If we take a look at the history of the Bashkir or Bashkort people (a Turkic people numbering over 1 million native speakers of the language, mostly in central Russia), we can see that what the Bashkirs themselves think about their roots is sometimes contradictory, with a mix of facts and legends. Some Bashkirs are convinced that the first mention of them as a people is found in the records of the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, who called their ancestors Argippeans, that is, “people who live at the foot of the mountains”. Others are more cautious and say that the ethnonym “Bashkort” first appeared only in Arab-Persian chronicles in the Middle Ages. Previously, Bashkir tribes led a nomadic life in the steppes, but were subsequently pressed from the south by other nomads and moved to the forested areas of the southern Ural Mountains, where they have remained for more than the past thousand years.
Bashkirs are famous for their devotion to Islam since the 11th century and for their fierce resistance to all attempts at Christianization by the Russian Empire. However, they have preserved many pre-Islamic customs and practices, which is yet another apparent contradiction inherent to their national character. One Bashkir website states, “There is no real conflict between a resolute support of Islam and the lack of Muslim fanaticism, because if you look deeper, both reflect the Bashkir age-old love of freedom. Bashkirs, in their boundless steppes and sky-high mountains, are not accustomed to any limitations.” Bashkir loyalty to Islam was historically rewarded – in the late 18th century the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims in Russia was opened in their capital city, Ufa, by decree of Catherine the Great. Since that time Ufa has been both the official centre and the undisputed heart of religious life for Muslims in the European part of Russia. In the present post-Soviet period of national revival, there are already over 400 active mosques in Bashkortostan, and hundreds more are being opened. This, in brief, is the background in which the IBT's work on the Bashkir NT has been going on for the past two decades, despite many hindrances and setbacks, such as the death of the main translator and a full changeover in the translation team…
The long awaited New Testament in Bashkir was published in early 2015. Truth be told, there were many concerns and precautions as in all Bible translation projects in a Muslim environment, including a heightened level of confidentiality in regard to the translation team members. Both the team members and the IBT staff assumed that the official presentation of the NT would be a local event for a narrow scholarly audience, and that the main readers of the book would be Bashkir Christians, both Protestant and Orthodox, who were actively helping to read through drafts of the translated NT portions, but who are quite few in number. All of us were therefore amazed and overjoyed at the instant and wide-ranging public response to the NT publication. First of all, the official book presentation, originally planned as a round-table discussion, turned into a full-scale conference with 200 people present. Three Bashkir TV channels reported on this great event in the evening news, both in Bashkir and Russian. And very soon afterwards the letters of gratitude started pouring in. They were not from Bashkir Christians, nor were they from Bashkir scholars and linguists. They were from average Bashkir Muslims, who received this book with a surprisingly full awareness that this is the Good News! Here are extracts from a few of these letters.
“I was incredibly excited upon hearing on Bashkir TV that you've published the Injil in the Bashkir language. I had already known from TV in 2007 that this work was in progress and was eagerly awaiting the completion. I'm tremendously grateful to your diligent staff and I praise our Allah, who sees your valuable work and rejoices in finding such unselfish people! I have no doubt that the Injil in Bashkir will help quench the spiritual thirst of many people and help them to attain true knowledge of the Creator. It's a shame that often the mere performance of customs and traditions is equated with spirituality, since customs and traditions have nothing in common with the Giver of Life.”
“Thank you for your immediate response to my SOS signal about wanting to receive your invaluable work. The desire burns within me to show it to other Bashkirs and explain to them that the Injil is the book of life, that it can help everyone develop kind relationships with each other, to find the meaning of life, to create an atmosphere of love in one's family, to teach children to respect their parents, etc. Once again, I'm very grateful for your sacrificial labors and thank Allah that He inspired you and supported you in this sacred work. May Allah bless you richly for your invaluable contribution to spirituality.”
“25 years have passed since the day when I was studying the Koran and suddenly realized the connection between the Koran and the Bible. A thinking person should never reject the Bible, because at each stage of human society Allah through his prophets was giving people guidelines for how to live in order to be at peace with everybody and to be happy. No part of the Bible can be considered in isolation from its other parts and even more so from the Koran… I studied the Koran and the Bible and wrote out on a sheet of paper all the parallel places in order to show them to people and to explain to them that we should not oppose one people against another one, because Allah gave the same principles to all… In order to find a common language with another human being we should focus on our common views and not on our differences. Mutual understanding will be the result… I am praying for you that you would always have a clear and precise position on spiritual matters, based on the knowledge of the Word of God.”
The next extract was very emotional (all of the exclamation marks are preserved in the English translation): “Yesterday at last I got the Injil!! Thank you and all the translators who worked on the Word of God! I have already started reading, it’s simply wonderful!!! Thank you once again!”
One more person wrote that he had been waiting for the Bashkir Injil for five years. Our staff member contacted him in order to learn whether he was a member of a Christian church, in which case he could receive a copy of the book as soon as it was delivered to the churches. But he was not. He was, so to say, a private Gospel devotee, and was faithfully but impatiently waiting for the book for all these long five years. Now his faithfulness has been rewarded.
In June there will be a seminar on Scripture Engagement in Moscow. Please pray that we will find Bashkir Christians who would come and take part in this seminar so that, in the words of the first letter above, the Injil would truly quench the spiritual thirst of many Bashkirs and help them to attain true knowledge of the Creator. This would be an ideal resolution to many contradictions in Bashkir society.