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What were some of the major transformations taking place for Muslim communities in the Russian Empire of the eighteenth century? How did the introduction...

What were some of the major transformations taking place for Muslim communities in the Russian Empire of the eighteenth century? How did the introduction of a state-backed structure for Muslim religious institutions alter Islamic religious authority in the empire? And who exactly was Abu Nasr Qursawi and what was his reformist project to grapple with this situation?

These are some of the questions asked by Nathan Spannaus in his book, Preserving Islamic Tradition: Abu Nasr Qursawi and the Beginnings of Modern Reformism (Oxford University Press, 2019). The book offers a novel intervention in the study of early-modern Islamic thought, whose conventional geographical contours often focus on the Middle East and South Asia. Spannaus shows us that eighteenth-century Russia was also blooming with its own indigenous Islamic scholarly discourses that encompassed theology, jurisprudence, philosophy, and more. These discourses were neither totally disembodied from wider concurrent global trends in Islamic thought, nor completely dependent on them. He examines the work of one Abu Nasr al-Qursawi, an erudite and intrepid scholar who criticized clerical institutions for stagnating the development of Islamic jurisprudence and theology by foreclosing independent juristic reasoning. In doing so, Spannaus meticulously demonstrates how Qursawi radically critiqued the established tradition while simultaneously embarking on his project of interpretive reform, all while maintaining fidelity to the discursive modes and fields of that tradition.


Asad Dandia is a graduate student of Islamic Studies at Columbia University.