Baku, March 21 – The Muslims of Western Siberia are very different than those in other parts of the former Soviet space, not only reflecting the traditions of the larger non-Muslim communities among whom they live but manifesting their faith in ways that strike Muslims from elsewhere as “special” if not in fact completely “incorrect.”
Among the most intriguing of these practices, according to a three-volume study now being completed by a group of specialists on religion and culture in Tyumen’, is the veneration of the graves of Muslims who were killed by Stalin in the 1920s and 1930s as holy places (http://www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=2202).
In an extensive interview on the Islamrf.ru portal, Aleksandr Yarkov, who is leading this five-year-old effort, points out that many Muslims visiting Siberia have suggested that Islam there is “special,” that is different from theirs, but few have suggested that it is in any way “incorrect.”
Its specialness, he says, reflects a variety of factors. First, Muslims in Siberia have always been in a minority. Even today, the growing community, which numbers perhaps 300,000, exists as a set of isolated islands in a sea of other groups, a pattern that has disposed it to cooperation and syncretism.
Second, the importance of these syncretic elements dramatically increased during the period of Soviet oppression, as Siberia’s Muslims sought help from members of other religious traditions and as they drew on some of the latter to help keep Islam alive in that region.
And third, because of their isolation – hence the title of the Tyumen’ study – Islam at the Edge of the World – the Muslims of Siberia have not been subject to the kind of “corrections” by other members of their faith who have perhaps more traditional or more radical ideas and understandings.
A clear example of this distinctiveness, Yarkov says, is the continuing veneration of Soviet-era Muslim graves as holy places, a practice that elsewhere in the Islamic world, including the North Caucasus, is generally associated with Sufism but in Siberia appears to be a direct borrowing from the surrounding pagan populations instead.
Many of these holy places are what one might expect: the graves of Muslim missionaries, theologians, or preachers. But a significant number, Yarkov says, are the sites of the graves of otherwise ordinary Muslims who were executed by the Soviet government during the anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s and 1930s.
Research on these sites not only helps to explain how this community survived, the Tyumen’ scholar continues; it shows that “today’s official historiography” of Siberia, one that begins with Russian chronicles rather than Tatar ones, like those of the Siberian Muslims, is fundamentally “mistaken.”
“I am a Russian,” Yarkov told Islamrf.ru, “and Orthodox in background, but nevertheless, I am convinced that one must begin the history of Siberia not with these [Russian] chronicles but rather with those medieval manuscripts written in Arabic in the Siberian Tatar language.”
The latter sources describe events in this region “far earlier than the chronicles do and when we compare the texts of these manuscripts with those which are already known from Persian, Arabic, and Turkic sources, then we find many similarities. And that in turn means we can and must trust these texts.”
In addition to preparing this three-volume study of Islam in western Siberia, Yarkov’s group is helping to promote the revival of the Siberian Tatar language, something that Tatar activists in Kazan and in various Siberian regions are participating in as well as part of a more general revival of the Tatar nation across Russia.
And over the last few months, that rebirth has had yet another remarkable and very public consequence: Tatars in Siberia have succeeded in convincing Russian officials that they must redraw tourism routes in Siberia to be less Orthodox in orientation and more Tatar and Muslim (http://www.islamrf.ru/articles.php?razdel=1&sid=2070).