Everyday Islam–Soviet Anthropologist on Central Asia

Our principal reading material is fiction, with some creative (or occasionally uncreative) nonfiction thrown in to keep us feeling responsible and informed. Everday Islam is more of a reference book than “literature,” but we read it (individually) because it concerns one of our other significant interests–Central Asia, and more specifically, Tajikistan.

Everyday Islam is of interest in part because it represents the very Soviet views of a Communist Party member writing just after the breakup of the Soviet Union. Most books that get translated into English seem to reinforce our own perspective; it is from the dissidents of, for example, China, the former USSR, or Iran that we hear most often in the English-speaking world.

Even more intriguing, we found, were our own conflicted responses to the author’s critique. On the surface, it is difficult to sympathize with the lamentations of Soviet ethnographer Sergei P. Poliakov over the failure of Marxist materialism to take root in Central Asia. He describes what he considers to be the alarming entrenchment of “traditionalism” in this region. His definition of tradition is “the complete rejection of anything new introduced from the outside into the familiar, ‘traditional’ way of life” (4).

Poliakov asserts that Central Asian scholarship in the humanities during the Soviet period was, for the most part, nationalistic. All research and publications were directed toward the glorification of the republic’s history (125). By contrast, “never do any of them speak positively of the Soviet period” (126). Two responses come to mind: From our perspective, we can certainly imagine reasons scholars might not have spoken well of the Soviet period. Contrary to Poliakov’sassertions, hoswever, certain scholars do speak highly now of the Soviet era, at least in comparison to what followed.

Poliakov says Islam inflated its own role in the history of Central Asia, presenting itself as an educating, enlightening influence on the “empty vessel” of the region, despite the fact that its inhabitants had participated in the rich and lengthy Persian literary tradition. He writes: “The priceless libraries of the pre-Arab period, the pagan priests, the scientists and poets of pre-Arab Central Asia were all reservoirs of human knowledge and experience, and it was precisely they whom the Arab conquerors destroyed” (132). There is some irony in this statement, in that the Soviets generally asserted, as described in the introduction by translator Martha Olcott, that they brought “liberation from a benighted past” (xiv). The Soviets, thus, presented themselves as the same sort of saviors from ignorance that Poliakov says the Arabs before them claimed to be.

Poliakov feared that devotion to tradition in Central Asia would perpetuate deep-seated irrationalities and social problems. “Like it or not, the humanities and social sciences are now working to further traditionalism, since scholars are avoiding (or perhaps are being steered away from?) the most pressing and most important ideological problems” (126).

One such problem that Poliakov identified was the “desperate plight of rural Central Asian women” (Olcott xxi), whose lives were at the mercy of their fathers, husbands, and social expectations in general. He cited the high incidence of suicide among young women as evidence of the social pressures under which they lived (85). Poliakov also took a dim view of Central Asian education. He considered both primary and secondary schools to be inadequate, to say the least. This shortcoming was engendered, at least in part, he believed, by the indifference of uneducated parents who were more interested in money than in progress (124).

Poliakov was concerned about the general tendency, as he perceived it, to disregard traditionalism as a danger. He wrote:

It is…a pity that our publications present traditionalism and everything associated with it as nothing more than harmless holdovers from the past that do not seriously affect the development of our society.…Equally regrettable is that so many party workers, state officials, and senior scholars accept the Islamic interpretation of national culture. Whatever its cause, failure to understand the role traditionalism is playing in increasing social tension in Central Asia itself contributes to the further increase of tension in our country (137).

As mentioned above, we found it difficult to regret the failure of Soviet ideology to spread to the Central Asian republics, and we affirm their ability to maintain their traditions and their spirituality in the face of a colonizing, homogenizing, atheistic force. However, our firsthand observations in Central Asia, colored necessarily by own our experiences and beliefs, incline us to agree on certain points with Poliakov. It certainly does seem preferable, for example, not to sink one’s family irretrievably into debt in order to observe the socially requisite customs for funerals, weddings, and other rites of passage. And we have to agree that women, typically, are painfully subservient and limited in their options, from our perspective.

It is often difficult to differentiate laudable retention of tradition and identity from harmful persistence in uninformed practices. Perhaps the bottom line is that this task should be left to the possessors of the tradition themselves. This calls into question the role of “educators” and “aid workers.” We know the answers to such questions can be elusive.

Olcott, Martha. By Way of Introduction. Everyday Islam. By Sergei P. Poliakov. Trans. Anthony Olcott. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1992. xiii-xxvi.

Poliakov, Sergei P. Everyday Islam. Trans. Anthony Olcott. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1992.

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