Tatar reformer Musa Bigiev: “It is not Islam that needs reforming but rather our understanding of Islam.” Part 1.

M Bigeev
-az19 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

He was called the Muslim Luther. His ideas were admired and resented at the same time. His name has turned out to be forgotten in the modern Islamic world, while the ideas of this bright Muslim figure and propagandist of reformism and modernism are quite worthy to stand on a par with the names of such founders of reformism as Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh.

Musa Bigiev is a Tatar innovator and worker of Islam. You can even call him an “artist of Islamic reformism.” He expounded his ideas with ease and artistry of painting a canvas, an epic painting of unprecedented beauty. He offered innovative ideas that not all contemporaries could accept. But today, looking back at the historical path which we left behind, we can safely say that his ideas are of undoubted value in the current Muslim world.

Musa Bigiev was not focused on the narrow Tatar context. He addressed his theological work to universal Islam, in particular, to the Muslims of the Ottoman Empire. He wrote his books in the Tatar-Ottoman language, which is difficult to understand for modern Tatars, but easy to understand for the Ottoman Turks of the early 20th century CE. He was the Muslim theologian of the universal Muslim ummah, the Dar ul-Islam.

Musa Bigiev was born in Chembar district near Penza, in 1873. Tatars were the key nation of Islam in the Russian Empire. In their places of residence, Muslim administrative structures operated, mosques were built, schools and madrasahs operated. Musa Bigiev’s father was appointed akhun (head of Muslims and imams of the province, an analogue of the Arab qadi) to Rostov-on-Don (a city at the mouth of the Don River with access to the Sea of Azov, a border town of the 18th century CE that connected Russia with Crimea and Turkey, hence the Tatar population and the Muslim community) and the family moved to this city. Here Musa graduated from a civic school, after which he received a serious Muslim education in Bakhchysarai (the former capital of the Crimean Khanate), Kazan, Bukhara, the Al-Azhar University of Cairo.

In 1905, he moved to the capital of the empire, St. Petersburg. First, there was an influential Muslim community here. Secondly, the capital of the Empire was the ideal political centre for the Muslim movement. Musa Bigiev begins active work on its formation. He creates the Muslim Union party, takes an active part in the work of its congresses, is elected to the Central Bureau, writes the Charter of the party. Since 1906, Musa Bigeev’s journalistic activities began. In his works, Musa Bigiev speaks of the need for reforms.

After the Bolsheviks came to power in October 1917, Musa Bigiev tried to cooperate with the new government, opened Tatar schools, published the all-Muslim constitution “Appeal to Muslim countries”, published the textbook “The ABC of Faith” in Berlin. But the freedom that the Soviet government promised turned out to be illusory. When advance upon religion in general got into sway, Muslims suffered too: their organizations and mosques were closed, Musa Bigiev was imprisoned. By that time, his fame in the Ottoman Empire (it will exist until its collapse in 1924) was considerable. At the request of Istanbul, he was released, tried to work as part of Muslim organizations, even made the Hajj to Mecca in 1926, but by the end of the 1920s the impossibility of cooperation with the Soviet government became obvious to him and in 1930 he secretly fled the country through the Eastern Turkestan (modern Uyghur region of China on the border with Altai and Kazakhstan). After his escape, the Bolsheviks repressed the ministers and believers of the Cathedral Mosque of Leningrad, including Bigiev’s wife and three children.

By this time, Musa Bigiev was widely known in the Muslim world as the author of 120 theological works and the translator of the Holy Quran into the Tatar language. Afghanistan, India, Egypt, Germany, Finland, Iran, Iraq, missionary trips to India, Java, Sumatra, again Afghanistan, Cairo. The geography of Musa Bigeev’s travels in emigration was quite wide. Musa Bigiev is engaged in general Muslim affairs, develops theories of general Muslim issues and writes endlessly.

Musa Bigiev died in 1949 in Cairo. His literary legacy was undeservedly forgotten at the end of the last century, but now it comes back to us as an example of vibrant Muslim thought and a bold approach to renewing Islam in the spirit of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him