Muhammadjon Rustamov, Domla Hindustani (ca. 1892 - 1989)

Born in the same generation as the Jadids, Muhammadjon’s life took him in a very different direction.  While Abdurauf Fitrat was publishing his criticisms of the whole system of traditional education in Central Asia, Muhammadjon immersed himself into the tradition, studying in madrasas in Kokand and Bukhara. During the chaos of the revolution, he left Central Asia for Afghanistan.  He found himself in India (hence his epithet), where he studied at the Usmania madrasa in Ajmer, acquiring  mastery of the Hanafi tradition of Islam.  He returned home in 1929 and promptly got into trouble with the state.  Over the next quarter century, he spent a total of eight and a half years in jail in three different stints.  During World War II, he served in the Soviet army and was wounded near Minsk in Belarus.  In the mid-1950s, he briefly worked as imam at the official Mavlono Charkhi mosque in Dushanbe, in Tajikistan.  He returned to academic work in private, compiling, among others, a six-volume manuscript commentary on the Qur’an, and teaching in a hujra from the early 1960s on.  In his teaching and his writing, he took consistently conservative positions rooted in the local Hanafi tradition.  He had little use for modernist reform — one of his works is Hajviya-yi Muhammad ‘Abduh, a satire, written in a Persian literary tradition of long standing, on Muhammad ‘Abduh, the great Egyptian modernist theologian from the turn of the twentieth century, in which Hindustoniy ridiculed ‘Abduh’s reformism as a form of conceit.  Two aspects of his conservatism are worth noting: he defended local customs and traditions against attacks from all directions, and he took a resolutely quietist stance on questions of politics.  Soviet rule was a test for believers, in which success lay through reliance on God (tavakkul) and patience (sabr), rather than political or military struggle.


Perhaps the best known figure in this milieu was Domla [Professor] Muhammadjan Hindustani, who in addition to teaching, wrote copiously, producing, among other works, a six-volume commentary on the Qur’an that remained in manuscript.  There were other figures too, who together constituted a religious underground in the cities and small towns of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.  The other three republics saw little of this kind of activity.  Nevertheless, the numbers involved in this underground world of Islamic learning remained small.  Their relations with “official” Islam were complex.  Hindustani himself had been briefly an imam in an official mosque in Dushanbe.  The “underground” ulama came from the same backgrounds as those in SADUM and were often connected to each through ties of initiation and common scholarly lineages.   As bearers of the learned tradition of Islam, the “underground” ulama had much more in common with “official” ulama of SADUM than with the practitioners of “customary” Islam who constituted the bulk of “parallel” Islam.  SADUM could even help its unofficial counterparts out in some ways.

It was impossible to publish religious materials in the Soviet period or to import them from abroad.  Much of the instruction in the hujra took place from copies of pre-revolutionary publications that had been preserved, or even from manuscript copies made from those texts.  By the 1970s, some contemporary Islamic texts had found their way into the hujra milieu and were being discussed there.  Among these texts were the works of the Egyptian Sayyid Qutb and the Pakistani Abu’l Ala Maududi.  Sayyid Qutb and Maududi were the influential theoreticians of “Islamism,” the highly politicized reading of Islam that arose in the Middle East and South Asia in the middle decades of the twentieth century, but from which Soviet Muslims had been entirely cut off.  These texts — mostly in Arabic — showed up in the Soviet Union as gifts from foreign Muslim delegations to SADUM or were imported by it for use in its own library.  The Kazakh scholar Ashirbek Muminov reports that a Muslim student at Moscow’s State Institute of International Relations who had access to the texts of Qutb and Maududi even published, illegally, a booklet in Russian laying out their ideas in a crude outline form.


Their message of scriptural rigor and political activism found reception among some of the students of the hujra, who argued against the apolitical, conservative (and conservationist) impulses of their teachers.  Most prominent in this camp were two students of Hindustani, Abduvali-qori Mirzoyev (b. 1950) and Rahmatulla Alloma (1950-1981), who began to call from a renewal (tajdid) of Islam in the region, most immediately through a critique of local customs and traditions, for which they found no sanction in the canonical sources of Islam.  They called themselves Mujaddidiylar, “the Renovators” (sing., Mujaddidiy).

