Gatling, Benjamin, Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan, 2018.

Gatling, Benjamin, Expressions of Sufi Culture in Tajikistan, Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2018, xiii–233 p., ill. (ISBN 9780299316808)

Questioning the Tajik identity promoted by the state born in 1991 from the dissolution of the USSR, the author examines the recent development of village masculine culture in the Hisar and Wahdat plains, located west and east of the capital Dushanbe, and in the Rasht upper valley (erstwhile Qarategin, on the upper reaches of the Wakhsh River, which in the mid-twentieth century was a demographic reservoir for the lowlands of the centre and south of the country). Benjamin Gatling wonders how local followers of Sufism have tried, in the mid-2010s, to come to terms with a disenchanted present marked notably by the repression of public religious practice, through the invocation and sacralisation of precisely the Soviet past, now remembered as a golden age of Islam.

A specialist in the study of oral traditions, B. Gatling tries to understand the roots of the ‘pastness’ of the Central Asian present. He looks at the ways in which present-day Naqshbandi or Qadiri murids have been ‘traditionalising’ the present through the production of memories, stories, rituals, artefacts and monuments, as well as through behaviours embodying models, verbal or otherwise, provided by their guides. These counter-narratives and their very vehicles — oftentimes printed books that bear the holiness of a great ancestor or of a sacred place — are evoked as weapons in the hands of the ‘weak’ in order to oppose the secularist ideology advocated by a political elite inherited from the USSR, by bringing back to life the past and its aura of religious authenticity.

A chapter on the current readings of the life and work of the Qadiri shaykh Sayyid Nasim-Khan Qandahari, alias Mawlawi Jununi (1810–87), highlights his current sanctification in connection with the memory of the Manghit Emirate of Bukhara (1747–1920), presented as another exemplary period of Muslim devotion. The claimed affiliation, strengthened by the use of conventional narrative motifs, extends the holiness attributed to the nineteenth-century ‘alim to the local branches of the Qadiriyya and to a lineage of Sufi guides, the Turajanzadas, who were for a long time the exclusive holders of Jununi’s manuscript works, but also to the whole current Tajik religious sphere (although few in this sphere have read Jununi’s works, despite their edition in Cyrillic from the 2000s onwards).

Overall, the author underlines the connections between present historical narratives and several classical genres of Islamic hagiography such as the manaqib (enumeration of the virtues of a peculiar saint and his posterity) and the tadhkira (collection of biographies of men of God). Conversely, he also notes (after D. DeWeese and in the wake of R. Thum) the modern evolution of religious literary genres towards more local dimensions, in order to extend to local religious milieus the charisma of more widely reputed examples: ex. DeWeese, ‘Sacred History for a Central Asian Town: Saints, Shrines, and Legends of Origin of Sayrām, 18th-19th Centuries’, Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Méditerranée 89-90 (2000): 245–95; Thum, The Sacred Routes of Uyghur History, Harvard University Press, 2014.

B. Gatling’s inquiry on present-day Sufi circles focuses on followers of spiritual lineages of mostly Dahbidi ascent (after the name of a suburb of 16th-century Samarqand in which many genealogies of Tajik Naqshbandi leaders find their source). Among the figures of this network is Ishan ‘Abd al-Rahman-Jan b. Parsa Khwaja (1920–91). Celebrated as a protagonist of the transmission of Persian adab via the teaching of gnostic poetry, ‘Abd al-Rahman-Jan acted at a strategic interface between Qarategin and the cotton-growing plains of the centre and south of the country. The oral material received from the murids of his offspring is a body of discourses marked by a cyclical conception of history (inherited from Sirhindi and his commentators among the Dahbidi Naqshbandi shaykhs of the Soviet period), centred on the idea of a current escheat of Sufism: ‘During Soviet times, there were more devotees’, summarised a respondent of the author’s (p. 47).

Among other features of this discourse: 1) evocations of the Soviet era as a golden age of Islam (a representation widespread among figures of lineage-based Islam the whole ex-USSR); 2) the account of miracles that cover, with a blanket of wonder, the complex relations that many families of religious scholars maintained with the Soviet authorities (see the testimonies on powers of escape or of ubiquity, stereotyped since the 1990s in the legendary accounts on Soviet Muslim saints, all the more popular as borrowed from pre-modern Muslim hagiography); 3) a tendency, also, among hagiographers to identify all the Muslim religious establishment of present-day Tajikistan as disciples of this particular master, promoted to the status of a national saint.

B. Gatling notes, too, the frequent denunciation by these hagiographers of the ‘imposture’ (taqallob) of ‘career-minded’ (iktisabi) clerics, opposed to the holders of genealogical (intisabi) authority — the only credited with authenticity, in a religious sphere characterised since the opening of the Iron Curtain in 1990 by a new competitiveness and the increasing influence of anti-Sufi movements. Permitted by the oblivion of many repressions (when the memory of these repressions does not strengthen the posthumous prestige of this or that spiritual master), this valorisation of the short 20th century as a blessed period of Sufism for the Tajiks is interpreted as a means, for many, to overcome the vicissitudes of a current trying period, rejected for its alleged impiety.


