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Euro Islam in the Volga region

Euro Islam in the Volga region

Rafael Khakimov


Tatarstan is a region of Russia where half of the population belongs to the Muslim culture and an almost equal number of Russians adhere to the Orthodox traditions. Despite the uneasy years of perestroyka (reorganization) that caused a great number of conflicts in post-Soviet Russia, there is peace and general consent among people in the republic. Sociological research shows stability in ethnic relations, a high level of mixed marriages (about one-third) and the absence of tensions both at the political and household level. The tragedy of Bosnia has not affected Tatarstan. One of the reasons for stable Muslim-Christian relations is the policy of observance of the balance of interests. At the same time, this peaceful situation can be explained by examining "Tatar" Islam, which underwent reformation in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.



Islam was accepted as a state religion in the territory of Tatarstan in 922, half a century before Russia officially accepted Orthodoxy. Thus, for Russia, Islam is not an externally introduced element. Its spread was seriously influenced by Uzbek Khan's "Islamic revolution" of 1312. Uzbek Khan opposed Genghis Khan's Code of Laws (Yasa), which recognized equality of all religions, and accepted Islam as a state religion of the Golden Horde. It was not a reform, but a bloody revolution, which suppressed the opposition of Murzas (nobility). These events did not affect Russians who remained Orthodox. After the disintegration of the Golden Horde, Islam remained an official religion of the Kazan khanate.

Ivan the Terrible's assault on the capital of the Kazan khanate in 1552 began the epoch of Christianization of the region accompanied by the physical destruction of the Tatars, their exile from places of residence and the creation of stimulus for the conversion of Muslims to Orthodoxy. In the thirteenth century, after a whole series of revolts with obvious religious motives, Catherine II issued an edict on religious tolerance, starting the revival of Islam in Russia. Nevertheless, up to the beginning of the twentieth century, the Tatars had limitations concerning certain professions, the right of ownership and business activity in the sphere of industry and secular educational institutions.

At the dawn of the nineteenth century, theologian Kursavi urged the Tatars to modernize Islam. This initiated the movement, which was named Jadidism from the Arabic al-jadid (renovation, reform). Kursavi wrote: "You are not true and devout Muslims. You have receded from the Qur'an of Allah and legends of the Prophet." He rejected mazhabs and offered to address the Sacred book for critical evaluation of the existing traditions. In the opinion of his contemporaries, following taqlid (authority) was not a method of redemption; an independent search - ijtihad was necessary. Thus, Kursavi did not consider public opinion as a true criterion. He believed that a scientist convinced in the truth of his reasoning and its correspondence to "the true way," could himself be considered jama'at (society of Muslims), and thus had the right to follow his own judgment even if his act was condemned by most people. A person, who asserts the truth, is equal to his community. This idea became revolutionary for Tatar theology. Kursavi's ideas were succeeded by brilliant Tatar theologians.

Jadid mainly struggled against taqlid for critical thinking, for the high education of Muslims, and the equality of men and women, tolerance towards other religions and openness to the cultural achievements of Europe. All modern Tatar culture is rooted in Jadidism. After the revolution of 1917 Jadidism showed itself in the theory of "Islamic socialism" founded by Mirsaid Sultangaleyev. Bolsheviks could not comprehend it, but it proliferated in the Arabic world.

The Soviet period had most serious consequences for the religion. The clergy was destroyed physically, the system of Islamic education was liquidated and the religion itself was actually forbidden.

Perestroyka prompted the revival of mosques, madrasahs and the Muslim press. At the same time, Russia attracted numerous missionaries who brought with them the traditions of their countries, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and others. Today the Republic of Tatarstan is restoring the system of religious education and searching for a "faith formula" to satisfy the modern world.

It is impossible to repeat Jadidism literally as the situation has changed. The Tatars have gained statehood in the form of a republic. The society has become more secular, and the educational system and economy have changed. All this imposes new requirements on Islam as well.


