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BIGI, MUSA YARULLAH (1874-1949), VolgaUral Muslim philosopher and religious scholar. Born 24 December 1874 in Rostov on Don, Bigi was the son of the mullah Yarullah Devlikam, originally from the Kikine village of Penza Gubernia, and of Fatma, the daughter of Imam Habibullah of the same village. He attended the Kulbue madrasah in Kazan but left without graduating and returned to Rostov to enroll in the Russian science gymnasium from which he graduated in 1895, when he left for Bukhara to continue his Islamic studies. After four years, he returned to Rostov only to leave again for an extended Middle Eastern trip.

Bigi traveled to Istanbul and then to Cairo, where he studied at al-Azhar and attended classes offered by Muhammad `Abduh. After four years studying Islamic philosophy, theology, and jurisprudence, he returned to Rostov and married, but instead of seeking employment as a mullah or madrasah teacher and settling down, he left his wife Asma in his mother’s care and went to St. Petersburg to attend classes at the Law Faculty. As a scholar interested in tafsir (Qur’anic exegesis) and fiqh (law), he wanted to acquire the knowledge necessary to compare the Islamic and Western legal systems. Bigi’s closer acquaintance with Russian society during his stay in St. Petersburg resulted in a politicization of his thought and a deeper appreciation of Islam as a political force. While in St. Petersburg (1905-1917), he contributed eighteen essays to the Pan-Islamist journal Ulfdt. He continued, however, to dedicate most of his time to research and scholarly writing, and his only active involvement in politics was the contribution he made as secretary to the Muslim Congress.

In 1910 and 1911 Bigi was employed as teacher of Arabic, Islamic, history, and theology at the Khosaeniya madrasah in Orenburg. As a scholar and teacher, Bigi was an exemplary practitioner of ijtihad (interpretation of Islam), but some of his interpretations were considered so far-fetched by the religious establishment that he was forced to leave Orenburg, despite the support of the well-respected scholar Rizaeddin Fakhreddin. [See the biography of Fakhreddin.]

The revolutions of 1917 triggered Bigi’s hope for the beginning of an era of freedom for Muslims, and he chose not to leave Russia. Soon, however, he was to face bitter disappointment. In response to Bukharin’s ABC of Communism, Bigi wrote in 192o an “ABC of Islam” (Islam alif basi), which he presented to the Congress of Scholars in Ufa. Of the work’s 236 points, 68 concerned the situation of the Muslims in Russia, and the remainder were devoted to Muslims elsewhere. The government retaliated with arrest and imprisonment, but after three months Bigi was released owing to a press campaign launched in Turkey and Finland on his behalf. Despite this experience, Bigi chose to stay in Soviet Russia and in 1926 participated in the Muslim Congress at Mecca representing his country; a year later he received permission to perform the pilgrimage. Bigi returned to Russia after this trip as well, because he still believed that he could serve his people by fighting to keep their heritage alive.

By 193o, however, even the idealist Bigi understood that all doors had been closed and neither political nor cultural pluralism was acceptable to the leaders of Soviet Russia. Consequently, he left his wife and six children behind and fled Russia. He stopped in Chinese Turkestan and then went to Afghanistan and India; in 1931 traveled to Egypt and Finland; and in 1932 took part in the first Congress of Turkish History in Ankara. The years of 1933 to 1937 took Bigi to Finland, Germany, and the Middle East, while in 1938 he traveled to China and Japan. In 1939 he went to India and Afghanistan with the intention of settling in the latter, but after being imprisoned by the British for eighteen months, he went to India instead. Bigi remained there until 1947, when he went to Egypt. He died there on 25 October 1949, having spent his last days in poverty in a charitable hospice.

Musa Yarullah Bigi left 122 works. The majority were written in Arabic and were devoted to issues of Islamic theology and jurisprudence; others addressed the social, political, and religious life of the Muslims of Russia and were written in Tatar. Several of his scholarly endeavors should be noted as illustrations of Bigi’s qualities as mujtahid. In Sherhu’l-luzumiyat (Kazan, 1907), a volume of commentaries on the work of the tenth-century Islamic poet and philosopher al-Ma’ari, he argued, sharing alMa’ari’s skepticism, that none of the existing religions could be pleasing to God because they all contained moral if not physical oppression.

