Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Fourth Muslim Spiritual Directorate in Mordvinia Could Lead to Collapse of MSD System

Paul Goble

            Staunton, August 26 – Even though 60 percent of the population of Mordvinia is ethnically Russian, according to the last census and even though only about two percent of the population identifies as Muslim, that Finno-Ugric republic has three Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSDs) and may soon have a fourth.

            MSDs have no basis in Islam but rather are an outgrowth of the Russian government’s desire to have an institution representing both state and believers to manage the situation. In Soviet times, there were four for the entire USSR. But since 1991, they have multiplied in the Russian Federation to the point it is unclear what role they still have.

            Additional confusion is introduced by two factors. On the one hand, the status of mufti – someone able to issue fetwas – and that of head of a MSD are unrelated. One can be either without being both. And on the other, the differences among the MSDs are typically  less about theology or even politics than about the personal views and ambitions of their leaders.

            Some, like the heads of the three or four largest super-MSDs now in existence, have advocated creating a single super-MSD that would be analogous to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. Other Muslims argue that the MSDs be done away with as an unnecessary “survival of the past.” 

            In the Russian Federation, there are more than 80 MSDs. Many but far from all have declared themselves subordinate to all-Russian MSDs like the Central MSD in Ufa and the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR) or allied themselves with large and powerful regional ones such as the MSDs in Tatarstan and Daghestan.

            (Adding to this complexity is the fact that many of the Shiite communities in the Russian Federation still declare their loyalty to the MSD in Baku, the descendant of the only join Sunni-Shiia muftiate from Soviet times that then by general agreement and now by some supervises Shiite groups across the entire region.)

            In some republics, where the MSD has landed in difficulties with the Moscow-appointed government, the Muslim community functions perfectly well without an MSD as such. The umma there does have a mufti who issues fetwas but the parishes aren't subordinate to any mixed state-religious body.  

            Often, there is more than one MSD involved in even regions and republics with small Muslim populations. In Mordvinia, less than three percent of whose people are Muslim, there are three MSDs represented, and now, it appears there may be a fourth, a situation that means adjoining mosques are at least nominally subordinate to different MSDs.

            With so many MSDs for so few mosques, the Directorates appear to spend more time competing for attention with each other than they do on administering anything, Rais Suleymenov, an ROC MP specialist on Islam notorious for his attacks on most Muslim leaders and advocacy of imposing tight controls on them (

            He would like to see the Muslim community of the Russian Federation organized under a single super-MSD which would control regional MSDs which would in turn control who serves as an imam or mullah. That might be attractive on paper but it is highly offensive to the profoundly democratic character of most Muslim parishes.

            In his latest article, cast in the form of an attack on the diversity of MSDs in Mordvinia, Suleymanov concludes that “the centrifugal line remains quite clear in relations between regional and federal muftiates,” making “organizational unity of the Islamic umma of Russia” only “a sweet fantasy of naïve romantics.”

            Changing that would require a fundamentally different and far more interventionist approach by the Russian state and would impose radical changes on Islam itself, changes so extreme that any matrix the Kremlin might impose would lead some, perhaps a majority of parishes, to refuse to have anything to do with it. 

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