Islamic Sub-civilization in Tatarstan

There is a Muslim ummah as a civilization uniting people of common faith. But there are also different nations with their national sovereignty. The first does not absorb and does not nullify the second. Each nation has specific living conditions - climate, environment and local needs. The Tatars were destined to be the northernmost outpost of Islam; they are on the border of the West and the East not only geographically, but also culturally. This, in many respects, explains the features of the Islamic sub civilization in the Republic of Tatarstan.

Russia is a secular country with an Orthodox majority. At the same time, for the Muslims the Russian cultural and social conditions are not alien. Tatars are not compelled to follow any specific tradition. They were born in this country and they consider it theirs. This country is not worse and not better than Muslim states; it is simply different. Tatarstan may not be guided by Saudi Arabia and will hardly ever become similar to Christian Europe.

Millions of Muslims in Russia have grown to believe that they live and should live in a secular country, living in the culture which developed over several centuries. The post-reorganization period showed a burst of interest in religion that has now more or less stabilized. Thus, we are able to speak about the general religious preferences and practices in Tartarstan today. Polls show that over 80 percent of the Tatar youth consider themselves Muslims, but only 2 percent attend mosque at least once a week, and 4 percent attend just once a month. In Tatarstan, less than 1 percent of the population is atheist, but some of them observe all religious practices. Very few people (1-3 percent) attend classes on the basics of religion (Islam and Orthodoxy).(1)

The Tatar youth aim to attend modern universities, and many prefer European educational institutions, while they prefer English to other foreign languages. It helps in business, politics and science. Thirteen percent of Tatars living in towns and 25 percent of Tatars living in villages, like their children to know the Arabic language; 10 percent (town) and 19 percent (village) are focused on Turkish, and 74 percent (town), 33 percent (village) choose Western European languages. The last figure is even higher among the Tatar youth than among their parents. Arabic tends to become a ritualistic or purely professional language, while English has turned out to be the most popular among foreign languages.

The role of religion outside of the republic is more significant, as it performs a function of association and preservation of the Tatar community. Religious attitudes outside of Tatarstan are more traditional. The republic has no problems with those institutes which preserve Tatar culture; and therefore, discussions appear to focus not on the preservation of culture, but mainly on its adaptation to the process of globalization.

Tatarstan manufactures hi-tech products, which necessitates the development of its own scientific schools and system of higher education. The main competitors to Tartarstan are in the West; that is why Tartarstan must introduce standards close to those of Europe. Islamic countries as Sudan, Pakistan, Iran or Saudi Arabia cannot guide Tartarstan. They do not make heavy trucks, planes and helicopters. They are not the manufacturers, but the consumers of these products; therefore, they can not help Tartarstan to become more competitive.

All these factors create conditions for developing an Islamic sub-civilization of Tatarstan.  Although Europe is the main competitor in several sectors of the Tatar economy, Tatars do not consider it an alien or hostile civilization. Instead they look to Europe to gain technological information that can be utilized as a reference point to increase education and culture.

As the world becomes more religiously and culturally blended, what in Tatarstan may be viewed currently as deviation from pure Islam, in the future could become the norm for most countries. Nobody can create an isolated, purely Islamic environment. And there is no need to aspire such an "ideal" because Islam does not deny Christianity or the way of life of other peoples; it teaches how to reach understanding with them.


Pluralism in Islam: Need for Rational Interpretations

Prophet Muhammed said: "Truly, Allah in the beginning of each century will send ummah, a person to renew religion." Islam appeared to lead the Arabs out of barbarism, as a way to convert peoples into civilized advanced nations. Prophet Muhammed's precept is the basis for constant modernization of Islam.

The tenth century witnessed a phenomenon in Muslim theology referred to as "closing the doors to ijtihad." Critical, analytical thinking was forbidden. It was considered that theologians had already developed everything necessary. Modern Turkish scientist Haydar Bash writes: "The fact that for centuries ummah without any doubt have followed and been guided by mazhabs and mashrabs, and for centuries the imams of mazkhabs and mashrabs have remained indisputable authorities is a historical proof that mazkhabs and mashrabs have revealed validity of their approach and represented the truth."(2) It is a sample of thinking which denies the modernization of Islam. If mankind was guided by a similar logic, it would still explain the solar system composition according to the theory of Ptolemy, instead of Copernicus.

