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Abay Kunanbayev’s Enduring Legacy in Kazakh Literature

Abay Kunanbayev, a pivotal figure in the history of Kazakh literature during the second half of the 19th century, continues to shape the cultural and intellectual landscape of Kazakhstan. Revered as the Kazakh Pushkin, Byron, Tagore, and Wordsworth, Abay’s influence transcends national borders, making him a key focus of foreign reception and scholarly exploration.

Abay’s Multifaceted Identity

Abay Kunanbayev’s legacy is multifaceted, reflecting his roles as a lawyer, statesman, educator, and poet. Rising from the eastern steppe, he evolved into a premier intellectual of his time. Known simply as “Abay,” his recognition extends beyond Kazakhstan, making him the most recognizable and celebrated Kazakh poet.

Global Reception and Abay Studies

The depth of Abay’s impact is evident in the establishment of a distinct field in literary criticism – Abay Studies. Both Kazakhstani and foreign scholars, literary critics, writers, and poets contribute significantly to the exploration of Abay’s poetic and prosaic heritage. His works, translated into numerous languages, garner substantial responses from international readers, solidifying his place in the global literary canon.

Philosophical Underpinnings and Metaphysical Vision

Abay’s intellectual depth is evident in his exploration of societal structures and human behavior. Through his description of three archetypal individuals, he delves into the complexities of societal morality. Abay’s keen observations and critiques resonate with timeless relevance, addressing issues of morality, religiosity, and societal values.

Abay’s vision extends beyond the tangible changes in Kazakh life; he seeks to contextualize these within the realms of the metaphysical and mystical. Infused with humanism from Islam, he navigates the reconciliation of materialistic life with Qur’anic teachings. Despite his staunch theism, Abay engages in a nuanced dialogue with God, at times questioning perceived unfairness.

Cultural Synthesis and Linguistic Proficiency and Advocacy for Traditional Education

Abay’s literary prowess is marked by his proficiency in approximately eight languages, including Persian. Influences from high Persian poets and Russian Golden-Age masters permeate his works. He skillfully melds natural desires, humanism, spirituality, and adventure into his narrative. His poetry, often Rumi-like in its approach, draws parallels between the divine and the creative artist.

Beyond poetry, Abay’s significant contribution lies in his advocacy for traditional education. He recognizes the power of words and values their potential for good. The emphasis on the importance of language and education resonates throughout his works, reflecting a commitment to preserving cultural and intellectual traditions.

Abay Kunanbayev’s poignant stanza

Oh, Kazakhs, my poor people, you let your mustaches grow. Since you don’t distinguish good from evil, now you have blood on one cheek and grease on the other,

It encapsulates a profound reflection on the complexities of societal values and moral discernment.

The metaphorical imagery of “letting mustaches grow” serves as a symbolic commentary on the outward focus of individuals, perhaps highlighting a fixation on superficial aspects rather than discerning between right and wrong. The mustache, a cultural symbol, becomes a visual representation of a lack of moral clarity within the community.

The stark contrast between “blood on one cheek and grease on the other” evokes a powerful visual metaphor. It suggests a society that is oblivious to ethical distinctions, allowing both violence (symbolized by blood) and corruption or moral compromise (symbolized by grease) to coexist. Abay’s use of vivid imagery emphasizes the consequences of moral indifference, painting a vivid picture of a community grappling with internal contradictions.

Moreover, the poet’s use of the first person, “Oh, Kazakhs, my poor people,” adds a personal and empathetic dimension to the critique. Abay positions himself not as a detached observer but as someone intimately connected to the struggles of his people. The term “my poor people” conveys a sense of concern and compassion, emphasizing a shared destiny.

This stanza resonates as a timeless commentary on the importance of moral discernment within a society. Abay, through his poetic expression, challenges his fellow Kazakhs to reflect on their values and choices. The blend of cultural specificity and universal themes makes this stanza a powerful and thought-provoking social commentary that transcends its historical context, inviting readers to introspect on the broader implications of moral clarity in any societal setting.


Abay Kunanbayev’s impact on Kazakh literature extends far beyond his time, making him an enduring literary giant. His exploration of societal, moral, and metaphysical themes, coupled with linguistic proficiency and advocacy for traditional education, solidifies his position as a cultural icon. Abay’s legacy continues to inspire scholars, readers, and literary enthusiasts globally, shaping the narrative of Kazakh literature and contributing to the broader aspect of world literature.

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Mr. Muhammad Ali Pasha is an analyst and expert on Central Asia, South East Asia, China, Türkiye and Middle East having experience in the field of article writing in various renowned journals and newspapers across the globe. Furthermore, he is a writer and poet.