Staunton, February 1 – Until about 50 years ago, most Islamic religious services in the RSFSR were conducted in Tatar with passages read in Arabic from the Koran, largely because most of the mullahs and imams were Tatars who had been trained in the medrassahs of Central Asia and combined a commitment to their national language and to Arabic.
Since that time, and especially since 1991, the situation has changed. Not only has the relative position of the Tatars compared to other Muslim nations both indigenous and immigrant changed, but ever more mullahs and imams are not Tatars and even those from among the Tatars use Russian as their first language in order to communicate better with these other groups.
That trend has sparked a debate among Tatars as to whether they should resist this trend by insisting on the use of Arabic in all religious activities lest Russian overwhelm the Tatar language and ultimately destroy Tatar identity or alternatively should see the use of Russian within Islam as an opportunity to spread the faith to others and to save their own nation.
In a commentary for Kazan’s Business-Gazeta, Tatar Muslim social activist Rustam Batyr argues that “Russian-language Islam has come to us forever,” that it is now part of the mainstream, and that using Russian has the additional virtue of preventing Muslims from ghettoizing themselves (business-gazeta.ru/article/455883).
He suggests that greater use of Arabic would be a good thing as there are many terms and concepts in the Koran and other Muslim sources that are not fully translatable into other language and that failure to be aware of what the original really says opens the way to mistakes, errors, and confusion.
But at the same time, Batyr says, relatively few people have the time and energy to learn Arabic well; and if Tatars promote this as the only way, they will drive some away and worse they will lead many others, including Russian officials, that they are somehow engaged in underground activities that the state must suppress.
In this situation, using Russian even more than now is the only reasonable option. It will help keep Tatars who do not speak their national language inside the nation by limiting their cultural assimilation, and it will allow the Tatars to spread the faith to others which is what the Koran requires of them.
But at the same time, he says, there must be much greater attention to the problems of translation. All too often, those who use Russian do not translate the Arabic correctly and thus unwittingly confound the faithful. Translation in this case is an especially delicate act, and it is something Tatar Muslims now need to devote greater attention.