Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 16

By Galina M. Yemelianova

In 1789 the enlightened but tough Tsarina Catherine the Great (1729-1796) invented the institution of the Muftyat as a medium of state control of her Muslim subjects. The decision was taken in the aftermath of the Pugachev popular revolt (1773-1775) which almost brought to an end Catherine’s rule. Active participants in the revolt included Muslim Tatars and Bashkirs from the Urals. At the same time, the Muftyat was formed in anticipation of further Russian expansion into the Muslim-populated North Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1943 Stalin created three more Muftyats–one in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, another in Baku, Azerbaijan, and the third in Buynaks, Dagestan. Those three Muftyats were designed to accommodate the largely increased Islamic population of the Soviet empire. At the same time, they were meant to tighten state control over the Soviet Muslims, whom Germany sought to transfer into its fifth column during World War II.

Thus, throughout the Tsarist and Soviet periods, Muftyats proved to be effective tools of control and regulation of the Muslim minority by the authoritarian state. Paradoxically, the collapse of this state in 1991 was not followed by the dismantling of the Muftyats. On the contrary, the existing four Muftyats have been superseded by dozens of new Islamic administrations, headed by younger Muftis. In Russia itself, with a population of 148 million, over forty Muftyats and Islamic Spiritual Boards have emerged, with jurisdiction over about 12 million Russian Muslims. They have challenged the Islamic monopoly of both of Russia’s old Muftyats–the Muftiyat of North Caucasus (the DUMSK, Makhachkala) and Muftiyat of European Russia and Siberia (the DUMES, Ufa). There have been obvious political and financial motives behind such an intensive multiplication of Muftyats in post-Soviet Russia, as in the Muslim regions of the former Soviet Eurasia in general. The collapse of the communist ideology and Communist Party structures has created a fertile breeding ground for the emergence of new leaders claiming to have had no part in collaborating with the Soviet state and the KGB. In the Islamic domain they have been represented by the “young Imams,” who have championed the campaign for democratization, devolution and rejuvenation of the old federal Islamic administrative system.

In some of Russia’s Islamic autonomies, the centrifugal drive of the “young Imams” has been supported by the republican leadership, which has regarded the Muftiyat as an important attribute of their increasing independence from the federal center. An important financial underpinning of the Mufti boom has been the flow of foreign Islamic assistance to Russia’s Muslims which was triggered by the Gorbachev religious liberalization in the late 1980s and which reached its peak in 1991-1992. The foreign Islamic aid, which has been granted under the banner of da’awa (“summon to Islam”), has been targeted at Russia’s Muslim population in the Volga-Urals, the North Caucasus and Central Russia. Its major official benefactor has been King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, who has regularly subsidized an annual hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca and Medina of hundreds of Russia’s Muslims. He has also sponsored dozens of scholarships to those who wanted to study at Islamic universities and colleges in Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Jordan, Syria, Libya, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Malaysia, and subsidized the free distribution of Korans and other Islamic literature in various Islamic communities of Russia. Among other providers of official Islamic assistance have been the University of Imam Muhammad ben Saud, the Islamic Development Bank, the Organization of Islamic Conference, the World Islamic League, the World Association of Islamic Youth and the World Center of Islamic Sciences of Iran.

Unofficial Islamic assistance has been even more impressive. It has been conducted by Kuwait’s Committee of Muslims of Asia, the Iranian World Organization Madaris, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Charities of Taiba and Ibrahim al-Ibraghim, the International Islamic Charities of Ibraghim Hayri, Igatha, Zamzam and the United Arab Emirates’ Islamic Charity Organization Al-Khairya. Along with building and staffing mosques, medresses, Islamic universities and other Islam-related institutions, these funds have heavily invested in the proselytizing conducted by Islamic missionaries and the organizing of various Islamic training camps and courses. At first, in the period of 1988-1990, Mufti Talgat Tadjuddinov of the DUMES and Mufti Mahmud Gekkiev of the DUMSK were the main recipients and subsequent distributors of this lavish foreign Islamic assistance. The corruption which already existed in Islamic administrations intensified in the climate of late- and post-Soviet economic disorder, and there was widespread fraud and mismanagement of the foreign Islamic aid. According to some sources, the Muftis, especially Talgat Tadjuddinov and his close associates, appropriated up to a quarter of the total assistance during that period. Their rapid and easy enrichment created a strong incentive for the “young Imams” to follow suit. The young Tatar Imams, especially the Kazan and Siberian Tatars were the most energetic and adventurous in this respect.

