Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Window on Eurasia: Can Russia’s Muslim Spiritual Directorate System be Saved?

Paul Goble

Vienna, November 25 – Russia’s Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) have frequently been criticized by many Muslims for the lack of any justification for their existence in Islamic doctrine and by others for their corruption, authoritarianism and close ties to the Soviet and now Russian security services.
But now, in a development that may presage a new and broader attack on this system, which traces its roots to 18th century Russia, a member of “the official Muslim clergy” has sharply criticized the MSDs in an interview published today on Russia’s leading Islamic news site (
Summarizing his critique of the MSDs that he offered at the November 14th Saratov conference on “Islamic Education in Russia: History and Prospects, Abdurauf Zabirov, deputy chairman of the Unified MSD of Penza Oblast, said that the directorates must be seriously reformed if they are to continue to exist.
According to Zabirov, “in the eyes of Muslims, many heads of [these] religious organizations are not leaders and spiritual guides but bureaucrats who appear with protocol-style speeches and repots at various official events,” when they should be helping Muslims to deepen their own faith and help bring it to others.
To overcome this situation, he called for “radically changing the work of the MSDs and bringing not only their internal but external arrangements into correspondence with the demands of Islam,” something he strongly implied is a task that Muslims should assume on their own rather than working with anyone else.
First of all, Zabirov said, Muslims must define the status of mufti. “Who is he? Is he a khalif, an emir, an imam, or a person who publishes fetwas?” At present, there are so many people in the Russian Federation calling themselves mufti that neither Muslims nor non-Muslims know what a mufti should be.
Second, he argued, Muslims must ensure a unified system of democratically electing their leaders. At present, every MSD has its own set of rules. Those must be standardized, although Zabirov said he was against creating a single super-MSD to oversee that or anything else, all the more so since Islam does not require one.
Third, Zabirov said, Muslim leaders must devote more time to content rather than to form and be more focused on developing ties with the faithful than on keeping good relations with secular officials. To that end, he said Muslim leaders must be willing to speak out in defense of Islam rather than meekly saying that everything is fine.
This point, he stressed, is especially important. In Penza, Muslims have had problems with officials, but they have overcome most of them because the Muslim leaders know the law and the Constitution and are not afraid to point out when officials have violated either. Because officials now know that the Muslims will do that, they are behaving better.
Fourth, Muslim leaders must root out corruption and ensure that mosques and MSDs do not remain “feeding troughs” for a few families. And fifth, Russia’s Muslim leaders must develop closer ties with Muslims abroad, given that Islam is a world religion and not a national one, even as they defend shariat traditions.
Zabirov’s arguments are important not only in their own terms but also because he represents the next generation of Muslim leaders in the Russian Federation. A Tatar, born in Baku in 1971, he is a graduate of an Ufa medressah and the Kazan Higher Muslim Medrassah and has been working in progressively more senior positions in the Muslim community in Penza.
(Thus, at 38, he is 25 years or more younger than most of the very top leaders of the MSD system, men who often were appointed to their posts by Soviet officials and who have made a name for themselves less as defenders of Islamic principles than by in some cases at least their drinking and corruption.)
Zabirov assumed his current position there in 1998, but since then, in September 2004, he also assumed the post of deputy chairman of the MSD for European Russia where he oversees ties with religious organizations including the MSDs subordinate to that one. Consequently, his words almost certainly reflect the approach he and others on the inside are now promoting.

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