Volga Tatars - Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. Islam, which the ancestors of the Volga Tatars adopted in 922, has been the religion that shaped their lives and culture for more than a millennium. Volga Tatars belong to the Sunni branch of Islam, and within it, to the Hanefite legal school. In the Soviet era they were under the jurisdiction of the Religious Board for the Muslims of European USSR and Siberia. The seat of the Board (Muftiat) was in Bashkiria, in the city of Ufa. The head of the Muftiat, Talgat Tadzhuddinov, was appointed to this post in 1980 and was actively involved in using the opportunities offered by the era of openness to secure more freedom of worship for the Volga Tatars. The celebrations of 1,100 years of Islam in the middle Volga that took place in the summer of 1989 mark the high point of this new era. Other developments include opening new mosques, returning to the use of the believers old mosques that had been given secular uses, teaching the Arabic script and the fundamentals of religion, and printing new editions of the Quran and prayer books, as well as rehabilitating some of the leading religious figures of years past, such as M. J. Bigi. At the parish level, the most prominent figures are the mullahs and imams who are responsible for the performance of rituals and the religious education of their parishioners. Women cannot occupy these positions, but as in years past, wives of mullahs and imams or older women conversant in the ritual and dogma lead prayers for women and instruct them in the dogma and ritual. They are called abïistays.

Strict adherence to monotheism is required of every Muslim, and this fundamental obligation is expressed in the Shahadah (the profession of the creed): there is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Prophet. While adhering to this creed, Volga Tatars also honor saints and holy places, tombs associated with people whose lives were marked by special deeds and religious devotion. Some beliefs in supernatural forces still endure as remnants of the pre-Islamic history of the Volga Tatars, but overall, their influence on everyday life is minimal. One of these pre-Islamic traces is belief in the evil eye and the power of various amulets worn to annihilate its effect.

Ceremonies. The religious calendar of the Volga Tatars includes several major events: the month of Uraza (fasting [one of the most important ceremonial obligations of all Muslims]); the feast that follows it, Uraza Bäyram (the feast of sacrifice); and Gait Kurban; as well as the celebration of the birth of the Prophet, marked by prayers called Mäwliud. In addition, Volga Tatars celebrate two other festivgals, both echoes of their pre-Islamic culture: Navruz (New Year), the celebration of the arrival of spring on March 21, and Sabantui, the Festival of the Plow. This festival is held before the beginning of the spring agricultural cycle and consists of a week-long ritual that culminates with a day of athletic competitions, song, and dance.

Arts. Religious prohibitions were responsible for the absence of representative art among the Volga Tatars. Until the end of the nineteenth century, calligraphy and applied arts were the only forms that Volga Tatars embraced and developed. Of the calligraphers who specialized in the production of a religious art form— shämail (ornamented verses from the Quran)—the most famous in the nineteenth century was Ali Makhmudov.

Representational art had its beginnings at the beginning of the twentieth century when Volga Tatars were engaged in the jadidist reform movement. The main thrust of this movement was to forge a symbiosis between tradition and modernity without altering the essence of the religious creed. The Volga Tatars emerged from this search with a restored sense of their identity and dedicated their efforts toward renewal of their educational system, art, and literature. Hence, their first representational artists emerged at the beginning of the twentieth century. They were M. Galeev and G. Gumerov. With every decade, new names were added: S. S. Akhun, N. K. Valiullin, B. M. Al'menov, F. Sh. Tagirov,. I. V. Rafikov, G. A. Rakhmankulova, L. A. Fattakhov, I. M. Khalilullov, Kh. A. Iakupov, and B. I. Urmanche—painter and sculptor, the doyen of Tatar art, who was active into the ninth decade of his life.

Volga Tatar music differs drastically from the music of other Turkic peoples because of its monophonic structure that traditionally lacked instrumental accompaniment. Its modal basis is the pentatonic scale. Several genres of folk songs exist: ozïn koi (lyric-epic), qïsqa koi (dance songs), avïl koe (village song), shekher koe (city song), and bait (narrative epic). Twentieth-century singers, however, have opted for musical accompaniment. The instrument of choice is the accordion ( garmun' or baian ); some Volga Tatars also play the mandolin.

Before the appearance of professional music at the beginning of the twentieth century, folk music dominated the musical life of the Volga Tatars. Tatar folk songs were first written down by Tatars such as G. Kh. Enikeev and G. G. Saifullin and Russians such as S. G. Rybakov in the nineteenth century. They have been collected and published since the 1930s, although some of the best collections, such as that of M. N. Nigmetzianov, were published in the 1970s.

The first Tatar opera ( saniya ) was staged in 1925, but the operatic art has blossomed only since the 1930s. Ballet and symphonic music also developed, particularly after World War II. Among the most prominent Tatar composers are M. Z. Iarullin, A. G. Valiullin, F. A. Akhmetov, and D. I. Iakupov.

Tatar literature developed along two lines, oral folk literature and a written literature. Islam influenced both, but the Arabic script was the vehicle for the development of written literature, whether religious or secular, until the end of the 1920s.

Some of the earliest monuments of Tatar written literature are Koi Gali's narrative love poem Yusuf and Zuläikha (thirteenth century) and Mukhammediar's didactic poems (sixteenth century). The literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was dominated by the religious (Sufi) poetry of Mävliya Kulï, Utïz Imäni, and Shamsetdin Zäki. In the nineteenth century, writers such as A. Kargalï and G. Kandalïy introduced themes of everyday life but also continued the tradition of religious odes.

The Tatar learned men of the nineteenth century were responsible for triggering the movement of reform and renewal that came to be known as jadidism. They were critics of scholasticism and some advanced anticlerical ideas, but all had an appreciation for enlightenment. Of these, A. Kursavi (1776-1818), Sh. Märjani (1813-1889), and Kayyum Nasiri (1825-1902) can be called the founders of modern Tatar culture. In the first decades of the twentieth century the Tatar national poet G. Tukay (1886-1913), romantic poets such as S. Ramiev (1880-1926) and Z. Ramiev (1859-1921), and revolutionary poets and writers such as G. Kulakhmetov (1881-1918), G. Ibragimov (1887-1937), and others flourished.

The literature of Socialist Realism, which dominated the Soviet literary scene from the 1930s to the 1980s, did produce, despite the confining imperatives of ideology, some enduring names in Tatar letters: G. Bashirov, Sh. Mannur, F. Khusni, and I. Gazi.

Musa Jalil, whose World War II experiences were recorded in his Moabit Notebook, may be the best-known writer of the war period but there are many others such as S. Khakim, Isanbet, Sh. Mudarris, and N. Fattakh.

The most notable developments of the post-World War II literature were the emergence of the "thaw" literature of the 1960s, represented by poets and writers such as I. Iuzeev, R. Kharisov, I. Aminov, T. Minnullin, and Zölfat, and the cultural explosion of the perestroika period, characterized by an effort to revitalize and retrieve the cultural values of the past and by a determination to save from extinction the main vehicle for the transmission of Tatar culture—the Tatar language.

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