Staunton, June 16 – Now that the pandemic has forced Saudi Arabia to suspend the haj for the second year in a row, some Muslims in the North Caucasus are visiting holy places associated with Muslim saints. But leaders of the Islamic establishment there are warning against thinking that such visits are in any way a substitute for the haj, one of the five pillars of Islam.
Asfar Myss, the imam of the Takhtmukay mosque in Adygea, for example, says that the notion that visiting certain “holy places” could serve as a replacement for the haj was perhaps defensible in Soviet times because then “there was ‘the iron curtain.’” But now, it doesn’t exist, and making the haj will eventually be possible again (kavkaz-uzel.eu/articles/364990/).
He says that there are no fetwas which would justify substituting holy places for the haj and that Muslims must recognize that no one can simply “replace a pillar of Islam” because of temporary problems. Visiting holy places can be positive, but it is wrong to see it as a surrogate for the haj.
Other Muslim leaders surveyed by Kavkaz-Uzel say much the same. In addition, the news agency spoke with Aleksey Malashenko, a leading Russian specialist on Islam, who observes that “the haj is the haj” and there are no possible substitutes given the Koran’s explicitness on this point.
“The problem of saints in Islam is very complicated and has generated much discussion,” the agency summarizes his position as being. But “in general, [such actions] have always been considered as an element of ethnic culture. Therefore, it is impossible to think that such visits replace the great haj. Only representatives of certain variants of Sufism say otherwise.”
These observations may seem of marginal interest, but there are three reasons why they are anything but. First of all, they underscore just how much of an impact the cancellation for foreigners of the possibility of making the haj is for Muslims in the Russian Federation. More than 20,000 a year have been going; now none can.
Second, they show how quickly the Muslims of the North Caucasus in general and in Chechnya and Daghestan in particular are reverting to their Soviet-era practice of visiting saints’ graves as a substitute for the then-impossible haj, even though most of them probably accepted then and now that doing so wasn’t really an equivalent act.
And third, and most important, the words of the Muslim leaders show how frightened they are of losing control over the faithful to Sufism and other trends within Islam. If Muslims revert to Soviet-era practices in this regard, they will likely distance themselves from Muslim leaders who enjoy the backing of the civil authorities.
The passion with which the Muslim leaders are speaking out on this issue is thus not just about their commitment to fundamental doctrine. It is about their fears over just how fragile their hold over their flocks really is and how apparently exogenous developments like the pandemic can shatter it.