At the turn of the twentieth century, traditional practices and traditional understandings of Islam were challenged by a new reformist current called Muslim modernism. While the broad intellectual and cultural movement of Muslim modernism spanned practically the entire Muslim world, its local forms and names varied. In the Russian empire, it came to be known by the name of Jadidism, from its advocacy of a new method (usul-i jadid) of teaching the Arabic alphabet in elementary schools.
Born in a learned family of modest means in the tiny village of Soktare near Bukhara, Sadriddin (who took Aini as his takhallus or nom de plume when he started writing poetry in his teens) lived through a period of profound transformation. Orphaned at the age of 12, he went to Bukhara with his elder brother who already a student there. Aini acquired the patronage of Sharifjan Makhdum, a Bukharan notable and literary figure, which allowed him to pursue a madrasa education and to become a part of Bukhara’s cultural life. In 1908, Aini became involved in Jadid reform and opened Bukhara’s first new-method school. From then on, he was identified with Bukharan reformers who urged the amir of Bukhara to reform. In April 1917, in the wake of the February Revolution in Russia, the Bukharan reformers (now known at the Young Bukharans, Yosh Buxorolilar) forced the amir to issue a manifesto of reform. Very quickly, the amir, banking on the most conservative forces in society, retracted the manifesto and began persecuting the Young Bukharans. Aini was arrested and sentenced to 75 lashes. Aini was taken to hospital in Samarqand, where he stayed for months. He was never to return to Bukhara. The Young Bukharans were able to take power with the help of the Soviet Red Army in 1920 and establish a “people’s soviet republic.” Aini collaborated with the new government, but otherwise eschewed political work in the future. He devoted his considerable energies to writing in both Uzbek and Tajik (his mother tongue). Over the next three decades, he created a huge corpus of work in both prose and poetry and in many different fields: journalism, belles lettres (novels and short stories, many concerned with the inequities of life under the amirs), works on philology, and history, although the capstone of his career are the monumental, four-volume Yoddoshtho (Reminiscences) that he published toward the end of his life. After the national delimitation of Central Asia in 1924, the Tajiks were recognized as a separate nationality. Aini was the leading intellectual working in Tajik at the time, and almost single-handedly created modern Tajik literature. His status as the “father of Tajik literature” and his avoidance of political activity explain in part why he managed to escape the purges of the 1930s that carried off most other Jadids. Instead, Aini was repeatedly honored by the state and his works published without hinder. Although he continued to live in Samarqand (in Uzbekistan) until a few months before his death, he was recognized as a living Tajik hero. He was elected the president of Tajikistan’s Academy of Sciences upon its founding in 1950. He died in Dushanbe in 1954, where he is buried in a park that bears his name. “Ustodi Aini” (“Maestro Aini”) is one of the few unquestioned heroes of post-Soviet Tajikistan.
Beginning as a movement of religious reform, Jadidism quickly acquired broad cultural, social, and ultimately, political dimensions. The movement got its name from its advocacy of the usul-i jadid, the new, i.e., phonetic, method of teaching the Arabic alphabet, an apt indication of the centrality of educational reform to Jadidism. Historians refer to the proponents of Jadidism as the “Jadids,” although the Jadids did not usually use this term themselves. In common with other late nineteenth century modernist movements in the Muslim world, the Jadids faced the fact of political and economic decline of their societies vis-à-vis Europe. The Jadids argued for the compatibility of Islam and modernity from within the Islamic tradition. In the political conditions of the Russian empire, where the autocratic regime did not permit any political activity, educational and cultural reform took the front seat.
A Jadid movement emerged also in Central Asia at the turn of the century. The different social and political context of Central Asia imparted Jadidism a distinct hue. The ulama retained much greater influence in Central Asia, while the new mercantile class was much weaker. The market for publishing was also much smaller. Central Asian Jadids tended to be more strongly rooted in Islamic education. Nevertheless, they faced resolute opposition from within their own society, as well as from a Russian state always suspicious of unofficial initiatives.
Jadidism was a discourse of cultural reform directed at Muslim society itself. The basic themes emphasized by the Jadids were enlightenment, progress, and the “awakening” of the nation, so that the latter could take its own place in the modern, “civilized” world, by which they meant sovereign states possessing military and economic might. Given the lack of political sovereignty, however, it was up to society itself to lift itself up by its bootstraps through education and disciplined effort. Jadid rhetoric was usually sharply critical of the present state of Muslim society, which the Jadids contrasted unfavorably to a glorious past of their own society and the present of the “civilized” countries of Europe.
Jadidism was unabashedly modernist. Indeed, the single most important term in the Jadid lexicon was taraqqi, progress. Progress and civilization were universal phenomena for the Jadids, accessible to all societies on the sole condition of disciplined effort and enlightenment. There was nothing in Islam that prevented Muslims from joining the modern world; indeed, Islam enjoined disciplined effort and enlightenment upon Muslims. Only a modern person equipped with knowledge “according to the needs of the age” could be a good Muslim.
Crucial in this regard was a new outlook on knowledge. The new method of teaching the alphabet marked a shift to a new understanding of the purposes of literacy and, ultimately, of knowledge. Literacy for the Jadids was a functional skill that had no sacral connotations at all. Anyone could use literacy to acquire knowledge, including the knowledge of scripture, which hitherto had been the domain of the ulama, religious scholars who had acquired their knowledge through long, intensive study from recognized masters. The Jadids claimed that the true meaning of Islam could be acquired through a critical reading of the scriptures without recourse to the tradition of interpretation represented by the ulama. This claim had radical repercussions for the authority of the ulama, and of Islam itself.
Today, the term Jadid is often used in a very broad sense to mean all Muslims with a modern education and/or was active in public life. This practice however dilutes the meaning of the term and brings into the ranks of the Jadids many figures who had no involvement in religious debate or the reform of Muslim cultural life. A more careful definition of “Jadid” as one involved such endeavors is more analytically useful.
The first proponents of reform often had traditional Muslim educations, but they had also experienced the modern world through travel and the reading of newspapers. The father of Mahmud Khoja Behbudiy, the most respected figure in Central Asia, was qazi in a village on the outskirts of Samarqand, and Behbudiy was taught the standard madrasa texts of the time at home by his father and uncles. The family was prosperous enough for Behbudiy to travel abroad. A trip in 1900 to Istanbul and Cairo, en route to the hajj, was a turning point in Behbudiy’s intellectual trajectory. First-hand experience of modernist reforms in those places convinced him to propagate similar ideas in his own land. Munawwar Qori Abdurashid Khan oghli (1878-1931) was in many ways Behbudi's counterpart there. Also born in a family of cultural accomplishment (his father and two elder brothers were mudarrises), Munawwar Qori attended the Yunus Khan madrasa in Tashkent before spending some time at a madrasa in Bukhara. He returned to Tashkent in 1901 and opened a new-method school which eventually became the largest and the most organized in all of Turkestan. Munawwar Qori also wrote numerous textbooks, ran a book selling and publishing business, was instrumental in publishing at least two newspapers, and also became involved with theater after 1914. He was at the center of Jadid activity in the city. Abdurauf Fitrat, the leading Bukharan Jadid, had a madrasa education before he travelled to Istanbul for further education. By about 1910, the Jadid profile begins to change: the younger Jadids still came from traditionally learned families, but their madrasa credentials were scantier.