It has become common practice for the authorities to hold large international Islamic conferences in Chechnya. The latest such conference took place on August 25–27, 2016, in Grozny. Over 100 religious leaders from 30 countries took part in the gathering, including Jordan, Qatar, Morocco, Egypt, Kuwait, Uzbekistan, India, South Africa and Azerbaijan. Notably, however, a delegation from Turkey was absent from the conference. Particularly prominent figures among the participants included the grand imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb; the grand mufti of Egypt, Shawki Ibrahim Abdel-Karim Allam; and the president of al-Azhar University, Dr. Ibrahim Salah Al Hudhud (TASS, August 25). The theme of the August conference was “The followers of Sunnah—who are they? Explanations and descriptions of the way of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah from the viewpoint of creed, Islamic law and Sufism. The effect of deviation from this path on the present reality” (Kavkaz.mk.ru, August 27). But both the hosts and the guests understood that the main topic of the proceedings would be about condemning Salafism. Indeed, this is the main topic of all conferences held in Grozny.
The primary objective of the conference, according to its organizers, was to provide a theological justification from the Sufi point of view for rejecting the Salafists’ claim that they belong to the way of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah (the People of the Sunnah and the Jamaat) (Onkavkaz.com, August 26). By involving world-renowned Islamic scholars into the discussion, the Chechen authorities tried to attack the Salafists’ claim to being the true followers of Islam. The Salafists’ formula automatically renders all others who do not belong to Salafism apostates and infidels. And by allowing the Salafists for years to call themselves the sole followers of the way of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah, the Sufis implicitly agreed that they themselves are “apostates” who deviated from the “true way.” Hence, it is not surprising that the adversaries of Salafism have decided to strip the Salafists of the privilege of saying they alone are traveling on the way of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah by calling all others apostates.
Salafists practically do not refer to or use madhhab, which is a school of thought within fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence). Within Sunni Islam, there are four main jurisprudence schools. Critics have launched their offensive against the Salafists based on the latter’s disregard for this established Muslim jurisprudence. The argument is that by staying outside a particular madhhab, the Salafists in fact stand outside the way of Ahl al-Sunnah wal-Jama’ah (Islamobr.ru, August 27). It is safe to assume that Salafists’ disregard for the main Islamic jurisprudence schools will now be used in the future to challenge Salafist preachers in Russia. The conference in Grozny adopted a special document that was translated into Arabic. The document specifies that Ashari and Maturidi Schools of Islamic thought, four madhhabs, and Sufi tariqas (schools or orders) belong to the true Sunni; the document refers to Wahhabis and others as “misguided.” The Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb ut-Tahrir, the Islamic State and others also ended up in this latter category (Islam.in.ua, August 31).
The fact that 1,400 years since the founding of Islam Muslims still argue about who is on the true path or who is on the way to Sunnah indicates how multiple Islamic groups have distorted the essence of this faith. In the past, many such movements replaced the basic foundations of Islam with their own misanthropic views (Chechnyatoday.com, August 28). This process is quite important for the North Caucasus along with other regions of the world. North Caucasians are fighting in the ranks of the Islamic State, in Syria and Iraq. In this regard, however, the conference did not make many advances. Islamic theologians are divided on the issues of whom to actually consider a radical and what to do about such an individual.
The conference participants tried to indicate their support for what in Russia is considered “traditional” Islam—that is, the type of Islam that Russians accept. The conference specifically recommended that Russia’s Muslim clerics should be trained at al-Azhar University in Egypt. The authorities also plan to open an Islamic science center called Tabsyr (Explanations), in Grozny, which would fight extremist ideas. Finally, the conference recommended that all Muslims in Russia refer to the teachings of the grand imam of al-Azhar in Egypt, Ahmed Muhammad Ahmed el-Tayeb. It appears that Moscow regards this figure as one of the most authoritative voices in the modern Islamic world (Dumchr.ru, August 27).
Yet, the conference in Grozny left out several important Muslim leaders of Russia. The heads of the two largest Muslim associations—Ravil Gainutdin, the chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, and Talgat Tajudin, who serves as the mufti of the Central Spiritual Directorate of Muslims of Russia—did not attend the conference, although they both dispatched their representatives. Apparently, Chechen officials did not consult with other Russian Muslim leaders when organizing the conference in Grozny, and the latter decided not to participate in the event (Onkavkaz.com, August 31).
The August 2016 conference notably passed a resolution condemning Salafists, and the Russian government will almost certainly use that resolution to attack members of this group. However, the Salafists do not recognize the authority of any of the individuals who actually attended the Grozny conference; as such, Salafists will ignore all the decision taken there. Thus, the dispute within Sunni Islam will continue to drag on for a long time to come. Even one of the most moderate Islamic scholars, the General Secretary of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Ali al-Qaradaghi, spoke against the resolution passed at the conference. Well-known Moroccan scholar Hassan Dadu harshly criticized the conference in Grozny, as well. And the chairman of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Moscow, Ildar Alyautdinov, expressed doubts that the resolution would help unite even the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia (Kavkazsky Uzel, September 3). In the end, the conference succeeded in carrying out Moscow’s wish to denounce Salafists, but it will have no impact on the Salafists themselves.