Märjani and Lebib: The Struggles of a Jurist and his Lonely Publisher

A black and white illustration of the bust of a man in traditional Muslim cleric's clothing with a turban on his head.
Shihabetdin Märjani, 19th century Tatar faqih and author, (Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)

I love digging deep into orthographic practices outside of dominant structures. There’s a lot to marvel about in Armeno-Turkish or the Soviet Latin-script experiments of the 1920s and 30s. From time to time, though, I hit upon a work that breaks dominant trends in a very personal (to the author, not me) way. It’s not possible to theorize these efforts, but it’s also not really fair to categorize them as ahistorical or decontextualized eccentricities. In this blog post, I’m going to share with you one such piece, a Tatar publication from Turkey, and try to suss out its connections to the broader realm of exile literature.

Reddish-cream coloured page with text in Latin script in black in at the top, middle and bottom of the field.
Cover of Şehabettin Mercanî Turmuşu hem eserleri, showing the compiler/author and the publication data.

Enough suspense! Show us the book already! What’s under discussion here is a work entitled Şehabettin Mercanî Turmuşu ve Eserleri. If you’re familiar with Tatar intellectual history, the content should be neither foreign to you nor particularly surprising, given that Shihabetdin Märjani (Шиһабетдин Мәрҗани) is a well-known 19th-century Tatar faqih and historian. His name currently graces the biggest cultural foundation in Tatarstan, the Marjani Foundation (Фонд Марджани). It not only hosts and sponsors exhibitions and conferences devoted to Tatar culture and the practice of Islam in Russia, but also publishes a considerable number of books, including about Shihabetdin Märjani. I’m getting ahead of myself here – before we look at the item’s content, let’s go through some of its provenance.

A black and white reproduction of a man wearing a suit, white shirt, and glasses, looking directly at the camera.
An image of Dr. A. Lebib Karan taken from his work Tatarlarnınğ tüpçıgışı.

Let’s start with the volume’s publisher, which is listed as Süyümbike Kültür Cemiyeti, a cultural organization named after the famed Tatar warrior-queen Söyembikä. As a national hero in Tatarstan, Söyembikä’s name in the title of the publisher, or rather the cultural organization, is an indication of its political orientation. From what I can find, the Cemiyeti published eight books, seven of them authored by A. Lebib Karan. The eighth is the nizamname of the organization, printed at Ahmed Said Matbaası in 1959. The other items range from 1958 (Yeş Vaktımnıng Cırları) to 1963 (Süyümbike Han ve anıng turmuşu ve tüşünceleri). WorldCat does have quite a few entries for a second (?) edition of Şehabettin Mercanî Turmuşu ve Eserleri produced in 1964, but given that the language is listed incorrectly and that the publisher isn’t mentioned, I’m highly skeptical of the quality of this metadata.

The Cemiyeti’s other products are, apart from the centrepiece of this article, Tüşünçemning cırlar (1959), Sümsirimning cırlar (1959), Pellagra ve onun tarihi, etiyolojisi, teşhisi, tedavisi, anatomo-patolojisi ve sakınma çareleri (1961), and Tatarlarnınğ tüpçıgışı (1962). A number of different printers were used, including M. Sıralar Matbaası, Sadık-Samim Matbaası, and Tan Matbaası, in addition to Ahmed Sait. They’re all listed as being present in Istanbul, so I’m going to go out on a limb and claim that that’s also where the Süyümbike Kültür Cemiyeti was domiciled.

Given that the Cemiyeti published the works of no other authors, and that the Milli Kütüphane lists no one else as a collaborator on these works, I think it’s safe to say that the Süyümbike Kültür Cemiyeti, or at least its publishing arm, was a one-man show. But who was Ahmed Lebib Karan? It’s not easy to find material about him. Thanks to a Turkish translation of Dr. Ryosuke Ono’s Japanese-language piece from 2010, ‘Muhacerattaki bir Özbek Türkü’nün Mektuplarına Göre Türk Dünyası – Abdülvahap Oktay ve Mektupları’, we at least have a few indications. A footnote on page 576 informs us that Ahmed Lebib Karan was a doctor and poet who lived from 1887 until 1964 (hence, perhaps, the abrupt end to the Cemiyeti’s publishing activities). He was born in the village of Karan, outside of Kazan, and came to Istanbul in 1912 to pursue medical studies. After working in Turkey, he moved to Berlin in 1927, met up with Gayaz Ishaki, became involved in Milli Yul and Yaña Milli Yul, and returned to Turkey in 1931 or 32. Once there, he worked as a doctor until 1948, when he retired. He set about founding the İdil-Ural Türkleri Kültür ve Sosyal Yardım Derneği in 1955, and then the Süyümbike Kültür Cemiyeti in 1957. All of this is apparently from an article about Karan in Kazan Dergisi (here at Harvard) in 1977 (if you’re interested in Kazan, check out Dr. B. Tumen Somuncuoğlu’s overview of the magazine and its political leanings here).  

