Staunton, October 4 – Although Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) have no canonical basis in Islam, the Russian state from the 18th century to the present has viewed them as a necessary control mechanism given the enormous diversity of parishes in Islam and has periodically sought to establish a single MSD modeled on the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate.
But because such institutions lack unquestioned authority among Muslims, such attempts have failed for a variety of reasons. After World War II, when Stalin decided to restore MSDs, he initially wanted a single one but quickly decided that such an arrangement would give Soviet Muslims too much power.
Consequently, he decided to create four; but when the Soviet Union collapsed, these were joined by more than 80 others in Russia alone as Muslim leaders sought to boost their authority with believers – it gradually came to be believed that only the head of an MSD could be a mufti and issue fetwas – and as political leaders sought to exploit their Muslims against all others.
The latest twist in this long-running story has occurred in the last two weeks: On September 23, Mufti Ravil Gaynutdin, who organized the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) in 1996 but now wants it to be replaced by the MSD of the Russian Federation that he also heads, held a meeting to move in that direction (business-gazeta.ru/article/483218).
The SMR was based on the idea that there was no one supreme mufti but rather a cooperative “union” among them, but over time, Tatar Muslim theologian Azat Akhunov says, it became ever less democratic and ever more authoritarian with Gaynutdin aspiring to control appointments of all muftis and ownership of all Muslim property in Russia.
Not surprisingly, as the SMR became less democratic, many of its members left either formally or informally and chose to operate as independent MSDs. Given that tradition, it is entirely likely that Gaynutdin’s latest move will drive even more of them to do so, boosting the number of MSDs in Russia rather than achieving unity in one as he wants.
Gaynutdin has always seen Talgat Tajuddin, the head of the Ufa-based Central MSD, as his chief opponent and believed that his own position based in Moscow gives him advantages even though Tajuddin argues that his organization, not Gaynutdin’s, is the proper center of Russian Islam given that it traces its origins to Catherine’s times.
Tajuddin in fact has styled himself “the Supreme Mufti of Holy Rus,” a term that his detractors, including Gaynutdin, say is un-Islamic and a reflection of Tajuddin’s servility before the Russian state and his infamous violation of Islamic law, including a propensity to drink heavily.
Consequently, Gaynutdin has long assumed that he and not Tajuddin will win out if Moscow wants to have a single MSD, and now he has made the most dramatic play to achieve that. In the coming weeks, however, those regional MSDs who have been members of the SMR are likely to break with him because of his power grab.
At the same time, Tajuddin is not sitting on his hands. He has stolen a march on Gaynutdin in the North Caucasus, the most Islamic part of the Russian Federation. In September 2019, the Ingush government disbanded the republic MSD, and now it has allowed Tajuddin, not Gaynutdin, to form a branch of his Central MSD there (akcent.site/mneniya/10138).
And Tajuddin almost certainly is likely to try to win over the now independent MSDs of Daghestan and Chechnya. Because of Gaynutdin’s actions last month, the leaders of these two, Akhmad Abdulayev and Salakh Mezhiyev, may decide that they are better off with Ufa than with Moscow and certainly better off under the Coordinating Center for Muslims of the region.
Thus, while Gaynutdin clearly feels he has stolen a march on Tajuddin, the Muslims of Russia are likely to remain as fissiparous as ever, and the Kremlin, if it ever hoped for a Muslim “patriarch” to simplify its relations with the country’s Muslims, is going to have to wait, probably until both Gaynutdin, 61, and Tajuddin, 71, pass from the scene.
Their relations are simply too poisoned after so many years of competition to expect unity.