Thursday, May 19, 2011

Window on Eurasia: More than Half of Bashkortostan’s Imams above Pension Age, Survey Finds

Paul Goble

Staunton, May 19 – More than half of the imams and muezzins of the mosques of Bashkortostan are beyond the normal age for pensioners, according to a recent survey, and 20 percent of all Muslim religious leaders in that republic lack any religious training, a situation common in Middle Volga and one that points to challenges for both Muslims and Moscow.

Not only do these numbers suggest the approach of a radical generational change in the leadership of the Muslim community there, but they open the way to the introduction of even more graduates of Islamic training centers abroad, a development that could unsettle the parishes there as well as increase tensions between the Middle Volga Muslims and Moscow.

These are among the many issues currently roiling the Islamic community in the Middle Volga that Ruslan khazrat Sayakhov, the deputy head of the Bashkortostan Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) responsible for educational issues and external relations, discusses in an interview posted on the portal today (

The problems of the umma in Bashkortostan and the need for new leading cadres, Sayakhov says, were shown by a re-attestation survey of the imams and muezzins of the republic’s MSD. “More than 50 percent of the spiritual workers are people who have long ago passed pension age,” with some imams being over 80 years of age.

Such people, of course, “are extremely respected and wise,” but often cannot keep up with “contemporary people,” he continues. Moreover, “on the order of 20 percent of all these workers do not have even a primary religious education.” Not surprisingly, parishes “ever more often are asking for the sending of young specialists” to take their places.

Unfortunately, there are two few such people who can be sent. Russia’s own Muslim educational system is still being built, Sayakhov says, and consequently, many people are looking at younger people who have received training in Muslim universities and medrassahs abroad.

Despite the fears of some, those who have received such training often benefit from it, the deputy MSD chief who himself studied for eight years in the Arab world adds. They of necessity learn Arabic far better than those who do not go abroad. They are exposed to different approaches and experiences. And they bring this back to others.

Clearly, he continues, it is important to work carefully with those who have studied abroad. They need to be screened and clear goals need to be set, and they must operate under the guidance of more senior Muslim leaders who have greater experience with traditional Islam in the Middle Volga.

Those who say that the Muslim universities in Egypt and elsewhere are “preparing radicals” and that “their graduates fight with arms in their hands against federal forces in the North Caucasus” are making assertions that are “not completely based” in reality, the Bashkortostan MSD deputy head says.

Each student whether in the Russian Federation or abroad “chooses for himself” what he wants. “No one can impose on [him] an alien ideology,” Sayakhov says. On the basis of his own experience with and knowledge of Islamic educational institutions “in Sudan, Egypt and Saudi Arabai,” he adds, “an individual can find in each of them” that which corresponds to his search.

When one talks about “the contemporary problems of Islamic education,” he goes on, the question needs to be ask “whom do we want to see ‘at the other end’? What knowledge and personal qualities must an individual have who has decided to devote himself to work in the religious sphere?”

There is much to be learned from the jaded traditions of a century ago, Sayakhov says, and he expresses the hope that “in the next few years, that colossal work which is being conducted in this area will allow the discovery” of the best possible combination of a knowledge of Islam, the Arab world, and the Tatar-Bashkir past.

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