Bigi pursued the same iconoclastic line of thought in

Rahmat-i ilahiya burhannari (The Storms of God’s Clemency; Orenburg, 1910), which challenged the official dogma that God’s mercy and forgiveness were not extended to unbelievers, arguing that on the contrary, God extended his forgiveness to everyone. Bigi was attacked by conservative `ulama’ through their publication Din vd magishdt (Religion and Life), as well as by liberal mullahs and jadid (modernist) intellectuals. One of the most vocal criticisms coming from the jadid reformers was articulated by Ismail Gasprali (Gasprinskii) in his article “Woe from Philosophy.” Fakhreddin was among the few defenders of Bigi, but he stated the issue from a different perspective, pointing to the historical precedents for the same interpretation. [See Jadidism and the biography of Gasprinskii.]

When he discovered editorial changes in one of the copies of the Qur’an, Bigi was relentless in his criticism of mullahs, arguing that the changes reflected the ignorance of those who had tampered with the original text, whom he attacked in Tarikhu’l Qur’an vd’l-masahif (A History of the Qur’an and Qur’anic Texts). Bigi also advocated translation of the Qur’an into Tatar, which he felt would contribute to making individual religious experience a more meaningful and conscientious act. He stressed that in a civilized world, it was the duty of the community to translate the Qur’an into the languages of the people and to ascertain the accuracy of existing translations. Bigi himself worked on a Tatar translation of the Qur’an, but it may have been destroyed together with his personal archives after his departure from Russia.

Bigi wrote extensively on issues concerning the position of women in Islam (Khatun, Aild mdsdliildre, Hukuku’n-nisa fi’l-Islam); Sunnah and shari ah (Kitabu’ssunnd; Bhopal, 1945; Shariat esaslari, St. Petersburg, 1916); and the social and political life of Russian Muslims (Islahat esaslari, St. Petersburg, 1914; Khalq nazarinda bir nichd mdsdle, Kazan, 1912). His most important contributions to Islamic thought, however, are his ijtihdd works, of which two more deserve attention: Uzun kunlarde riizd (Fasting during Long Days; Kazan, 1911), and Buyuk mevzularda ufak fikirldr (Small Thoughts on Big Issues; St. Petersburg, 1914). In the first essay he discusses the ritual obligation of fasting with regard to Muslims living in the far north where the length of daylight and darkness does not coincide with that of the Islamic heartlands and renders a sharp criticism to dogmatics. In the second he criticizes those who opposed Sufism and Sufi brotherhoods. Bigi valued the philosophical message of mysticism and was interested in the Sfifi orders, and even in Christian monasticism. Despite the breadth and originality of his thoughts and writings, Bigi did not have a strong impact on either Islamic thought in Russia or elsewhere, probably in large part because the door to Islamic studies was closed in Russia after 1917, and his works remained unknown. After leaving his country, he was socially and intellectually an outsider; although he was respected for his knowledge, his wanderings prevented him from planting the seeds of his ijtihdd thought firmly in the soil of any Muslim country.


Binark, Naile. “Musa Carullah Bigi.” Kazan, no. 16 (1975): z7-a9. Kurat, Akdes N. “Kazan Turklerinin medeni uyanis devri.” Ankara Universitesi Dil Tarih-Cografya Fakultesi Dergisi, no. 3-4 (1966): 94-196.

Rorlich, Azade-Ayse. The Volga Tatars: A Profile in National Resilience. Stanford, Calif., 1986. See pages 53-61.

Uralgiray, Y. Filozof Musa Carullah Bigi: Uzun giinlerde oruc; Ictihad Kitabi. Ankara, 1975.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/bigi-musa-yarullah/

  • writerPosted On: November 3, 2012
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