The debate began, however, over questions of ritual.  The main points of contention were:
     • the role of the Prophet in Islamic belief and ritual — the question of his miraculous powers and his ability to intercede with God on behalf of his followers
     • the permissibility of the ritual celebration of the Prophet’s birthday (mavlud) and other such customary practices
     • the role of “saints” of “friends of God” (avliyo), the imputation to them of miraculous power, and the permissibility of seeking their intercession before God
     • the permissibility of visiting (ziyorat) their shrines (mazor)
     • the way ritual worship (namoz) was performed in the Hanafi tradition long predominant in Central Asia 
     • the permissibility of feasts (to’y) celebrating life-cycle events, such as male circumcision, weddings, and funerals

The Uzbek words Mujaddidiy and Jadid (or Jadidchi) both come from the same Arabic root and both have connotations of “new” and “renewal.”  But while many Mujaddidiy positions were similar to those of the Jadids — the harsh critique of custom and tradition and the recourse to the canonical sources of Islam being the most significant — there were very important differences as well.  The Mujaddidiylar of the 1970s and ’80s were heirs to a half-century of Soviet rule and concerned with the revival of Islam.  They also did not share the Jadids’ fascination with notions of progress and “civilization.” Their inspiration came from the Islamist rigor of Qutb and Maududi, who were critical of modern Western civilization, whether capitalist or Communist.

Rahmatulla Alloma also wrote a booklet called Islam nima? (What is Islam) that was published in a massive edition in Russian translation  in 1992, in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union.  In it, he argued that a certain minimum of Islamic knowledge — that would allow one to fulfill one’s obligations to God and to society, and to perform all ritual properly — was obligatory (farz-i ayn) on all Muslims, male or female, without which one cannot be a Muslim.  Among other things, this argument for individual responsibility went directly against customary notions of intercessionary powers of the Prophet or of saints.  Hindustani, for his part, took on the defense of local customs and traditions, which he argued were based in the long-term consensus of local ulama.  In a series of debates that took place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Hindustani disowned his students and labeled them “Wahhabis” for their iconoclasm.  Many of the activists of political Islam in the post-Soviet period were to emerge from the ranks of these students.

The Soviet public space

It is important to keep the debates in the hujra milieu in perspective.  They concerned only a small circle of initiates and were carried out underground, having little if any resonance for public life.   One result of the Soviet assault on Islam was the complete de-Islamization of public debate in Soviet space.  All public discourse period had to be cast in materialist terms deriving from Marxism as a philosophy of universal human progress, in which human fulfillment entailed the conquest of religion and superstition.  All public claims were validated by appeals to universal laws of history and to socialist construction, which created its own moral imperatives.  Religion was seen as a human construct corresponding with a certain (primitive) stage in the development of human society, while the ideological function of religion as the “opium of the masses” was constantly emphasized.   Islam, along with all other religions, was excluded from the public realm.  It was in this de-Islamized sphere that ideas of nationalism took root.  Soviet ideas of nation centered around language as the most important marker of the nation, but custom and heritage were also crucially important.   Clearly, Islam as a part of the national heritage could not be denied completely, but its relationship to that heritage was rethought in various ways. 

Central Asians in the late Soviet era were very conscious of being Muslims, but being Muslim meant something very specific in the Soviet context.  It was a form of belonging to a local community that marked its members as different from others who lived in their midst.  It had little to do with personal belief or observance of ritual, and everything to do with customs and way of life.  Even so, one remained a Muslim even if one did not observe local customs or traditions. For the vast majority of Central Asians, “Islam” was a form of localism, a marker that opposed Central Asians as Muslims to Europeans as outsiders. Muslims from other parts of the world who did not share Central Asian customs were not included in these boundaries of “Muslimness.”