Black and white image of a magazine cover featuring Latin-script text on the right and a photograph of the Kazan Kremlin on the left, cut out from its background.
Cover of issue 20 of the magazine Kazan, containing an article about Karan’s life and work. (Courtesy Dr. Nural Akchurin and the Kazan Kültür ve Yardımlaşma Derneği)

All that I can gather from Ono’s work is that Karan was acquainted with Zeki Velidi Toğan and other Siberian Turkic exiles in Turkey, and that his activities appear to have rubbed some the wrong way. Luckily, Dr. Nural Akchurin was very kind to provide me with a copy of the original source from issue 20 of Kazan, as hosted on the site of the Kazan Kültur ve Yardımlaşma Derneği. A two-page piece, we learn that Karan was educated in Tatarstan, St. Petersburg, and then Istanbul, where he originally pursued religious studies. He had a valiant military career in the First Balkan War, the First World War, and the War of Independence, all the while completing his medical studies in between active service. He married for the first time in 1923, divorced, and remarried again in 1926. His second wife was one of the first female university graduates in Turkey and of Crimean Tatar origin: Rabia Veli. It’s unclear from the article whether it was because of the bride or the groom that both Yusuf Akçura and Gayaz İshaki came to the wedding.

The article continues with more information that fleshes out what we already knew: his travels to Berlin and work with Gayaz İshaki, followed by a return to Turkey and work as a doctor. İdil and Dim, the authors of the piece, are apparently his two daughters (alongside his son Çolpan) from his second marriage (he had a third daughter, Leyla, from his first marriage). Karan suffered a heart attack in 1955, which limited greatly his ability to undertake more work, although he did manage to found the Tukay Gençlik Kulübü in 1963, which eventually became the Kazan Türkleri Kültur ve Yardımlaşma Derneği in 1969. Ahmed Lebib Karan’s death in 1964 was sudden, occurring in the middle of a holiday in Abana, which explains why his last two books were left half-finished. İdil and Dim’s memorial piece, published 90 years after Karan’s birth, is followed by two examples of his poems taken from Sümsirimning cırları (Karan Avılı and Millet Nerse Ul?) both of which are accompanied by translations into Anatolian Turkish.

Enough about the author – the book is pretty fascinating on its own! Take the alphabet it’s written in, for example. It was produced in Latin-script Tatar with an orthography that closely mirrors that of contemporary Turkish. This approach is pretty consistent with other diasporic publications, as we saw in the North Caucasian magazines produced in Turkey, as well as other contemporary Tatar exile works. E. T. Sibgatullina’s 2011 work on Tukay-related articles in the magazine Kazan, ‘“Kazan” Dergisinde (Türkiye, 1970-1980) Tukay Teması’ clearly states that literary pieces in Kazan were usually produced in Latin-script Tatar. Sibgatullina notes that the specificities of Anatolian Turkish orthography occasionally meant that Kazan Tatar’s phonological inventory wasn’t always on display. Nonetheless, despite the massive assimilationist pressures on Tatar communities in Turkey, it is still possible to see dialect characteristics from the homeland coming through in literary pieces published in Turkey.

The title page of the book makes it clear why there is some confusion surrounding the year of publication. While the cover states that the work was published (or maybe just printed) in 1960, the title page contains the statement “Basılgan cir: 1964”. The problem with taking this as the year is that, within the series of Süyümbike Kültür Cemiyeti publications, this one clearly precedes a few works that we know were produced before 1964. What’s more, “cir” is not Tatar for “year”, put rather “place”. But the icing on the cake is the red stamp at the end of the work, showing that this particular volume was acquisitioned by the British Museum on 31 August 1962. I’m willing to bet that metadata about the 1964 edition is an error, and will stick to my guns when it comes to the year of publication being 1960.

Karan is listed as the “cinap yazuçısı” or the “compiler and writer” of the book; in other words, this would appear to be both a collection of Märjani’s writings, and a few original pieces by Karan himself. Although the work doesn’t contain a table of contents, flipping through it reveals that this is a bit of a misnomer, as Märjani’s writings themselves don’t feature in the volume. Rather, Karan apparently viewed himself as both the collector of biographical information about this great theologian, and an interpreter of his legacy. If this is indeed the case, we’re left a little poorer off by the fact that the author has failed to provide any substantive indications as to the sources of his information. This is a shame, as it is evident that he must have made use of secondary sources of some sort. How else would someone born only two years before the end of Märjani’s life (1819-1889), and who might not have been familiar with any of his close confidents, be able to relate stories of his travels and of his general intellectual milieu?

