By Paul Goble
In many federal subjects of the Russian Federation, there are now multiple Muslim Spiritual Directorates each headed by a more or less independent mufti who has the authority to issue fatwas, the Arabic term for “legal opinions,” that are intended to guide the lives of Muslims.
But as Islam has become more important in the lives of the Muslims of Russia, that has created a problem for them as well as one for the Russian state. Muslims have the option to choose among the fatwas on offer, many of which contradict each other, and the Russian state is faced with uncertainty about just what advice even Russian-based muftis are giving.
That is not a new problem or exclusively a Russian one. Within Islam, believers are remarkably free to choose which fatwas they consider authoritative; and in Russia, there have long been complaints about the absence of any one single Muslim “patriarch” or “pope” who alone can speak with legal authority.
However, this problem has been compounded in Russia by three factors: the remarkable and largely uncontrolled growth in the number of MSDs which has meant that in most federal subjects there is more than one, the impact of foreign missionaries and scholars on the Muslims of Russia, and the low – thanks to Soviet oppression – level of religious knowledge among them.
In a comment for Radio Liberty, journalist Lyubov Merenkova describes the problem this way: Within Islam, “there is no clear structure in which one body is subordinate to another and fulfills the directives of the one above it. No one has the right to issue fatwas which operate on the entire territory of the country. And while there is a supreme mufti, he is no more ‘supreme’ than the leaders of other major Muslim organizations of Russia” (kavkazr.com/a/podelili-musulman/28557132.html).
Further complicating this situation, she continues, is the fact that it is enshrined in state law which allows believers to form a primary organization and then any three of these have the right to form a superordinate one on their own.
At present, according to the MSD of the Russian Federation which is within the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR), there are 136 superordinate Muslim organizations or MSDs of various titles (dumrf.ru/common/org). But that list is clearly incomplete. It doesn’t include, for example, the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia which was set up in November 2016.
Four institutions, what some call the super-MSDs because they include other MSDs as members, are recognized as especially authoritative: the SMR, the Central MSD, the Coordination Center for Muslims of the North Caucasus and the Spiritual Assembly of Muslims of Russia – although one commentator says there are now really seven that deserve that ranking (ng.ru/ng_religii/2017-06-21/13_422_raiting.html).
“From a legal point of view,” Merenkova continues, “all these structures are parallel and their leaders have equal rights.” But in reality, they don’t even control the actions of their subordinate MSDs and muftis in many cases. (The head of the Central MSD calls himself and is called by others “the supreme mufti” only because his body is the heir to the original MSD created in tsarist times.)
That is creating legal chaos within the Muslim community. In some small places, there may be several MSDs represented and their muftis may have issued fatwas which contradict one another. In one village, the journalist there, there often are “three organizations” and so Muslims are free to choose which fatwa they will be guided by.
And there is no clear way out, Marenkova says. Not only are Muslim parishes free to exit existing MSDs and create new ones, but existing MSDs are free to ignore the super-MSDs of which they are a part or even shift from one of these to another at their complete discretion. There is little those above can do to stop that.