The founders of Muslim mazhabs disagreed even concerning the true number of original hadiths, which are known to be the second important source of Shariat. According to Ibn-Khaldun, Imam Abu Hanifa used only seventeen hadiths, Malik gave the number of three hundred, well-known Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Ismail, the composer of the most known collection of hadiths, led this figure up to seven thousand, and Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal considered that there were fifty thousand hadiths. What today looks incontestable, in those times was a subject of ijtihad. Four mazhabs were developed in the tenth through the thirteenth centuries, but remain basic in Shariat understanding up to now.

The struggle of reformers against medieval traditions cannot be represented as a struggle of "true" Muslims with adherents of innovators or heretics. It is a struggle of progress against backwardness, for in the Qur'an one finds verses in favor of both positions.

In the Meccan period, the verses of the Qur'an were addressed to all people. It said: "O you men! We have created you of a male and a female, and made you tribes and families that you may know each other." [49:13]* It reflected no distinction in rights between men and women, prohibited coerced conversion to Islam, clearly expressed tolerance towards people of other religions.

In the Medinan period, ayats were addressed primarily to the Arabs of the seventh century and gave them the order concerning the pagans: "And kill them wherever you find them, and drive them out from whence they drove you out." [2:191] With regard to women, a number of ayats were introduced, which rendered them unequal to men. It said: "Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property." [4:34] Indeed, there are historical explanations for this, but inequality is inequality; and the Qur'an calls for justice.

Contradictions between the verses of the Meccan and Medinan periods are too obvious and it is impossible to reconcile them - they deny each other. Therefore, the Muslim jurists considered the ayats of the Meccan period cancelled as the elder. However, the date of revelation is not a criterion, according to which one may put some ayats above others. If they have been really cancelled, the Prophet himself would not have included the so-called "cancelled" ayats in the text of the Qur'an. As everybody knows, the main teachers of the Qur'an were prepared under his direct control and he was very attentive to the correctness of suras.

Several instructions of the Qur'an are formulated very strictly, in explicit form, but sometimes are not applicable in specific conditions. It says: "Eat and drink until the whiteness of the day becomes distinct from the blackness of the night at dawn; then complete the fast till night." [2:187] How can anyone living near the polar circles, where the sun does not rise, follow these instructions? Musa Bigiyev, one of the most profound Tatar theologians, perfectly understanding both the letter, and the spirit of the Qur'an offered an explanation for this situation. He analyzed another ayat: "Fasting is prescribed for a certain number of days" [2:184] in which he sees the instruction for those who live in such geographical latitudes, where it is impossible to distinguish between day and night. In his Fast in Long Days, he writes: "According to the obvious instruction of the Sacred Qur'an, the fast in such regions is never obligatory. For the fast is imposed as such only for a certain number of days, that is there, where days and nights are comparable with each other on longitude. And at the poles, where a year consists of a day and a night or in cold areas near the polar circle, where days and nights last for weeks and months, the fast, due to its time limitation in days, is, indeed, excluded from the life of people. This results from the features of geographical region."

The point is not to declare that some ayats are cancelled, and others are valid, but to understand that they are addressed to different audiences, to different epoch. Such distinctions and interpretations of ayats are extremely important from the point of view of modernity. Vahhabism is guided by violence in its struggle against other religions and even trends in Islam. Calling for "purity" of Islam, it actually follows the hanbali mazhab in its extreme with complete denial of rationalism - the Qur'an is allegedly impossible to understand, it is possible only to believe in it. Thus, it asserts traditionalism, which does not recognize any new phenomena. For vahhabism, life stopped in Arabia in the tenth century. But things change and so the suras of the Qur'an need modern interpretation.

For example, jihad as a war with the unbelievers was quite explainable in the middle ages, because then the politics of power was common. But after World War II, when the means of war became so advanced that threatened the very existence of mankind, it became necessary to place conflict regulation through international law above the use of force.

