Thursday, June 26, 2014

Window on Eurasia: ‘Traditional Islam’ Now has Four Distinct Meanings in CIS Countries, Moscow Expert Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 26 – The neologism “traditional Islam” was introduced by Ufa Mufti Talgat Tajuddin in the early 1990s to differentiate Muslim beliefs in the post-Soviet world from other trends being promoted by foreign missionaries. It has become widely used in all CIS countries, and it has even been invoked by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

            But the term itself, which Tajuddin intended as little more than a simpler version of “ahlu as-Sunna wa al-Jama’a,” the Arabic term for orthodox Sunni Islam, has now become so widely used that a certain confusion has set in not only among Muslim leaders, civil officials, and the population but even among experts in the post-Soviet countries and abroad.

            To try to introduce some clarity into the situation, Ildar Safargaleyev, the head of the Islamic research section of the Moscow Institute for the CIS Countries, provides a discussion of the term itself and, drawing on the research of others, suggests there are today four distinct definitions of the term being used (

                According to the Moscow researcher, Tajuddin introduced the term because of what the head of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate saw is Western use of certain Islamist trends to weaken and disorder the post-Soviet states, a view Putin supported when he spoke in Ufa in October 2013 on the 22th anniversary of the tsarist-era predecessor of the MSD system.

            Safargaleyev then uses an article by Rustam Batrov, the first deputy mufti of Tatarstan as the basis for arguing that the neologism was introduced because many Muslims in the CIS countries did not know enough Arabic to use the commonly accepted Islamic term for orthodox Sunni Islam.

            Indeed, Batrov argued at and Safargaleyev says now most post-Soviet Muslims including mullahs, imams, and muftis, viewed the Arabic term as “an unpronounceable abracadabra” and needed the simpler and more accessible Russian-language words.

            “In other words,” the CIS Institute scholar says, “’traditional Islam’ was a term introduced by the force of circumstances and was directed above all at the audience of the post-Soviet states.”  But instead of simplifying matters, the new term continues to create confusion even among experts because it is now used in four distinct but often not carefully defined ways.

            The first meaning of “traditional Islam,” he says, is as a synonym for “Russian Islam or Islam which is specific to this or that post-Soviet country.”  Officials and commentators often use the term in this way in order to underscore the ability of “traditional” Muslims to “live in peace and concord with representatives of other confessions.”

             The second meaning, Sargaleyev continues, is to describe what is sometimes designated as “popular Islam,” which “as a rule” refers to “ethnic Muslims in whose lives Islam is no more than a recollection of their grandmothers who were believers.”  This kind of Islam “is the subject of the most lively interest of ethnographers and the object of angry attacks of opponents of traditional Islam.”

            The third connotation refers to the Islam of a particular nation, such as the Tatars. Sometimes it is viewed simply as “part of the historical heritage” of a specific people, and sometimes as “the basis of its survival.” 

            And the fourth, the Moscow scholar says, refers to what Tajuddin originally intended, “the orthodox Sunni Islam as it has existed for centuries in the entire Muslim world” and the religion which “practicing Muslims themselves” refer to which includes “canon law, dogmatic theology and spiritual ethics.”

            A major reason for getting this right, Sargaleyev says, is that “opponents of politicized Islam who are the main opponents of traditional Islam, are considered to be sectarians precisely because they seek to destroy this very orthodox Islam.” They are followers “not of pure Islam as they like to say but a sect in the purest form whatever terminology they use.”

             Most experts now refer less often to “traditional Islam” as such than to the Hanafi legal school, the Mutaridit akid and tasawuf  (Sufism), a practice that he suggests has some negative consequences,  excluding followers of some of three other legal schools of Sunni Islam and downplaying the ways in which other forms of Sufism may be employed to fight extremism.

            And last, Sargaleyev says, this enumeration is incomplete because it does not include any reference to “the vastyya” or “moderate” Islam movement that has been developed in Kuwait and is now being popularized in the CIS by Uzbek Sheikh Muhammad Sadyk Muhammad Yusuf in a variety of works.

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