“Our faith lives in our blood and in our bones… The term faith is the powerful word. It is the word of positivity. It is nothing but the trust or confidence that is being kept on a person or god or some cause. It can be religious aspect too. One can find out his level of confidence or faith in the interested area. One can strip a man of his clothes but not of a faith practised for over one thousand years”, says Gousman Iskhakov, the mufti of Tatarstan.

 After living for three generations under the Soviet regime, where practising any religion was actively discouraged by the ruling regime, and much theological knowledge was lost, today, with the new freedoms in place “ many people are taking an interest in Islam, the mufti confirmed.

This rebirth of Islam  is obvious in Tatarstan, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation, where half  the population are Tatars, a muslim people since the 10th century . In 1990, at the time of  perestroika, there was only one mosque left in Kazan. Today there are more than fifty, and another large one, “Kol Cherif”, is being built inside the walls of the Kremlin,

At any time of political upheaval, the social and religious movements either take a back seat or become a bone of contention. It was the same during the times of perestroika in the Soviet Union. The number of mosques in Kazan was one. Now there are many mosques and they are all well attended. Thousands of pupils learn the basic tenets of Islam. If you are interested then, click over here.

It seems that everywhere, in the mosques and in the madrassas (traditional religious schools), thousands of tatars learn anew the basic points of Islam. The madrassa Mohammedia, one of the six Islamic learning centres in Kazan, has several hundred pupils.

A striking diversity of people

Muslim burial

What is striking is the diversity of the people who rediscover Islam in this madrassa: Fayz, born in 1947, is a central heating technician;  Salim, in his 40s and from Kazakhstan, works at the religious affairs department; Azat, about 70, was a  biology teacher; Nadir, born in 1953, is a theatre stage manager in Oudmourtie; Yasmina, born in 1961, is a woman foreman in a building company; Elfia, 62, is a librarian; Gulnaz, born in 1981, has opened a workshop on Islamic fashion in her village where young women cut and sew dresses dhe designs using Turkish fashion magazines at her inspiration.

Many mosques hold informal lectures, like the Nurullah mosque in Kazan, where Rachida Hanum, the mufti’s mother, teaches women considered too old to attend a madrassa or the islamic university. Once a week these women — mosttly aged 60 and  above — go to the mosque to study with Rachida Hanum and to pray.  At 77, Rachida Hanum displays an uncommon energy and provides living proof of the resistance of Muslims during the period of triumphant atheism that began with Staline.

Friday prayer, Kazan

Almost all the Tatars who returned to Islam tell the same story:  they have just resumed practising a religion they never gave up entirely. Many people say Islam was preserved in the country side, but according to Rafik Moukhametshin, director of the Islamic Research Center of Kazan,  “there were only 18 communities (mahalla) at the district level left in all Tatarstan, in 1989, which were still practising a very primitive form of Islam. They celebrated the muslim wedding (nikah) with somebody playing the part of a mullah, although immediately after his departure, bottles of vodka were consumed, as in the Russian tradition. Burials were conducted in the Muslim cemetery, where an old man would say the prayer of the dead (fatiha)”, adds Rafik Moukhametshin.

I was a Communist, but…

Some,though not many, admit they were members of the Communist Party. Rosa Tufitulova, deputy of the parliament of Tatarstan, and chairwoman of the association of “White Heads”, an group which aims to defend the traditions and culture of Tatar women, is one of the rare few to admit that people could not openly display their faith with impunity: “Yes”, she says frankly, “I was a Communist, but I believed in Allah. In my heart there was no conflict between Islam and Communism… it was not our fault, it is our bad luck; it is the way I was educated: I sincerely believed in communism”.

Rosa Tufitulova says there was no unpleasant consequence for those who chose to practise their religion in Soviet Russia but then contradicts herself when recounting a personal event which took place in 1978. As the editor of a youth magazine, she was selected to join a delegation to Germany. During this visit, she entered a mosque in Bremen, where she said prayers. The astonished chief of the delegation told her he would write a report on the incident when they returned to Kazan. “But he was a nice man, and finally he did not say anything”, Rosa Tufitulova confides. “I was fortunate”, she adds, “because if he had written a report, I would have lost my job and my career would have been over”.

In a village, a few dozen kilometers from Kazan, Rawil has been a member of the Communist Party since his military service and party secretary in his kolkhoze (communal farm) since the late  1980s. Today he attends the lectures of the madrassa Mohammedia and often deputizes for his imam. Asked about the consequences of  religious observance during the Soviet period, he is guarded in his response, saying: “After the Revolution, we were afraid to pray.  We could not fight the State”.  Asked if he believed in communism when he joined the Party, he answers: “Yes, everybody believed in it”. And he adds ingenuously: “When Socialism came, we believed it would be better. When perestroika came, we believed it would be better. It is the State that decides”.  Listening to his answers, one is forced to wonder how fmuch Rawil’s new found devotion to Islam is rooted in the current dominant ideology and whether this former apparatchik has simply adopted the ideology that carries the biggest expectations…

A popular trend

To practise Islam today, in Kazan and in the countryside of Tatarstan, it is a guaranteed way to become part of a popular trend that mixes the rebirth of Tatar nationalism and the rebirth of Islam.  Followers include disparate groups of educated people as well as ordinary people in search of spirituality. However, this trend does not represent the majority. Indeed a majority of any kind would be difficult ti pinpoint. The difficulty of defining a Tatar identity is borne out by official statistics, which confirm that the four million inhabitants of Tatarstan are equally divided between Russians and Tatars. However, of the 2 million people officially classed as Tatars a considerable number are the children of mixed marriages between the two sections of the community.