The Prophet distinguished between small jihad with the use of force and supreme jihad, which assumes peaceful progress of Islam with the help of the Qur'an. It says: "Do not follow the unbelievers, and strive against them the mighty striving with it." [25:52] Small jihad was necessary, when Muslims were threatened by other states or when Islam conquered new territories in the medieval epoch. Today issues of war and peace are regulated differently. Therefore, jihad should be understood according to its literal meaning, "striving" or struggling with "dunya" (material world) for a spiritual basis and overcoming infidelity in oneself. It is just and quite in compliance both with the text of the Qur'an and the international law to declare small jihad in self-defense against violence and tyranny.

In Prophet Muhammed's times, there were no weapons of mass destruction. Appeals for struggle with the unbelievers then suggested completely different meaning and means. Today the Muslims should be guided by the eternal idea of common solidarity granted in the Meccan period, for mankind striving towards good is one of the manifestations of Allah.


Euro Islam: Key Concepts

We should understand the term "Euro Islam" as a modern form of Jadidism. The theological component of Jadidism was not uniform - some theologians adhered to the positions of renovation of Islam: some were quite moderate, such as Gataulla Bayazitov, and some were rather radical reformers like Musa Bigiyev.

Euro Islam mostly reflects cultural aspects of Islam, rather than its ritualistic aspects, the latter being left to one's own personal judgment. The key focus of Euro Islam is on ijtihad (a method of critical judgment) for modern interpretation of the Qur'an.

Traditional theologians are afraid of rationalism, believing it might negate faith. Well-known Malaysian theologian, Seid Muhammad Nakyb al-Attas considers intuition the supreme form of perception. "We recognize," he writes, "the existence of one more level different from the rational truth, - a suprarational or transcendental level of existence accessible only to prophets and sacred, and also acute minds, owning the deepest knowledge."(3) In this form, interpretation of Islam becomes the destiny of an elite and is completely inadmissible to an ignorant crowd.(4) Egyptian scholar Yusuf al-Kardavi, calling for ijtihad, at the same time writes: "It is impossible to tolerate such a state of affairs when each interested person would have an access to ijtihad, for this will result in anarchy and distemper."(5) He believes that there are those deserving of ijtihad and those who are not deserving of it. Theologians refer to outstanding thinkers of the middle ages, who limited the circle of people with the right to ijtihad. This was due to the educational level of the population. At that time, many people were illiterate; therefore, they were unable to go into reflections on theological themes. Today general literacy and availability of higher education change the situation - almost everyone can study the Qur'an independently and in one's native language.

Islam and the Qur'an are gradually being translated into national languages and this is correct, for God listens to our hearts, not to our words. Seid Muhammad Nakyb al-Attas introduced the concept of Muslim language, which he understands as "the introduction of the base dictionary of the Muslim terminology in the languages of peoples practicing this religion."(6) Indeed, the Tatar language is rich in Arabic constructions, which quite sufficiently reflects the Muslim terminology and actually make the knowledge of the Arabic language unnecessary for the broad circle of believers. Linguistic nationalization of Islam seems inevitable in the twenty-first century.

Islam was sent down to the earth to protect people from ignorance and set them on the way of justice. Taqlid freezes thinking and mazhabs keep public relations at the medieval level; only ijtihad provides entrance to the path for progress.

Islam is a culture which unites religious and secular spheres. One of the miracles is that God created numerous peoples, each with its own language. The Qur'an says: "And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your tongues and colors; most surely there are signs in this for the learned." [30:22] If God had chosen to do so, he could have created one Arabian-speaking people; however, he made many different peoples, each with their own lives and cultural environments.

Islam was mainly marked by rituals, which had important social function, especially in conditions of medieval Arabia. The rituals accustomed relatively un-civilized tribes to more civilized behavior in such matters as diet and hygiene. These attributes became universal long ago. Today, in modern civilization, moderation both in diet and consumption of alcoholic drinks is strongly recommended in addition to observing proper hygiene. Islam is a method of personal liberation. It says that the Prophet "removes from them their burden and the shackles that were upon them." [7:157]

God does not need blind worship. Prophet Muhammed said: "Allah does not like unnecessary fanaticism and extremes in demonstration of faith." He did not approve of monasticism and did not demand the observance of ceremonies beyond one's abilities.

