Tuesday, September 13, 2022

‘Ethnic Pagan’ in Sakha Becomes Committed Muslim

Paul Goble

            Staunton, Aug. 15 – Erakhan Alaas, a Sakha native who grew up without much attention to the religion of his people and who says he was little more than “an ethnic pagan,” accepted Islam 15 years ago and has been studying Arabic and Islam since that time in Central Asia, the Middle Volga and the Arab world and hopes to lead his republic’s small Muslim community.

            Alaas says he grew up in a secular family and thus was “an ethnic pagan” much like Muslims who grew up in a secular environment are “ethnic Muslims.” But in his 20s, he felt the need for religion and considered many, finally settling on Islam (milliard.tatar/news/tatarskii-islam-otlicaetsya-ot-kirgizskogo-i-daze-ot-togo-cto-v-yakutii-1975).

            He travelled to Bashkortostan to study and then to Egypt and Kyrgyzstan, learning Arabic and Islamic traditions. Only then did he return to Sakha where there is a small community of 300 to 400 Sakha Muslims. Of those, however, only about 20 go to mosque on a regular basis, Alaas says.

            According to the Sakha Muslim, Islam in Sakha is very different than Islam in Tatarstan not only because the Muslim religion allows imams and mullahs to set the tone for each parish but also because Islam like other religions always reflects local national traditions and those in Sakha and Tatarstan while similar are not identical.

            In smaller parishes, the imam receives no pay or only a small amount and must work at other jobs to support his family. Alaas, for his part, offers lessons in Arabic online; but he notes that interest in learning Arabic, something essential for reading the Koran, is low even among those who identify as Muslims.

            What is perhaps most important about his story is this: Because neither the Soviet nor the Russian regimes have provided much support for pagan faiths, many who are part of them ethnically are available for mobilization by other religions; and as Alaas’ biography shows, Islam is often better positioned to compete for their allegiance than any other.

            To the extent that is the case, it is entirely possible that the migration of Muslims from the south to the north in Russia often for economic reasons may lead to a new growth in the size of the Muslim communities there as people give up on even their historical attachment to paganism and turn to Islam. 

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