Among the few reservations raised by the book is the transliteration system that the author has adopted for Tajik language, technical but not always consistent, not very suitable either for transcribing oral testimonies, and sometimes erroneous (e.g., shaḣr [sic] for شرح, шарҳ or ʃɑrh, ‘commentary’ or ‘exegesis’ p. 51). Many analyses and conclusions are repeated from one chapter to another, even if the theoretical sources quoted vary. Despite this rich background and the intrinsic interest of a fieldwork carried out during a difficult period, the book relies on debatable postulates and methods. As is often the case in recent publications on present-day Islam in Central Asia, the author also pushes on some doors that local and international research has already opened.

The greatest issue raised by the author’s method is perhaps his exclusive reliance on the testimonies of informers whose assertions, rarely contextualised, seem taken for granted. Neither the criteria of the author’s selection of his interlocutors appear clearly, nor the nature or the level of connection of the latter with such or such master or lineage of masters. The book often deals with the current Sufis of Tajikistan as a whole who, notwithstanding their inner cleavages and extremely diverse relationships to politics, are globally identified with the nonmodern others of folkloric studies, as fringe elements in relation to global society and to the government. (Despite complex, as said above, the relations of some with the authorities, past and present, have been documented by recent scholarship.)

This is regrettable, insofar as the repressions experienced by Tajikistan since the authoritarian turn of 2009 have exerted impacts, not measured here, on discursive practices. Elliptic contextualisation has also given rise to some hasty exegeses — as for the chapan, the fleece-lined male tunic of the peasants of the foothills of Mawara al-Nahr and an attribute of many Soviet Muslim saints of this region. Seen as a mode of ‘engagement of the past’ (p. 154), this garment was and remains opposed, indeed, to the suit of Soviet and present bureaucrats; however, it is also intended to contrast with the past-oriented, too, but luxurious silk gowns worn by the staff of the Central Asian Muftiyyat — the memory of the chapan of ‘Abd al-Rahman-Jan and other saints of Qarategini ascent being more polysemic than suggested.

Among the avenues opened by the book for further research, especially about hagiographic experiences in the countries of the former USSR, one can mention the study of the causes, modalities and side effects of the diffusion of hagiographic productions to the discourses of (post-)communist states and to local history writing. The integration of hagiographic materials into the official discourses of the successor states of the USSR in particular, as B. Gatling points out, has made it possible to highlight the continuity of trans-historical ethnic identities, marked by Soviet primordialism but sacralised, at the same time, by the idea of ‘resistance’ to sovietisation. Sufi genealogy gives these discourses a confessional dimension, with the frequent support of local and international scholarship. . . .

As to local erudition (Rus. kraevedenie) and history writing, it can hardly be said that the nostalgia expressed for the Soviet period, through the commemoration of the holy founders of modern rural communities, has become a prerogative of marginalised religious groups — as B. Gatling suggests, opposing the followers of ‘Abd al-Rahman-Jan’s offspring to those of the former qazi of the Tajik SSR, Hajji Akbar Turajanzada, today the head of a madrasa and of a cotton processing plant near Wahdat. In spite of textological precautions, the discourse of their respective murids and admirers is often taken literally, again — very few things being said of the recent evolution of the competition between Sufi turuq and rites (e.g., Naqshbandiyya vs. Qadiriyya, silent vs. sound dhikr). Nor is anything said of the impact of the Tajikistani civil war of 1992–97, whose memory continues to develop on regionalist patterns, opposing Qarategin and its migrant populations, still considered as the ‘losers’ of the conflict, to those of neighbouring districts and provinces. Geographical, historical, political, socioeconomic if not confessional backgrounds are often conspicuous by their absence, which shows detrimental to what turns out to be the study of combined hagiographic processes and experiences.

Its great originality, B. Gatling’s book draws it from an awareness of the particular coexistence, in the present Sufi culture of Tajikistan and Central Asia, of nostalgia for the Soviet past and the actual relationship established by each disciple with a guide. The author notes, too, with great accuracy, the role played by the calls to prayer of the muezzin of a local community as a coda to the discourse of a pir or spiritual master. (The reviewer observed slightly earlier, in the same area and in the Zerafshan Valley, the same role played by the dhikr as a punctuation of the conversations, mudhakirat, saturated with references to the group’s common past, during the assemblies held beforehand by disciples of one single master.) The adhan and the dhikr validate a statement from the pir or its recollection, ‘broadcasting his wisdom into space’. B. Gatling’s observed Islam proves sometimes more convincing than analyses of discursive practices that, despite this author’s interest in complex sets of intertext, sometimes lack elements of context.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon (CNRS/GSRL, Paris)

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