It will be interesting to see if this initiative can possibly succeed. For what can the “well-educated mullahs” learn and teach that will really blunt the force of Qur’anic literalism? If they do succeed, they will have something that the whole world needs.
But the “traditional Islam” mentioned in this article is more of a cultural than a theological construct, and as such I wonder if it has the vitality to stand up to the “Wahhabi” literalist challenge. In a rather uncomprehending 2000 article published in the Center for Political and Strategic Studies essay collection Islam and Central Asia, the Orthodox Archbishop Vladimir of Bishkek gives some indication (without appearing to realize the implications of what he is saying) of how far Central Asian Islam has strayed from Qur’anic, traditional and historical Islam. To give just one example, he asserts that “Modern-day Islam [in Central Asia] does not strive to expand its domain.”
Would the warrior prophet Muhammad recognize a non-expansionist Islam as the one he preached? Will the “well-educated mullahs” of Nizhny Novgorod be able to convince young Muslims who read the Qur’an that their Islam should not be expansionist as well?
From the Moscow Times, with thanks to None:
Finding it difficult to compete with the fiery rhetoric of radical Islamic teachers in winning the attention and respect of young people, Muslim clergy young and old are heading back to school.
Crash courses in divinity, anti-extremist propaganda, history, philosophy and sociology are being offered to all imams and muezzins in Nizhny Novgorod under a program set up by the regional Muslim spiritual board.
The intensive two-week program is mandatory for all Muslim spiritual leaders in the region, and classes are taught by professors at Nizhny Novgorod State University.
“Wahhabis look stronger when they take on self-learners,” Damir Mukhetdinov, the deputy head of the regional spiritual board, said, referring to the radical strain of Islam that has spread like wildfire across parts of the country, particularly the Muslim-dominated North Caucasus.
“Trust me, it will be a different picture when Wahhabis will face well-educated mullahs,” he said.
Mukhetdinov, himself a political science lecturer in the back-to-school program, said Muslim clergymen are also being trained how to distinguish religious extremists in a crowd and how to use dialogue to convince them to embrace more traditional Islamic views. “We don’t betray them to the FSB,” he said of the Federal Security Service. “To fight ideology, we try to use ideology, not violence.”
This school of thought is rare outside Nizhny Novgorod, where Muslims are in a minority. In largely Muslim-populated regions where Islam carries a lot of weight in local politics, homegrown traditionalists and radical fundamentalists are often at one another’s throats — quite literally.
Traditional Muslim clergy have largely failed to adapt to new challenges such as the spread of Wahhabism and continue to follow a route inherited from Soviet times, when spiritual life was tightly controlled by the authorities, said Alexei Malashenko, an Islam expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
“The traditionalists are losing Muslims to Wahhabis, and not only because they are younger and better-trained in rhetoric,” he said. “Most clergymen have gotten used to state support and have forgotten to bury themselves in their books. They are not preachers, and they have always circumvented honest polemics.”