Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Russia’s Muslims Push for Restoration of Waqf System

Paul Goble

Baku, January 30 – Now that President Vladimir Putin has promised to return to the “traditional” religions of Russia – including Islam – property the Soviet government seized from them, Muslims are discussing the revival of the waqf system, setting the stage for demands that Moscow return large swaths of land and other property to them.
Waqfs, land or businesses the income for which goes to mosques, medressahs and other Muslim institutions, have long been a part of the Islamic world. In some places in the past, such as the Ottoman Empire, waqf property made up as much as a third of all property there.
But while waqf holdings were never as extensive in Muslim regions of the Russian Empire as that, they were large enough to provide sufficient income to may mosques and medressahs to allow them to be independent of the government-organized Muslim spiritual directorate (MSD).
And both because of their economic importance and because they undermined central control – the modernist jaded movement in Tatarstan in the 19th century would have been unthinkable without such sources of income – the Soviet government suppressed them in 1929.
Following the collapse of the communist system, Muslim scholars in the Russian Federation have focused on the history of the waqfs in pre-Soviet times, and some Muslim leaders have taken the first steps toward re-establishing these institutions, a trend now likely to accelerate.
In an extensive survey of the scholarly discussions of waqfs in tsarist Russia, Aydar Khabutdinov comments briefly on the contemporary movement, its bases of support in the mosques and the opposition it faces from many MSDs, and the role waqfs should play in the future (
The first steps toward the “rebirth” of waqfs were made by the Unified Congress of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan in 1998. Operating without national legislation and facing opposition from some in the MSDs who feared they would lose control of the parishes, that meeting set up rules for the transfer of property to mosques and for its use.
Since that time, he continues, advocates of the waqfs have sought to get republic and all-Russian laws amended so that waqf property will be included in the list of approved holdings and equated with Orthodox Christian monasteries, whose property is already protected. To date, they have not had any success.
“Under conditions of he decentralization of Muslim Spiritual Directorates in Russia and the continuing effort of foreign organizations to influence Russian Muslims,” Khabutdinov argues, “it would be useful to have separately-owned waqfs whose activities would be transparent,” to prevent corruption and illegitimate use of funds.
And he argues that in the current environment, the most important activity waqfs should support is “Muslim education at all levels.” In addition, he suggests, money from the waqfs should be directed to promoting the integration of immigrants and the support of young people and their families.
Khabutdinov ends his article on an upbeat note: “Contemporary Russia,” he writes, is restoring the traditions of its umma and adopting the best arrangements of the contemporary Muslim world. Waqfs must become a significant component part” of this rebirth.
If most Muslims see this as a positive development, many MSD leaders, who could lose control over parishes if waqfs made them financially, independent don’t. And now that a revival of waqfs could lead to demands that Moscow return even more property to Russia’s Islamic community, neither will many non-Muslims there.

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