Sunday, January 26, 2020

Tatar Woman Who Almost Singlehandedly Saved Arabic Script Texts of Jadids in Soviet Times Subject of New Book

Paul Goble

            Staunton, January 22 – The Soviet government did everything it could to extirpate the legacy of the Islamic modernists of Tatarstan who wrote most of their works in the late 19th and early 20th century in Arabic script, viewing such people as its chief ideological competitors in the Muslim world.

            Moscow changed the alphabet of Tatar from Arabic to Latin and then Cyrillic script to cut the Tatars off from this remarkable past. It executed the followers of this trend. It destroyed as many copies of their works as it could and made the possession of copies of their works a criminal offense.

            But it was almost singlehandedly defeated in this effort by Zainap Maksudova (1897-1980), a Russian-language teacher in Kazan’s only Tatar school in the 1930s and 1940s who was the child of prominent Tatar reformers and who surreptitiously collected and saved the Arabic-script texts of the jadids.

            She is not unknown among specialists on Tatarstan and the jadids. (See, for example, Alfrid Bustanov’s “Muslim Literature in the Atheist State: Zainap Maksudova between Soviet Modernity and Tradition,” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 9 (2018): 1-31 at

            But she and her collection deserve to be better known, not only because of the role she played in keeping the jaded tradition alive but also because of the window her life and career provides into the small but remarkable cohort of people who did the same thing for other intellectual and political trends the Soviets thought they could stamp out.

            That is now possible thanks to a new book by Bustanov, The Library of  Zainap Maksudova (in Tatar, Kazan, 2019) that has just been presented in the capital of Tatarstan (, and

            Born into the nobility of educated Tatars in Vyatka gubernia at the end of the imperial period, Maksudova received her education at the Izh-Bubi medrassah, a rare but not unique case of a woman getting training there. She learned Arabic and Russian and became a Russian-language teacher in a Kazan school where she acquired notoriety as “a Russifier.”

            But that was her day job. At night, she set as her life’s task the compilation of a bibliography of Islamic literature and especially of the jadids and despite the dangers of doing so, she assembled a remarkable library of such materials and kept them in her home.  And she also kept up Tatar in Arabic script by using it at every opportunity in her own life.

            Her bibliography of approximately 378 Arabic-script Tatar books from the 15th to the 20th century and a large part of the originals or manuscript copies of these books are now held in the National Library of Tatarstan. They were placed there by her daughter after Maksudova’s death in 1980.

            Bustanov, a Tatar professor at the University of Amsterdam, says in his description of Maksudova’s role that she represented “a bridge” between the past and the present and between the scholarly community and the Muslims at a time when that was almost impossible and that today she is part of “the pantheon” of those who have made the Tatar rebirth possible.

            Unfortunately, he adds, her contribution was not matched by personal happiness: “One of her sons married a Rusisan girl, moved to Moscow and did not stay in contact with his mother, and another son suffered from alcoholism.” Only her daughter cared for her mother and the fate of her colleague.
            A year before her death, Maksudova asked in her diary in despair “Where are the 11 children I raised?”  Her most important “child,” her bibliography on the Arabic script books of Tatar enlighteners, however, ensures that her name will not be forgotten ever again.  Many thanks to Professor Bustanov for making that a certainty.

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