A Muted Tradition: Telos, Habit, Islam
(University of Toronto)
Works of Chokan Valikhanov, Vasily Bartold, and Saul Abramzon, made the argument about nominalism (insubstantiality) of Islam in nomadic Central Asia a normative reference point for generations of Soviet and post-Soviet academics. Having resonated with Soviet anti-religious politics and become part of national history narratives, their views spilled over academic discursive space, shaping social imaginaries of ordinary people in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In the 1990s, the historian Devin DeWeese and the anthropologist Bruce Privratsky profoundly challenged the trope of nominalism, providing compelling historical and ethnographic evidences. My paper builds on, and develops, their critique by drawing on extended ethnographic fieldwork in northern regions of Kyrgyzstan. Сombining analyses of Kyrgyz genealogical narratives, burial practices, as well as sensibilities of non-practicing Muslims, it reveals the various modes (discursive and embodied) in which the Islamic tradition has been unfolding in this post-Soviet country. Theoretically, the paper complicates and expands the concept of discursive tradition which was elaborated by Talal Asad as an analytical category for anthropological study of Islam. Since the first publication of his influential "The Idea of an Anthropology of Islam," most studies that approached Islam as a discursive tradition have focused largely on revivalist modes of Islamic piety in the Middle East and South East Asia. As a result, the concept itself has come to be associated exclusively with nexuses of ritual practice and theological argumentation - that is, Muslims' arguments about, and performances of, the normative techniques of self-cultivation such as the five daily prayers, veiling (or unvailing), reciting, and listening to, the Qur'an, among others. The proposed paper argues that despite the fact that the majority of Kyrgyz lay Muslims grew up without observing the daily ritual obligations and learning the basics of Islamic theology, their religious (or, as some would argue, cultural) habits and sensibilities can be best understood through the concept of tradition, given, of course, that the ways in which the concept has been used so far are left behind.
Does Central Eurasian Islam Need a Rethink?