Staunton, May 28 – This year marks the 160th anniversary of the birth of Ismail-bey Gasprinsky, the Crimean Tatar leader who sought to unite the Muslims of the Russian Empire on a reformist rather than revolutionary basis in pre-parliamentary times. And some Muslim leaders in the Russian Federation are holding him up as a model for today.
This week, at a Moscow conference on “Ismail Gasprinsky and the Birth of the Unity of Russian Muslims,” academic specialists and Muslim leaders discussed his legacy and argued that Gasprinsky’s ideas can make a significant contribution to “the formation of an all-Russian civic identity” and to “the formation of a legal state” (www.islamrf.ru/news/umma/events/16181/).
Aydar Khabutdinov, a professor at the Kazan branch of the Russian Academy of Jurisprudence, recalled in an article published in advance of the conference that during Soviet times, communist officials did everything they could either to suppress Gasprinsky’s ideas or to blacken his reputation (www.islamrf.ru/news/culture/legacy/15887/).
“Even my generation of 40-year-olds,” Khabutdinov continued, “well remember how the ideas of Gasprinsky about the unity of Russia’s Muslims were denied in the name of regional and tribal divisions” and about how his writings about Koranic justice and legality were simply suppressed altogether.
A major reason for this, the Kazan professor suggested, is that Gasprinsky promoted ideas which represented a serious challenge to the Soviet state. “He taught young people to search and acquire knowledge and to generously devote themselves to the Motherland and the nation,” defining the latter as the Muslim community as a whole.
“Young radicals denounced Gasprinsky for his willingness to work with the powers that be, but [the Crimean Tatar thinker] was convinced that it would be possible to create a better future only by the labor of a free man and not by force” as many of his opponents within the umma and more generally believed.
“Bloody Russian history of the last century went in a different direction” than the one Gasprinsky advocated, Khabutdinov continued. But if the future of Russia and its growing Muslim community are to be better, then it is absolutely necessary to recover and then implement the great reformer’s ideas.
“It was no accident that Ismail-bay Gasprinsky became ‘the father of the epoch’ of the national development of Russia’s Muslims,” the Kazan scholar argues. Born on March 8, 1851, Gasprinsky grew up informed by the liberal ideas which “saved many countries of Europe from revolution.” Unfortunately, Khabutdinov said, “our Motherland was not among them.”
Most of Gasprinsky’s life was spent at a time when there was no parliament in Russia, and consequently, he devoted himself to using the press to advance his ideas. He founded the newspaper “Tercuman” in 1883, “the first stable newspaper in the history of Russia’s Muslims” and an outlet that helped define both the language and ideas of many of them.
His paper was explicitly directed toward “the consolidation around itself of representatives of all groups of the national elite, including the bourgeoisie, the spiritual leadership, the intelligentsia and the nobility,” and “in the absence of the opportunity to form political parties before 1917, it “filled the function of professional politicians and social leaders.”
As Khabutdinov noted, “the idea of the nation was one of the key concepts of the 19th century,” and Gasprinsky “borrowed from the philosophical doctrine of the Slavophiles the idea about ‘nationality as a collective personality having its own special calling” but extended it to argue that all the Muslims of Russia were members of one nation.
By the early years of the 20th century, Gasprinsky had developed a political program for this Turko-Tatar nation, a program that included by “typically bourgeois demands such as political and civic freedoms, a constitutional state and so on as well as legal acts and norms defining it as ‘a millet.’”
In Gasprinsky’s view, the Kazan scholar wrote, this millet would be “a special ethnic structure in the framework of the imperial state, one having a special legal status, a concentration around spiritual assemblies, a nationally-proportional system of the formation of organs of power and so on.” In short, he sought “a single religious autonomy” for the Muslims of Russia.
And he argued that “each nation must be a juridical person, have its own economic institutions (banks, cooperatives, etc.) an autonomous system of education, enlightenment and charitable organizations, and also a political structure,” something that could be achieved by education in a common Turkic language and social efforts rather than revolution.
Gasprinsky, Khabutdinov said, “frequently stressed that the era of medieval khans had passed and that Muslims from subjects of medieval states must be transformed into citizens of a state of Modern Times.” To that end, he called for overcoming “centuries-old fatalism” and a prejudice against re-interpreting the past.
Indeed, in the views of the jadids of that time, Gasprinsky had created their present must as the Tatar thinker Marjani had “returned to the Tatars their past. And when Gasprinsky died in August 1914, Muslims from across the Russian Empire mourned his passing even as Russia headed in a very different direction than the one he wanted.
The question that needs to be addressed today, Khabutdinov concluded, is “will we be able to fulfill the injunctions of ismail-bay and construct a better future for ourselves and for our children?”