Sunday, April 21, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Moscow Mufti Urges Revival of Sufism to Win Over Russia’s Muslim Youth

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 21 – The head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Moscow, who is also a member of the Social Chamber of the Russian Federation, says that leaders of Russia’s Islamic community should revive the traditions of Sufism in order to immunize young Muslims in the country against the appeals of radical Islamist trends.

            In a speech to a conference at the Institute of CIS Countries on “Religious Extremism in the Post-Soviet Space,” Mufti Albir-khazrat Krganov says that Russia’s Muslims have achieved a great deal organizationally since the end of Soviet times but that they have not yet done enough to promote a new spirituality in the umma (

            Muslim educational institutions in the Russian Federation, he continues, are not yet at the necessary level, and the mufti expresses his support for the proposal of Roman Silantyev, a specialist on Islam based in Kazan, to invite Muslim scholars from Syria because of what he says is that country’s “positive inter-confessional consensus” and “similarity with Russian realities.”

            “Despite all the complexity of the current situation” in Syria, Krganov continues, “about 40 percent” of Syria’s population are Christians, and there have been “preserved “good relations” between them and the Muslim community. Scholars from there, he suggests, could have much to tell Russia’s Muslims.

            But if the Islamic community of Russia is to prosper, the mufti argues, it must draw on its own history of spirituality and promote the revival of Islam on that basis.  Unless that is done, he warns, the MSD system will remain a sterile administrative one without the capacity to attract the young and animate their thinking.

            At the center of attention of those who want to promote such a revival should be the national traditions of Sufism, Krganov says.  Today in Russia, there are too few investigations of this trend in Islam, and as a result, much of what people think they know about it is a caricature of the reality.

            There has been some writing about the role of Sufism in the Caucasus where “murids under the flag of the defense of the faith took part in a struggle with the enemy,” but there is little understanding either of how Sufism has sometimes split into competing factions in the North Caucasus or about its positive role in the Middle Volga in the past.

            When Catherine the Great established the Orenburg Mohammadan Spiritual Assembly, thus laying the foundation of the modern MSD system, more than two centuries ago, Krganov notes, it was the leadership of the Sufi community which led this body and conducted work among Russia’s Muslims.

            Although this has been the subject of research in the West, few Russians have focused on it, although “it would be a good idea to read books on the subject of our Tatar theologians and open the archives with the goal of studying the experience” of our forefathers “in this direction” as a guide to what Russia’s Muslims should do next.

            Before the 1917 revolution, Krganov notes, the MSD was closely connected with the Sufi direction in Islam. “And there were, to use an analogy from the Christians, such terms as ‘elders’ or ‘ishans,’ Sufi scholars who being outside the system of the official clergy nevertheless were alongside the official mullahs and helped support in the Muslim community a strong faith.”
            Today, unfortunately, the situation is different. There is an official clergy, but “spiritual practice and the spiritual element in our activity is in my view clearly insufficient,” Krganov says. Moreover, “it is no secret that we are very politicized even though this is not a very good thing.”

            As a result, the mufti says, young Muslims in Russia are “going into the left wing, attracted by various kinds of marginal figures,” something that can happen only because “the healthy right wing in the form of Sufi spiritual leaders, which existed in tsarist times a century ago, today almost does not exist.”

            Krganov concludes that he does not have a precise “recipe” for how the revival and use of Sufism should occur, but he says that “we would like to attract the attention of experts to the beginning of the study of this very important theme” because in his view, “today this would be very useful.”

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