By Paul Goble
Musa Bigiyev, a Tatar Muslim theologian of the first half of the 20th century whom many have called Islam’s answer to Martin Luther because of his call for a reformation in the ways Muslims approach the Koran and who spent time in both Soviet and British jails, is attracting new attention in Kazan.
Today, that city’s Business-Gazeta features an 8800-word article by Aydar Khayrutdinov of Tatarstan’s Institute of History who is the leading Tatar specialist on Bigiyev and his impact on Muslim communities both within the Soviet space and beyond (business-gazeta.ru/article/392614).
Nearly half of the article is devoted to the complex life path of a man born in the Tatar community of Rostov in the 1870s – there is some confusion as to the exact date – who sought civic education in St. Petersburg but was rebuffed, and trained as a theologian in many medrassahs in the Russian Empire, the Middle East and India.
In Russia, Bigiyev played a major role in the Muslim rebirth in 1905 and was responsible for compiling the records of the All-Russian Muslim congresses as well as taking part in the initial stages of the Tatar national movement. But even in that period, Khayrutdinov says, he began his important work on rethinking Islam.
In 1909, he attracted attention for what others described as his identification of “errors in the Koran.” In fact, he did not speak about errors in the Koran itself but rather errors among those who read it because the Koran in its current written form has “more than 60 places” where interpreting the Arabic language has been problematic.
His corrected version of the Koran won widespread recognition by the ulema throughout the Muslim world; and this constituted his first “victory” in what some call the reformation of Islam. And he followed this up with books using his revised version as the basis for the rereading of earlier Islamic thinkers.
In 1917, he accepted both revolutions initially largely in the latter case because the Bolsheviks separated church and state thereby opening the way for Muslims to get out from under the combined forces of the Russian state and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But he quickly broke with the Soviets, sought to help Tatar nationalists, and for his positin ceased to be printed in Russia. Nonetheless, he continued to write and was published in Western Europe and the Middle East. In the mid-1920s, he was arrested, confined to the Lubyanka and exiled.
Then, in 1930, he recognized he had to flee and he illegally crossed the border into Eastern Turkestan. Bigiyev subsequently acquired Afghan citizenship and travelled throughout the Muslim world on that. But when war began, he sought to get to Turkey and was jailed by the British when he passed through India. He finally reached Istanbul where he died in 1949.
Khayrutdinov says that “Bigiyev produced – in a good sense – a revolution in Islamic thought. His attempt to return to man the right to think freely in Islamic categories and not remain constrained by old dogmas” and that in turn opened the way for a wholesale rethinking of what Islam is and means.
Bigiyev wrote, the Kazan historian says, “that if human wisdom is allowed to display its full power, it will eclipse even the sun.” Some want to call him a reformer, but he wasn’t. He “stressed that it is not Islam which needs reform” and decalred that “Islam did not need any Luthers, although he was called that by many.”
“Yes, we know,” Khayrutdinov says, “Luther reformed religion. But Bigiyev says that what must be reformed is not Islam but our understanding of Islam.” He wasn’t a jadidist or a modernist either, the scholar continue, because those terms are too narrow. He was a believer who used his profound knowledge of Islam and his own mind to change how Muslims view it.