Thursday, June 6, 2013

Window on Eurasia: Tatar Scholar’s Call for Islamic Reformation Sparks Sharp Debate in Kazan

Paul Goble

            Staunton, June 6 – Rafael Khakimov, the director of the Kazan Institute of History and the former advisor to the first president of Tatarstan, has renewed his call for an Islamic reformation in order to overcome the backwardness of Muslim societies, an appeal that has set off a sharp debate in that Middle Volga republic.

            Khakimov, who has attracted international attention and acclaim for his studies on federalism, advanced his arguments on this subject a decade ago in a pamphlet entitled “Where is Our Mecca?” Now, he has renewed them in an article entitled “Where Is Our Mecca? Version 2.0” in Kazan’s “Business-Gazeta” (

            And this new article has opened a public discussion just as intense as his earlier work, with some finding his arguments convincing and others rejecting his entire scheme, suggesting that Khakimov does not understand Islam and how different it is from other faiths. (See, in particular, Ilshat Saetov’s “open letter” attacking him in

            But however this debate plays out in Kazan, Khakimov raises a number of points which are likely to resonate with many Muslims, especially in the Middle Volga, and consequently, his argument deserves close attention as a bellwether of one potentially important direction within Islam in the Russian Federation and more generally.

            According to Khakimov, what has taken place in the Russian Federation since 1991 has not been the rebirth of religious faith among Muslims but rather the revival of clericalism, a phenomenon that he suggests has “not contributed anything” to the culture of humanity and instead has been “a break” on social development.

            Tatar “clericals” in the 19th century, for example, who were known as the kadimists, are now remembered as informers, who denounced to the tsarist authorities those who sought a more independent path. Unfortunately, the historian says, “contemporary Tatar clericals” behave in much the same way.

            The Soviet system, of course, harshly suppressed “servants of the cult, but they have appeared again. Does that mean that they are required?” Not really, Khakimov says, but many like rituals as a way of coping with the individualization that modernity produces, and those are something the clericals do provide. But they do not give meaning or values to life.

             Perestroika destroyed the Soviet-era rituals, but “neither the market nor democracy could serve as an ideology; therefore people returned to the older religions. We did not return to the faith from atheism but rather returned from a new [humanistic] faith to a former [religious] one.” Those who had “fallen away” from communism became Orthodox, Muslims or even pagans.

            But they did not recover their faith; they simply restored the rituals of the past, something the clericals of all these religions were happy to supply.  Those who had studied “in backward Muslim countries” became the mullahs and muftis, and they insisted on returning the practice of Islam to its Arabic roots both linguistically and historically.

            In other words, Khakimov says, “we voluntarily turned ourselves back to the Middle Ages. This is not a metaphor” as the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam was developed in eighth century Baghdad. And it was possible because the Soviet system had not succeeded in driving out the medieval nature of its own quasi-religious practice.

            Most people think that “socialism lost a historical competition to capitalism. But this is not entirely so. It would be more correct to say that to a large extent, socialism lost to the Middle Ages. Instead of reforming old relations, socialism created a new religion and new clerical communists, having driven society from the main path into a dead end.”

            To overcome this medievalism, Muslims and others must struggle with clericalism and must seek to follow the path that Protestantism pioneered by insisting that work is something favored by God.  “In Europe,” Khakimov points out, “the war with clericalism was bloody” but ultimately affected Catholicism at least in part.

            “If one looks at the level of development of countries by their predominant religious affiliation, then in first place are Puritan America, Lutheran Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Scandinavia, Calvinist Switzerland, and Anglican Great Britain,” the Kazan historian suggests.

            “The Catholic countries – Italy, Spain, Portugal, and all of Latin America – are in recession. [And] the Orthodox countries – Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia and Bulgaria – follow after the Catholic ones.”  But “among all the countries of the world, the most backward are the Islamic.”

            Fortunately, the Muslims of Tatarstan have a way forward – Jadidism or “reformed Islam.” Khakimov notes that “some compare it with Protestantism,” but there is a major difference: Unlike the early Protestants, the Jadids were characterized by “the complete lack of radicalism, tolerance for other confessions and a passion for knowledge.”

            The Muslim clergy in Tatarstan, however, have no interest in reviving this tradition. On the one hand, “they studied in Arab countries.” And on the other hand, “any reformation would deprive them of a significant portion of their power.” That is why they are so obsessed with the Arabic language and insist on using it rather than Tatar or any other vernacular one.

            The imams need this “alien language” in order to present the faith as full of mysteries and themselves as full of knowledge so that they can “more easily manipulate” their flocks.  That parallels the ways that the Catholics used Latin in the past and those that the Orthodox use Old Church Slavonic even now.
            “It is no accident that Luther began the Reformation with a translation of the Bible into German so that the Holy Write would become understandable to simple people and the need for translators would fall away.” And that is why the contemporary mullahs and muftis of the Muslim clergy do the same, Khakimov says.

            Ten years ago, the Kazan scholar notes in conclusion, he published his brochure “Where is Our Mecca?” about Euro-Islam.  Despite the criticism that essay attracted, Khakimov continues, it is nonetheless true that “from a historical point of view, Islam is at the beginning of a reformation.”

            For Tatars, he suggests, “there is no other path besides a rapprochement with Europe.”  And that means that today even more than a decade ago, the time has come for Euro-Islam,” for a living Muslim faith rather than a dead ritual and for a Koran in the language of the people living today rather than in the language of people who lived 14 centuries in the past.

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