Russia seeks to uphold the moderate Muslim cause

Islamic Scholars at the Moscow Unity Conference made a mark in the history of Russian Muslim ummah


United We Stand: Scholars at the Moscow Unity Conference hosted on Oct 19-20, 2016

Apart from the proxy war on terror being fought on Syrian soil between Daesh and other terrorist organizations and theMoscow-led coalition, another war is being fought on the ideological front for protecting Russian Muslims from being influenced by extremist ideology. The Russian authorities have sought help from Cairo and Tehran to achieve this foreign policy goal to moderate the Muslim population.

Moscow and Grozny, the capital of Chechnya (formerly part of the Soviet Union), have been actively trying to protect their Muslim population from Saudiinfuence. An international conference on The Followers of Sunnah Who are they? was held in Grozny this August, while Moscow recently hosted aconferneceon Islamic Unity: Bais of Discourse over October 19-20. It was jointly organised by the Tehran-based World Forum for Proximity of Islamic Schools of Thought (WFPIST) and the Russian Council of Muftis.

Scores of eminent Islamic scholars and leaders participated in this conference, notably Syed Muhammad Ashraf Kichawchawi, founder-president of All India Ulama and Mashaikh Board and Syed Salman Chishti of the World Sufi Forum who is also associated with the prime Khanqah in IndiaAjmer Sharif.

The Moscow conference was attended by more than 200 representatives from Russia, Iran and Turkey as well as countries from Europe, the Middle East, Northern Africa and South-East Asia. A leading Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Mohsen Araki, led a delegation of Shia and Sunni scholars to the conference.

The Islamic scholars and clerics at the conference asserted that extremism should be fought with full vigour and underlined the importance of imparting rightful knowledge of Islam to the new generations by publishing journals, and organizing conferences and workshops for religious scholars. They resolved to publish Islamic literature in Russian and also organise similar conferences every year.

The Bureau of Russian Muslim Scholars had clearly said that the aim of the conference was to find common ground, based on Quranic teachings and Islamic viewpoints, for interaction among different Islamic denominations and measures for more proximity among different Islamic schools of thought.

During the conference, the Egyptian Grand Imam of al-Azhar University in Cairo, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb, said that Salafists (read Wahabis) were not part of Sunni Muslims. The scholar attendees, most of them well-known in the Muslim world, clearly said that groups like Daesh, which fight under the banner of Islam, have no links to Sunnis whatsoever.

According to online Arabic language Ray-al-Yaum website, the Egyptian Grand Muftis remarks caused much anger among pro-government clerics in Saudi Arabia. They said that the rhetoric was aimed at weakening Wahabism practised in Saudi Arabia and establishing a new, dominant Sunni leadership under the auspices of Al-Azhar in Egypt.

HEAR HIM: Egyptian grand imam of Al-Azhar University Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib

The Grozny conference was also attended by Sheikh Muhammad Saad al-Azhari, a moderate Egyptianshcolar, who is also religious affairs adviser to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. He is widely known in the Arab world for his anti-jihadist ideology of Daesh and for refuting theredicalbooks followed by Wahabis.

According to Ghulam Rasool Dehlavi, a scholar of comparative religion, a considerablenumnberof Indian scholars, including Sheikh Abu Bakr Ahmad of Jamia Markaz Saqafa Sunniya (Kerala) and Sheikh Anwar Ahmad al-Baghdadi of JamiaAlimia(UP) participated in the Grozny conference to articulate an Islamic narrative of peace and counter terror.

The alarm bells were sounded by Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan during his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 31, 2013, when he threatened terrorist attacks during the Winter Olympics in February 2014, should Moscow continue supporting the Assad regime in Syria. The threat was revealed in a leaked transcript by the Beirut-based As-Safir. Al-Monitor, a credible Middle East news agency carried the English translation.

