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Perspectives of Islamic Religious Education in Russia: a Look from Kazan

15.01.2009 11:20

Muslim leaders of religious organizations in Russia grow firm in their opinion that the future of Islamic community is determined by religious education. Contemporary world offers new possibilities and to successfully combine them with traditional Islamic perception of things would mean to provide Russian Muslims with well¬educated leaders. We asked the Head of Russian Islamic University (RIU) Ildus Zagidullin to share his thoughts about perspectives Islamic religious education in Russia has.

— There have been much talks about the new stage in development of Islamic religious education in Russia lately. What is actually meant by that?

— The past 10 years have been the time of Islamic revival in Russia: many communities have won back their mosques and there were hundreds of new ones built and hence great need in educated clergymen. Besides a network of maktabs and madrasahs — institutions of primary and secondary religious education — were set up and they required qualified stuff as well.

Muslim leaders now came to conclusion that today a unified approach in developing the system of education is needed. The first step in this direction was made in April of 2006 when the Council of Muftis of Russia (CMR) introduced a project called Conception of the development of Islamic religious education in Russia. The project prescribes establishing a multileveled educational system with a university being at the top. A university should provide higher education offering bachelor’s and master’s degrees followed by the magistrates.

Establishing a unified educational system is pretty problematic now since Muslim communities in the Central part of Russia and in the Volga and the Ural regions are split between various Religious Boards and superintended by several muftis. Thus the problem number one to be solved now is the dissolution of Muslim community in these areas and it is rather a question of politics.

— What are the similarities and the differences between the leading Islamic universities?

— There are only three institutions of higher education with the status of universities: Russian Islamic University (RIU) in Kazan (founded by the Council of Muftis of Russia, Religious Board of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan and the Historical Institute of Tatarstan Academy of Sciences), Moscow Islamic Institute (MII) (founded by the Council of Muftis of Russia) and Russian Islamic University in Ufa (founded by the Central Religious Board of Muslims) with branch institutes in Samara, Orenburg, Astrakhan and some other towns. They offer different qualifications: the Kazan RIU students major in Koranic and Sharia Studies, while MII students and the students of RIU in Ufa major in Islamic Theology.

The experience of these thee institutes proposes 2 patterns of religious education in the area we are talking about. One of them is represented by Moscow Islamic Institute. Technically MII is integrated into Moscow Islamic University (MIU) — a secular institution providing additional qualification of a theologian. This actually means a “light” pattern of Islamic religious education which technically is only an addition to a secular higher qualification. The head of both MII and MIU, the Chairman of Council of Religious Education of CMR Marat Mourtazin says that graduates of such institution acquire sufficient knowledge to be an imam in a community or to be a teacher in a religious educational institution.

The second pattern is represented by RIU in Kazan and RIU in Ufa. The cornerstone principle of these two institutions was providing purely religious education with no secular components in the curriculum whatsoever. But this approach needs to be reconsidered. What we need now is an educational system preparing specialists of the magistrates level that would both satisfy the needs of Muslim communities and meet the requirements of the contemporary world.

— What are the perspectives of RIU in Kazan?

— For different reasons in previous years RIU failed to gain the status of a university by the number of students, by the level of education provided and by the qualification of the teachers body. During these years we had 6–17 graduates yearly with very few of them to become clergymen in local religious communities. This once more proves the necessity of a more profound education for such needs.

In new academic year we introduce some secular disciplines and hope to pass certification of a new linguistic department providing qualification of a teacher of Arabic. We are forced to do it because previously most part of our students combined receiving education in RIU with studying in some secular university and upon graduation almost all of them chose to work on their secular qualification. Besides studying at two universities at a time makes no good for either one of the educations.

Another innovation of this academic year in RIU is that madrasah teachers and students and everybody who has secondary religious education will now have opportunity to take a degree in Theology. This will be done to provide clergymen with free higher education.

I would like to mention that the Arabic language is taught at a quite high level in RIU. The graduates of our university gain the qualification of a teacher of Arabic and of religious disciplines. However a diploma of a religious university doesn’t give them the right to teach in a secular institution. We hope to solve this particular problem by including some disciplines of the state curriculum into our traditional religious curriculum so as to adjust the education provided by our university to the current legislature.

Contemporary Islamic religious universities are free to set their own standards for every particular qualification and therefore to regulate their own curricula. Recently RIU developed new standards and curricula for the qualifications of Sharia and Koranic Studies and a draft project of the Theology qualification. Provided that the Council of Religious Education of CMR approves of them we are sure to make a significant step forward in the direction of improving religious education. In the nearest future we plan to introduce two new qualifications: Hadith Studies and Muslim culture along with several new secular specializations to provide secular education.

— Do you expect any kind of assistance on the part of local authorities?

— There are certain problems that indeed can be solved only at the governmental level. In the first place we need international agreements that would stipulate acknowledgement of RIU diplomas in higher educational institutions in Jordan, Malaysia, Syria and other Muslim countries. Presently we have such agreement only with Turkey.

Then there is a problem of financing of the educational institutions. Before the revolution maktabs and madrasahs were economically self-sufficient since back then, just like today, government rendered no aid to religious educational institutions. But unlike today, before the years of Soviet power Muslim communities had a well-developed system of self-financing through waqfs — an institution to regulate religious activity of the community. At present Muslim entity in Russia is going through a period of revival after several decades of Soviet atheism. And along with restoring Muslim intellectual elite and educational system we need to restore the system of self-financing —to cover at least basic needs of religious educational institutions. I believe that in Tatarstan there now are plenty of well-to-do people who could become waqf beneficiaries.

— Has the university established any relations with Tatarstan madrasahs?

— There are 9 madrasahs in the Republic and they are not anyhow connected to each other. And it’s a shame because they could make a great association to organize regional contests on the Arabic language and religious disciplines. On the one hand such contests would give the madrasah students incentive to study better and to deepen their knowledge by all means and on the other hand they would help to spot out the most talented students. I think Islamic Educational Complex headed by RIU might carry out this initiative.

Besides we think that it would be reasonable to take madrasah graduates in to the higher courses of the university at once assuming that they gain sufficient basic knowledge in madrasah. However the results of entering exams demonstrate that madrasah graduates lack knowledge on secular disciplines. The thing is madrasahs simply can’t afford teachers of secular disciplines and as a result many students just don’t get to study them. The only way out I personally see is establishing cooperation between RIU and regional madrasahs so as to provide them with teachers of secular disciplines.

It’s impossible to raise the level of education of future imams otherwise.

— Are there new problems that RIU has to deal with today?

— 70 years of atheism weren’t in vain for Russian Muslims. Today being a Muslim for them means predominantly performing religious worships, they are very poorly aware of Islamic dogma, Sharia norms, and peculiarities of applying Islamic laws in contemporary Russia. The teachers of Islamic universities have traditionally been the commentators of the Islamic laws to common members of the community. That’s why we decided to found an analytical body that would be in charge of providing juridical and theological grounds for this or that aspect of modern life. It would follow the prescriptions of the Holy Koran and Sunnah along with the works of authoritative scholars of the past that don’t contradict the current legislature. It would be very close to as-Shura, Muslim supreme legislative body, in its nature and just like as-Shura it would issue sermons and books on Fiqh, Akida, Fundamentals of Islam and on other religious disciplines.

The activity of this body would be aimed at maintaining interconfessional and international cooperation, consolidation of muftis, imams and common Muslims in terms of a unified legal environment that combines Russian legislature with Islamic juridical laws.

If we manage to carry out all of these initiatives RIU is sure to become a center of Muslim education in Russia.

IInterview by Alya Mukharirova August, 2006

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