Professor Damir Mukhetdinov on theology, ecology and the outcomes of the work of the Centre for Islamic Studies at St Petersburg University in 2021

For the Centre for Islamic Studies at St Petersburg University, 2021 was a year of fruitful international collaboration. Doctor of Theology Damir Mukhetdinov told us about projects that had sparked interest among experts overseas, explained why the Muslim community places an emphasis on environmental responsibility, and also shared plans for 2022.

In November 2020, at the meeting with representatives of religious associations, President Vladimir Putin stressed that interethnic and interreligious peace is the keystone for our multinational country. Then, in his address, Mufti Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin, the Chairman of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation, reminded the attendees about the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by the peoples of the Volga Bulgaria. President Putin promised that the anniversary would be marked with great ceremony. Soon after this meeting, Vladimir Putin signed an order to prepare the anniversary celebration programme. The organising committee is headed by Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin.

Islam was declared the official state religion on the territory of the Volga Bulgar Khanate in 922.

This is a very important event for our country. Many regions of Russia will be involved in the celebration. The anniversary celebrations will officially begin on 13 to 15 January 2022 in Moscow. In addition to festivities, a scientific and practical conference will be held.

In my view, what is especially important is that, in addition to cultural and educational events, the celebration programme features projects for the reconstruction of Islamic heritage sites. We hope that the needs of the Historical Mosque of Moscow, located in Bolshaya Tatarskaya Street – the oldest mosque in the city – will not be overlooked. The building is nearly 200 years old – it was built in 1823.

How is the Centre for Islamic Studies involved in the celebrations?

The main goal of the Centre is determined by the task set out by President Putin – to re-establish the Russian Islamic school of theology. All our work is aimed at this goal, and we welcome the additional impetus created by the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam.

At the opening ceremony in the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, we are going to present a new book series ‘Islamic Thought in Russia: Revival and Renewal.’ The publication was announced at the Bigiev Readings, which were held not long ago at St Petersburg University. This series is designed to collect and systematise the legacy of our predecessors – Khusain Faizkhanov, Rizaeddin bin Fakhreddin, and Musa Bigiev. The legacy of just these three theologians is vast: we plan to publish 50 books by Musa Bigiev, 20 by Rizaeddin bin Fakhreddin, and more than a dozen by Khusain Faizkhanov. The first six books are set to be released soon.

For more information about the series please visit the Centre for Islamic Studies website.

It might seem a simple task. But in fact, we have to verify the authorship of the text (the authorship analysis can be very difficult) and assemble the works. This has not been done before. Some of Musa Bigiev’s works, for example, were kept in India and Canada. Besides, all the works have to be translated since they were written by people who were well-versed in Tatar, Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, as well as Russian.

Why else is it so important? At the beginning of the 20th century in Russia, many representatives of Islam were enthused about the idea of renovation in Islam – tajdid. The renovationist theological school, educational, creative and social activities were gaining ground. Our predecessors argued that moving forward is impossible without interfaith dialogue, openness, enlightenment, and reciprocity between the religious and the scholarly. A hundred years later, we often observe a rollback to the old beliefs and superstitions, when there was no mutual understanding or concert not only between representatives of different religions, but also among those who share the same confession of faith.

We should not fail to mention our large-scale book project ‘Revival and Renewal’ (‘Al-Islah wa-t-tajdid’), implemented together with the Medina publishing house. We timed it to coincide with celebrations marking the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam. This is an excellent occasion to familiarise the Russian reader with the outstanding Muslim thinkers of Modern and Contemporary times. Besides, we were able to contribute to the scholarly foundation that would support the training of Islamic scholars. Previously, these books were available only to those who could read them in the original – in Tatar, Arabic, Turkish, and rarely in some European languages. Now these works are being translated into Russian for the first time.

The following publications are being released in the near future: ‘The Miracle of the Qur'an: Selected Works’ by Sayyid Ahmad Khan; ‘The Liberation of Women’ by Qāsim Amīn; ‘The Development of Metaphysics in Persia’ by Muhammad Iqbal; ‘Islam and the Principles of Government’ by Ali Abd. Al-Raziq; ‘Major Themes of the Qur'an’ by Fazlur Rahman Malik; and ‘Reformation of Islamic Thought’ by Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd.

In 2019, Damir Mukhetdinov defended the first in Russia doctoral dissertation in Islamic theology under the terms of St Petersburg University. The title of his study is ‘Islamic Renovationist movement from the end of the 20th century to the start of the 21st century: ideas and prospects’.

This research project would have been impossible without contributions from orientalist scholars. The editorial board of the series includes: Academician Mikhail Piotrovsky, Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University; Academician Vitaly Naumkin, President of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences; and Academician Andrey Smirnov. The scholarly reviewer is Nikolai Diakov, Honorary Professor and Head of the Department of History of the Middle East Countries at St Petersburg University. We appreciate the assistance and support of the scholarly community very much.

