Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Window on Eurasia: Tatarstan Mosques Directed to Use Tatar Rather than Russian

Paul Goble

Staunton, October 27 – Mosques in Tatarstan and quite possibly Tatar mosques elsewhere in the Russian Federation, so called because they were established by Tatars and served that community first, will resume using Tatar as the primary language for services, a shift that has divided both the Muslim community and the secular authorities in that country.
Muslims are divided on this point, with some insisting that Islam by its nature is supranational and that Russian both provides a more widely understood lingua franca and helps promote Islamic unity within Russia, and others arguing that there is no good reason to give preference to Russian as opposed to other languages.
And Russian officials are split as well, with most seeing the use of Russian helping to integrate Muslims into the broader society but some arguing that it has the effect of promoting a common Muslim identity against national ones and noting that in Russia today, Wahhabism and other forms of Islamist extremism, is typically a Russian language phenomenon.
The issue came to a head at an October 11th meeting of the Ulema Council of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan, a session that has now been written by Irek Mukhametzyanov, a Tatar Muslim journalist, for the site on the Russian Internet (
Of the many decisions the meeting took, the one that sparked the most controversy concerned a recommendation that “the mosques of the Republic of Tatarstan conduct services in Tatar.” At the same time, “with the permission of the mufti,” mullahs and imams could continue to employ Russian as a supplement to Tatar.
As Mukhametzyanov points out, the decision generated “both a positive and also a negative reaction among the Muslims of Tatarstan and of Russia. Shavkat Avyasov, the head of the Russian Islamic Heritage group and himself a Tatar resident in Moscow, was sharply opposed.
Among other things, he said, “such a decision denigrates our brother Muslims who belong to other nations and do not know Tatar.” He even suggested that standing behind this decision of the ulema were “Tatar nationalist circles” and that it reflected an increasing tendency among Tatars to speak more about “national problems” than about religion.
Rustam Batrov, the chairman of the Ulema Council of Tatarstan, defended the decision to change languages in the mosques. He suggested that Avyasov was “tilting at windmills” and ignoring the provision of the recommendation that allowed for the use of the Russian language as a supplement when necessary.
Batrov also expressed surprise that Avyasov was ignoring the reality that many Tatars, especially the elderly, understand Tatar far better than they do Russian and that their ability to participate in the mosque is reduced if the mullahs use Russian rather than their own national language.
However that may be, Mukhametzyanov continues, the issue now is bigger than that argument may suggest. “The very decision of the Ulema Council of Tatarstan is already an occasion to speak about one of the most important questions for the Tatarstan umma, the language used in the mosques.”
“For many centuries,” the Muslim journalist says, “the language [of the mosques of Tatarstan] was Tatar (old Tatar, Volga Turkic) and only at the beginning of the 21st century did two or three of the mosques of Kazan” – and that city has approximately 50 mosques in all – “begin to use Russian.”
Some people object when people speak about “Tatar mosques” elsewhere in central Russia, but Mukhametzyanov asks rhetorically, “how else should they be called if the Tatars built them, the Tatars financed them, the Tatars worked in them for centuries, and the Tatars preserved them during the years of Soviet oppression.”
Moreover, the principle of referring to a mosque by an ethnic name is widespread and not just in Russia, he points out. In Europe, for example, there are “Turkish,” “Moroccan,” “Pakistani,” and other mosques. And so in Russia outside of the North Caucasus, there are quite properly Tatar mosques.
When one discusses them, Mukhametzyanov says, “it is necessary to understand that their so-called ‘Tatarness’ is expressed note only in history but also at the present time.” And to continue to be called a Tatar mosque, these institutions need to meet only two criteria: they must use Tatar and they must follow the Hanafi rite of Sunni Islam.
Muslims who speak other languages or who follow other legal schools or even Shiite Islam are welcome to pray in Tatar mosques, but “the imam of the mosque and also the instructors of the medrassah attached to the mosque must follow” those two traditions of Tatar Islam.
“One of the most frequently used arguments against the use of Tatar as the language of instruction is the presence in the mosques of Tatarstan of peoples from Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East and so on, for whom the Tatar language is not familiar,” he says. But as for most of those from Central Asia, “Tatar is completely understandable.
But the journalist says: “Here is the question” that everyone should be asking – Why aren’t the people making these arguments equally concerned about the ability of “those Tatars who poorly understand Russian and for whom Tatar is the single means of receiving information about the faith?”
Mukhametzyanov suggests that this is “typical false Tatar logic which would insist because of the presence in the company of a single non-Tatar speaker to make all Tatars use Russian.”
Another argument sometimes employed against the use of Tatar in mosques is that “Tatar nationalists put the nation above religion.” At the same time, other “cosmopolitan Islamists declare that religion is above the nation” and therefore Muslims should either use Arabic or the most widely spread language in the area they find themselves in.
This is a false choice, the Muslim journalist insists. “For us, young Muslims, Islam and the nation are something united and indivisible, two parts of a single whole. If we speak about Tatar culture, we imply Islam and if we speak about Islam in our cultural-geographic context, we mean Tatar culture.”
He quotes with approval Imam-khatyb Batrov’s observation that “mosques for Tatars are not only centers for the rebirth of religion but also centers of national life. It would be incorrect not to take this factor into consideration” and thus fail to see how religion and nationality combine among the Tatars.
Finally, Mukhametzyanov offers what is certain to be the most unanswerable argument in favor of using Tatar and other non-Russian languages in the mosques of the Russian Federation. Everyone needs to recognize, he points out, that “Wahhabism in country is above all a Russian language phenomenon.”

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