Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Window on Eurasia: New Tatarstan Mufti Highlights Generational Shift in Russian Islam

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 17 – The election today of 28-year-old Kamil Samigullin to a four-year term as mufti of Tatarstan highlights the emergence in the Russian Federation of a new generation of Muslim leaders, one that grew up after the end of Soviet times, received its training abroad, and is far more theologically sophisticated than the one it is replacing.

            On the one hand, the rise of this new generation means that these younger muftis will find it both easier and more appropriate to reach out to younger Muslims, to be more active in social welfare projects, and to preach a more universal and less nationally-constrained version of Islam.

            But on the other, this new generation is certainly going to present greater challenges to Moscow because its members far more definitively than their Soviet-era predecessors view themselves as part of the world-wide community of believers and will be prepared to speak out on its behalf even if what they have to say brings them into conflict with the Russian authorities.

            Samigullin, who was unanimously elected to his new post by the 257 delegates to the Sixth Extraordinry Congress of Muslims of Tatarstan, was born in what was then the Mari ASSR on March 22, 1985. He received his Islamic training at the Muhammedia medrassah in Kazan, the North Caucasus Islamic University in Makhachkala, the Istanbul medrassah, and the Russian Islamic University in Kazan. In addition to Tatar and Russian, he speaks Turkish and Arabic (

            Among the positions he has occupied in his brief career were those of imam khatyv of a mosue in the Kazan suburbs, head of the publishing department of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Tatarstan, and deputy mufti for academic work at that MSD.  He had been acting head of the MSD since March and was widely expected to win this election.

            Samigullin had the chance to be elected because his predecessor Ildus Fayzov resigned earlier this year because he had not recovered from an assassination attempt last July.  And he defeated an 85-year-old Kazan imam, Haris Salikhzyanov, and 43-yer-old Farid Salman, the head of the Moscow Council of the Ulema of the Russian Association of Islamic Accord.

            The new mufti has been very clear about his priorities. He told journalists earlier today that “every muftiate has its historical task.  The first mufti organizes the muftiate, during the second, he builds mosques, and the third devotes attention to ideology,” which is what he indicated he will do (

            Not surprisingly, he added that given that focus, he will seek to unify Muslims, overcome the “illiteracy and ignorance” about Islam found among some imams and many in the laity, promote social justice, and ensure that Islamic practice is about more than just the observance of rituals (

            Even before his election, Samigullin indicated that he was prepared to speak out in ways that may make some in Moscow nervous.  On April 3, he said that wearing the hijab will not be prohibited in the schools of Tatarstan ever, “neither now nor after” the Russian Federation re-introduces school uniforms (

            Neither of the other two older Muslim leaders who competed for the position he has won took such a definite position on this issue, with the older, Hafiz Salikhzyanov, even dismissing the need for the hijab among Tatars given that it is not, he said, part of their national tradition.  That did not stop Samigullin in this case, and it is unlikely to do so in the future as well.

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