In spite of their striking diversity, Russia’s new Muftis form several identifiable categories. One is made up of those who are ethnically different from the Tatar-dominated majority and are represented by the Muftis of Russia’s North Caucasus, who belong to various ethnic groups of Caucasian, Persian and Turkic origin. The Muftis of the seven North Caucasian republics are Askarbii Khachemizov of Adygea, Akhmed Abdullaev of Dagestan, Muhammad Albagachiev of Ingushetia, Shafig Pshikhachev of Kabardino-Balkaria, Ismail Berdiev of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Djankhot Khekilaev of Northern Ossetia and Akhmed Kadyrov of Chechnya. They emerged in the period between 1989 and 1992, on the wave of “the parade of sovereignties.” To some extent, their appearance was a by-product of political sovereignization rather than the result of a premeditated and organized opposition to Mufti Gekkiev of the DUMSK. Still, the latter did not escape the standard accusations of previous collaboration with the KGB and of moral laxity and corruption. In 1990 he was removed from office and charged with a criminal offence.

Although the new Muftis of the North Caucasus differ from their Soviet predecessors in terms of age and ideology, they have demonstrated a remarkable continuity with them in their political and doctrinal orientation. Most of the new Muftis have been loyal to the existing republican authorities, who are largely inherited from the Soviet times. They have also adhered to traditional, or “ethnic” Islam, which is incompatible with the rapidly advancing Islamic fundamentalism, or Wahhabism. In Dagestan and Chechnya, which have been the epicenter of Wahhabi activity in the region, Dagestani Muftis Abubakarov (assassinated in August 1998) and Abdullaev and Chechen Mufti Kadyrov have consistently supported the official suppression of Wahhabism. The proliferation of Wahhabism, as well as the acute socioeconomic and ethnic problems in each of these seven North Caucasian republics have defined the agenda of the republican Muftyats and curtailed their interest and activity outside their particular republics. Even this restricted activity has been more directed towards regional Islamic co-operation than to pan-Islamic links within Russia. Still, during the first half of the 1990s, the North Caucasian Muftis participated in the newly established all-Russian Islamic organizations, such as the Higher Coordinating Center of Spiritual Boards of Muslims of Russia (the HCC) and the Council of Muftis of Russia (the CMR).

However, during the last two years, this participation has been purely symbolic. In August 1998, all the North Caucasian Muftis withdrew their membership from the HCC and formed a separate Coordinating Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus (the CCMNC), headed by Mufti Albagachiev of Ingushetia. In September 1998, they re-asserted their regionalism by taking part in the 10th Congress of Muslims of the Caucasus in Baku.

The rest of Russia’s Muftis are predominantly Tatars. In terms of status and geography, they can be grouped into three distinct categories. One includes the Muftis of the autonomies of the Volga-Urals, represented by the Muftis of Tatarstan, Bashkorstan, Mordovia, Chuvashia and Udmurtia. Another group is made up of the Muftis of the Russian regions (oblasti) of Astrakhan, Chelyabinsk, Nizhny Novgorod, Orenburg, Penza, Perm, Primorsky krai, the Rostov region and Russia’s South, Samara, Sverdlovsk, Tumen, Ulyanovsk and Volgograd. The third group is composed of the Muftis of the all-Russian and supra-regional level, like the Mufti of All-Russia and the CIS, the Mufti of European Russia, the Mufti of Asian Russia, the Mufti of the Volga region and the Mufti of Siberia and Far East. In fact, these first two groups of Muftyats represent the upgraded former provincial structures (muhtasibats) of the DUMES, Ufa. The Muftyats of the third group are a new invention, with the exception of the Soviet-era DUMES, which in 1994 was renamed the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia and CIS (the TSDUMR). The TSDUMR under the leadership of Supreme Mufti Tadjuddinov has maintained its special status.

In spite of the emergence of many new Muftyats, claiming their fair share of power, Mufti Tadjuddinov has insisted on his monopoly right to administer the Muslims of Central Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. According to the TSDUMR, in 1999, twenty-five smaller Islamic Spiritual Boards and 2,061 (out of a total of 5,786) of Russia’s Islamic communities were under its jurisdiction. However, the monopoly of Talgat Tadjuddinov has crumbled under an intensive attack from the new Tatar Muftis, most notable among whom have been the self-proclaimed Mufti Ravil Gaynutdinov of European Russia, Nafigulla Ashirov of Asian Russia (who, until February 1999, was Mufti of Siberia and Far East) and Mukaddas Birbasov of the Volga region. In the past, all of them had belonged to the inner circle of the Ufa Mufti and they have used their intimate knowledge of Talgat’s financial improprieties, especially related to foreign Islamic assistance, and of his illnesses, to undermine his centralized power and to promote their own ambitions. This anti-Ufa campaign has been joined by two insiders and relatives of Mufti Tadjuddinov–Tatarstan Muftis Gabdulla Galiullin (until February 1998) and Gusman Iskhakov. They have both accused Mufti Tadjuddinov of corruption, of an antidemocratic style of work and of schizophrenia.

