Two weeks ago, acting Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov convened in Grozny a conference of Islamic scholars to discuss the alleged abuse of Islamic ideas to propagate "extremism" and to establish the criteria for determining who are the true followers of the Sunna (the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad).
Conference participants, who included Ahmed El- Tayeb, rector of Cairo's Al-Azhar Islamic University, adopted a fatwa stipulating that the sole true adherents of traditional Islam are those who abide by Kalam scholastic theology, belong to one of the four madhhabs (legal schools), and follow the path of moral self-perfection espoused by the great teachers, primarily the Sufi sheikhs. It identifies the Salafi strain of Sunni Islam professed in Saudi Arabia as a "dangerous and erroneous contemporary sect," along with the extremist group Islamic State, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and the Habashis.
Several prominent theologians have taken issue with that ruling, however. The International Association of Islamic Scholars reportedly criticized the conference as "a shameful attempt to sow dissent within the Muslim community." Saudi professor Mohamad bin Abdel Rahman al-'Arefe had to disavow a report that he had branded Kadyrov an unbeliever and called for his death.
The Grozny conference was pegged to the 65th anniversary of the birth of Kadyrov's father, Akhmad, a former Chechen mufti whose four-year tenure as Kremlin-installed ruler after the 1999-2000 Chechen war is widely billed in official Chechen historiography as marking the final defeat of "international terrorists" -- a reference to forces loyal to then-Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov -- fighting in the name of Islam to "dismember the Russian Federation" by upholding Chechnya’s proclaimed independence.
Ramzan Kadyrov was not present at the opening session of the conference; instead he met late that evening (August 25) in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is not known whether Kadyrov attended subsequent sessions: the proceedings were conducted in Arabic, which he has never publicly demonstrated any fluency in.
Even before the formal end of the conference on August 27, disagreement was said to have arisen among the participants over the wording of the fatwa that reportedly led to the Russian delegation leaving prematurely. (One of its members subsequently declared that they had planned to leave early anyway due to unspecified other commitments.)
The Muslim Spiritual Boards of Daghestan and North Ossetia and Russia’s Central Spiritual Board apparently did not send representatives to the conference. Nor did Russia’s Mufti Sheikh Ravil Gaynutdin. The fatwa was nonetheless designated obligatory for all Russian Muslims.
The conference participants also adopted two further documents. The first was an appeal to Putin to ban Salafism in Russia and to designate as "extremism" any criticism of "traditional Islam."
It also proposed expanding the council of experts subordinate to the federal Justice Ministry, to whom courts would be required to refer any questions over whether or not a specific religious text was "extremist."
A further proposal was that the fatwa be regarded as the considered opinion of "leading Russian experts" when evaluating the activity of Muslim organizations and the preaching of individual clerics. Assuming that Kadyrov is counting on a key role in selecting those "experts" the fatwa could be adduced as legal action against respected Ingush clerics Khamzat Chumakov and Issa Tsechoyev, whom Kadyrov has publicly branded Salafis and threatened to kill.
The second document was a resolution calling for the establishment of a Council for Islamic Education, and also a Council of Ulema (Muslim scholars), which would rule on who is and is not a true follower of Sunni Islam.
The hostile and categorical tone of the fatwa, in conjunction with the proposals cited above, were widely construed by both clerics and secular commentators as an outright bid by Kadyrov to divide Russia’s Muslims into two categories: those who unquestioningly accept the importance he assigns to the teachings of the Sufi brotherhoods (and possibly also his own idiosyncratic and controversial version of what constitutes "traditional Islam" and those whose views are "erroneous."
What is more, as Saratov Oblast mufti Mukaddas Bibarsov points out, the question of who qualifies as a true follower of Sunni Islam was definitively resolved “centuries ago,” and has not (until now) been disputed. Bibarsov added that the fatwa fails to take into account crucial differences between Russia’s Muslim communities, specifically that Sufism is alien to the Muslims of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and the northwest Caucasus.
The fact remains, however, that the Grozny conference was held with the express support of the Russian president, who apparently sees no problem in implicitly empowering Kadyrov to rule on decisions central to the lives and well-being of millions of believers across Russia.
Addressing Chechen Interior Ministry personnel last week, Kadyrov described the Grozny conference as having the same effect on the "unbelievers" (meaning the Salafis) as a bomb exploding, given that "the most authoritative Islamic scholars proved in the course of this forum that there is no scientific basis to substantiate their pernicious ideas."
In other words, Kadyrov apparently believes he has been given carte blanche by respected clerics to take any action he likes to punish -- with impunity -- anyone who dares to question his own religious views.