Vienna, October 12 – Talgat Tadzhutdin, who was chosen to head the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the European Part of the USSR and Siberia in 1980 and continues to serve as the head of its successor, the Central MSD of the Russian Federation, marked his 60th birthday with an interview in which he talked about the evolution of Islam over the last 30 years.
Born on October 12, 1948, and educated at the Mir-i-Arab medressah in Bukhara and Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Tadzhutdin said that thanks to his elderly relatives from whom he learned the Arabic language and about Islam, he had always wanted to be involved with the faith but “had never wanted to be a mufti” (www.bashinform.ru/index.php?id=71438).
But in July 1980, at the age of 31, he was pushed by his teachers to become mufti, a job that required him to navigate carefully between the requirements of the Soviet state and his own desire to oversee the revival of the Islamic community in the Russian Federation and neighboring republics.
Because of Soviet anti-religious policies which led to the destruction of more than 14,000 mosques and the repression of some 60,000 mullahs and imams, Tadzhutdin told Bashinform, his MSD in 1980 united and oversaw only 16 Muslim communities in Bashkortostan and only 78 Muslim parishes elsewhere.
Many of these communities lacked a mullah, and Tadzhutdin said his first project was to try to increase the number of young Muslims studying to be spiritual leaders up to his “dream” of 40 a year. That did not happen overnight, but much has been accomplished: there are more medrassahs and more than 2000 parishes in 30 regional MSDs under his Central MSD.
Meanwhile, the mufti continued, he had overseen the transformation of his own organization, which traces its organizational heritage back to the tsarist Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly of Orenburg whose 220th anniversary Tadzhutdin had helped to celebrate in Ufa last month (www.islamrf.ru/news/russia/rusnews/5047/).
In May 1990, Tadzhutdin was elected chairman of the Administration of International Ties of Muslim Organizations in the USSR, the only all-union Muslim institution in Soviet times and one that established him as the leading spokesman for the Islamic community there both to the government and to the umma abroad.
And then after the collapse of Soviet power, he became head of the Central MSD for Muslims in the Russian Federation, an official structure which controlled far more communities than had its predecessor but on a much smaller territory and with competition from other groups, such as Ravil Gainutdin’s Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR).
As he has done in many of his public appearances, Tadzhutdin in this interview stressed the antiquity of Islam on the territory of what is now the Russian Federation – Islam arrived in Derbent within the lifetimes of the companions of the Prophet and in the Middle Volga a century later -- and the loyalty of Russia’s Muslims to Moscow.
But again as has been the case in most such formal presentations, Tadzhutdin did not mention three aspects of his career as mufti that have attracted the attention of many Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
First, both in Soviet times and since, the Ufa-based mufti has on almost all occasions followed the government’s line, sometimes so slavishly that many Muslims view him as little more than an agent in place of the security agencies. Indeed, he is widely rumored to be a colonel in the Russian security services.
Second, Tadzhutdin is sometimes referred to as the “drunken” mullah not only because he is known to drink himself but because several years ago, he broke a bottle of champagne across the door of a new mosque, an action that not only violates Islamic law but horrified many believers.
And third, the longtime MSD head has often said things that have gotten him in trouble with the authorities he has tried to serve. Most recently, for example, he called for a jihad against the United States, something that the Kremlin at that time at least was not interested in and that other Muslims in Russia suggested that he should not have done.
In many ways, Tadzhutdin is a transitional figure, someone who began in the Soviet Muslim establishment but who continues to occupy a key position in the official hierarchy. On the one hand, that has allowed him to retain his access to the Russian political elite and to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church.
But on the other, his personality and behavior have sparked the rise of alternative structures like SMR and more importantly raised questions in the minds of many believers as to whether there is any reason for MSDs like the one he heads to continue to exist. After all, these tsarist and Soviet institutions have no basis in Islamic law.