Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Moscow Wants to Reduce Divisions among Four Legal Schools of Sunni Islam in Russia

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 19 – Vladimir Putin is seeking to do something that has eluded Muslim leaders for more than 1400 years and that even Stalin didn’t try: his government is seeking to reduce or even eliminate divisions among the four legal schools of Sunni Islam and create in their stead a uniquely Russian unified Muslim faith.

            But Muslim leaders are already warning that their faith not only generally but in Russia in particular is inherently pluralist and that such efforts to create a single dogmatic version of Sunni Islam in the country – and as in the world as a whole, about 90 percent of Russia’s Muslims are Sunnis – will backfire (

            Not only are Muslims divided between the Sunnis, who are subdivided in the four legal schools, and the Shiites, but they are also divided between these traditions and Sufism, a trend that seeks individual unity with the divine. Sometimes these have been in sharp conflict, even when most of their adepts say they share many common views.

            Within the Muslim umma in Russia, the basic divide is between the Sunni Muslims of the more liberal Hanafi school which dominate the community in the Middle Volga and the Sufis and Sunnis of the far stricter Hanbali school which predominate in the North Caucasus. That distinction been intensified since 1991 by the arrival of Hanbali missionaries in both areas.

            Because of these differences and because Islam lacks both a clergy and a clerical hierarchy which could decide on the policy of the community as a whole, the Russian state has traditionally had to recognize that there are multiple centers of the umma in that country rather than only one, however much some Russian leaders would like to have a single vertical.

            Periodically and especially under Putin, Moscow has tried to promote unity even if it recognizes how difficult that will be and also how problematic the achievement of that end could be for a regime that in this as in so many other areas depends on the imperial principle of “divide and conquer.”

            This week, there were two developments that suggest the Kremlin is prepared to expand its push, the convention in Moscow of a conference entitled “The Unity of Islam is the Unity of Muslims” devoted to reducing or eliminating differences among the four legal schools, and the appointment of Sergey Kiriyenko as first deputy head of the Presidential Administration.

            What the Kremlin hopes for from the Moscow meeting was underscored by a message of greeting from Igor Barinov, the head of the Federal Agency for Nationality Affairs
( What Kiriyenko’s appointment is likely to mean is discussed in “NG-Religii” today (

            In his message, Barinov stressed that “the rapprochement of the maskhabs is an issue which has not lost its importance either internationally or within [Russia] … it is not a short-term campaign but a long-term strategy which must prevent the threat of the clash of civilizations and become the first step toward their cooperation and partnership.”

            More significant, although completely consistent with this is what Artur Priimak writes about Kiriyenko.  Most commentators have treated him as “a typical ‘effective manager,’” given his earlier service as prime minister and presidential plenipotentiary in the Middle Volga Federal District.

            But while he was in that position, Kiriyenko associated himself with and helped promote the project of “’Russian Islam’” that was developed and pushed by two political technologists, Petr Shchedrovitsky and Sergey Gadirovsky. (For a discussion of their views and activities, see

                He promoted the development of the Hanafi rite in the Middle Volga, the use of Russian in the mosques of the Russian Federation, and even the idea that Russia should rest on two civilizations, Orthodox Christian and Muslim. To that end, Kiriyenko did what he could to promote unity within the Muslim community.

            If the Kremlin follows through on what this week’s meeting appears to suggest, Kiriyenko will likely play a key role in that, something that could profoundly affect not only the balance within the umma of the Russian Federation between the Middle Volga and the North Caucasus but between Islam and Orthodox Christianity.

            And to the extent that happens, the new man in the Presidential Administration is likely to be far more than the simple “effective manager” many now expect him to be.

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