Jadidism and Qadimism: Islamic Reformism in the Russian Empire

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Jadidism is a movement for the reform of Islam, which was born in the Russian Empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Jadid movement arose spontaneously but it was the reflection of the urgent task of reforming Islam in the context of the development of Western society and its influence on Muslim nations. The activity of the Jadids was criticized as a form of “Europeanization” of Islam and Islamic education, however, it was an expression of the general European tendency of Muslims to renew Islam in the spirit of Islamic reformism, pan-Islamism and pan-Turkism.

Jadid is the Arabic abbreviation for Usul Jadid أصول جديد (New Method). This is how Ismail Gaspirali, a Muslim educator and ideologist of Pan-Turkism, called his teaching system in Muslim schools in Crimea. He was the first to note the fact that, in comparison with the secular schools operating on the territory of Crimea, Muslim madrasahs used old, obsolete teaching methods and teaching aids, instead of developing creative thought among students. The reform of Muslim education seemed to him an inevitable requirement of the time. As a result, in 1883 Ismail Gaspirali opened the first Jadid school in Russia in Bakhchysarai (the former capital of the Crimean Khanate). Following him, young teachers of the Tatar madrasahs throughout the country began to introduce the New Method.

The Jadids introduced things that seemed natural to us now yet at that time they were perceived perceived as innovations: the division of students into classes, the introduction of desks for pupils, of blackboards, of class registers, division into academic classes, introduction of exams, none of this was present in traditional madrasahs. The New Method increased the efficiency of teaching literacy. If in old schools a student began to read after 4 years, in Jadid madrasahs he would become literate in less than a year.

From the Crimea, the Jadidism system spread throughout the Russian Empire and beyond (Turkey, Iran, China). Not everyone accepted it with enthusiasm. The opponents of the Jadids called themselves “Qadimists” (from the Arabic word “qadim” قديم, “old”). The Qadimists believed that the methods of medieval teachers and philosophers such as Abu Hanifa, al-Maturidi and al-Ghazali should remain intact, for they are imbued with the spirit of real Islam, which will the European-style reform will make null and void. The Jadids’ philosophical and legal views provoked no less indignation from the Qadimists. These included: open ijtihad (independent interpretation of the Quran), the study of secular sciences and Aristotelian philosophy, the wearing of Western clothes and the equality of women, the translation of the Quran into local languages, the creation of national schools.

The wide spread of Jadidism was facilitated by the fact that Russian Muslims at the beginning of the 20th century CE were guided in their ideas by the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish world. The ideas of the Jadids found a response in Turkey and, under its influence, spread in Russia. In Central Asia, an outstanding Jadid was the Uzbek and Tajik educator Mahmudhoja Behbudi. Jadidism spread to Dagestan and Kazakhstan. In Orenburg (the then spiritual centre of Kazakh Muslims), the Husainniya Jadid madrasah was opened. In total, 5,000 Jadid schools operated on the territory of the Russian Empire before the Bolshevik revolution. The process of reforming Islamic education and philosophy became universal.

In a broad context, the ideas of the Jadids could be characterized as a fusion of Western progress with Islam. The Jadids understood it as the imperative of the times and the only correct path for Muslims. At the same time, they themselves viewed Jadidism as a cleansing of Islam from age-old scholasticism and a return to the times of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) and his companions. “We must reform not Islam, but our understanding of Islam,” said one of the Jadid ideologues, the well-known Muslim figure Musa Bigiev. It is from this point of view that it would be worth looking at the ideas expressed by the Jadids, and if we remember that all that’s new is nothing but a well forgotten thing of the past, we may well find in these ideas plenty of food for thought in respect of the problems of today.