There was no distinction between Islam and nation for traditional Tatars

Religion and nationalism — whether it is appropriate for a Muslim to be committed to an ethnic group

There was no distinction between Islam and nation for traditional Tatars
Photo: Maksim Platonov

There are discussions among ethnic Muslims on the topic of nationalism: how appropriate it is for a Muslim to be committed to their ethnicity while religious identity prevails. People by their social nature belong to different communities: family, tribal, subcultural, national, religious, and institutional. And different people define the importance of communities in different ways. Religion by its very nature generates the new form of identity, along with state, tribal or national ones. The Christians form the church as a community, and the Muslims form the ummah as a single community of believers. What is the relationship between religion and other forms of identity? Does it have to be a conflict between them? Karim Gaynullin, a columnist for Realnoe Vremya, reflects on these issues in his new article.

Definition of “nationalism”

When speaking of “nation”, modern layman often understands it as something self-evident and going back centuries. Russian nation is often referred to the time of the tribal fragmentation of the Drevlians, Polans, Volhynians, Krivichs, and so on, who became dependent on Kievan Rus. The Tatar nation dates back to the time of the Turkic Khaganate or at least the Golden Horde.

In academic science, there are different approaches to the concept of nation, which are divided into two large groups — primordialism and institutionalism. There are also related approaches, including institutionalism and ethnosymbolism — but we will focus on the two of them.

The primordialist theory sees the nation as a given — people of the same linguistic or genetic community have a certain set of cultural, moral, and ideological features at all stages of historical development.

Primordialists often distinguish the categories of “nations” from others — “nationalities” and “ethnicities”. If “nations” are considered as a political product — existence within one state, then ethnicities and nationalities are considered as a self-educated group of people who speak the same language and have the same traditions.

It should be said that the prim and unscientific approach, which assumes the existence of a single nested set of characteristics within ethnicities and nationalities, is characteristic only of early theorists and radical nationalist-idealists. At the same time, the dualistic approach of Yulian Bromley or the ideas of ethnogenesis of Lev Nikolaevich Gumilyov, also considered in the context of primordialism, suggest the formation of ethnic groups in the historical process, studying this historical process as stages in the evolution of existing ethnic communities (which became nations). According to Bromley's approach, there is a division into “ethnicos”, that is, into the primordial core of ethnos, ethnic self-​awareness, and the ESO, that is, the constructivist realisation of ethnos within the state (close to the concept of “nation”).

The Marxist theory of ethnos, which uses the formation approach — the development of ethnos to nationality and nation within the framework of changing relations from slave-holding to feudal, bourgeois and proletarian, belongs to primordialism.

The constructivist approach reveals the late nature of the concept of “nation”. The most important work related to this approach is Imagined Communities by British sociologist Benedict Anderson. Through “imaginativeness”, Anderson defines the concept of “nation”. “Imagined” refers to a community whose members are unfamiliar with each other and are not in constant communication. It is suitable for any society that exceeds the scale of the villagers or representatives of one district of the city, including ummah, church, and so on.

Anderson argues that the nation is an imagined political community that is inherently limited in scope and sovereign in nature… All communities larger than primitive villages united by face-to-face contact are imagined. Communities should be distinguished not by their falsity/authenticity, but by the style in which they are imagined. (B. Anderson, Imagined Communities)

Photo: Ilya Repin

The nature of nation

The concept of “nation” comes from the category of “rights of peoples” in Roman law, which was opposed to the right of Roman citizens. In medieval Europe, the category of “nations” existed among university students, and this meant primarily a student corporation. Estates had no national identity, the aristocracy thought of itself primarily as aristocracy. If the aristocracy called itself a “nation”, it did not include the peasantry.

Religious identity was also widespread — it was not separated from ethnic identity. There was no distinction between Islam and nation for traditional Tatars. In the early 20th century one can read on the books that they were written in the “Muslim language”, which means Tatar.

The formation of modern nations was influenced by several factors at once. First, bourgeois revolutions. Sovereignty was to pass from the king to the nation. But this nation did not include nobles and clergy — the nation became the third estate, which won its sovereignty from the king.

Second, it is linguistic community. And it could not have been formed without the spread of mass printing in the newly created literary national languages.

Before their formation, the elite communicated with each other in sacred and elite languages. For example, the “Volga Turks”: the old Tatar language is not identical to the modern Tatar language — it was primarily the language of the “Sufis and Alims”, which was far from the numerous dialects spoken by the Tatars. Greek and Latin were taught in European schools, and Arabic and Persian were taught in Muslim madrasas. There was no single national language forming the body of the nation.

