Michael Kemper: ‘There are taxi drivers who know Islam more than those who wear turbans’

Famous professor and chair of Eastern European Studies tells about empty ‘traditional Islam’ and difference of European Muslims from the Russian

Last week the Kazan Federal University hosted the 5th Regional Conference called Central Eurasian Studies Society. And Michael Kemper, a professor from the University of Amsterdam was the most honourable guest. The European scientist is a famous historian, expert in Arabic and Islamic Studies. During his visit to Kazan, he gave an exclusive interview to a correspondent of Realnoe Vremya. The guest from the Netherlands talked about the use the concept of 'traditional Islam' does not make sense. He also mentioned the appearance of Sufism in the elite and spoke about the European Islamic way.

Naqshbandi dominance

Mr Kemper, you are a famous expert in Islamic Studies, a researcher in Sufism and Islamic mysticism. As it is known, now a new team of the Tatarstan muftiate is actively propagating the concept of traditional Islam with elements of Naqshbandi. When did the first mystics come to the Volga region?

It is difficult to say. We only know that Naqshbandi was widely spread in the Volga region in the 19 th century. We also know it was brought here at the beginning of the 19th century. There is not much information of what had happened. We know there were relationships between the scientists from Dagestan and the Volga region. In Dagestan, there were absolutely different Sufi fraternities. In the 18th century, there were good Sufi relationships with Middle Asia. I mean the period before the appearance of Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi. It is a branch that expanded in the Volga region in the 19th century. But the 18th century has not been studied well. If we continue delving back into the history, it turns out we have less information about the Khanate of Kazan. People say there was a concept of the Yasavia fraternity. But we have scarce sources. We got them in an edited version. We can conclude that Sufi fraternities had been existing from the Mongol period; little information impedes to know which of them because Naqshbandi, which was brought here in the 19th century, was based on its older layers.

Why did the Naqshbandi school start to dominate and drive out other Sufi schools?

It happens throughout the world: a new group comes and drives out the old one or includes old Sufi groups.

'Sufi fraternities had being existed from the Mongol period; little information impedes to know which of them because Naqshbandi, which was brought here in the 19 th century, was based on its older layers.'

In Caucasus, Sufism resulted in a movement of Muridism with holy war and Imam Shamil. Were there anything similar in the Volga-Ural region?

I worked on Tatarstan's 19 th century first. I studied Arabic and Tatar manuscripts. Then I switched to Caucasus and worked on Muridism. This is why I can say Muridism is a concept of the Russian historiography. Actually if we look at creations of Shamil' s era – what Shamil himself and his close Sheikhs and scientists wrote – we understand the Sufi fraternity had little to do with Jihad. It is better to forget about these close relationships existing in the literature. Sufi Sheikhs even recommended Shamil not to wage wars. The old idea that Sufism forced to Jihad is wrong.

Were there any Tatar or Bashkir Sufi Sheikhs or were they universal?

Both the Tatars and Bashkirs had ishans. Speaking about Zaynulla Rasulev from Troitsk, we say he was multinational: people from Bashkiria, Siberia, Dagestan and Tatarstan visited him.

Speaking about Zaynulla Rasulev from Troitsk, we say he was multinational: people from Bashkiria, Siberia, Dagestan and Tatarstan visited him. Photo: dic.academic.ru

In the 19 th centuries, such cities as Kazan, Orenburg and other actively developed. But they did not have many ishans (a religious leader). Ishan was a rural phenomenon of the 18t-19th centuries. There were dynasties of ishans. They did not need to be people who wrote books. People respected these dynasties who healed and showed miracles. This tradition used to be passed down from father to son.

Empty 'traditional Islam'

In your opinion, what is traditional Islam?

In my point of view, this term does not make sense because traditionally there were different 'Islams'. In the same 19 th century, we talked about Jadids and Qadimists. There was Wäisi movement (Editor's Note: a religious, social and political movement in Tatarstan and other Tatar-populated parts of Russia that took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries) – traditional but peculiar Islam. It included Shias too, but we know little about them because they were not supported by the muftiate. Their creations were not published. They disappeared from our documentation. We know they did exist because of a big trade on the Volga River via Astrakhan, where there was a big Persian community, and further towards Iran.

Islam has always been different. It would not be correct to support only one kind of it in order to demonstrate the reality. For this reason, the term 'traditional Islam' is understood as non-radical, not strange and good. What about its content? It may be Sufi like in Dagestan or Salafist, Shia. I think for the government that supports traditional Islam it doesn't matter. No one defined the content of this concept. The only thing they said it (Editor's Note: Islam) cannot be negative, inimical, radical and strange.

All discussion about traditional Islam comes from those who define what good Islam is. It is a question about the authority. It may go up and down when the Muslims decide themselves which Islam is appropriate. It is a dilemma.

European diversity

Could you tell as a European citizen about the development of Islam? And what model is the most optimal for this part of the world?

