Tuesday 21 March 2023 \


Secular State and Islamic Tradition in Russia

The state has neutral policy concerning the matters of citizens' attitude towards religion.

The Stalin’s law on cults was abrogated in 1990, and new law “On religious freedom” was enacted by Soviet Supreme Council of the Russian Federation. Muslims of Russia as well as followers of other religions enjoyed more freedom to run activities that they could never have in Russia. Well, tell me in which Islamic country can Muslims as freely as in Russia follow any madhab, any group in Islam, any ‘alim and preach freely anything they want? 

The state chose not to return to the pre-revolutionary past where one religion was dominant and was proclaimed to be state religion. Instead, it enunciated principles of secular state in which both its citizens and religious communities are considered equal under the law. So, what is the essence of secular state? It happened that I together with Andrey Sebentsov and Alexander Kudryavtsev took part in the elaboration of both the “On freedom of conscience and religious organizations” law in 1990 and its replacement in 1997. This enabled me to have firsthand experience and exposure to the subject.

During most of the history of humanity, religion was used by Rulers for their own image making goals to develop an image of the “God’s given” power which was forbidden for criticism by masses and therefore had no any responsibility for its actions in front of the nation. Heavens ‘empowered’ a governor who was responsible to God only. Obviously such interpretation secured much space for the power abuse by ruling authorities and engraved the gap between state bodies and masses and resulted in bloody riots, mutinies, revolutions etc.

During the Middle Ages wars between Catholics and Protestants, there was formed a sort of compromise between them which read: "religion of ruler must prevail", that is the whole county must follow the religion of the duke. In addition to that, there was fierce fight to gain power between rulers and clergymen.       

Today, thanks to Allah, clashes of king’s musketeers with the cardinal's guardsmen are recalled from books or movies only. Society has become complex and more developed while followers of different religions are required to live within the same state entities. Therefore, the concept of a secular state is the most suitable and optimal for multicultural, spiritually multidimensional society.

In short, the concept of the secularism includes the following principles.


  • - guarantees and ensures the equality of citizens in all spheres of life irrespective of both their attitude to religion and involvement in religious organizations;
  • - has neutral policy concerning the citizens' attitude towards religion, neither encourages, nor suppresses and nor advocates their choice;
  • - does not interfere in the activities of religious associations and organizations in respect to their theological, religious, disciplinary and personnel matters;
  • - forbids any abuse within own designated institutions related to the restricting of human rights and freedoms, namely, places of pre-trial detention and sentence-serving camps, army, hospitals, orphanages, etc., to coerce citizens to change their attitude towards religion;
  • - ensures neutrality of the state education standards in respect to citizens rights to maintain their own attitude to a religion.


This principle has found its maximally full embodiment in both law and practice in the United States, a country of expatriates, where there is no and was no any particularly rooted religion or religious tradition. But in Europe, unlike in American prairies, the principle of a secular state was implemented not from scratch, but as a result of difficult process of overcoming legacy of clerical states, inquisition and holy religious wars. Today, in Europe the principle of secularism coexists together with some forms of a state protectionism towards either a certain church or religion, or even to two religious denominations as is the case in Germany.

The head of the Anglican Church in England is the Queen, bishops of the Church are members of House of Lords but it is difficult to say that religious rights of citizens and visitors of the country are violated. In Italy the secular state is guided by the Concordat by the special agreement concluded with Vatican which lists all rights and powers of the Catholic Church governing the life of Catholics across the country. This treaty principle in a secular state is of great interest in considering relations between state and Muslims.

The term "secular state" is not natural for Muslims. Historically, Muslims lived under a caliphate which actually was different from the reign of four Righteous Caliphs. The caliphate system was of monarch-dynastic nature with a number of significant deviations from the original model. Relations with other religions were governed by treaties. The legal disputes were heard in Shariah сourts with the final sentence belonging to the Muslim ruler.

In the beginning of the 20th century the caliphate ceased to exist, and today Muslims live according to two models: either in the states where majority of population are Muslims with the head of the state is a Muslim, with the legislation, to certain extent, being based on Islamic traditions, or, in the states where Muslims constitute a smaller part of population, or where they are a foreign diaspora.    

