Staunton, October 12 – Today marks the 80th anniversary of the birth of Gabdulkhak Samatov, a self-educated Muslim who prior to his death in 2009 laid the foundations for Muslim educational institutions in the Russia Federation, first by organizing an underground medrassah in Kazan in the 1960s and 1970s and then by overseeing the growth of that system after 1991.
To mark that event, Muslim leaders from around the Russian Federation have assembled in Kazan to recall the career of that man who many of Russia’s Muslims call “one of the founding fathers of the contemporary system of Muslim religious education in Russia” (www.e-islam.ru/newsall/anons/?ID=2392).
In advance of that session, several websites posted biographies of Samatov, an individual who not only helped keep Islam alive in the late Soviet period but helped bridge the divide between the permitted and often desiccated forms of “official” Islam and the more active and radical “unofficial” one (www.e-islam.ru/newsall/public/?ID=2380).
But what is perhaps most striking is that Samatov, in organizing an “underground” Muslim religious institution in Kazan, succeeded in attracting to that then-illegal institution many of the individuals such as Talgat Tajuddin, Ravil Gainutdin, Gusman Iskhakov, and other leaders of Islam in Russia now.
Born in a village in the Aksubayev district of Tatarstan, Samatov grew up in a deeply religious family where he received his first lessons in Islam. When his father and elder brothers fought in World War II, he served as head of the family but decided at that time that he would continue to study Muslim theology independently.
After service in the Soviet Army, he became a driven but in the 1950s, during his free time, he studied with Gadulkhak Sadyykov and received “a jadidist education in the Muhammadiya mosque.” Later, he worked as a mechanic at the Marjani Mosque, the only Muslim religious center open in Kazan at that time.
He took that job, his biographers say, with “a double purpose.” On the one hand, he needed to have a job to avoid falling afoul of the Soviet authorities. But on the other, he wanted to work with the imams to provide “unofficial lessons on the foundations of Islam” to all who were interested.
“In the 1960s, 1970s and even later, this ‘underground’ medressah was visited by such well-known Russian religious leaders as Talgat Tajuddin [who now heads the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) in Ufa] and Ravil Gainudtin [the leader of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR)],” not to mention many other current Muslim leaders in the Middle Volga.
In the mid-1960s, the authorities dispatched Samatov and Tajuddin to the Mir Arab medrassah in Bukhara,” but Samatov remained there only two years. On the one hand, he already knew most of what the instructors there had to teach. And on the other, the head of the Central Asian MSD didn’t like having two Middle Volga Muslims there at any one time.
By the 1970s, Samatov had become a member of the Marjani Mosque administration and helped restore the call of the azans and rebuild the infrastructure of the mosque, including recovering its library which the Soviet authorities had confiscated. Then in 1980, when Tajuddin assumed the post he now holds, Samatov began his service as an imam.
From 1981 to 1986, he worked as a mullah in Almetyevsk, then from 1988 to 1991 in Orenburg, and then in Chistopol. And throughout this period, he continued to push for Muslim education thus winning for himself recognition as “one of the founding fathers” of the current extensive system of Islamic training in the Middle Volga.
Among his students in the 1990s – Samatov continued to teach until 2003 – were the future mufti of Chuvashia, the imam-khatyb of the Kul Sharif mosque in Kazan, the rector of the Muhammadiya medrassah, and many others. In 1998, he was elected the chief kazi of Tatarstan, a post he occupied until 2006 when he was replaced by one of his students.
Samatov died on March 9, 2009. Today, he is being recalled as an intellectual and teacher, a continuer of the jadid and Naqshbandia Sufi traditions, and as the founder of a dynasty of imams – both his sons are serving in that capacity. But what may be most important about this anniversary is what it says about the relationship of official and unofficial Islam.
Many commentaries on Islam in Soviet times stress how distant and hostile these two trends were, with the former supported and controlled by the Soviet state and the latter reflecting the popular and far more vibrant tradition of Islam But Samatov in his career demonstrated that the two were closely connected, a reality that lives on in the leadership of Russia’s Muslims.
And that in turn means that the leaders of the officially recognized MSDs, like Tajuddin and Gainutdin, almost certainly have a different attitude toward those parts of Islamic life that are not included within their “official” purview, an attitude that they may use to defend themselves against Moscow’s demands and to push their own Islamic values.