Vienna, January 31 – The popular or folk version of Islam which emerged after the Soviets closed nearly all the mosques in the Russian Federation and helped keep the Faith alive remains strong even now and plays a greater role in defining the beliefs of Russia’s Muslims than do the teachings of the newly-minted mullahs in the newly-opened mosques.
According to Diana Kasimova, a specialist on Tatars outside of Tatarstan, the public face of Islam is “only the tip of the iceberg” of the faith because “so-called ‘popular Islam,’ a compound of ideas, beliefs and rules” that emerged in the past continues to “exert a much greater influence on people’s lives” than the mosque (www.islamrf.ru/news/faith/traditions/6502/).
She argues that the Islam which emerged among Tatars in Udmurtia in Soviet times was a mix of classical religious doctrine, local customs, and ethnic traditions and that to this day, those who are shaped by its syncretic and informal approach are resisting effort by mullahs with more serious theological training to change.
Before 1917, she notes, there were more than 20 mosques in Udmurt areas, and most of their imams had received classical Islamic educations. Most of them were closed under Stalin or Khrushchev, but there were five by the end of Soviet times, most headed by poorly educated and even self-appointed mullahs who had little impact on their parishioners.
Instead, the followers of Islam there were able to keep their faith alive by viewing it as part and parcel of their national (ethnic) identity as Tatars, by the names they chose to give their children, by their songs and poetry, and by their adaptation of graves as Sufi pilgrimage destinations.
That “popular” or “non-mosque” form of Islam dominated not only the older people who could remember the old mullahs but perhaps especially the middle aged who entered active life in the 1970s and 1980s and who conceived Islam “only to the extent that it existed as part of Tatar culture.”
But while young people know more about Islam and have greater access to educated mullahs – there are now 21 mosques in Udmurtia – they too in many cases continue to be influenced by popular Islam, a pattern that frustrates many of the imams who have arrived there over the last 15 years.
The new mullahs, mostly under the age of 40, generally have received their training at the medressah in Tatarstan. They have tried to promote what they see as a purer and more authentic Islam by organizing Sunday schools not only for children but also for adults. But some of them have had real problems and even ask whether they have any role to play.
When new mullahs have been too critical of popular Islam and have denounced it as “cemetery Islam” or worse, Kasimova writes, “there have been cases when conflicts” have occurred with parishioners who continue to follow the norms of popular Islam as it took shape under Soviet atheism.
These tensions between the new mullahs and the followers of popular Islam have had some interesting consequences. On the one hand, the scholar notes, they have led many Muslims, who live in urban areas, to be less interested in building mosques there as long as there is a mosque in their home village, one often led by a less modern mullah.
And on the other, they have shaped much of the debate about nationalism in the Middle Volga, with the supporters of popular Islam often becoming the most ardent nationalists – they seldom distinguish between religion and ethnicity – and the supporters of classical Islam becoming its opponents.
Under certain circumstances, she notes, that pattern can create some interesting and very much unexpected alliances, with nationalist Tatar intellectuals combining with followers of popular Islam and secular Tatar and Russian officials seeing the supporters of classical Islam as a major source of support.
Consequently, it is important to trace the ways in which popular Islam continues to play a major role among the Tatars and other Muslim groups because at the present time that form of the Faith, however much it is often neglected by those who focus on the number of mosques and the number of mullahs, is “more vital than the classical one.”
But there is another reason for paying attention to this kind of Islam, Kasimova says. “We all know what a powerful and destructive stroke the Russian Orthodox Church received from the government in the 20th century. It was almost completely destroyed, while Islam, [in its popular format] was further from politics” and thus was able to “preserve itself in a better form.”
And “if one speaks about the beginning of the 21st century,” she concludes, then” popular Islam will live on in one or another form to the extent it is part of ethnic culture.” And as long as those ethnic communities survive, so too will this form of Islam, which defines “its ethno-religious aspects.”