Monday, February 24, 2020

Muslim Strategy Document Calls for Gradually Unifying Russia’s 80 Plus MSDs by 2035

Paul Goble

            Staunton, February 18 – Over the past two years, Muslim leaders from across the Russian Federation have met to draft a “Strategy for the Development of Islam and Muslim Organizations in Russia up to 2035.” This document, adopted in the past few days, is the first of its kind and defines “a road map” for unifying the more than 80 muftiates into a single structure.

            The coordinator of this effort was the Spiritual Assembly of the Muslims of Russia which was established several years ago in order to overcome the divisions among the Muslim communities of Russia and is assumed to have the backing of the Russian authorities  ( and

            Following the demise of the USSR, MSDs sprung up like mushrooms after a rain. There are now more than 80 of them. Most have subordinated themselves to one of the three with all-Russia pretensions – the Union of Muftiis of Russia, the Central MSD in Ufa, and the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Russia – or in the North Caucasus to a Coordination Center.

            These compete with each other although all say they favor unity. A bigger problem is at the oblast and republic level where there are sometimes two, three or more MSDs with competing agendas. And these are not small: The Daghestan Republic MSD, for example, oversees some 3,000 mosques.

            Efforts to unite them have always failed because of competition among the leaders and because there has been an all or nothing quality about them with one or another of the leaders demanding that others subordinate themselves to him all at once.  What makes this new effort more hopeful is that the strategy document anticipates a step-by-step process.

            Initially, the various MSDs will meet to discuss issues, then they will on occasion create common training centers and even issue common fetwas, and only after these confidence-building measures have been in place for some time will there be a move to create a single structure that all will be subordinate to.

            The Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) system is not canonical within Islam. It was created by Catherine the Great and then re-established by the Soviets before taking on a life of its own after 1991. Both the government and many Muslims are conflicted about the value of unification or even its existence.

            Moscow has traditionally preferred having a single religious center with which to work. Muslims have been the exception. Some argue this is because the Russian government wants to keep the faithful divided because Islam more than other faiths does not draw a sharp distinction between religion and politics. Others say it reflects Moscow’s inability to create a single center.

            Muslims also are divided. Because the MSD is not Koranic, many believers, mullahs and muftis view it as a government device that should be dispensed with. But as that is unlikely to happen, they favor a central hierarchy so that Muslims can speak with one voice, precisely what some in the political establishment fear, as much as they prefer hierarchies in general.

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