The ambitions of the Tatarstan Muftis, who have sought control over all the Tatar Muslims of Russia, have transcended republican borders. They have aspired to transfer the Supreme Islamic administration from Ufa to Kazan. In Moscow in 1992, the young Tatar Imams formed a Higher Coordinating Center of Spiritual Boards of Muslims of Russia (the HCC) as an alternative to the DUMES. It was first headed by Gabdulla Galiullin and later by Mukaddas Bibarsov and Nafigulla Ashirov. However, the activity of the HCC was soon paralyzed by harsh internal rivalry between its creators. This resulted in the emergence in 1996, also in Moscow, of another Islamic supra-structure–the Council of Muftis of Russia (the CMR). The CMR has been chaired by its principal organizer, Mufti Ravil Gaynutdinov.

Since the mid-1990s, Russia’s Tatar Islamic establishment has been influenced by a new actor–the wealthy Tatar entrepreneur, academician Rashid Bayazitov. He has generously sponsored the Islamic renaissance in Siberia and Central Russia; in particular, he has invested in the construction of mosques and medresses in Siberia. In 1994 he fully financed the construction in the Moscow district of Otradnoe of an impressive Islamic Center of Tatar Cultural Heritage–Hilal. Formally, Bayazitov holds the post of chairman of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of Siberia and the Far East, based in Omsk and affiliated to the TSDUMR. The spiritual leaders of this Muftiyat are the Shakirdzyanov brothers. One is the actual Mufti, while the other is the Imam of Novosibirsk. The Muftiyat of Bayazitov and Shakirdzyanov claims jurisdiction over the Muslims of the Novosibirsk, Omsk, Krasnoyarsk, Tumen and Orenburg regions (oblasti) of Russian Siberia. Although Bayazitov is a thoroughly secular person himself, he has gathered around himself an impressive group of highly educated Islamic clergy and specialists in Islamic and Arabic studies. He adheres to the principles of state and religious unitarism, and has defied the secessionism of the “young Imams.” Bayazitov advocates exclusive reliance on Russian material and spiritual sources, and claims to have had no involvement with foreign Islamic funds. He opposes the activities of foreign Islamic missionaries in Russia and their local associates. Bayazitov stresses his neutrality and distances himself from the former Soviet and newly emergent Islamic establishment. In practice, however, he has been close to Talgat Tadjuddinov and is aggressively intolerant of his opponents, particularly Ravil Gaynutdinov, Nafigulla Ashirov and Abdel-Vahid Niazov, the leader of the Islamic Cultural Center (the ICC). They have been persistently attacked for alleged sleaze, corruption and criminal connections. Bayazitov is also involved in Russian politics.

Thus the situation in the higher Islamic circles of post-Soviet Russia has been characterized by the multiplication of Muftyats and the subsequent formation of parallel organizational structures. This process has been accompanied by tough internal rivalries for administrative domination between three or four major centers of power. One, represented by TSDUMR, has remained in Ufa. Since 1980, it has been headed by the Mufti Talgat Tadjuddinov, who combines the titles of Sheikh-ul-Islam and Supreme Mufti and Chairman of the TSDUMR. He perceives all of Russia’s other Muftis as illegitimate and continues to nominate his representatives to the Muslim autonomies, to Russia’s regions, and to Ukraine, Belarus, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Recently there has been a growing rapprochement between Mufti Tadjuddinov and Rashid Bayazitov, in spite of the latter’s criticism of Tadjuddinov’s lack of dynamism, poor administration and corruption. It is likely that the financial resources and political connections of Rashid Bayazitov will strengthen the weakened positions of Talgat Tadjuddinov against the joint forces of the “young Imams” Ravil Gaynutdinov, Nafigulla Ashirov and Gusman Iskhakov.

The second of Russia’s Islamic centers of power is in Moscow. It is represented by the anti-Ufa troika of Mufti Ravil Gaynutdinov of European Russia (DUMTSER), Mufti Nafigulla Ashirov of Asian Russia (since February 1999) and his deputy, and the chairman of the Islamic Cultural Center (the ICC), Abdel-Vahid Niazov. All three seek religious dominance ensuring monopoly access to foreign Islamic funds. However, since the end of 1998, this anti-Ufa alliance has been seriously damaged by the fact that Gaynutdinov has outplayed Ashirov and Niazov.

