Saturday, October 8, 2016

Russia’s Muslim Leaders Fighting over What Kind of Islam is the Most ‘Traditional’

Paul Goble

            Staunton, October 8 – Vladimir Putin has repeatedly stressed that Moscow relies on “traditional Islam” as its first line of defense against extremism, but neither he nor any other member of his regime has defined that term, thus opening the way to conflicts among those who have different views as to just what “traditional” Islam means in the Russian context.

            Fights over this definition have broken out periodically over the last 25 years, but they have intensified in the last six weeks as a result of a fetwa issued by a meeting of some but far from all Muslim leaders in Russia that defined the North Caucasian version of Sufism as traditional and all other Muslims, from radicals to reformers, as not.  

                That conference and its fetwa represented the effort of Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov to define the sufism of the North Caucasus “traditional Islam,” to make himself the leader of Russia’s Muslims, and to shove aside everyone else in the name of fighting Islamist extremism. (See

            Those in Moscow who are happy to see the Muslims of Russia fighting with each other or who appear to believe that what Kadyrov is doing will contribute to the fight against ISIS more than what his opponents can have suggested that those who reject the August fetwa are wrong to do so.  (See the argument of Roman Silantyev at

            But many Muslim leaders in Russia and many commentators in the North Caucasus view things differently, seeing what Kadyrov has done as a personal power play and a step that has the unfortunate effect of dividing the Russian umma and undermining its recovery from the depradations of Soviet times.

            Among those is Ruslan Aysin, a political analyst in the North Caucasus, who often writes on Islamic issues for the Kavkazskaya politika portal.  His most recent article, entitled “The Fatal Fetwa from Grozny,” is devoted to the current controversy and to the support of Kadyrov’s opponents (

            He begins by pointing out that the Chechens insisted that the fetwa adopted in Daghestan in August be obligatory for all of Russia’s Muslims even though the two largest Muslim organizations in the country, the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) and the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) either did not take part or have actively opposed this declaration.

            That alone, he continues, “has provoked discussion on this issue in the Muslim community;” but it was hardly unexpected given that “Kadyrov and his MSD already for a long time have sought a suitable occasion to legitimize a split of the Russian Islamic umma between ‘the correct Sufis and everyone else who are thus incorrect.’”

            In his letter to Chechen Mufti Salakh Mezhiyev, SMR head Ravil Gaynutdin made this point: “To our great regret those who compiled the fetwa intentionally or not stroke to divide Muslims into ours and not ours,” a position that was also taken by Saratov Mufti Mukaddas Bibarsov, who is the vice president of the SMR.

            Bibarsov suggested that the fetwa mistakenly sought to define only one trend in Islam as doctrinally justified and to treat all others as illegitimate.  That ignores both the founding principles of Islam and the history of the faith in the territories which are now part of the Russian Federation.

            How could it be, he asks rhetorically, that “the overwhelming majority of Tatars, Bashkirs, Kazakhs, and yes the majority of Muslims of the North Caucaus who historically have followed the Hanafi and Shafai rites of Sunni Islam but who are not Sufis” nonetheless kept the faith alive in Russia as did the Sufis.

            “If in the North Caucasus, one gives Imam Shamil as an example, then among the Turkic peoples there is Salawat Yulayev, who did not go along the path of Sufism but was a Muslim educated according to the princip;es of Islam. Both are heroes of their own peoples and both undoubtedly are legitimate.”

            According to Bibarsov, Aysin says, the identification of individuals and groups by “schools, tariqats, scholars and their works leads to a lack of understanding and to divisions between one’s own and others according to even more superficial sings, national, linguistic, cultural and so on.”

            Sufism of the kind described in the Daghestani fetwa “does not correspond to that doctrinal line which the majority of Tatars follow,” the political analyst says. Yes, there have been and are Sufis in the Middle Volga, but they “are not the defining and dominating trend” there.

            Gaynutdin was even more direct: “In the spiritual-cultural development of the Muslim peoples,” knowledge about Sunni Islam in the form of Muslim modernism (jadidism) played “a no less positive role” in the dissemination of Islam than did Sufism. Moreover, the jadids had an influence throughout the Muslim world from the Ottoman Empire to Xinjiang.

            The Chechen mufti has responded to this in the best tradition of the Soviet past: he refused to join the argument about the acceptability of diversity within Islam and the importance of modernism in particular and instead accused the SMR of harboring Islamist radicals on its staff.

             And that exchange between the defenders of modernist Islam and its opponents is also a recrudescence of the Soviet past when communist officials attacked the former more intensively than the latter believing that this was the best way to root out Islam in the population by allowing only the most reactionary to continue to preach.

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