Russia's Last Soviet Mufti Departs
by Paul Goble

On-going series: Crisis in the Caucasus - 2008
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Vienna, December 16 - Talgat Tajuddin, who became a mufti in 1980 and later styled himself the Supreme Mufti of Holy Russia, quietly gave up his position last week, saying in Kazan that he is now a pensioner and has transferred day-to-day operations of the Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) to his sons.

At a session of the executive committee of the World Congress of Tatars, Tajuddin said, according to a report in yesterday, that he had handed over his mufti functions to his son Muhammed, who was trained in Kuwait, and the chairmanship of the Central MSD to his other son Zufar, who was educated in Turkey.

Like so many events in his long career, Tajuddin's announcement was both unexpected and in violation of Islamic law. On the one hand, he still retains the favor of many in the Russian political establishment and in the upper reaches of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, including with Kirill, the odds' on favorite to succeed Aleksii II.

And on the other, Islamic law and practice require that muftis be elected rather than appointed and, Russian Imperial and Soviet traditions in Central Asia to the contrary, in most cases discourages any notion that such positions can be handed down father to son within a single family.

But Tajuddin, known for his elaborate outfits and especially his bright green turbans, his fondness for alcohol, and his close ties with the country's security services, would not be Tajuddin if he had not chosen to depart from a position he had held for almost 30 years in any but this unique, albeit patriarchal and authoritarian way.

Born in Kazan on October 12, 1948, Tajuddin recently celebrated his own 60th birthday in conjunction with the 220th anniversary of Catherine the Great's creation of the predecessor body of his own Central MSD. On these occasions, he was praised by the Russian government, the Orthodox Church, and Muslim leaders with whom he has been in competition.

Most recently, he was given almost hagiographic treatment by Roman Silantyev, the former executive secretary of the Inter-Religious Council who lost his job for earlier criticisms of Tajuddin and other Muslim leaders, in a long article on that was disseminated further by Interfax.

Nonetheless, as Tajuddin appears to be leaving the scene - and a surprise return, of course, is not out of the question - it is worth recalling some of the key events of his career, both those he would be certain to take pride in and others which it seems likely he would prefer to forget, play down or somehow explain away.

From 1968 to 1973, he studied at the Mir-Arab medressah in Bukhara and then from 1973 to 1978, he was a student at Cairo's Al-Alzhar University, perhaps the most prestigious educational institution in Islam and a place to which Soviet-era Muslims did not go unless they were carefully vetted by the authorities.

On his return, he became the first imam-khatyb of the Kazan cathedral mosque, and on June 19, 1980, he became mufti of the Ufa-based for the European Part of the USSR and Siberia, a position he has occupied ever since, although the organization, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet Union has undergone several changes in name.

In May 1990, he was chosen chairman of the Administration of International Ties of Muslim Organizations of the USSR, the only pan-Soviet Muslim body and the launching pad of what he and many others thought would be his rise to be the Islamic equivalent of the Orthodox Church's patriarch.

During the 1990s, Tajuddin saw his personal powers in the Russian umma decline not only because of the multiplication of MSDs which chose not to subordinate themselves to him and to the rise of the Union of Muftis of Russia (SMR), an alternate central Muslim institution which had the political advantage of being based in Moscow rather than in the Middle Volga.

But despite that, the Supreme Mufti was able to continue to gain access to the highest levels of the state as was rewarded with one of the two Muslim slots on the Inter-Religious Council where he became a close ally of Metropolitan Kirill and a staunch defender of the principle of the "traditional" religions of Russia.

That notion, pushed by Kirill, holds that there are only four traditional religions there - Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism - and that all others - including Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, paganism, and New Age faiths - should have a lesser status in the Russian state, a view that the Russian government continues to endorse.

Unfortunately for Tajuddin, his status also suffered from his missteps both religious and political, missteps that kept the Russian government from coming down definitively on his side as the primus inter pares or more among the leaders of the country's Muslim religious establishment.

Among these were his very public use of alcohol - including a highly offensive christening of a mosque with champagne - and his declaration of a jihad against the United States over Iraq, an action that the Russian government disowned and that other Muslim leaders suggested showed that Tajuddin was not fit to occupy the singular post he clearly hoped for.

Now, apparently, he is moving into retirement, the last Soviet mufti in the Russian Federation. (There are still Soviet-era appointees in Central Asia and the Caucasus.) And that is likely to lead to a scramble for preferment among other Muslim leaders, particularly Ravil Gainutdin of the SMR, as well as to new suggestions that the MSD system should be disbanded.

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