Staunton, September 25 – The complex ways in which Muslims from various former Soviet republics have interacted with the Islamic world outside is reflected in the career of Ibrahim Sabirov, a Tajik trained by Turks, Yemenis and Saudis, who now heads training center for the recitation of the Koran Recitation in Tatarstan.
On Thursday, the new Islamsng.com portal published an interview with him conducted by Dzhannat Sergey Markus, an ethnic Russian convert to Islam who is active in both the print and electronic media as a commentator on developments in the Muslim community in the Russian Federation and the former Soviet republics (islamsng.com/tjk/tradition/171).
And while Sabirov’s career is certainly not typical, it is instructive both in highlighting the role Central Asian and especially foreign Muslims have played in the restoration of Islam in Russia and in showing the way very conservative forms of Islam, such as memorization of the Koran (“hafiz”), are gaining ground even in Kazan, a center of Jadidist reforms.
In 2003, Sabirov founded the Center for the Preparation of Hafizes of the Koran at the Russian Islamic University in the Tatarstan capital. Asked why such a center was set up only then and not immediately after “freedom of conscience became a reality in Russia with the start of perestroika” in the late 1980s, Sabirov blamed it on “the tragic history of our country.”
“More precisely,” he said, it happened because of those repressive acts which seriously undermined Islamic traditions in the Russian Empire and especially in the Middle Volga region and then almost completely destroyed them during the period of the Soviet regime” with its anti-religious program.
Given that, he continued, “restoring such a precise art as the reading of the Koran and in particular the experience of the hafiz, who know the Koranic text by heart and are masters of repeating it is extraordinarily difficult because in this case what is especially important are living people” who have that skill and can pass it on directly to their pupils.
Such people represent a chain extending back to Mohammed who learned the Koran by heart from the Archangel Gabriel and then passed it on to others. Consequently, “when listening to the Koran today from a real reader, we approach this chain.” And that is why the oppressors of Islam always try not only to destroy mosques and burn books but to break this chain.”
Markus said that helped to explain why a Tajik would have to come to Tatarstan from Central Asia where there are many more such schools to restore this tie. Sabirov agreed, noting that “being further from the imperial and soviet centers, our traditions were preserved in a more vital way. Now,” he said, “we are called to help other brothers.”
As for himself, Sabirov said, he began to learn the Koran at home in Tajikistan but only fully mastered it and became a hafiz when he “received the tradition from Aduljalil Kasim from Yemen,” a scholar who now also works at his center. Others acquired that skill abroad or from those who had been abroad.
When Islam was reborn in Russia in the 1990s, Sabirov continued, it happened when “the first hafizes appeared from abroad, and certain young people studied the Koran in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The first Tatarstan hafizes were students of Karaers Muqerrem from Turkey.” Sabirov said he was among their number but noted that he also studied in Malaysia.
Like other traditional Muslims, Sabirov argued that “every letter of the Koran, read in the Arabic languages at times even without an understanding of its meaning, enriches the spirit of an individual and is counted for him as a good deed,” a view that many Jadid modernists have challenged, arguing instead that gaining knowledge rather than rote learning is key.
But if he is a traditionalist in some respects, Sabirov has proved a modernizer in others, albeit explaining his innovation, the training of young women as hafizes as a restoration of “a most ancient tradition.” And he has taken the lead in training young people in camps and in using the Internet for distance learning with Muslim experts in Saudi Arabia and Yemen.
. Moreover, Sabirov said that he ensures that the students at his Center not only memorize the Koran but also gain knowledge in the Arabic language, calligraphy, Islamic law and traditions, and even physical fitness.
When asked about the impact of Tatar language and culture on what he is doing, Sabirov pointed out that “the culture of Islam presupposes diversity and does not reject national uniqueness,” adding that “Tatar musicality (and this literally is in the sub-consciousness even of babes) is based on the five tone scale.”
“The child begins to think (including musically) in the spirit of his ancestors,” Sabirov said. “Our task is to develop his abilities in general, then to teach him to teach in Arabic (that is, according to the Koran) in order that he will then return to his roots,” ones deeper than the nationality that he may already have come to know.