Ismail Gaspirali and his idea of “Russian Muslims”

Le coeur de la Tchétchénie Mosquée, Grozny, Russie
© Leonid Andronov | Dreamstime.com

Ismail Gaspirali (1851-1914) was a Muslim intellectual, educator, ideologist, politician from the Crimean Tatars, who had a significant impact on the reform of Muslim social thought at the beginning of the 20th century CE and founded the doctrine of Jadidism. He lived in Bakhchysarai (the former capital of the Crimean Khanate).

Co existence of Russians and Russian Muslims

One of the important components of Ismail Gaspirali’s worldview was his teaching about “Russian Muslims”. Russian Muslims was the term he used to describe the Tatars, a Muslim nation who were conquered by the Russians and included in the Russian state. Ismail Gaspirali considered this process a natural course of history and proposed the principles of not just the coexistence of Russians and Russian Muslims in a single state, but the principles of their friendship, religious tolerance, cooperation, common history and common future.

Ismail Gaspirali’s model of social structure can be easily transferred to the relationship between any dominant Christian nation and a subordinate Muslim nation (for example, the British and Pakistanis in the United Kingdom, Germans and Turks in Germany). The main idea of this model is that there is no “dominant” and “subordinate” nation, but there are two equal nations that respect each other and live in one common house with one common life.

Ismail Gaspirali and Muslim education

“Should Russians and Russian Muslims live side by side on the same land, under the same law as unwanted companions and wary neighbours, or should we develop closer family relations between them, as between the children of the great family of various nations of our vast great fatherland? ..” (Ismail Gaspirali, “Russian Muslims. Thoughts, notes, observations”, 1881) Ismail-bey considers this question rhetorical and offers a simple answer to it: education is the way that will help Russians and Russian Muslims become real “children of the great family of nations.”

Russians and Russian Muslims should know each other’s history, customs and faith. And for this you need to learn and teach others. In order to implement this idea, Ismail-bey Gaspirali proposed a reform of Muslim education, which he called “jadid” (from the Arabic “usul jadid”, “new method”).

The old principles of organizing Muslim madrasahs laid down by the medieval teachers Abu Hanifa and Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, were transformed in a European manner: students were divided into classes, study time was divided into lessons, desks, class journals, blackboards, tests, exams were introduced into the classroom, pupil’s diaries – everything that we now take for granted but that back then was an unprecedented innovation. Such disciplines as European history, literature, mathematics were introduced into the curriculum.

Controversies

Progress and learning are not alien to Islam, this is the idea that Ismail Gaspirali actively pursued. And the more Muslims are involved in this process, the more the influence of Islam on their Christian neighbours. Having learned the progressive sciences themselves, Muslims will be able, in turn, to intelligibly tell their neighbours about Islam, bring the Light of Allah into their world.

Ismail Gaspirali’s ideas were not received with enthusiasm by everyone. Their opponents, who called themselves Qadimists (from the Arabic “qadim”, “old”), opposed innovations in education, were against integration into European society, against wearing European dress, against equality of women, democracy, and “Europeanization” of Islam. But the Jadid movement was rapidly gaining momentum. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 in Russia put an end to the development of the ideas of progressive Islam of Ismail Gaspirali. But the further course of history showed the viability of his ideas, and we can hope that this full stop is actually just a comma.