Baku, May 6 – The intellectual weaknesses of Russia’s muftiate and its continuing dependence on foreign funding threaten the future of Islam not only there but around the world because it is preventing Muslims in Tatarstan from recovering and promoting the modernist tradition they pioneered prior to the 1917 revolution.
That damning judgment of the current situation of Islam in Russia is offered by Rafael Khakimov, the Kazan historian who was recently fired at Moscow’s insistence from his longtime post as political advisor to Tatarstan President Mintimir Shaimiyev and who is now free to speak his mind even more freely than in the past (www.rosbaltvolga.ru/2008/05/05/480862.html).
The author of what many call “the manifesto of Euro-Islam, Where is Our Mecca,” Khakimov begins his essay by saying that he is “ashamed” by the kind of people now occupied leading positions in Russian Islam, few of whom are capable of interpreting the Koran, viewing religion as more than a set of rituals, or delivering a convincing homily.
The recent purge of Valiulla Yakupov, the first deputy mufti of Tatarstan, is a case in point, Khakimov says. Even though he and Yakupov have often been at odds, the director of the Kazan Institute of History argues that Yakupov’s proposal that Muslims should burn books the Russian government has banned should not have gotten him fired.
He was simply saying what other Muslim leaders were thinking, Khakimov says, and both he and they were missing the point. “The authorities are prohibiting books, and let’s allow that they are even burning them. What’s next? Does that mean that the ideas they contain disappear as a result?”
“Hitler is condemned every day, his book Mein Kampf is banned, and fascists in various countries all the same continue to march. Russia made a decisive contribution to the defeat of fascism, but it cannot or does not want to deal with the skinheads. What is in people’s heads you do not prohibit and you do not burn.”
But Russia’s muftis, people who are supposed to be able to interpret Islam, lack the ability to do so or explain their positions to others. Indeed, Khakimov continues, “elderly people frequently turn out to be wiser and more educated” in Tatarstan than are these “clerics” because “the Tatars generally read a great deal, unlike [contemporary] muftis and imams.”
Indeed, the level of their ability is reflected in the proclivity for saying on all occasions that “Islam preserved Tatar culture.” But that is not entirely or simply true, Khakimov says: “A Tatar can avoid going to a mosque but he won’t miss the celebration of the sabantui holiday,” which he sees as a truly national one.
Prior to 1917, the Tatar historian continues, “fundamentalist Islam, which among Tatars was called kadimism fulfilled a conserving function and was against progress. The other tendency was reformed Islam – jadidism (from the Arabic ‘al-jadid’ or ‘renewal’), which based itself on the Koran and the Sunna and not on the norms that emerged after the 13th century.”
Jadidism, Khakimov argues, not only contributed to “the preservation of the Tatar nation” but also to its “development” and even more to its influence on Muslim thought around the world. Unfortunately, he says, none of those in leadership positions in the Muslim hierarchies in Russia is at present capable of extending this now and into the future.
The very best of the imams of Russia can do little more than repeat what they “heard at the Al-Azhar University in Cairo” even to the point of copying that institution’s style in such detail that everyone familiar with it can instantly recognize that this is a received opinion and not a new one.
Given that muftis in Islam are supposed to be engaged in interpretative work, Khakimov says, the obvious question is what in fact are the Islamic “clerics” in Tatarstan and Russia more generally doing? And he answers that his “long experience” with them suggests that “they have confused religion with business and Islam with rituals.”
That they have “confused” Islam with rituals, of course, reflects the restrictions that the Soviet state placed on them and their inability to grow beyond those limitations now that communism is no more. But their confusion of religion and business reflects in some ways an even greater threat to the future, Khakimov insists.
Prior to the Russian revolution, muftis relied on waqfs for financing, something that gave them relative freedom. Now, waqfs do not exist in Russia, and consequently, muftis and mullahs see as their primary source of financial “numerous international organizations,” most of whom have their headquarters in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates.
But the understanding in these countries about the proper role of Islam in society is very different from the Russian understanding. “These are purely Islamic countries, while Russia is a secular state and with a largely Orthodox population. That means that Islamic norms should emerge from the real situation in the country, but he who pays the piper calls the tune.”
“Even Islamic countries attempt to protect themselves from the most odious foreign foundations” lest they undermine the Islamic communities on their territories, but in Russia, given the need the Muslim clerics have for money to pay for the construction of mosques and other projects, there is “no limit” to their willingness to accept the money and what goes with it.
That creates a real dangerous, but it is, Khakimov says, “a danger from the clergy and not from within Islam. The clergy and Islam are different things. I respect businessmen who earn money by their work, and I respect spiritual people be they Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish. But I do not respect businessmen who cover their activities with faith.”
And that is precisely what the Islamic clergy in Russia has done in the last two decades, something that Khakimov says he could not say openly while he worked in the government but that he is sure is poisoning the situation of Islam there and preventing it from recovering and then extending the jadid tradition of the 19th century.
That tradition has not disappeared, “despite all the resistance of the official religious structures” whose leaders “fear” to speak about it lest they offend the foundations that are financing them. But their failure to do so reflects their absence of a true understanding of Islam and their own transformation from genuine men of faith into “clericals.”
“The problem of clericalism is as old as the world,” Khakimov points out. “The Reformation in Europe took place because of the retreat [of the clergy] from faith. … In Tatar Islam [a century or two ago] the jadids began a reformation and over the course of 200 hundred years achieved great success.”
“But the  revolution broke off this remarkable tradition,” one based on the principle that “the Koran is one, but faith turns out to be different in different periods and among various people.” Instead, today, many of Russia’s Muslims accept the historically and philosophically incorrect position offered by the Wahhabis that “Islam is one.”
To recover the jadid tradition, Russia’s Muslim leaders need to stop using textbooks sent in for free by foreign foundations that have a very different understanding of Islam and work to reprint the works of Tatar jadid theologians from a century ago, a task that won’t be easy because the Muslim leaders will have to pay for that rather than, as now, getting Saudi works for free.
If they do so, Khakimov concludes, the Muslim clergy of the Russian Federation will become real leaders not only of the Muslim community of their own country but of Muslims around the world and of all non-Muslims who are interested in finding a way of working together with Islam.
“The entire Islamic world is awaiting changes. And the West is interested in regularizing its relations with Muslims. One must begin with instruction, with the preparation of cadres on the national basis of each country and the development of its own textbooks. After this or parallel with it, one can speak about contemporary interpretations of Koran concepts, a dialogue of Muslims and Christians and respect for the civil norms of each country.”
And the stakes are very, very high, Khakimov concludes. If the Muslims of Tatarstan and Russia with their direct access to the jadid tradition don’t do this and soon, then there is a danger that “a new ‘Berlin Wall” will rise “only this time between the civilizations of the West and of the Islamic world.”