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Religious Language of a Belarusian Tatar Kitab: A Cultural Monument of Islam in Europe. With a Latin-Script Transliteration of the BL Tatar Belarusian Kitab (or 13020) on CD-ROM.

Religious Language of a Belarusian Tatar Kitab: A Cultural Monument of Islam in Europe. With a Latin-Script Transliteration of the BL Tatar Belarusian Kitab (or 13020) on CD-ROM. By Shirin Akiner. Mediterranean Language and Culture Monograph Series, vol. 11. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. 2009. Pp. xxvii + 457. [euro] 68.

This book is the slightly updated edition of Shirin Akiner's hitherto unpublished dissertation of 1980 on a manuscript in the Belarusian language but in Arabic script. The British Library copy dates probably from the early 1830s and belongs to the genre of kitab: a collection of Islamic narratives of various origins, mostly on ethics and including many stories of the prophets. The manuscript is thus a tine example of the religious literature of the Tatars, who started to settle in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the fourteenth century and formed small Muslim communities in what is today West Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus. While the Tatars had given up their Turkic language already in the mid-sixteenth century, most of them did not relinquish their belief, and the communities managed to maintain a minimum of Islamic literature. Since the Second World War increased attention has been paid to the Tatars' Islamic literature, but the present work is the first linguistic and semantic in-depth analysis of one particular source.

After an introduction that covers previous research and a first chapter on the history and religion of the Tatars in Lithuania, Poland, and White Russia, the core of the book is a diligent analysis of the BL manuscript, with sections on phonology (including how the Arabic script was adapted to accommodate a Slavic language), morphology, lexicon, and syntax. The centerpiece of Akiner's book is a compilation of the religious terminology of the manuscript (pp. 135-335); here the author lists and comments upon 1,094 terms that she groups into semantic fields of doctrine (with sections on God, angels, holy scriptures, doctrine, and others) and practice (prayer. Islamic law, community worship, etc.). Appendices include a list of Turkish loan words. A full transliteration of the manuscript, in the Latin alphabet, is attached to the book as a CD-ROM.

Akiner does not address Islamicists but rather specialists of Slavic linguistics, and curiously the author chose not to provide translations for many Belarusian, Polish, and even Church Slavonic and Latin quotes from historical texts. The British Library kitab is an interesting historical monument of the Belarusian language, with Polish interferences on phonological and lexical levels, and with Turkish loan words comprising roughly one-third of the religious vocabulary. These Turkicisms are not to be regarded as remnants of the Lithuanian Muslims' original Tatar language, but must have been adopted later, through contacts with the Ottoman empire. The high degree of adaptation of the loan words to Belarusian morphology reveals that the native language of the composer and copyist of the manuscript was indeed Belarusian. It is very difficult to draw conclusions from the use of Polish elements in the text; Akiner speaks of "phonological anarchy" (with parallel forms occurring even in the same line) combined with the "unstable nature of the orthography" (p. 339). Some elements seem to indicate colloquial forms, while one can only speculate about dialect influences. Of special interest are instances in which Christian terms were used for Islamic concepts, such as Pan Boh ("God the Lord") instead of Allah. In general, one finds that Islamic terms are preserved for specific items (nemaz for the daily prayer) while the Slavic forms are used for the more general meaning (prozba for an unspecified prayer). Similarly, imam is rendered as namesnik musul-manskij ("Muslim viceroy") when it refers to the caliph, and as pravadnik when meaning the prayer leader (p. 354). Akiner classifies the Belarusian Islamic language as a jargon that was used internally by the Tatar community, supplementing the Belarusian standard language of the time (p. 357).

Unfortunately, the overview of the origins and history of Tatars and Islam in Eastern Europe is not without its faults, which indicate that the revision of the manuscript was made rather hastily; thus we read that today the Crimea belongs to the Russian Federation (could it be that the author initially meant the Soviet Union?), that Moscow was already a principality when it was destroyed by the Mongols (p. 17), and that the Golden Horde converted to Islam in the mid-thirteenth century (p. 70; correctly, however, on p. 19). This part of the book is especially rich in typographical and syntactic errors. Recent literature has also barely been used for the phonetic and morphological analysis; Paul Suter's voluminous analysis of the genre of Qur'an translations in Slavic (Alfurkan Tatarski: Der litauisch-tatarische Koran-Tefsir, Cologne, 2004) is briefly mentioned but not used in the individual chapters. As Suter focuses on another genre (and one where Polish was dominant), the two books indeed nicely complement each other. As a final note, while Akiner's full transcription of the manuscript is very welcome, it would have been even more useful had it been accompanied by an edition (at least in facsimile) of the 125 folios of original Arabic-script manuscript.


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Author:Kemper, Michael
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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