Vienna, October 2 – Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov says that he wants to “impose order” on Russian Islam by reducing the functions of the existing Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) and setting up a Council of Learned Elders to oversee the religious life of the faithful.
Kadyrov, who regularly presents himself as the defender of Chechens everywhere and as the defender of Islam within his republic, made this broader proposal in an interview featured in Medina al-Islam, the biweekly newspaper of the Nizhniy Novgorod MSD (http://www.islam.ru/rus/2007-10-01/#17896).
The Chechen leader argued that the creation of a Council of Ulema, an assembly of recognized Islamic theologians on the model of one created at the end of the imperial period but suppressed by the Soviets, not only could block the spread of harmful ideas but also could “develop a general strategy for the entire Muslim umma of Russia.”
Such an institution would immdiately assume many of the duties and almost all of the authority that the now numerous MSDs have, limiting these bodies to the disbursement of some funds and thus “imposing order” on the leadership of Russia’s Muslim community.
Kadyrov’s proposal is likely to be welcomed by the Muslim rank and file and by Muslim theologians, neither group of which has been pleased by the MSD system and especially by its evolution and expansive claims in the period since the end of Soviet power.
The MSD system originally grew out of a tsarist state institution – the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly -- set up by Empress Catherine the Great to select mullahs and control the financing of mosques and medressahs across the Russian empire – to create in short a clerical hierarchy for a religion that has neither clergy nor hierarchy.
After the 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks retained this structure, ultimately elaborating four MSDs for the major Muslim regions of the USSR. But during the Soviet period, these institutions were entirely controlled by the secret police and their leaders known to be KGB officers.
Because of Soviet anti-religious policies and because of the reputation MSD leaders had among ordinary Muslims and underground mullahs, the four MSDs at that time played only a marginal role in the lives of the faithful, seldom speaking out on religious issues or playing any independent role in the selection of mullahs and imams.
With the collapse of the USSR, however, the MSD system exploded in a double sense. On the one hand, the number of MSDs in Russia increased dramatically to a current 64, with some continuing to work for the state, others against it, and almost all competing for control of mullahs, mosques, and medressahs in particular territories.
And on the other hand, MSD leaders, such as the Central MSD head Talgat Tajuddin, who recently was in the news for “withdrawing” his fetwa against the United States for invading Iraq, spoke out regularly on a wide variety of religious and political questions, even though Islam gives them no warrant to do so.
Because of these twin developments since 1991, Muslim theologians in Russia and abroad, Muslim missionaries who have come there from the Middle East, and most frequently of all, mullahs and believers at the mosque level have called for scrapping what they see as an unnecessary and unfortunate survival of the Soviet and tsarist past.
But precisely for those same reasons, the Russian government, along with the leaders of the most important of the MSDs have opposed doing away with these structures, the first because it would make it more difficult for the regime to control the country’s Muslims and the second because it would eliminate their rice bowls.
Consequently, Kadyrov’s proposal is unlikely to go anywhere quickly, but because he has made it and apparently made it with impunity vis-à-vis the state, he has gained another constituency and demonstrated that he is someone to be reckoned with not only in Chechnya but in many other parts of the Russian Federation as well.