Many historical norms have lost their importance today. For example, the prohibition to photograph a person was connected to the period in formation of Islam, when it was necessary to struggle against idol worship. But today it is not necessary to destroy the statues of Buddha as Taliban did in Afghanistan to prove their faithfulness. Wild conduct and Islam are incompatible.

Faithfulness means that people become civilized, cultivated and educated.

Prophet Muhammed said: "Everything has its way. Knowledge opens the way to paradise." Acquisition of knowledge is the main duty of Muslims. It is a categorical imperative. A true Muslim is an educated person who respects and pursues sciences. The aspiration to come to know oneself, one's environment and the universe is the real perception of truth, i.e. Allah. The Qur'an says: "Allah indeed encompasses all things in His knowledge" [65:12] Allah encompasses all things because He is the Universe. Attaining knowledge of science or knowledge of any kind is a step towards God, who waits not for blind worship, but for the good results of man's activity. Prophet Muhammed advised: "Who learns sciences with the purpose to teach others, will receive the redemption of seventy saints from God."

Islam is a religion of a free individual. The Qur'an implies that the faithful can not be slaves to Allah because they have chosen of their own free will to practice Islam.

The Prophet said: "The whole world has been created as a place for prayer." There is no mediator between man and God. The clergy and community are only assistants or teachers, no more than that. When God calls on the Day of Judgement, there will be no imam, mufti or community. There will be no lawyers. The Qur'an says: "And be on your guard against a day when one soul shall not avail another in the least, neither shall intercession on its behalf be accepted, nor shall any compensation be taken from it, nor shall they be helped." [2:48] On the way to truth, the clergy carry out the function of "highway signs," but they should not be sleeping policemen.

Rituals may not be the criterion, according to which it is possible to distinguish between believers and non-believers. The term 'ibadah (worship) comprises the entirety of worship, and "at its final, supreme stage 'ibadah acquires the meaning of knowledge - ma'rifah."(7) Thus it would be wrong to reduce worship to only ceremonies. If a man said: "There is no god, except for Allah, and Muhammed is His prophet," then he is a believer. Rituals and ceremonies strengthen his belief; but they do not determine it.

Religion is a private matter. At one time religion was a structured church action and a social phenomenon, now religion is becoming a more and more intimate, spiritual and particularly personal affair. People do not like interference in their life and external dictatorship; they prefer a free internal choice. The prophet said: "Truly, religion is easiness, and if anyone overdoes it, he will loose. So keep to the right course, approximate to perfection, rejoice!"

Islam calls for justice, which is impossible without equality between man and woman. Verses of the Qur'an in suras "Women," "Light" and "Companion" provide for inequality of women. They are written in the Medinan period. In that epoch, the Shariat positions concerning the rights of women were the most advanced in the world legislation. But today they look like an anachronism. Turkish theologian, Haidar Bash considered it senseless to discuss an issue of women's rights. "To discuss such problems as women's rights, granting her rights is ridiculous in its very basis, for nobody may grant woman her rights, she receives them by birth. Every person has the right to life, property, honor and dignity by birth."(8) According to the Qur'an, there may be slaves; the Shariat treats them as property equally to a camel. These norms, as well as women's rights, require revision.

The Qur'an admits supremacy of man above woman provided that a man provides safety of a woman and maintains her. [4:34] In countries where women are economically independent, there is no basis for such supremacy. Women required guardianship in medieval society, when hard physical labor fell on men's shoulders. The division of labor according to sex today no longer exists.

Polygamy as well as the limited right of inheritance and the procedure for divorce makes women unequal with men, and justice is impossible without equality. All people are free and equal by birth regardless of sex, race or religion.

The Qur'an verses granted in Mecca were intended for all of mankind for eternity without distinctions between men and women. This is what should become the main principle of the Shariat in the twenty-first century. The more perfect and sound women's rights are the stronger society will be.

