012).

When I spoke with Bustanov he was in the midst of embarking on an entirely new project in collaboration with Amsterdam University and Institute of Iranian Studies (Vienna): “Soviet Islam Reconsidered: The Epistemology Project of Zainap Maksudova (1897-1980).”  Last January while exploring the modest collection at the National Museum in Kazan (pictured below) Bustanov stumbled across the personal collection of Zainap Maksudova, a remarkable figure that effortlessly strode between the Islamic, reformist (Jadidi), and Soviet worlds.  After receiving her initial education in a pre-revolution Jadidi school, Maksudova went on to teach Russian in Tatar villages shortly after the revolution, earning the reputation as a notorious Russifier.  Then she learned the Russian Orientalist approach to Islamic knowledge in Tashkent, after which she returned to the Volga-Urals to again teach Russian, this time in a middle school.

National Museum of Kazan
National Museum of Kazan

In the 1950s her interests took the turn that most fascinates Bustanov. She abruptly began to fervently collect Islamic manuscripts, combining those she found in villages with texts she inherited from her father, with the ultimate goal of composing a millennia-spanning bibliography of Tatar-Islamic literature.  “I believe that this example is very telling because it allows us to reconsider our understanding of Islamic modernism among the Tatars.  She was perfectly educated in the Islamic sciences and was able to correct old manuscripts.  On the other hand she was well acquainted with Soviet Oriental Studies.  Finally she knew Russian culture and translated Russian classics into Tatar.”

Most importantly for Bustanov’s research is the fact that Maksudova meticulously recorded the circumstances under which she obtained her specimens.  Many Islamic manuscripts – particularly those residing in Soviet repositories – are essentially lost in time and space, with no clear record detailing where the document came from, who used it, and for what purpose.  In that respect Maksudova’s collection is a veritable treasure trove, as she left commentaries in the margins of her books detailing the circumstances by which she came across them.  This context gives even well-known Arabic works on Islamic law new meaning specific to the Volga-Urals.

Of course, opportunities such as this often come with formidable challenges:  “I realized from my first trip that the archive is very important, but it is almost entirely undescribed.  I am trying to make a deal with the museum to produce a first catalog of her personal library while I research this project.”  For many researchers who work with manuscripts, an uncatalogued collection is about as useful as no collection at all, but Bustanov will simply incorporate the formidable task of describing the collection into his project.

Even as new and important research is produced about Soviet Islam, Bustanov notes that much of it is based on materials from Soviet archives, which has sometimes produced a skewed picture.   He believes that the Maksudova collection will offer a rare opportunity to break out of the constraints inherent in a Soviet governmental archive and elucidate another side to the evolution of Islam in Soviet Tatarstan.

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