Language and Linguistics as Historical Evidence in the Islamic World: A Preliminary Case Study of Culture and Identity in Eurasia

By Nathan Spannaus.

Published by The Humanities Collection

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Article: Electronic $US5.00

Using sociolinguistic techniques to look at the use of language within the multi-linguistic Islamicate cultural space could provide important insights into the role of culture and identity in the history the Islamic world and the emphasis (or de-emphasis) on cultural, ethnic or national difference. The linguistic history of the Turkic nationalities of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union provide an interesting case study for this (admittedly preliminary) methodological framework. Summarizing the sociolinguistic history of language in the Turkic Islamic world, this paper then looks at two main stances towards language which appeared in the 19th and early 20th centuries among these groups (notably the Volga Tatars): Qayyum Nasyri’s (1825-1902) attempts to fabricate a modernized Tatar literary language and Ismail Gasprinski’s (1851-1914) efforts at a unified pan-Turkic literary language. These approaches touch upon issues of identity, modernism, pan-Islamism, pan-Turkism, nationalism and cultural assimilation, as well as questions of education and the Islamic scholarly tradition, and competed simultaneously within the same discursive space, where issues of language and its uses were at the forefront.

Keywords: Language and Linguistics, Islam and Muslims, Nationalism, Culture and Identity, Russia, Soviet Union, Eurasia, History and Historiography, Arabic, Methodology, Sociolinguistics

International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 8, Issue 9, pp.119-130. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 703.430KB).

Nathan Spannaus

Ph.D Candidate, Institute of Islamic Studies, McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada

My Ph.D research at McGill University's Institute of Islamic Studies focuses on Islamic intellectual history, particularly, but not exclusively, of the Muslim communities of the 19th-century Russian Empire. In addition to religious thought amongst these communities, I also look at questions of social and political history, modernization, social change and world history. I have also studied Islamic law and theology, Quranic studies, Middle Eastern and Central Asian history, Arabic manuscripts, historiographical theory, Arabic, Persian and Tatar languages, historical linguistics, and Russian and Soviet history. I have an MA in Arabic and Islamic Studies from the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard University (2007) and a BA in Comparative Literature and Russian Literature from the University of Michigan (2004). I have also done language study at St. Petersburg State University, Russia; (2003) Washington University in St. Louis (2004-2005); Arizona State University (2008, 2009); Tatar State Humanities-Pedagogical University, Russia (2008); and Damascus University, Syria (2010), and worked as an instructor in courses on Islamic societies and Middle Eastern history at both Harvard University and McGill University.


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