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Central Asia: Jadidism -- Old Tradition Of Renewal

"Jadid" is the Arabic word for "new," but Jadidism was a drive for cultural and social renewal among Muslims in the Russian Empire in the early 20th century. Historians have taken the term "Jadidism" from usul-i jadid, meaning a "new method" of teaching in schools, yet Jadidism's significance extended far beyond education. In the part of today's Central Asia that was known administratively as Turkestan under the Russian tsars, Jadidism briefly became one of the most remarkable currents of thought in a wide-ranging debate over culture and society among the region's Muslims.

However, Jadidism did not survive the upheavals ushered in by the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and most of the Jadids, as the movement's partisans were known, perished in Stalin's purges. But recent scholarship shows that the issues Jadidism raised remain vitally important in today's Central Asia.

Jadidism was not a movement in the strict sense, nor was it a purely Central Asian phenomenon. In fact, the "new method" of teaching that gave Jadidism its name is more closely associated with Tatars in Crimea and along the Volga, and especially with the Crimean Tatar Ismail Bey Gasprinskii (1851-1914), who began publishing the influential newspaper "Terjuman" in 1883. But one of the most detailed and thoughtful studies of Jadidism focuses specifically on the phenomenon in Turkestan, or what would today be Uzbekistan and the adjoining parts of the Ferghana Valley. The book, which appeared in 1998, is called "The Politics Of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism In Central Asia," and its author, Adeeb Khalid, currently chairs the history department at Carleton College in the United States.

At the heart of the Jadid project was a new method of teaching to replace the existing practice in maktabs, as primary schools in Central Asia were known in the late 19th century. At that time, the maktab existed to transmit knowledge and proper behavior, but not to inculcate understanding. Students memorized passages of the Koran in Arabic, but did not learn Arabic and could not understand what they were reciting. Persian and Turkic texts in the Arabic script functioned as mnemonic aids for students who could "read" passages they had already memorized, but were not functionally literate, for they could not read unfamiliar texts even in languages they knew from birth.

The Jadids sought to change this, teaching the alphabet phonetically and producing students who were functionally literate. This was the essence of the "new method," and the Jadids set up new-method schools to put it into practice and educate a new generation.

Although many of the Jadids were themselves products of the traditional maktab, they loathed it, portraying it in their polemical writings as an incubator of ignorance and enemy of enlightenment. Unsurprisingly, later writers, virtually all of them educated in an environment far closer to an ideal "new-method" school than a late-19th-century Central Asian maktab, have often mirrored the Jadids' views on this issue.

But Khalid shows that there was more to the conflict than this simple dichotomy between qadim and jadid, old and new. The struggle between the Jadids and proponents of the traditional way was in fact a contest between two different understandings of knowledge and its transmission. The maktab emerged in a world of written, not printed, texts. "The scarcity of the written word in the scribal age endowed it with a sacral aura," Khalid writes. "Writing itself was the object of reverence and the mnemonic, ritual, and devotional uses of the written word overshadowed its more mundane documentary functions." But for the Jadids, who belonged to the age of the printing press and who were great advocates of newspapers, the meaning of the written word was the proper object of reverence, not writing itself.

The struggle went deeper still. The Jadids' focus on functional literacy and print was a direct challenge to the authority of Central Asia's entrenched cultural elites. "Print allowed the Jadids to challenge the monopoly of the traditionally learned over authoritative discourse," Khalid argues. "In their writings, the Jadids tended to address a public composed of all those who could read. The use of print allowed the Jadids to go beyond the concerns of intellectual pedigree and patronage that provided the framework for literary production in the manuscript age. The Jadid project involved nothing less than the redefinition of the social order...." When a Jadid "claimed that newspapers were spiritual leaders of society...he was directly challenging the authority of the traditional cultural elite," according to Khalid.

If the new-method school was the Jadids' preferred means of fomenting change, and if their challenge to an existing elite ensured that they faced an uphill battle, progress was their motivating passion. In fact, the term the Jadids preferred for themselves was "taraqqiparvarlar" -- "lovers of progress," or "progressives." The trilingual term points to the rich and varied cultural backdrop to Jadidism, for "taraqqi" is an Arabic word meaning "elevation" or "progress"; "parvar" a Persian suffix derived from the word for "nourish"; and "-lar" the Turkic plural ending. And these progressive "taraqqiparvarlar" were all Muslims who read the Koran in Arabic and were equally at home in Persian and Turkic, the latter the precursor of what is today literary Uzbek, although it would not be identified as such until after 1917.

Progress for the Jadids took the form of advancement through knowledge. "The Jadids' cult of knowledge...placed them firmly in the mainstream of the enlightenment project," Khalid writes. For the Jadids, Europe was the embodiment of progress. Many of the Jadids visited Europe, and they often presented in their writings a stark contrast between advanced Europe and backward Central Asia. Khalid quotes Mirza Siraj Rahim, the son of a Bukharan merchant, who described a 1902 trip to Europe in terms that, while clearly idealized, movingly evoke the emotions that fired the Jadids in their labors:

"I did not see in Europe a single person whose clothes were old or torn, not one building in ruins, nor a street that was unpaved.... But in our country, our poor merchants and shopkeepers, in their cells and shops dark with dust and [surrounded by] crowds of beggars, cannot find a minute to breathe properly.... Pity on us, pity on us. All the time I toured Paris, [my] beloved homeland was constantly in my mind, and all the time tears flowed from my eyes...."