We are interested in the second model based on the fact that Muslims in Russia constitute minority. They are not newcomers from other countries but natives that have been living on their lands and professing Islam since ancient times preceding introduction of Christianity in Russia as dominating religion. Relations of Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries are usually regulated by an agreement. Law is a social agreement. The agreement on the existence of Russian Federation is the Constitution which was supported by Muslims in the 1993 referendum. The rigorous observance of the agreement by each Muslim is a strict Shariah requirement stipulated in the Holy Quran. The Constitution of Russia fully guarantees freedom for Muslims to live according to their religious laws observing all Shariah regulations.

But by the beginning of 1990s when Muslims received the long-awaited freedom, problems of another nature, i.e. related to secularism of the state, had emerged. It is true that the state does not interfere into the internal matters of religious communities. But here we are encountering the following situation. There is a Muslim community that has a mosque and everything seems to be all right. But suddenly among members of the community are few men, over bearded, bald-headed and in short trousers claiming they profess not common for everybody Islam but “pure Islam”, they throw imam through the window out and put into his place their “pure” imam and bring to the state legal authorities a document with demands to transfer the ownership of the mosque to them. Supporters of the former imam bring their own documents. The state does not interfere in the arguments, does not determine which of the two communities is either Islamic or pseudo Islamic. Thus, for the state registration authorities, there is no difference between the two conflicting communities, and they may give the mosque with its assets over to new comers.

So, sometimes it happens that secular state just “washes off its hands” and allows different trends in Islam to freely compete with one another. The question is whether this competition is free? Adherents of traditions find themselves separated from the state and do not have any support. At the same time the new, so called “pure Muslims”, receive significant financial help from the US controlled oil producing Arab countries. In recent interview with the deputy Mufti of Tatarstan, Valiulla Hazrat Yakupov, posted on the Interfax religious blog, a complex situation in the Volga region was discussed. According to him, Muslim modernists are capturing not only mosques but also seizing souls of both local state officials and law enforcement authorities.

Of course, creation of Fund which supports Islamic culture, science and education was a serious step in positive direction. This Fund began to provide assistance to traditional Muslim communities. But this assistance is obviously not enough because the state must possibly waive several principles of secularism that in Russia cannot and should not be as distilled as in the US. Rather the state in European spirit should adopt a position of protectionism towards the traditional Muslim communities. For this, there must be created some additional structures besides the above-mentioned Fund.

However this movement of the state must be bidirectional because without mutual movement towards the Muslim communities it is possible to return to the soviet atheistic model and to the ignorant interference of state officials into Muslims’ internal affairs. Muslim communities in Russia must also make their forward step, and actually this step has been long awaited by the state. Representatives of the traditional Islam must issue a fatwa to define at serious theological level criteria of distinction between traditional Islam existed for centuries and innovations of different kinds. This is necessary for Muslims, non Muslims, state officials and law enforcement authorities to understand what the difference between them is, and to enable normal Muslims to live peacefully and be protected from the possibility of being arrested by the police for simple reason of either having a beard, or attending morning prayer or covering head with a veil and so on.

Valiulla Hazrat is fairly raising the issue of Muslims separated from the state, at the level of a community, having no possibility to solve questions of their identity in legal framework where formally everybody is currently equal. It is noteworthy that having an agreement with the state, Muslims are entitled to expect the state would be their protector and backer of the Ummah. Till 1917 such protector of all Muslims was the tsar in the Orthodox Russian Empire, and in all mosques Muslims prayed for him in such capacity. Moreover, Muslims’ children were obliged to attend elementary Islamic schools to study their religion under pain of punishment.     

Today there is no monarchy in Russia, and it goes about the necessity to find other adequate contemporary forms of interaction between the state and the Muslim communities to prevent some foreign intelligent services controlled “missionaries” from destroying the communities from inside and to convert them into “the fifth column” of already non-Islamic states that have an intention to weaken our country by means of so called “controlled conflicts”. According to the agreement with Russia and based on Constitution of the Russian Federation we, Muslims, must protect our state from external and internal threats, we must be patriots of our country, and the state must help us to preserve our Muslim identity.   


Author: Ali Vyacheslav Polosin, PhD in Philosophy, Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the “Islam” magazine.


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