Thursday, June 25, 2015

Academic Study of Islam ‘Much Better Developed’ in Russia than is Study of Orthodoxy, Mitrokhin Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 25 – Nikolay Mitrokhin, author of the magisterial study, “The Russian Orthodox Church: Contemporary Status and Current Problems” (in Russian, 2004), says that the development of the academic study of Islam is far better developed in the Russian Federation than is the study of the Russian Orthodox Church.

            In a comment for the SOVA religious affairs center publication, Mitrokhin says that “the situation in the sphere of the study of religion, and theology is also part of this, has evolved in Russia in such a way that in fact no one is interested in the Russian Orthodox Church” (

            The reasons for this are not far to seek, he continues. “To study [Russian Orthodoxy] is dangerous since one may always encounter a negative reaction of the church hierarchs or government bureaucrats.” The pro-Orthodox “’fanatics,’” Mitrokhin says, are relatively few in number and everyone is aware that “the level of their academic preparation is extremely low.”

            Most researchers on religion in Russia are also “afraid” to take up issues involving Protestant denominations, not because of any reaction from the Protestant groups but because to discuss them, the scholar says, is inevitably to paint a picture of “a successful, active and growing” part of the religious scene, something the Moscow Patriarchate doesn’t want to admit.

            As a result, much of the best research on religion in Russia is focused on the study of Islam, Mitrokhin continues.  Those who work in that area never are short of money because “Islam in the eyes of a significant portion of society is associated with a terrorist and separatist danger.” 

            As a result of this perception, he continues, “within the corporation of investigators has even formed a circle of those who are closely connected with the special services, consult with them on issues involving Islam and write reviews for them” – although it is far from the case, Mitrokhin says, that “all specialists on Islam cooperate with the special services.”

            “Naturally, such research often receives government support: the state must be able to distinguish ‘good’ Muslims from ‘bad’ ones, and without the help of experts who know how to reach Arabic and can make sense of the complex interrelationships among the muftiates, this would be impossible.”

            As a result of this, “over the last ten to fifteen years, we have observed a flowering of Islamic studies: a significant quantity of quality scientific works and serious research studies. In fact,” Mitrokhin argues, “now in Russia, the study of Islam is developed much better than the study of Orthodoxy.”

            And that has an interesting and somewhat unexpected result: When Russian universities are encouraged to open schools of religious studies and hire instructors, rectors frequently prefer to turn to specialists on Islam because they have a more solid scholarly reputation and are less likely to engage in proselytism than are those who work on Russian Orthodoxy.

             As the Russian government pushes for  more instruction on religious issues in universities, it may thus unintentionally boost the study of Islam still further, something that it appears unlikely Moscow intends and something that the Russian Orthodox Church can be counted on to be furious about and oppose.

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