The culture of sainthood in the (post-)communist world reveals unknown aspects of the history and sociology of areas exposed, since the 1920s, to deep transformation in the name of one ideology. Revisiting Jacobus de Varagine’s 13th-century Legenda Aurea (‘Golden Legend’), the project will approach sainthood in action in societies characterised by both communist pasts and religious pluralism, with special interest in Islam.
Since Deng’s reforms in China and the opening of the frontiers of the USSR in 1990, hagiographic processes have developed in the former East Bloc and in China. Very often, they have come together with the locally produced historiography of territories deeply transformed since the 1920s. As a result, they evidence the sainthood of local holy men (more rarely women) active during the short twentieth century.
These local histories suggest the permanence of part of religious custom under communist rule and the role of the saints in the preservation of cultural heritages. In the former USSR as in mainland China, two opposed tendencies are observed: a feminisation of religion, due to the role of women in transmitting spirituality in repressive context; and a formalisation of hagiographic narratives which excludes women from sainthood.
So doing, these productions raise sociological issues, such as the agency of religious establishments. Since the late 1980s, holy dynasties of tomb keepers have played key roles as ‘curators of change’ within newly competitive religious fields. In parallel, post-communist elites, from the Balkans to China, were promoting ‘tradition’ as a bulwark against religious newcomers, Salafi trends among others, identified as threats to their order.
Indeed, sainthood was not absent from communist culture and nowadays, the cult of modern saints reflects efforts to make them parts of national ‘heritages’ (e.g., through Islamo-Confucian literature). This cult also partakes of codes of good ethics and social behaviour nourished by Muslim adab, Soviet kul’tura and Chinese wenming – a civilisation process against ‘cultureless religion’ personified by modern Salafis.
The project’s first hypothesis is of a specific structuration of Muslim hagiographic experiences in the USSR and popular democracies, and in their successor states. Characterised by a wide variety of experiences of communist domination, in time and space, the unity and diversity of this area is revealed notably by the diverse impacts exerted on hagiographic experiences by peculiar combinations of borrowings from Islamic and communist cultures.
The specificity of the Muslim hagiographic experiences in the (post-)communist world will be highlighted by an indexed database of 20th-century men and women of God. This data base must interrogate, in a comparative spirit (by regions, periods and religious systems), the gendered distribution of roles and the reasons for the combination of feminisation of the religious field with the occultation of women from Muslim hagiography.
The project’s third hypothesis is of an articulation between post-WWII massive population resettlements, followed by mass labour emigrations in the 1990s–2000s, one the first hand, and on the other hand the sanctification of human groups and territories born of this succession of migrations. Personified by community builders of sacred Islamic ascent, these groups and territories have traditionalised the specific demographic engineering of these periods; at the same time, they were modernising hagiography itself.