Friday, May 2, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Urged to Promote Christian, Muslim Rapprochement at Home and Abroad

Paul Goble

Baku, May 2 – Taufik Ibragimov, a leading Moscow specialist on Islam and head of the Russian Society of Islamicists, has called on the Russian government to promote the rapprochement of Christians and Muslims within the Russian Federation and internationally as well.
In an interview carried by Interfax-Religion this week, Ibragimov, who is a senior scholar at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, urged the Russian government to help Russia’s Muslims recover their distinguished theological past and to involve them in identifying extremist literature (
And by so doing, he continued, Moscow will position itself and the Russian Orthodox Church to assume the leading in promoting Christian-Muslim understanding in the Arab world where most of the Christian communities are part of the Eastern Orthodox rather than Latin Catholic tradition.
“Prior to the October revolution,” Ibragimov pointed out, Muslim thought in Russia was perhaps the “most advanced” in the world, but unfortunately, “this tradition was lost.” Now it needs to be restored, and the Russian authorities need to help its burgeoning Islamic community do just that.
Many of the classic texts of Russian Islam need to be translated into Russian not only because many Muslims there do not know Tatar but also because even the Tatars cannot always read their language when it is written, as it was in the nineteenth century, in a Persido-Arabic script.
Muslim activists in Tatarstan have begun this process, launching a “Library of Tatar Theological Thought.” But they plan only 15 volumes and are issuing them in “small print runs” of 1,000 copies each. That does not begin to make accessible the rich heritage of pre-1917 Tatar thought. The Russian government should provide funds to expand this effort.
Recently, Ibragimov continued, the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMAR) came up with a list of 30 works that should be translated as part of the “Golden Library of Islam” But, he said, “what kind of Muslim culture in Russia can one took about if the basic works of Islam are not [even] represented in the Russian language.”
Indeed, because such works are not available, some Muslims in the Russian Federation often read works that are, even though they do not know enough about their faith to be able in every case to distinguish between what is genuinely part of the Islamic tradition and what is a politicized addition.
Because of that, the Moscow Islamicist said, the Russian government not unreasonably has begun to ban some of these latter works, but it has gone about it in a clumsy and even counterproductive way. On the one hand, it has not identified the most extreme works but only those prosecutors and other officials happen to notice.
And on the other, genuine experts about Islam, including Muslim theologians, have not been involved in this process, something they in many cases are willing to be – he cites the position of Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) on this point – and whose participation would lend authority to the decisions.
Turning to the issue of Christian-Muslim rapprochement abroad, Ibragimov acknowledged that the Catholic Church since Vatican II had been “a pioneer” in this and that it would not be possible for the Russian Orthodox Church to conduct itself in the same way that Rome has.
But that does not mean that Moscow and the Patriarchate cannot play a much larger role than they have up to now, the Moscow scholar said. Both can point to the “unique” tradition of peaceful coexistence between Christianity and Islam in Russia throughout most of its history, a reality many in both the church and state have failed to mention.
And both the Russian government and the Russian church can exploit the fact that “today, Christians in Arab countries are mostly Orthodox” because, as everyone should remember, “Orthodoxy and Christianity more generally came from those lands where at the present time Muslims live.”
Consequently, Ibragimov concluded, “geographical, religious and geo-political factors are [currently] creating favorable conditions for the Orthodox Church to be in the avant-garde of Christians who are conducting dialogue with the Islamic world,” especially if Moscow ensures that Muslims within Russia are able to recover a “solid” theological foundation.

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