Monday, September 15, 2008

Window on Eurasia: ‘Unofficial’ Mullahs Assume New Roles in Post-Soviet Russia

Paul Goble

Vienna, September 15 – Mullahs and imams not registered with the state were persecuted but helped keep Islam alive during tsarist and Soviet times, but since the collapse of Soviet power, these “unofficial” religious leaders have assumed a new role – servicing specific national and linguistic groups as well as Muslims located in predominantly ethnic Russian regions. .
In a study of the history of “unofficial” mullahs in Russia that was posted on the “Islam in the Russian Federation” portal last week, Akhmad Makarov and Galina Khizriyeva point out that such leaders have existed ever since “the liquidation of Muslim polities” on the territory of what is today the Russian Federation (
Over the course of “more than four centuries,” they write, “unofficial” mullahs have played various roles, sometimes operating at odds with the religious and political authorities and sometimes serving as an extension acknowledged or not of the government-recognized Muslim establishment.
In tsarist times, government officials and Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) leaders sometimes persecuted unofficial mullahs, sometimes ignored them, and sometimes used them to promote their own agendas of weakening Islam or spreading it to areas where the officially registered establishment could not reach.
Then, in Soviet times, such unregistered mullahs helped save the faith after the communist authorities killed most of the registered mullahs and closed all but a handful of mosques. Indeed, without such unofficial mullahs, the future of Islam as a coherent religion would have been very bleak.
As Makarov and Khizriyeva point out, the relationship between the Soviet state and the unregistered mullahs and imams was complicated. Sometimes the government tried even harder to stamp out such people than it did “official” mullahs whom the Soviet authorities had greater control over.
But sometimes, the authorities looked the other way about this phenomenon, especially in places like Central Russia where the number of Muslims was then relatively small. (In Muslim regions of Central Asia and the Caucasus, Soviet officials seldom had that much leeway.) And after the 1930s, it was the unofficial mullahs who kept Islam alive in the center of Russia.
In Central Russia, the two historians point out, there was only one mosque in that region “officially” operating – in Moscow where it was kept open for Arab diplomats and for Soviet propaganda purposes . “But did the closure of mosques mean the end of the religious life of Muslims [there]? Of course, not.”
Because religious activity was not strictly illegal, unofficial mullahs and imams continued to function in cities like Ivanovo, Yaroslavl, Tula, Svenigorod, and Furmanov in Ivanovo oblast, Makarov and Khizriyev say. And “local officials were not badly informed about [their] activities,” even to the point of “recognizing the authority of their leaders.”
The descendents of these mullahs and letters officials sent to these “unregistered” mullahs and imams testify to this, as do records of the meeting places where these mullahs preached and information about the survival of the tradition of itinerant travelling mullahs, the abyzy.
One of the latter, Nazyf Khansyuvarov from Penza oblast, died only “comparatively recently.” And in recent years he talked about his work at Muslim assemblies in various cities and villages across the central part of the Russian Federation, activities that some officials denounced but that others saw as no real problem.
When communism ended, many expected that the phenomenon of “unofficial” or “unregistered” mullahs would end, but that has not happened. And indeed, Makarov and Khizriyev say, there are good reasons to believe that it will not happen in the Russian Federation anytime soon.
They point to three basic reasons for that perhaps unexpected conclusion. First, there are many Russian officials who oppose the registration of Muslim organizations on their territory. And where this is the case, as in Belgorod and Tambov, for example, there is the same need for “unregistered” mullahs that there was in Soviet times.
Second, many Muslim groups do not want to have anything to do with either the secular authorities or the government-backed MSDs. Such attitudes are especially widespread in Ivanovo, Vologda, Vladimir, Tula, Tambov, Kursk, Belgorod, and other predominantly ethnic Russian and Orthodox Christian regions in central Russia.
And third, “unofficial” mullahs and imams continue to function because they can serve the needs of ethnic and linguistic minorities among the faithful who may be put off by the ethnicity or religious position of the officially registered Islamic leadership and thus want to keep separate.
Among the most prominent of these groups are the Azerbaijanis and Talysh, whose Shiite faith sometimes puts them at odds with the predominantly Sunni Muslims of the Russian Federation, and Vainakh and Daghestani groups, who use Islam as a way of reinforcing their ethnic attachments.
The continued functioning of “unofficial” mullahs and imams, the two writers suggest, has many consequences, but perhaps the most important is this. Because Muslim groups led by such people are not counted by the MSDs or the government, both significantly underestimate the number of Muslims in Central Russia where such mullahs continue to play a key role.
There is little reason to expect, Makarov and Khizriyeva say, that this situation will change anytime soon, and consequently, the “unofficial” mullahs and imams which many have presented as an artifact of Soviet anti-religious policy in fact appear likely to be part of religious life in Russia for a long time to come

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