The third of Russia’s Islamic power centers is in Kazan. It is headed by Tatarstan Mufti Gusman Iskhakov, who was “elected” at the unifying Islamic Congress organized by the Tatarstan authorities in February 1998. With the backing of Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, Mufti Iskhakov has introduced new registration rules for the Islamic communities on the territory of Tatarstan, which has allowed him to impose his jurisdiction over the formerly Ufa-related muhtasibats and Islamic communities. Mufti Gusman has also attempted to position his nominees in various regions of the Volga-Urals–that is, within the borders of the mythological Idel-Ural. It is significant that in spite of the common anti-Ufa orientation of the Tatarstan and Moscow Muftis, the former has distanced himself from the latter. He has not hurried to express his loyalty to Ravil or to reconfirm his membership in the Council of Muftis of Russia.

The parallel existence of various Islamic administrations has contributed to confusion and double-registration at the level of local Islamic communities. As a result, in some places several parallel Spiritual Boards and muhtasibats have emerged. Thus in Tatarstan there are currently four Islamic Spiritual Boards in operation. A similar situation exists in Bashkorstan, where there are three Islamic Spiritual Boards. Furthermore, various Muftyats provide conflicting information on the number of Islamic communities which they administer. For example, Mufti Tadjuddinov claims control over 470 Islamic communities in Tatarstan, while Tatarstan Mufti Iskhakov insists that all 1200 Islamic communities of Tatarstan are registered with his Muftiyat. The situation is further complicated as a result of the introduction by different Muftyats of various Islamic calendars, which has even created confusion among ordinary Muslims about the dates of the major Islamic events.

Russia’s Tatar Muftis vary considerably in their political orientation and the degree of their political engagement. The Ufa Mufti Tadjuddinov has maintained his institutionalized status as the “court” Mufti. Alongside Moscow Orthodox Patriarch Aleksei II, Mufti Tadjuddinov has been integrated within the political establishment of President Boris Yeltsin. Similarly, a special relationship has been forged between Mufti Tadjuddinov and the politically influential businessman Boris Berezovsky. In terms of political orientation, Tadjuddinov has been loyal to the Russian state and has advocated a strong and indivisible Russia. His ally Rashid Bayazitov has demonstrated consistent sympathy towards the Russian military and patriotic leadership. Bayazitov has established relations with Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed and nationalist politician Sergei Baburin, and in 1994 he formed a patriotic political party Za derzhavu (“For the Great State”). It is perhaps significant that the executive director of the Hilal fund, Rifat Osmanov, is a captain in the Russian army who, as a graduate of the Moscow Institute of Military Interpreters, has had extensive war experience in the Middle East.

The Moscow Mufti, Gaynutdinov, has established his own special relationship with Yuri Luzhkov, the powerful Moscow mayor and potential candidate for the Russian presidency. Luzhkov’s political and financial assistance has enhanced Gaynutdinov’s ambitions to turn Moscow into the Islamic center of Russia. As already noted, the Kazan Mufti, Gusman Iskhakov, has relied on the support of Tatarstan President Shaimiev, an important factor in which has been the considerable influence of Gusman’s mother, Rashida Abystay, over Sakine Shaimiev, the wife of President Shaimiev. As for Mufti Ashirov of Asian Russia and his associate from the Islamic Cultural Center, Abdel-Vahid Niazov: They have been less selective in their political alliances, which have been directly related to anticipated political and financial gains. They have been collaborating with the leader of the All-Russian Union of Muslims (the RUM), Nadirshah Khachilaev, who since 1998 has been the target of state persecution for political extremism. Ashirov and Niazov have supported Khachilaev’s efforts to organize an Islamic political party, Jamaat, which would promote Dagestan’s secession from Russia. They have developed links with foreign Islamists from the Rifah Party of Turkey, the Islamic movement in Yemen, the Islamic Renaissance Party and Khamas in Algeria and the Djamaat Polami Party in Pakistan. They have also been known for their unauthorized use of the names of some high-ranking Russian and foreign politicians for their own purposes. It is symptomatic that the governments of many Arab states have recently taken the decision to curtail any contacts with Ashirov and Niazov. According to some informants, Ashirov and Niazov have been involved with the Tumen and Uralmash criminal groupings.

The evidence suggests that Russia’s new Muftis can be seen as Islamic versions of a characteristic post-Soviet phenomenon–namely, the rise of the “New Russians.” Both have exploited the break-up of the Soviet system for their personal political and economic advantage. In doing so they have been aloof from the interests of the state and society, which they have exploited rhetorically only for populist reasons. The Mufti boom in Russia has occurred in isolation from the grassroots Islamic communities. Village Imams, who constitute about ninety per cent of the Muslim clergy in Russia, have deplored the lack of attention and practical help, and the absence of spiritual guidance, from the Muftyats. That is why the Muftis have been viewed from below as self-obsessed, over-materialistic, corrupt and theologically incompetent.

Dr. Galina Yemelianova is a Research Fellow at CREES (Center for Russian and East European Studies), The University of Birmingham, UK.