Islam is tolerant. According to the Qur'an, there is only one God, but different religions, and distinctions are most obvious in ceremonies. If we do not to take into account the Medinan period ayats, which were written when it was necessary to create an Islamic community in a hostile environment, in all other respects the Qur'an is rather tolerant to all people who do good deeds. It says: "Surely those who believe, and those who are Jews, and the Christians, and the Sabians, whoever believes in Allah and the Last day and does good, they shall have their reward from their Lord, and there is no fear for them, nor shall they grieve." [2:62] To be faithful is preferable to God, but is not a categorical requirement. To do good deeds for people is an unconditional instruction of Allah.

Prophet Muhammed continued monotheistic tradition and inspired respect for followers of other religions. Islam does not claim that divine blessings may belong only to its followers. They are granted to all nations and people without exception, for Allah is gracious and merciful. Therefore Musa Bigiyev declared: "For none of the unfortunate people to be deprived of this boundless mercy and for widely open gates of His boundless mercy not to be closed in front of the people, I declare that all mankind will be saved. He developed the theory of "Absolute Divine mercy," according to which the divine grace embraces all his creations, no matter what religion they adhered to during their lifetime. The Qur'an says: "Our Lord! Thou embracest all things in mercy and knowledge." [40:7] This verse shows that God's mercy embraces not only Muslims, but everybody without exception. Our life is only an instant compared to eternity. And if God subjects non-Muslims, i.e. the majority of mankind, to eternal tortures of his divine anger, then anger will be high above his divine mercy.

At one time in history, all religions were characterized by mutual belligerence: Muslims with a sword in hand created caliphates; Christians of Europe started crusades; Catholics and Protestants were at violent wars with each other. But now swords are sheathed. Today it is important to see in each religion a call for good deeds and mercy. This is what makes mankind ummah. Today it is futile to speak about ijma (consensus) in the framework of Muslim community alone. International norms have become of higher importance than the interests of separate states and communities, so the Shariat must be properly amended as well.

Non-Muslims should not be declared enemies, in the belief that it pleases God. This actually pleases extremists, who have not penetrated deep into the meaning of the Qur'anic verses. God will accept man if he is good. And if he believes, he is especially pleasing to Allah. It says: "Whoever shall do of good deeds and he is a believer, there shall be no denying of his exertions, and surely We will write (It) down for him." [21:94]

Mankind travels from dissociation to unity and solidarity, which is expressed in the creation of universal institutes, international law and universal morals.



In the world, common globalization goes along with Islamic globalization, which gradually spreads both to the East and the West. After September 11 Islamophobia has grown in strength, though terrorism has nothing to do with religion. The world has broken up into Christians, Jews and Muslims creating a gap which may become an abyss. Only new values can now unite this broken world. They can not be purely liberal, as they can not be traditionally Islamic.

Ijtihad brings together the East and the West; it is the very beginning of liberal thinking. If a free individual strives for education and progress in society, this is quite acceptable for both western and Islamic cultures.

Islam was introduced to the world for progress, which saved man from slavery and bondage; it is the very justice, freedom of spirit and aspiration for knowledge. Islam calls for tolerance and condemns violence. It is versatile enough to answer new challenges.


(1) R.N.Musina. Ethnoconfessional processes in the Republic of Tatarstan. - In: Islam and Christianity in the dialogue of cultures on the turn of centuries. Kazan, 2001, p.261-264.

(2) Haydar Bash. Makalat. Islam: secret of formation. - Yaroslavl. DIA-press, 2000, p. 161.

* Square brackets refer to the number of sura and ayat of the Qur'an.

(3) Seid Muhammad Nakyb al-Attas. Introduction to metaphysics of Islam - statement of fundamental elements of Muslim ideology. - M. - Kuala Lumpur, 2001, p.143.

(4) Ibidem, p.37.

(5) Yusuf al-Kardavi. Modern ijtihad:from disorder to order. - "Iman", Kazan, 2001, p.67.

(6) Seid Muhammad Nakyb al-Attas. Introduction to metaphysics of Islam - statement of fundamental elements of Muslim ideology. - M. - Kuala Lumpur, 2001, p.36.

(7) Ibidem, p.70.

(8) Khaidar Bash. Right of woman in Islam. - Kazan, 2001, p.16.


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