Sunday, October 21, 2012

Window on Eurasia: When the Tatars Dominated the Muslim Community of Moscow

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 21 – Until the end of the Soviet period, Kazan Tatars long dominated the Muslim community both numerically and ideology, and it is a measure of just how much has changed that they have been overwhelmed in most spheres by immigrant communities from the Caucasus and Central Asia.

            Writing in the current issue of “Neprikosnovennyy zapas,” Marat Safarov, a historian at the Mosow Institute of Economics and Social Relations, describes the last stage of the dominance of this group in an article entitled “The Daily Life of Moscow Muslims in the 1960s-1980s” (

            On the basis of archives, interviews and published sources, Safarov notes that between the mid-1960s and mi-1980s, as had been true earlier as well, the Tatars formed the basis of the Muslim community of Moscow,” a reflection of both its overall numbers and “the religious activity of natives of the Tatar villages of Gorky oblast,” the Tatar-Mishars.

            Drawing on the distinction made by Alexandre Bennigsen but defining it slightly differently, the Moscow historian says that one must understand that religious life in terms of those who were “officially” registered and those, “the unofficial imams,” who never had that status.

            But he insists that despite that distinction, “in Soviet times, it is possible to identify the close interpenetration in the daily life of Moscow Muslims of contacts both with the [official] imams of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque and with the ‘unofficial’ religious activists among the elderly who knew the customs” of the faith.

            And Safarov says further that “it is obvious that ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ Islam in the conditions of Soviet reality intersected with one another and mutually supplemented each other” rather than, as some both in Russia and in the West have continued to suggest , only “developed in parallel.”

             On the whole, he continues, “the legitimacy of the Tatar religious leaders was defined by their knowledge of religious ritual, their origin [their regional and extended family ties], by personal qualities and so on, but hardly by their ‘official status.’” Indeed, many who became “official” later in their careers began as “unofficial” mullahs.

            The regional origin of “sub-ethnic and even more local distinctions between those who came from Gorki or Penza oblast or from Mordvinia” played an “extraordinarily important” role “for the Muslim community of Moscow” at  that time where “firm connections with native villages” were the norm for all the Tatars there.

            Despite Soviet anti-religious policies, “narrative testimony creates the impression about the almost complete autonomy of the Tatar-Mishars in Soviet Moscow. They regularly visited the mosque, observed all key Muslim rights, and acquired halal meat at the Pynitsky market in Zamoskovorechye.”

            From the second half of the 1960s, Safarov notes, “the level of the urbanization [of the Moscow Tatar] grew in large measure as a result of the inclusion of new settlements within the [expanded] borders of Moscow.” But despite that, the influx of Tatars from Tatar villages in Gorky oblast helped “preserve the former traditions.”

            “The most urbanized,” then and even earlier, were “the families which were historically connected with the city of Kasimov and the Mishar villages of Ryazan oblast.” Many of these people were” repressed in the 1930s and 1940s. And many were forced, following the closure of the Zamoskvorechya mosque to attend the Moscow Cathedral Mosque.

            That move was not easy because many of the Kasimov and Mishar Muslims “far from immediately recognized the authority of the local imams because they one way or another compared them with their deeply educated leader, Abdulla Shamsutdinov (1878-1937), who had been repressed” during the Great Terror.

            Khrushchev’s anti-religious campaign at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s also hit the Tatar community and its religious leaders hard. But “the important international status of the Moscow Cathedral Mosque,” which the Soviets used to demonstrate “’the free confession of Islam in the USSR’” to foreigners saved it and at least some of its leaders.

            In 1963, Abkhmetzyan Mustafin (1902-1986) became its imam-khatyb. Because what he said were his “personal ties” to Khrushchev and his utility to Moscow in making ties with Muslim leaders from abroad, he unlike some of his colleagues was never subjected to any repression.

            Mustafin had received his religious education at the Muhammadiya Medressahin Kazan at the start of the 20th century, and his sermons were widely popular: “They not infrequently were written down and passed from hand to hand, and later recorded on tape, passed to relatives and acquaintances and actively discussed.”

            “Given the lack of Muslim religious publications and periodicals and the impossibility for young and middle aged Tatars to read pre-revolutionary Islamic books printed in the Arabic script, the homilies of Akhmetzyan Mustafin could not fail to be an important life of local Muslims,” even those his words “of course were not free from the influence of Soviet times.”

            In 1964, Moscow’s Cathedral Mosque got a second imam, Rizautdin Basyrov (1907-1994), a graduate of the Mir Arab medressah in Bukhara who had then worked at a mosque in Astrakhan.  Importantly for the community, “both Akkhmetzyan Mustafin and Rizautdin Basyrov” were part of the Nizhny Novgorod Tatar-Mishar community.

             Because Soviet anti-religious policy was less concerned about the elderly than the young, the Muslim organizations in Moscow devoted a great deal of attention to funerals and rather less to marriages, name day celebrations and the like  Indeed, for many Muslim Tatars, cemeteries were as important a religious center as were the limited number of mosques.

            By the end of the Soviet period, Safarov continues, the level of religious knowledge among the imams and among the rank and file members of the community was “already not as high as it had been in earlier years.” Most of the “unofficial” imams were elderly, and hence they often had a higher level of religious knowledge than young people.

            But as that generation died off and as the number of Tatars in Moscow increased – from 80,500 in 1959 to 132,400 in 1979 – without a concomitant growth in the number of “official” mosques and imams, the “unofficial” religious leaders nonetheless became more important, Safarov writes, and the emerged the phenomenon of “women mullahs.”

            “One can consider [their emergence] as a sign of religious modernism,” the Moscow historian says, especially since in the period he surveys, “they often in practice replaced ‘the unofficial’ imams in almost all spheres of religious life.” Many were not highly trained, but several were even more educated than their male counterparts.

            In most cases, the “unofficial” imams, “both men and also ‘women mullahs,’” worked in a particular district where they lived, although several of those who worked in the cemeteries had “an all-city” status within the Muslim community.

No comments:

Post a Comment