It is difficult to answer. To start with, Western Europe doesn't have muftiates like Russia. Muftiates exist in Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia – the Ottoman tradition preserved there. There are different associations represented by Muslims where the Ottoman Empire did not exist. They may be ethnic. For instance, the Turkish association expresses interests of their Muslims in the society. The country is glad about this voice of its religious people. There is no such thing like muftiate of a country, city or ethnicity. There is a great diversity. In my opinion, it has many advantages because Muslims can organise themselves as they want. If there had been only one central body in Holland or Germany, many other movements simply would have been marginalised. The more we centralise the Islamic authority, the more groups drop out of these limits.

You say the more diverse the better, especially when there is no muftiate. Nevertheless, Russia and Tatarstan have their own muftiates. Is it bad?

I meant Holland or Germany where Muslim organisations have their own umbrella organisations that have an access to the power in order to talk about Islam. There is no organisation that gives accreditation to one or another group. These groups are formed; if they work legally, they don't need any special registration. The government doesn't filtrate them except some radical groups connected with terrorism.

The situation in the Russian Federation is absolutely different. The system of muftiates has been existing since the end of the 18 th centuries. Muftiate is not just a mufti but also a Council of Ulamas (Ulama stands for 'scholar'). Representatives of different schools are to be included in the Council of Ulamas. The system of muftiates can reflect the diversity of Islam in a certain region – Tatarstan, Irkutsk or Kazakhstan.

We often talk about official leaders of Russian Islam. Taxi drivers sometimes know more than those who wear turbans'.

We often talk about official leaders of Russian Islam. Taxi drivers sometimes know more than those who wear turbans'.

Still how will the religion develop in Europe? Which schools will dominate and which movements will weaken?

The integration dominates, of course. 800,000 people live in my city of Amsterdam. The city has about 20 real mosques and 20 other places more where the Muslims go to pray. The integration of the Muslims is in the process. The third generation of migrants, including sons and grandchildren, live in our country. They became Dutch. There were big terrorist acts in Paris and Belgium. In Holland, the situation is calm. It means the integration was quite successful. The Muslims have party affiliations. There are many Muslims in social and democratic party, Green Leaf and socialistic parties.

Mayor of Rotterdam – the second largest city in the Netherlands – is Muslim. His name is Ahmed Aboutaleb. I live in a part of Amsterdam where also there are many Turkish people and Moroccans. Mayor of our mahallah – the biggest part of the city – is Muslim. We don't have such a marginalisation of Muslims we see in Paris or Belgium. Moreover, the third-generation Muslim's lifestyle is different from the life of the first generation. Many of them get a higher education. This is why one Islamic authority is not a problem there. There never will be only one figure. Yes, Tarik Ramadan is popular among the young, but he is not an obvious leader. There will always be different popular Islamic authorities. They can be Dutch, Turkish, Moroccan and American. But one figure will never be.

Are there many converts to Islam among native Europeans – Dutch, German, Flemish, French people?

Yes, it is a global occurrence. In Russia, also there is a certain number of people who converted to Islam and became famous translators of Quran, scientists, organisers. We also have it. They are mainly educated people who know to hold a discussion with their opponent. They appear on TV, write in newspapers. In Germany, for example, the chairman of the Islamic Council – one of these umbrella organisations representing Muslims – has Syrian roots on the distaff side and German paternal ancestors. One cannot differentiate these people from indigenous Germans. Islam became a part of Germany.

If your question was about radicalisation, which is being seen too, there are small groups whose terrorist acts pose a serious danger. There are few of them in Germany and Holland. On the contrary, there is a growing opposition to the migration policy. Last year, German received over 1m refugees from Syria and other countries. The reaction of the Rights of the German society is also observed.

If we develop a de-radicalisation programme, for example, I'm afraid it looks very naive. Competent people who know the topic and went through the process of radicalisation themselves are needed. I know several people who can strike a chord with the radicals. If I go to a mosque and start to tell about the needs of the country and society, they will just laugh at me.

How does the system of Islamic Studies work in the University of Amsterdam?

Our situation is a bit different. The University of Amsterdam doesn't have Islamic Studies in fact. But we have Religious Studies focused on Islam. We have different programmes on Islam in the modern world. Our colleagues study in detail Spanish Islam – there are good experts in Northwest Africa in Andalusia. We deal with Islam in Europe. I work in a department of European research, where I have a working group on History of Eastern Europe. In this group, we study such regions as Northern Caucasus, Volga region, Tajikistan.

We don't have one Centre of Islamic Studies but we have people who deal with questions connected with Islamic Studies in all departments of the university: political, philological (we have Arabic Studies), historic research. Our idea is that Islam is not to be a subject in one centre where we get students who do want to deal with Islam. But our work is in the whole university and faculties. We give lectures to those students who study Religious Studies, History, Languages. Do we want to become a big centre with a small number of students or do we want to become a small working group that can teach the Islamic history to many students? We support the second approach. Undoubtedly, Islamic Studies is included in many other universities too.

By Timur Rakhmatullin