Bandar was quoted as saying, I can give you a guarantee to protect the Winter Olympics next year (in Sochi). The Chechen groups that threaten the security of the games are controlled by us. Bandar also allegedly stated that Chechen terrorists currently in Syriawere a tool that could be used at will. He went on to say that these groups do not scare us. We use them in the face of the Syrian regime but they will have no role or influence in Syrias political future.

TheTelegraph, London, reported that Bandar allegedly said that he was speaking with the full backing of the US government. At the same time, Bandar promised, if Russian conceded, to safeguard the Russian naval base in Syria should Assad be forced out of power. He also offered a sweeping oil deal and a pledge to safeguard Russias gas contracts should it abandon support for the Assad government.

During this meeting, President Vladimir Putin reportedly responded, We know that you have supported the Chechen terrorist groups for a decade. And the support you have frankly talked about just now is completely incompatible with the common objectives of fighting global terrorism that you mentioned. Putin warned Saudi Arabia of potentially severe consequences, suggesting military retaliation, if Bandars implied warning was followed by actual terrorist attacks. He further said, Our stance on Assad will never change. We believe that the Syrian regime is the best speaker on behalf of Syrian people, and not those liver eaters, referring to the rebels. Bandar dared to say that there would be no escape from the military option if Russia were to decline the Saudi terms of accord. According to, Bandar approached Putin once again with the deal.

Patrick Henningsen, of 21WIRE, analyzed that the Prince stated that if his offer is accepted, then Saudi Arabia would not sign any contracts damaging Russian interestsby allowing Gulf countries to transport gas through Syria, to the Mediterranean, paid for with Saudi cash.

He further said, in 2013, this would explain exactly why both the Saudis and Qataris, both staunch allies of Britain and the US, have been financing this confab of rebels and terrorist brigades in Syria for the last two years.

According to Tehran-based Arabic Al-Alam TV channel, Putin then redoubled his support for the Syrian government in response to Bandars bribes and warnings. Quoting sources, the network said Russia also issued its own thinly veiled threats against the Saudis. The Saudis may have substantial soft power with their oil and money, but Russia has its own formidable hard power, including a huge military, the sources were quoted saying.

In October 2013, a bomb was exploded on a bus in the southern city of Volgograd, a few hundred kilometers from Sochi, the venue of the Winter Olympics. A female suicide bomber was considered responsible for the bombing which killed at least five people. According to Drew Zahn of, in December the same year, 18 people were killed in a suicide bombing at Volgograd train station, which was followed by atrollybussuicide bombing claiming another 16 lives.

Ghulam Rasool Dehlavi says that the Wahabi version of Islam, underpinned by Ibn Taimiyas Mihajal-Sunnah and Ibn Abdul Wahabs Kitab al-Tawheed, still has to be confronted in a consistent and coherent way. Wahabism took root in India when the earliest Salafism-inspired Indian clerics like Syed Ahmed Shaheed RaiBarelwiand Maulana Ismail Dehlavi wrote several books. They misconstrued the term jihad for the first time in India as the straight path to rebellion, separatism and wanton killing of infidels.

According to a report written by Paul Goble, an American analyst, in June 2009, for the first time after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Moscow hosted the senior Muslim leaders from eight post-Soviet states to discuss the formation of the coordination council that would orrespondto government policy. The whole idea was mooted by the Baku-based Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of the Caucasus, Sheikhul Islam Allahshukr Pasha-zade, whose institution in Soviet times administered all Shia Muslim communities in the USSR as well as Sunnis of the Caucasus.

Moreover, Goble, in a recent article, on October 20, says that Putin is seeking to reduce or even eliminate divisions among the four legal schools of Sunni Islam and create in their stead a uniquely Russian unified Muslim faith.

However, Mairbek Vatchagaev, while analysing the Grozny conference, wrote in September this year that the Russian government will almost certainly use the Grozny conference resolution condemning Salafists. But he further says that the dispute within Sunni Islam will continue to drag on for a long time.

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