Sunday, November 12, 2017

Russia’s Muslims Must Break Out of ‘Unnatural and Unscientific Dichotomy of ‘Traditional’ and ‘Non-Traditional’ Islam, Mukhetdinov Says

Paul Goble

            Staunton, November 13 – Russia’s Muslims cannot develop without a reformation of Islamic discourse which unfortunately today remains “in the clutches of an unnatural and unscientific dichotomy of ‘traditional’ and ‘untraditional’ Islam, according to Damir Mukhetdinov, the first deputy head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Russia.

            Speaking at a conference at Kazan Federal University on “Islam in a Multi-Cultural World” timed to coincide with the opening of the Bolgar Islamic Academy, the prominent Muslim modernist calls for “a democratization of discussions and the rejection of the term ‘traditional Islam’” (

            “Such crude generalizations not only do not reflect all the complexity and diversity of the Islamic intellectual and theological landscape, but they lead us away from an understanding of the essence of problems and the paths of their resolution,” Mukhetdinov says. Indeed, the term “’traditional Islam’” backed by the authorities serves as “an instrument of pressure” on Muslims.

            According to the mufti, the notion of some “’Islamic gold standard’ is nothing more than an illusion. The Islamic world has developed via many paradigms” and now “under conditions of a pluralism of opinions,” the way is open for “various interpretations of the postulates” of the faith, including those some think cannot be questioned.

            What is needed, Mukhetdinov says, is the development of “a new methodology and a new conceptual framework for making sense of the Islamic tradition and the construction of Islamic spheres of knowledge. Even the classical division of spheres of knowledge … may be considered out of date.”

            The modern and post-modern era puts before Muslims challenges very different than those which the Jadids addressed a century ago and indeed may lead to “the second formative period of Islamic thought” (the first being in the seventh to tenth centuries of the common era), he continues.

            This won’t be easy because it will be necessary to work out a new interrelationship between the classical Islamic tradition and the recent developments of academic Islamic studies. But it is critical that happens, the mufti says, because the latter all too often until recently was “consciously or unconsciously” dominated by the response to the experience of being colonized.

            “In the last half century,” Mukhetdinov argues, “the situation has changed in a significant way, as a result of the entrance of a new generation of researchers who combine both Western and Islamic traditions.” To date, Islam has been the recipient of this cooperation; with a change in attitude, it can become a contributor.

            Mukhetdinov’s words may seem precious or marginal, but in fact, they constitute a declaration equivalent to the ones the Jadids made more than a century ago when they too called for the modernization of Islam and Islamic education.  Indeed, his call may be even more important.

            That is because his program represents not only a challenge to the Muslim umma within Russia but to the Russian state which wants to keep Islam within the mosque under the guise that that is what “traditional” – read in this case, Soviet-defined – Islam is all about. And even more it represents an effort by a Russian mufti to reclaim for Russia a leading role in the Muslim world.

            Resistance from many Muslims and from the Russian state is certain to be intense, but Mukhetdinov’s argument represent a kind of Protestantism within Islam that is likely to be far more attractive than its opponents suspect, especially at a time when the only alternative to “traditional” Islam on offer is Islamist radicalism.

            And while the mufti does not make this point, it is entirely possible that he sees what he is calling for as representing the golden mean that is highly valued among Muslims between the traditionalists who are losing support and the radicals who are a threat not only to the Russian umma but to the Russian state. 

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