Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Face Their Own Sectarian Threat

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 26 – The size of the following that a charismatic but quite possibly mad Soviet-era mufti has gained has so disturbed the leaders of traditional Muslim groups in Russia’s Middle Volga region that they are now working hard to try to block his influence from spreading into their congregations.
Last week, a plenum of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan met to discuss how to repulse representatives of the so-called “Faizrakhmanists” who have been turning up at mosques in Kazan and other locations and presenting themselves as representatives of “a new prophet” (http://www.islam.ru/rus/2007-06-20/#16862).
The muftiate of Tatarstan has already spoken out about these groups, officials said. Moreover, it is currently preparing an appeal warning all Muslims there about this ideological threat. And it is now interviewing leading imams about this trend for an upcoming issue of the local paper “Islam-Info.”
The sect consists of the followers of Faizrakhman Sattarov, who in Soviet times was a leading representative of the official Muslim hierarchy. One of the few Muslims from the Middle Volga to graduate from the Bukhara medressa, he served as imam in Leningrad, and Rostov on Don, and in the 1970s was even a deputy mufti in Ufa.
Many of his colleagues at the time concluded that he was psychologically unbalanced, and they were not surprised when he began to create his own personality cult among Muslims in the Middle Volga, even presenting himself as a leader of a new trend in Islam (http://www.islam.ru/lib/warning/sekty/fraizirahmanisty/).
But despite those impressions, by the early 1990s, Sattarov had enough followers and was pursuing a course sufficiently close to what the authorities were prepared to tolerate that he was able to register his group in the city of Kazan, whose government even provided him with land for the construction of a mosque.
One reason for this official sanction is that Sattarov presented himself as a committed democrat, someone whose own organization would have its leaders chosen by the vote of believers. But that turned out to be more an ideological pose than a real commitment.
At the time of the first election, Sattarov lost to Yunus Yarullin and then decided to do whatever he had to do to force Yarullin out, including denouncing him as an apostate, and to occupy the top spot for himself as he had earlier at the end of Soviet times.
Many of so-called Faizrakhmanists deserted him as a result, but Sattarov continued to preach his own pastiche of Islamic and non-Islamic ideas, ranging from a rejection of the Hanafi legal school to an assertion that he is among the 34th generation of descendants of the Prophet Mohammed.
Over time, the Islam.ru commentary suggests, Sattarov’s views have evolved. Initially, he posed as a defender of the Koran and Sunna, but more recently, he has been issuing his own “samizdat”-style brochures laying out positions on various issues without much reference to basic Muslim texts.
Self-styled Muslim leaders like Sattarov still have a relatively easy time reaching out to the Islamic community of the Russian Federation, whose members are often poorly informed on Islamic issues because of the seven decades of Communist anti-religious campaigns.
Faizrakhman Sattarov probably does not pose a serious ideological threat because he strikes so many who have come into contact with him as fundamentally incompetent. But the Muslim leadership there is worried lest he, either on his own or on behalf of Russian officials opposed to Islam, undermines the unity of their community.

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