Ismail Gasprinsky played an outstanding role in the formation of the literary Tatar language. However, in his understanding, the category of “Tatars” should have embraced all the Turks of the Russian Empire, united in the great Turkic-Tatar nation, not exclusively modern Tatars.

Finally, the feeling of being different played an important role. This was especially evident in the formation of nations in America. In the colonial period, a person born in America was not equal to someone who was lucky enough to be born in the mother country. For example, Anderson writes that on the eve of the revolution in Mexico, there was only one Creole bishop, of the 170 viceroys in Spanish America before 1813 only four were Creoles. Alienation from the mother country and resentment became what separated the Creoles from the Spaniards, provoking the formation of new Latin nations.

Photo: Oleg Tikhonov

Non-religious identity in the first centuries of Islam

The Koran confirms two forms of non-religious kinship identity.

It is interesting how Allah in the Koran views shaab and kabail in the context of primordialism as natural forms of identity embedded in a person. However, what is meant by the word “shuub” and by the word “kabil”? Let us turn to one of the classic commentaries on the Koran by Imam al-Baydawi:

“You were made peoples (shuubun): and the shuubun are the main tribes (kabail), like the (Arab) tribes of Rabia, Mudor, Aus, and Khazraj. They are called shuub because they are branched (tashaub), but they are united (among themselves), like a pile of branches of a tree close to each other. The word 'shaaba' (from which the shuubun, tribes derive) is used in opposite meanings — both to unite and to divide.

Kabail is less than shuub, the singular is kabil. And this is similar to the Bakr tribe of Rabia and the Tamim tribe of Mudor, and smaller than the Kabail — al-Amair... [The author then lists further substypes of Arab tribes].

And it is also said that the tribes are called shuub among the non-Arabs, and the tribes of the Arabs are called kabail, and the tribes of the Banu Israil (Jews) are called asbat.

And Abu Ruk said, “shuubun' are those who are not attributed to anyone, but are attributed to some locality, and kabail is among the Arabs, who are attributed to their fathers.

Thus, the terms “kabail” and the terms “shuubun” in the Koran context do not refer to peoples in the modern sense or nations, but to different classifications of tribes. There is also a second opinion, which states that “peoples” in the Koran context is belonging to a certain area or city.

Photo: Rinat Nazmetdinov

What is important is that neither the category of “shuub” nor “kabail” fits into the concept of “nation” — in the sense of a community formed around identity and language and having state sovereignty. Moreover, neither the Turks nor the Arabs took these words as an analogue of the European natio. The Turks, the first to form a modern nation, defined themselves as “millet” (from where this word got into the Tatar language). The Arabs, probably in order not to converge with the Turks, took another Arabic word — “ummah”. Both in the traditional sense denotes religious communities. The Arabic word “millat”, from which the Turkic “millet” is derived, means “the way in religion”, and “ummah”, which the Arabs took to define themselves as a nation, is the whole set of Muslim believers (although this word in one of the hadiths also included Christians and Jews who made the treaty with the Prophet).

Nationalism and asabiyya

In religious disputes, the Muslims who oppose nationalism often appeal to the concept of “asabiyya”.

Asabiyya, however, can be more likely attributed to tribal enmity. There were simply no nations in 7th-century Arabia. But the tribes — quite a lot.

Nationalism as an ideology itself presupposes the sovereignty of nation as opposed to the sovereignty of monarch or aristocracy. Religious critics of nationalism should determine why, from the point of view of Islamic texts, sovereignty should be held by a monarch or an elite clan, and not by a community united in a nation.

On the other hand, like ancient tribal feuds, today's nationalists from Muslim nations are ready to justify any evil committed for the benefit of the latter. In some ways, today's war in Yemen or the Kurdish issue really resembles ancient asabiyya, just this “asabiyya” is made by modern communities. This is often recalled by disputes between post-Soviet nations: for example, Bashkirs and Tatars.

Another problem is the religious nature of nations. Most of them are secularised religious communities, as Benedict Anderson writes. For the Tatars, before the revolution, Islam was not separated from Tatar culture. In this case, the religious person is faced with the question: should they agree to this secularisation? And what forms of identity can a religious person have other than religious one?

Photo: Maksim Platonov

By the way, the European movement New Right today suggests moving away from national identity, returning to tribes, corporations, kinship and religious associations. Historian Alfrid Bustanov writes a lot about the importance of rethinking the concept of “nation”, trying to formalise the concept of “post-nation”. The question remains: what role do nations play in the Muslim community?

By Karim Gaynullin

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.