Staunton, July 19 – The mosques of Tatarstan will from now on use only Tatar for Friday services, according to the republic’s mufti, Kamil Samigulin, who said that he was taking this step to protect and promote that Middle Volga republic’s national language and that Muslims there who do not know Tatar will be helped to learn it.
In announcing this step, Samigulin said that it would affect only services on Friday. On other days, they can be in Russian or other languages. But it is critically important, he suggested, that the Friday services, the most important in the Muslim weekly calendar, be in Tatar (info-islam.ru/publ/jandeks_novosti/muftij_tatarstana_v_mechetjakh_respubliki_budut_propovedovat_tolko_na_tatarskom_jazyke/35-1-0-40608).
The Muslim Tatars must save their language, the mufti continued, because “if a native langue disappears, religion too will disappear.” Muslim theologians have pointed out that “there are three things which are not prescriptions of Islam but which help preserve religion: customs, language and national dress.”
Because Tatarstan has so often been a bellwether for the direction in which other Muslim republics within the Russian Federation have proceeded, it is entirely possible that Samigulin’s decision will be adopted by Muslim Spiritual Directorates (MSD) in far more places. And to the extent that happens, it will have three potentially serious consequences.
First, it will reinforce the relationship between Islam and those nations which have traditionally followed it, with the faith strengthening the nation and the nation the faith, and making it far more difficult for the Russian authorities to monitor and control what is going on within the mosques and within the nations as well.
Second, by promoting the spread of national languages at the expense of Russian, Samigulin’s decision will limit both contacts among Muslims of various nationalities and the spread of Islam to ethnic Russians and Russian speakers, two developments Moscow may in fact welcome.
And third – and this is the most intriguing – by promoting the use of local languages, this move will allow ever more Muslims in Russia to read the Koran and other Islamic holy writings in their national languages, a development that many see as a precondition for a reformation in Islam just as the translation of the Bible from the Vulgate Latin did in Western Christianity.
The history of the use of national languages in mosques in Russia is a complicated one. In pre-Soviet times, many of the services were conducted in Arabic, a language that few parishioners knew. In Soviet times, Tatar was widely used in mosques outside of Tatarstan, including in Moscow, even when it was being replaced by Russian in that republic.
Then, at the end of Soviet times and in the 1990s, as the ethnicity of Muslims in Moscow and other Russian cities shifted from being overwhelmingly Tatar to a mix including vastly greater numbers of Muslims from the North Caucasus and Central Asia who did not know Tatar, services in the mosques of these cities shifted to Russian.
That shift, welcomed by some Russians, however, backfired as far as the Russian state was concerned. It had the effect of making Islam far more accessible and attractive to people, including ethnic Russians, some of whom converted. And it has promoted a common Muslim identity over individual ethnic ones.
Because Samigulin’s decision cuts both ways with Russian state interests, it will be interesting to see how Moscow reacts both in Tatarstan and in other Muslim republics now within the borders of the Russian Federation.