In truth, Karan’s work is not intended to be an academic biography, or a painful reckoning of the life of Märjani. When we look at the style and aim of the text, a different picture begins to emerge. In line with the author’s commitment to cultural preservation in exile, this biography-cum-analysis is an effort to present Märjani as a hero of Tatar cultural history; a model to praise and to emulate. Märjani’s “wishes” for his ethno-religious community are explained; his family relationships and fulfillment of paternal responsibilities are lauded; and his openness to new ideas and cultures are praised. Märjani is rendered parable, an intellectual giant pitted against faceless mullahs, ignorant boors, and alien Russians.  

Märjani isn’t just a jurist, or a theologian, he’s also painted as a great Tatar patriot. At the end of the work, we find more information about his مستفاد الاخبار في أحوال قازان و بلغار (Store of news about the states of Kazan and Bulgaria; also as an eBook and translated into Russian and Turkish). This history of Kazan and the Volga Region, stretching back to the Golden Horde, is interpreted by Karan as a great work of national consciousness construction. This isn’t unexpected, given the way in which so many 19th-century figures were lionized by both Turkic intellectuals who remained in the Soviet Union and those who fled.

Cream-coloured page with printed text in Latin script in black ink, with the text at the bottom in bold, and a red-ink stamp at the very bottom, showing the seal of the British Museum and the date.
The conclusion to Ahmed Lebib Karan’s work.

What is surprising, however, is that Karan ends on a feisty defense of Märjani’s work. The author praises the jurist for his efforts compiling the Müstafad, explaining that there can be no fault found with the item, no matter how hard some try. Indeed, if there is anything to point out, it is that Märjani was not able to complete it as best as he might have, had he lived longer. What’s more, if Märjani failed to write about certain topics, it is, apparently, because of his belief that “one who doesn’t know about something shouldn’t write about it”. Karan’s arguments only raise the question of who, exactly, was criticizing Märjani, and why was it so necessary to explain his supposed faults?

I’m happy to admit that I’m no expert on the life and work of Märjani, which also means that I’m not really in a position to comment on the accuracy or the nuances of Karan’s interpretations. So instead, I’ll end this blog by returning to the something I mentioned a bit earlier on, the language, or rather orthography, of the text. It’s clear, as Sibgatullina explored, that the spellings employed are heavily influenced by Turkish orthography. Not only do we have the addition of Turkish-specific characters, such as ı and ğ, but there’s also a tendency to use Turkish-specific conventions for particular sounds, as we see with c for җ. In many ways, this makes sense, as Karan left the Russian Empire when Tatar was still written in Arabic script. He was therefore not educated by Soviet authorities in the use of either the Uniform Alphabet or the Cyrillic one adapted to Tatar. Turkish would have likely been his gateway to the application of the Latin alphabet to Turkic languages, and thus it is only naturally that he would have followed its conventions rather than adopting different ones.

But, of course, Tatar phonology is different from that of Anatolian Turkish. It’s important to take a deeper look, then, at just how Karan made use of the Turkish character set to reflect his own use of Tatar. One interesting turn is his use of ğ, which appears to have become a nasal complement to n, where nğ is the equivalent of ң or ڭ. Elsewhere, vowels are a particular oddity, with no equivalent existing for the Cyrillic ә, and apparently three rounded high vowels: ö, ü, and û. The vowels don’t always match up to what you would imagine in the Cyrillic renderings, but this is to be expected. Not only did Karan miss the early Soviet standardization of Tatar as a national language, but, as Sibgatullina has pointed out, Turkey-based publishing in Tatar was relatively tolerant of dialect diversity. This appears to have extended to vocabulary as well, given that there are occasional words I’m only able to find in a Tatar dialect dictionary.

We’ve come to the end of the road here, at least in terms of what I’m able to extract from this one volume. Perhaps Ahmed Lebib Karan’s biography of Shihabetdin Märjani doesn’t add much to the global appraisal of this 19th-century jurist’s impact on Turkic intellectual history. Scholars more competent than I will have to be the judge of that. But as a monument to exile and minority publishing in Turkey, it’s a fascinating piece. Similar to many of the other works I’ve explored on this blog, it provides valuable clues to the linguistic, ideological, and political orientations of those who sought to keep the struggle alive, regardless of their relative isolation or support. And as one of the heirs to exile and diasporic political groupings of the inter-war period, it and all of the Süyümbike Kültürel Cemiyeti publications go to show the long-lasting impact of that generation’s activities. As they’re put together across collections and countries, we’ll finally be able to paint a richer and more complex picture of diasporic politics across the Turkic world.

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