By Paul Goble
While Moscow commentators have been talking about the possibility, Muslims in several regions of the Russian Federation have begun to restore waqfs, the Islamic arrangement in which income from specific properties is assigned to mosques and medrassahs, thus freeing them from dependence on contributions or official assistance.
Over the last three years, after “NG-Religii” published a discussion of the tradition of waqf properties in Russian history, various Muslim leaders and republic officials have tried to revive them, even though at the present time, there is no clear basis for their legal existence. Indeed, at least in its classical form, waqf property remains banned in Russia.
But a new article by M.Sh. Aydagulov, the economic advisor to the chairman of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Nizhny Novgorod, not only discusses the legal twists and turns that those promoting the restoration of waqfs have followed but also describes places where waqfs are active in today’s Russia (www.islamrf.ru/news/analytics/islamic_finance/15128/).
Entitling his article “Russian Waqfs: From Discussion to Creation,” Aydagulov points out that “waqfs already exist in contemporary Russia” and that more are being planned, including in his own city of Nizhny. In highland Daghestan, for example, V.O. Bobrovnikov has traced their emergence in great detail.
According to Bobrovnikov, “in dozens of collective farms in the mountainous and foothill regions [of Daghestan], rural administrations (not always publically) have returned to the mosques a large part of the private fields and gardens (waqfs) which were attached to them prior to collectivization.”
“In spite of Russian and republic laws,” the Moscow scholar says, “the pre-revolutionary lists of waqfs … have received legal recognition … The public opinion of the population follows events there in order that the new owners of the mosque lands contribute to the account of the mosque a specific part of the harvest.”
A broader effort to restore waqf property and to provide it with a legal foundation has been pursued in Tatarstan over the last 13 years, Aydagulov says. In 1998, the MSD there created the position of “chairman of the waqfs” as one of the first deputy muftis, and in 1999, the republic passed a law legitimating the restoration of such property.
Because the Russian civil code “does not have such a term as ‘waqf property,’” the Nizhny expert continues, the Tatars sought to get around this by describing the waqfs as the property of the mosques. “In this way, waqfs exist de facto there,” he says, a development that has prompted Tatar and other officials to try to square the law with reality.
As Vladimir Putin worked to ensure that there was a common legal space in the Russian Federation, this effort became more urgent. In March 2008, Tatarstan Mufti Gusman-khazrat Iskhakov wrote to Dmitry Medvedev who was then the first vice prime minister of the Russian Federation about this.
Iskhakov said that Moscow would do well to change the law so that waqfs could be legal because the income from such property arrangements “would permit Islamic organizations to become independent of foreign sponsors who was seeking to impose on Russian Muslims an alien ideology.”
In support of this appeal, the State Council of Tatarstan called for the Duma to revise Russian law so as to include the concept of waqfs, making much the same argument that these institutions would keep the mosques and other Muslim organizations from falling under foreign influence. The Duma has not yet acted on that request.
But as opponents of this idea noted, the legalization of waqfs would have at least two negative consequences from the point of view of the Russian state. On the one hand, such institutions if they became widespread would have the effect of making the mosques and medressahs supported by them more independent of the MSDs and hence of the state.
And on the other, the legalization of waqfs could lead Muslims to seek restitution of waqf lands under the terms of legislation, pushed by the Russian Orthodox Church, that calls for the restitution of church property seized by the Bolsheviks. While a waqf can be any form of physical property, it is often land – and before 1917, Russia’s waqfs covered an enormous area.
Some Russian experts on Islam, including Leonid Syukiyaynen, argue that waqfs could be effectively legalized by defining them as charitable foundations. That would solve many legal problems, but it could raise others, including that these institutions could be closed down at any time and the danger that control of such income would pass into the wrong hands.
Despite Moscow’s resistance, many Muslim communities across the Russian Federation are pressing for the restoration of waqfs, especially to support medrassahs and other Islamic educational institutions. A driving force behind that may be that funding from abroad for such institutions has been cut back in recent years.
And these communities have come up with a variety of legal theories to defend what they want to do. In Nizhny Novgorod, for example, the MSD is equating waqf property with Russian Orthodox Church monasteries and thus going ahead with the creation of waqfs to support the operation of an Islamic Cultural Center set to open later this year.
According to Aydagulov, this process has accelerated since the visit last year of a delegation from the Islamic Development Bank to Kazan. Since then, waqfs have been set up in the largest cities of Russia as well as in many smaller villages and rural areas. That makes the legal issues increasingly important.
What is “extremely important,” the Nizhny expert says, is that “this process occurs within the framework of the legal field of a secular Russian state as well as under the control of the Muslims themselves.” Whether those two concerns can be squared is an open question, but however that may be, “Russian waqfs are experiencing a new birth.”