Traditional Islam Does Not Mean What Moscow Thinks It Does

By Paul Goble
Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian government, the Russian Orthodox Church, and most leaders of Russia’s Muslim community have said that “traditional Islam” must be the dominant form of the Islamic faith in the Russian Federation. Although few define it, an examination of their statements makes clear that what the advocates of this kind of Islam have in mind mostly resembles what existed in Soviet times: an Islam largely confined to the mosque and to rituals and one that plays only the smallest role in public life.
But now Ildar Bayazitov, a mullah in Tatarstan, has taken up the challenge of using that term but giving it a very different meaning than the one many in Moscow would like. Writing in “Tatar Zamany” last week, Bayazitov notes that “traditional Islam” is today “one of the most discussed terms” among Russia’s Muslims, many of whom consider it to be some kind of “innovation”—one of the most damning words in the Islamic vocabulary (
According to the Tatar mullah, “traditional Islam is Prophetic Islam,” and the term itself had to be introduced in Russia relatively recently because there have appeared so many “sects and pseudo-Islamic doctrines” which have sought to use Sunni Islam for their own purposes. It does not mean “ethnic Islam”; indeed, that combination of words should not be used. Moreover, he says, “traditional Islam is scientific and enlightened Islam,” always contemporary and always involved with the most advanced educational and scientific work. It is thus “a stimulus for development.” And “traditional Islam is social Islam,” invariably involved in the public sphere. “As never before,” Bayazitov writes, “social work has great importance,” including charity work, “the resolution of social problems, and the social integration of Muslims in the societies where they live.”
“It is obvious,” he continues, “that Muslims also must make a significant contribution to the resolution of social problems that have arisen in the country. For that reason too, social service is the obligation of each Muslim, from the ordinary member of a congregation to the imams and members of the ulema.”
Bayazitov concludes that “as we understand the term, ‘traditional Islam’ is the quintessence of the entire meaning of Islam, its letter and its spirit. It defines the tradition of following the Koran and the sunna as the foundation of the life of Muslims, the recognition of local conditions and culture, which do not contradict Islam, the resolution of social problems and the active participation in contemporary achievements such as the development of science, industry, economics and art.”

What “traditional Islam”—as Bayazitov defines it—clearly does not include is a requirement to reduce the faith to a matter of ritual within the walls of the mosque. That poses a serious challenge both to the leadership of the Muslim Spiritual Directorates that the Russian government hopes will control the country’s Muslims as well as to Moscow itself. Indeed, Bayazitov’s article may have the effect of forcing the central authorities to define their terms, making clear to all that what they understand by Islam does not necessarily reflect the understanding of the Muslim faithful.