Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Fetwa against Muslims Marrying Christians has Limited Applicability

Paul Goble

Vienna, June 15 – A fetwa issued by the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Daghestan saying that Muslims in the Russian Federation should not marry Christians has attracted a great deal of attention, positive and negative, but this legal opinion has a far narrower specific application but potentially much greater implications than most reports have suggested.
On the one hand, the legal opinion applies only to the followers of the Shafai rite of Sunni Islam, a group that formers a relatively small fraction of all Muslims in the Russian Federation. But on the other, it provides a theological basis for continuing and possibly violent clashes between those peoples, mostly in the North Caucasus, and the Russian state.
Two weeks ago, the alims (theologians) of the Daghestani MSD responded to a series of inquiries about whether it is permissible for Muslims to marry non-Muslims, questions coming mostly from the increasing number of Daghestanis who have moved to Russian cities to find work. And the alims said in a fetwa that such unions are not permissible.
Not surprisingly, that fetwa attracted a great deal of attention both from Russians who fear that the offspring of such unions, usually between Muslim men and Orthodox women, will be lost to Orthodoxy and the Russian nation and from Muslims that these marriages are unlikely to work non-Muslim women will find it difficult if not impossible to adapt to Muslim traditions.
But as Andrey Mel’nikov points out in “NG-Religii” today, this fetwa like so many others does not have the universal reach many commentators have suggested and at most affects only those Muslims in the North Caucasus who are followers of the extremely strict Salfei school of Sunni Islam (
The “NG-Religii” writer points out that “according to the Koran, Muslim men are permitted to marry women from the so-called Peoples of the Book,” that is, Jews and Christians. And he notes that in the Russian Federation today, “the overwhelming majority” of such unions are between Muslim men and Orthodox Christian women.
For better or worse, that widely-cited Koranic authorization is not understood in the same way by all Muslims. As Magomed-haji Magomedov, head of the canonical department at the Daghestan MSD pointed out, followers of the Shafai rite of Sunni Islam have a very different view than do those who follow the three other legal Sunni schools.
These schools, whose followers include the Turkic peoples of the Middle Volga, Siberia and the North Caucasus, take the Koranic injunction on its face: If a woman is a member of a nation which identifies itself as Christian or Jewish, then a Muslim man can marry her because she is a person “of the Book.”
But the Shafai rite interprets this line from the Koran differently: “If a people to whom the girl belongs has followed one of these religions from times before the Koran was revealed, then it is possible to marry her,” he says. “But if the people accepted [these faiths] after Islam arose, then traditional law (shariat) does not consider its members People of the Book.”
And while the Daghestani theologian said that “we cannot assert that there are no native Christians in Russia” – it is, after all, a “big” country Russia did not become Christian until 397 years after the Koran was revealed. As a result, Magomedov insisted, Muslims of the Shafai rite cannot view them as a “People of the Book” with whom the Koran sanctions marriage.
That conclusion, of course, does not preclude a Muslim marriage by a follower of the Shafai rite to a Russian woman, but it means that any Russian woman who wishes to marry a Muslim man of the Shafai rite must first convert to Islam, a step that some potential brides might not want to make. But at least potentially, this fetwa could have its greatest impact in another sphere.
That is because if the Russians are not a “People of the Book,” then it follows that Muslims of the Shafai rite should view the country of which they are a part at the present time as part of the “dar ul-harb” or “abode of struggle,” in which the use of force against non-Muslims is not only sanctioned but theologically required.
Many Muslims of Daghestan and the North Caucasus who are nominally Shafai are likely to ignore this fetwa, either as a result of ignorance, indifference, or confidence that many other Shafai theologians have ruled differently, a point Taufik Ibragim, a specialist on Islamic law at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Studies, made to “NG-Religii.”
Another specialist on Islam, albeit from an Orthodox position, Roman Silantyev said that the fetwa doesn’t contain “anything new” as far as inter-religious marriage is concerned. But he argued that its implications for relations between the Muslims of the North Caucasus and Orthodox Christian Russians could be serious.
“If the majority of the population consists, as this [fetwa] suggests, of people who are not People of the Book, then Russian Muslims livein a state of pagans. From that, the question arises: how should Muslims conduct themselves in such a situation?” And Silantyev notes, “The Wahhabis consider that it is necessary to fight against such a country.”
To the extent that this fetwa provides support for such a conclusion, he continued, its impact on inter-ethnic and inter-faith relations in the Russian Federation could be extremely profound, even if this fetwa does not limit the number of marriages between Muslim men and Russian women as some hope and others fear.

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