Tell us about the development of Islamic studies at the University today. You were the first to defend your doctoral dissertation in theology. Who is next on the list?

The Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University offers a bachelor’s programme in Islamic studies. It is very important that our students receive both theological and secular education and become sought-after experts in both spiritual and intellectual matters.

Equally important is that our graduates continue their studies in the doctoral programme in Islamic theology and defend their PhD theses under the terms of St Petersburg University. After all, it was at St Petersburg University that our great theologians studied and taught. Without this foundation, it will be impossible to create a new ideological elite of Islam today. Through joint efforts, we will be able to achieve these objectives.

Professor Damir Mukhetdinov, Head of the Centre for Islamic Studies, St Petersburg University

Currently, a few of our graduates are working on their dissertations. It is important that the public defences take place at St Petersburg University. The dissertation topics are diverse; yet, they are all related to Islamic Renovationist movement: Islamic feminism; At-Tabari’s works on Qur'an exegesis; the impact of the most influential university in the Islamic world – Al-Azhar – on the Muslim Ummah of Russia; the religious philosophy of Al-Shatibi; and Islamic soteriology (religious doctrine of salvation). One of the theses will be devoted to Islamic modernism in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Our doctoral students publish their research findings in the scholarly journal ‘Islam in the Modern World’.

I would also like to mention that in 2021, the Centre for Islamic Studies, with assistance from the Fund for Support of Islamic Culture, Science and Education, organised training for employees of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims and teachers of religious educational institutions. In total, six non-degree programmes were implemented online and on campus – in St Petersburg, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, and Yekaterinburg. More than a hundred people were benefited from these academic programmes. The programmes focused on different topics – from legal support for the activities of religious associations to theological discourse in the context of globalisation. A key characteristic of our academic programmes is interdisciplinarity. Today, this is relevant not only for secular education, but is also coming to the forefront in religious instruction.

You have mentioned Russian translations of foreign language publications. Tell us about the Centre’s international cooperation activities. Were they affected by the pandemic?

2021 was, indeed, a year of fruitful international collaboration. At the end of 2020, we visited İstanbul and met with the Rector of İstanbul University, Professor Mahmut Ak. During the meeting, prospects for joint research projects were discussed. Besides, we invited our colleagues to join the celebrations of the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by the Volga Bulgaria.

I also met with the Rector of the Al-Farabi Kazakh National University, Professor Zhanseit Tuimebayev. There I was also asked to speak to doctoral students in the Religious Studies programme. I delivered a lecture ‘Renewal of faith as a task of our day: context and the future of the 21st century’.

In 2021, Damir Mukhetdinov became a member of the Coordination Council of the ‘Petersburger Dialogue’ forum.

In October 2021, I visited Azerbaijan. In Baku, a memorandum of cooperation was signed with the Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts. Also, we discussed matters related to the 880th anniversary of the celebrated medieval poet Nizami Ganjavi.

In 2021, we met with the Miguel Ángel Moratinos, United Nations Under-Secretary-General, High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, and Cardinal Miguel Ángel Ayuso Guixot, President of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

In the context of the international agenda, we should not fail to talk about the 17th annual meeting of the Muslim International Forum, which was held in December 2021. The meeting was entitled ‘From ecological preaching to ecological thinking: the search for the optimal way of speaking’. Why did the environmental issues feature on the Islamic agenda?

Muslim International Forum

Issues of respect for the environment have always been given priority attention in Islam. The holy books of Islam oblige man to take care of nature with a sense of personal and spiritual responsibility. Of course, today there is a worldwide awareness of environmental issues. The 26th UN Conference on Climate Change in Glasgow convened to address these issues.

The planet we live on is our common home. Global challenges that we are facing can ultimately lead to human suffering – hunger, squalor, and disease. Responsible attitude to nature in Islam is viewed through the prism of personal responsibility to society. In the 20th century, human rights and the key role of the individual were recognised as priority values. Whether it could prevent World Wars, genocides, or the arms race remains a question. Yet, the answer is obvious. A similar situation has arisen today with ecology, when personal comfort and excessive consumption are taken for granted. Humanity moved away from understanding reality through spiritual insight. These issues were also discussed at the Forum for Promoting Peace in Muslim Communities held in Abu Dhabi in December 2021. We have to reconsider our views on the problem of correlations of human rights and responsibilities.

In 2021, the Centre for Islamic Research co-organised a number of scholarly events and conferences in different cities of Russia: ‘Galimdzhan Barudi readings’ (Moscow); ‘Faizkhanov readings’ and ‘Shigabutdin Mardzhani readings’ (Nizhny Novgorod); ‘Fakhreddin readings’ (Yekaterinburg); ‘Mukhlisa Bubi readings’ (Vladimir); Muslim International Forum (online); and ‘Bigiev Readings’ (St Petersburg).