Previously uncommon, during the 1960s and 1970s many weddings took place between Russians and Tatars and such unions continue to be popular. During the Soviet period, the problem of nationality and religion did not arise for the “homo sovieticus”. But today, the children of these “mixed” families “are stranded in between”, as a schoolteacher at a Tatar language school explains: “They are neither Russians, nor Tatars, they have no nationality”.

According to a survey made last year among 1.500 young Tatars under 30, 80 % of the young people say that they consider themselves Muslim. But only 5 % claim to “know and respect” the religion. When asked  why they consider themselves mMuslim, the remaining 95 % who do not practise Islam say they are Muslim “because it is the religion of our ancestors”.

“They know the rules of Islam, but they don’t respect them”, explains Rafik Moukhametshin, director of the Islamic research Center of Kazan: “They say: we will do it when we get old”.

The attitude of a society that spent several dozen years listening to anti-religious propaganda also contributes to keep many people away from the mosques. Fayz, a man in his fifties who follows the lectures of the Mohammedia madrassa, says the biggest obstacle he met on his way back to Islam was not learning the Arabic alphabet, or memorizing the verses of the Koran: “The most difficult thing for me was the attitude of my neighbours. I live in a district which used to be totally Russian; there was no mosque here until we built one six years ago. The first time I went to the mosque, my neighbours made fun of me, saying,“So, you have become a mullah. You want to separate from us”. And It was mostly Tatars who were saying such things”.

In spite of its weaknesses, including the fact it involves mainly relatively old people, the rebirth of Islam in Tatarstan, in the heart of Russia, is viewed as important enough  to justify the concern of the authorities who have multiplied the initiatives to supervise and control it.

 President Chamiyev has set up a “Council for Religious Affairs”, chaired by Rinat Nabiev, a historian, who is directly answerable to the Cabinet of Ministers of Tatarstan. A “ Muslim Religious Board” is run by the mufti Gousman Iskhakov, who was elected by the Muslims of Tatarstan. 

The leaders of Tatarstan continually display their intention to acknowledge the rebirth of the two main religions of Tatarstan — Orthodoxy and Islam — and to deal with them both on an equal footing.

Rinat Nabiev repeatedly underlined President Chamiyev’s will to implement a “balanced policy” between the two religions, and the fact that “all religions are equal in the eyes of the law”. Claiming that “Islam in Tatarstan is  a tolerant Islam”, Rinat Nabiev adds that “presently there is no conflict” between the two congregations, “although the relations have not always been simple”. It is an understatement: the rebirth of Islam after 1990 produced many uncontrolled currents.

Due to the lack of local qualified religious cadres, the Muslims of Tatarstan brought in Arab and Turkish mullahs and professors who imported with them various trends from around the Muslim world: the Tabligh, the Noursi, the Qadiri, the Naqshbandi and the Ahmadia as well as more extreme trends advocating the Djihad.

The propagation, in some madrassas, like the madrassa “Youldouz”, and in mosques like the “Bulgar Mosque”, of an Islamist teaching considered to be “fundamentalist”, and the capture in Chechenia of fighters who had graduated from the Kazan madrassas, alarmed the authorities who reacted by expelling a number of Arab religious cadres and decided to closely supervise the training of their muslim religious cadres.

No interest in religious fanaticism

“We suffer from a lack of qualified personnel… The solution of the problem of religious teaching will decide the fate of Islam, not only here in Tatarstan, but in Russia in general”, says a colleague of Rinat Nabiev at the “Council for Religious Affairs”. “The problem of cadres is the most painful for us”, adds the mufti Gousman Iskhakov, “We cannot restore in seven years what has been forgotten during 70 years…70 % of our imams are old; we are working to replace these old imams but to avoid fanaticism, we need  good teachers”.

Along with the “madrassas”, which must register with the mufti to be allowed to function, in 1998 the authorities in Kazan created  a Russian Islamic University. Construction of the facility  was financed by the Islamic Bank (340.000 dollars) and by the Republic of Tatarstan (250.000 dollars).

The aim of this university, explained Suleiman Garifovich Zaripov, its deputy rector, is to prevent young Tatars and Russian Muslims from going abroad, by providing them with experienced and talented teachers at home. The university presently trains 140 students annually within the framework of a four-year course. This year should see the graduation of its first batch of graduates.

 Out of the 20 professors who teach at the Islamic University, 8 are full-tilme staff. The university also provides a preparatory two years course for students who do not speak or read Arabic and who, upon graduation from this preparatory course, can be appointed as imams in village or small town mosques.

Apparently, the system is perfectly structured. But will it prevent the incubation of a radical current? “There is no problem of fundamentalism in Tatarstan”, observes Raphael Khakimov, President Chamiyev’s State adviser on political affairs.

 “Here, we produce planes, helicopters, very high-tech electronic goods; we have schools of technology, modern institutes of learning and a rich theological heritagebut we have no interest in the religious fanaticism displayed in some parts of the Middle East. What possible interest could we have for this culture? Here, we cannot be simple Muslims because if the worker who goes to his factory stops work to pray five times a day, we will loose out to the competition… Our motto is to be closer to Europe. We are not afraid of any incubation of  Muslim radicalism… But we are keeping an eye on it”.

(The Middle East magazine, June 2002; Al Wasat, March 2002; Internazionale, 3 Maggio 2002)