But for all their belief in progress as embodied by modern Europe, the Jadids never wavered in their commitment to seeing themselves and their audience as Muslims. Khalid writes:

"The Jadids were part of a cosmopolitan community of Muslims knit together by readership of common texts and by travel. They lived in the last generation when Muslim intellectuals in different countries could communicate with each other without the use of European languages. Central Asian Jadidism was located squarely in the realm of Muslim modernism. It was Muslim because its rhetorical structures were rooted in the Muslim tradition of Central Asia and because the Jadids derived ultimate authority for their arguments in Islam. The Jadids never disowned Islam in the way that many Young Turks had done well before the end of the 19th century. Rather, modernity was fully congruent with the 'true' essence of Islam, and only an Islam purified of all accretions of the ages could ensure the well-being of Muslims."

The Jadids' initial understanding of Muslim identity encompassed the dizzying diversity of Muslims living in and around Central Asia. In 1912, Munawwar Qari wrote: "Arab, Turk, Fars, Ozbek, Noghay, Tatar, Bashqurd, Persiyan [sic], Cherkes, Lezgin, Tekke, Turkman, Afghan, Qazaq, Qirghiz, Qipchaq, Tungan, Taranchi, Hanafi, Shafi'i, Maliki, Hanbali, Ja'fari. All of them believe in the existence and unity of God and the prophecy of Muhammad, on whom be peace."

Gradually, however, the Turkic element grew stronger. By 1917, the Jadids were penning approving appeals to the legacy of such Turkic heroes as Chinggis, Temur, and Ulugh-bek. The poet Abdurauf Fitrat, who would go on to become one of the pioneers of Uzbek literature before he was shot in Stalin's purges and written out of Soviet history, switched in 1917 from writing in Persian to writing in Turkic.

Although the ideas the Jadids put forward subverted the dichotomy between colonizer and colonized and thus did not fit in neatly with the Russian colonial project, the Jadids were not opponents of Russian colonial rule. Khalid argues that the Jadids did not fight to break free from the empire, but rather sought "to establish a Central Asian Muslim presence in mainstream Russian life." Nevertheless, the Russian colonial administration treated them with suspicion, viewing Jadidism "primarily as a political phenomenon," even though the Jadids lacked an institutional framework to articulate political interests, faced substantial opposition within the Muslim community, and remained in essence a loose-knit cultural movement.

The tsarist government's tendency to read political significance into cultural phenomena and see in them a threat to its power proved to be one prerevolutionary tradition the Bolsheviks were only too eager to adopt and put to their own uses. Though the Jadids seized on the chaos of the revolutionary period to try to advance their ideas, they enjoyed only limited success. And while many Jadids rose to prominence in the 1920s, a cruel fate awaited them under Stalin.

Khalid brings the tale to its sad conclusion: "Munawwar Qari, Cholpan, Qadiri, Haji Muin, and Ubaydullah Khojaev all disappeared in the Gulag in the 1930s. By 1938, when Fitrat was executed and Fayzullah Khojaev, most famously of them all, mounted the podium at the Great Purge Trial in Moscow as part of the 'anti-Soviet bloc of rightists and Trotskyites' to face the fatal charges of counterrevolution and anti-Soviet activity, the Jadid generation had been obliterated. They were replaced by a new generation (the so-called Class of '38), whose education and worldview had been shaped entirely within the Soviet context."

Central Asia today is a vastly different place than the colonial Turkestan the Jadids sought to refashion into a community of enlightened Muslims. Many of the particular concerns that occupied such a prominent place in Jadid writings, like the battle between old-method and new-method schools, are now of purely historical interest. The rapturous view of Europe as an exemplar of progress rings quaint. Yet answers to the larger questions the Jadids raised are still being sought across Central Asia: What, for example, is the best way for Central Asia's nations to improve the well-being of their diverse peoples while remaining faithful to their rich and varied cultural and religious traditions? Should not a strong, forward-thinking sense of Muslim identity serve as the inspiration for enlightened progress?

Such questions may be in the Jadid tradition, but they are not the real lesson of Jadidism for Central Asia today. In Uzbekistan, for example, where the Jadids are honored as martyrs of Soviet tyranny, officialdom espouses a discourse of Uzbek nationalism rooted in a supposedly centuries-old Timurid legacy, and the state never tires of stressing that Uzbekistan's "traditional" Islam -- which in the official interpretation exists seemingly outside of history -- must be defended at all costs from the perils of "new" and "imported" extremism.

As Khalid's admirably researched examination of Jadidism shows, these categories and concepts are neither as ancient nor as traditional as today's officials might wish us to believe. In demonstrating that the nation and the faith were not always what they now seem to be -- that they were, in fact, the subject of impassioned debate in the past -- the legacy of Jadidism need not weaken either. Instead, it can strengthen both by opening them up once again to debate and, as the Jadids would surely insist, to progress.

See also:

Part 1: Central Asia Returns To Muslim Roots

Part 2: Regional Leaders Try to Control Islam

Part 3: Radical Islamists Challenge Governments Efforts At Control

Part 4: Madrasahs Lead Religious Teaching Revival

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