Wednesday, 1 July 2009

(Religious) history is written by the victors

This is not merely a question of what words appear on the pages of textbooks out there somewhere. Everyday popular sentiments and prejudices are fuelled by this, too. The feelings and ‘truths’ of the victors operate at the level of conversations and reflex attitudes.

Consider the Caucasus: for centuries a hotbed of competition, oppression, violence, looming empires, local struggles, etc. For the last 300 years Russian domination of the region has led to injustice on a large and small scale, whether perpetrated by the Imperial, the Soviet or the present quasi-fascist Moscow government and its local puppets. 

So far in this post, you might say, there is not too much evidence of the history of the victors being dominant – given that I am able to make historical claims that attack the ‘victors’ in the Caucasus, claims backed up in the more sober scholarly sources.

Perhaps this can be partly brought under the main heading? As a Westerner I am one of history’s victors, with a global perspective to match the spread of Western culture, a perspective derived largely from Western historiography and journalism which is not particularly sympathetic to (among other ‘others’) Russia.

The other side of this view of the Caucasus is of course the downtrodden, mainly Muslim people who live there. But who are they and how did they become Muslim? Ironically, their conversion to Islam, certainly to anyting approaching an ‘orthodox’ Sunni Islam, was facilitated by the Russian march southwards…

The militancy of the Khalidiyya [the brotherhood of Khalid] found expression in the Caucasus. In parts of Chechnya and Dagestan, Islam, as brought by the Tatars of Crimea, had been accepted only by the representatives of the upper classes, while the masses remained untouched by Islam until the eighteenth century, maintaining their ancestral rites and beliefs. The preaching of Imam Mansur, who led a jihad in the years 1785-91, addressed the peasants in simple and direct language. His most durable work was the Islamization of the population of the north-west Caucasus, preparing the way for the Naqshabandi [a sufi brotherhood that emphasized the shari‘a] preachers and the jihad of Imam Shamil.
 Followers of Khalid
[an influential Sufi leader, hajji in 1805] spread the tariqa [method of reaching divine reality] in Dagestan and Chechnya in the early years of the nineteenth century. Shaykh Isma‘il al-Kurdemiri, a follower of Khalid, was active in Shirwan in the 1810s. With the progress of the Russian occupation, many of the local rulers submitted to Russian rule, so that the traditional political establishment was increasingly discredited. In this context, the message of the renewalist Naqshabandiyya tariqa had strong popular appeal, and the movement grew under the leadership of Muhammed al-Yaraghi, a student of Shaykh Isma‘il. Al-Yaraghi’s first concern was to establish respect for and adherence to Islamic law and to reform local practice.
 Hamid Algar asserts that the directives of Mawlana Khalid
[who, after 1820, because of various splits and disagreements, was actually in Iraq and Syria, not the Caucasus] consistently guided the political activities of the Khalidi Naqshabandi shayks in Dagestan and Chechnya, and it was there that the Khalidiyya survived in its purest and most integral form. The jihad of Imam Shamil from 1832 to 1859, had an important internal dimension. He created a territory where the shari‘a was supreme, and eradicated various local dynasties that had been associated with practicing the local customary law.

[Nehemia Levtzion, ‘The Role of Shari‘a-Oriented Sufi Turuq in the Reform Movements of the 18th and 19th Centuries’, in Islam in Africa and the Middle East: Studies in Coversion and Renewal (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), ch.XV, p.12.]

The end of the second paragraph sounds quite anodyne, but when we discover in the third paragraph that reform meant the eradication of those (in power, at least) who thought differently it makes me wonder what establishing respect for shari‘a involved!

Although these charismatic Muslim leaders – and for all their other-worldly and ‘spiritual’ reputation notice how involved the Sufis were in politics and political violence in the Caucasus (not to mention in Anatolia and India, though that’s a story for another day) – gained much legitimacy from the advancing Russian colonial machine, their greatest successes came in internal reform. The suppression of alternative practice and the imposition of Islamic law, a vital part of shaping the Caucasian Muslim consciousness today. What happened to those who demurred? We are not told. Where are the protests against the imposition of shari‘a in the 19th century? Where are the protests (by hand-wringing Western liberals or by conscientious Muslims) against the long term cultural changes, namely Islamization and destruction of traditional cultural elements, that came in the wake of Shamil’s jihad, crushed though it was in the end by the Russians? Nowhere.

(Religious) history is written by the victors.

 In this chapter we have traced the history of the manifestations of Muslim resistance to colonial expansion back to an earlier stage of renewal and reform within Sufi turuq, which occurred almost simultaneously in all parts of the Muslim world in the eighteenth century. This was the culmination and crystallization of undercurrents from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that reinforced the shari‘a orientation of Sufi turuq.
 If the nineteenth century saw the rise of militant movements, and the eigtheenth century experienced the restructuring of
shari‘a-oriented Sufi turuq, it was in the seventeenth century that Muslim scholars had begun to break out of the combination of legal taqlid and mystical pantheism. Sirhindi in India and al-Qushani in Medina, followed by Ibrahim al-Kurani, advanced the merging of Hadith and tasawwu [esoteric learning and practice], which became a prescription for shari‘a-oriented turuq. Indian scholars were important in the Haramayn as a result of the growth of the pilgrimage, during which they encountered Sufis and muhaddithun from North Africa, Egypt and Kurdistan. Pilgrims from the farthest lands of Islam – Indonesia, Africa and China – were initiated in the Haramayn into new turuq, and carried back to their homelands new ideas and the nuclei for more cohesive and structurally ognized Sufi organisations. It was in those countreis at the periphery of the Muslim world that the evolutionary process of Islamization reached a stage that called for a radical departure from past traitions, which could be achieved only through revolution.

[ibid., pp.26-7.]

A fascinating thesis by an expert on Isalmization, whose work is full of insight into Sufis and reformist Islam, particularly in Africa. I wonder why the murderous jihadi efforts of Shamil and others is not called colonial, though? 

Perhaps history is written by the…