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Land and faith. What is the specificity of Crimean Tatar Islam?

This article was originally published on The Ukrainian Week and appeared on by the courtesy of the author.

Mykhaylo Mykhaylovych Yakubovych In a recent online event dedicated to the coexistence of Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, a Crimean Tatar activist put forward a notable thesis. In her opinion, the Crimean Tatars are a people who should not be perceived through the prism of religion, since they had originally been pagans (like almost all neighboring peoples in the Early Middle Ages), later became Christians, and only afterwards and quite recently they became Muslims. From the point of view of historical religion studies, this opinion seems controversial, because the mass conversion of Crimean Tatars to Islam actually took place against the background of folk beliefs, not Christianity. Obviously, the speaker was trying to emphasize the fact that the ethnogenesis of the Crimean Tatars was influenced not as much by the Turks as by the Greeks, the Genoese and other peoples who inhabited Crimea.

In the history of religions there were virtually no facts when Islam would massively displace Christianity, and Christianity, on the contrary, would be replaced by Islam. In the territories where one of the Abrahamic religions has established itself, confessional transitions can undoubtedly take place, even at the level of ethnic or social groups, often for some reason "offended" by the confessional majority, but no one has ever documented truly massive transitions. Even in the Arab world, where Christianity had existed for several hundred years, the "rapid Islamisation" of the 7th and 8th centuries was more likely to affect the "pagans", i.e. those tribes that remained committed to local polytheism.

Crimean Tatars leave the mosque. Drawing by Auguste Raffe, 19th century.

Returning to today´s Crimean Tatars, we more and more often perceive such statements that Islam is not an obstacle to dialogue with others, that Crimean Tatars practice a somewhat "different Islam" from other Muslim peoples, and that there is a clear tendency among them to distance themselves from other Turkic peoples through the term "Qirimli/Qrymni". This implies that they are a separate European indigenous people with their own distinct identity, and therefore should not be put in one row with other "eastern" ethnic groups. In a situation where, unfortunately, the "Islamic world" is rather sluggish in its response to the actions of the aggressor country (and often even approves of them), this distancing is largely politically charged. But have the Crimean Tatars really developed their own "special Islam" (if such is possible at all) and how has their religious identity revealed itself in the difficult historical circumstances of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries?

Ummah and homeland.

Talking about Christianity, for instance, we often imagine a theory (internal religious feelings on the emotional level and doctrines on the rational level) and a practice intertwined with it, from participation in church life to a certain behavior model based on religious principles. This scheme generally suits when it comes to Islam, except for the church, which Muslims do not formally have. Instead, involvement in a community of believers at the local level or in a global ummah is of major importance. It is worth looking at what exactly corresponds to these components in the Crimean Tatar religious tradition.

One can argue a lot about the impact of the Golden Horde on the formation of the Crimean Tatar ethnos, but concerning religion this influence was extremely powerful. First of all, because the final Islamisation of Crimea - both of the elite and the general public - was accomplished in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and since then Islam has become the political, cultural and social dominant not only on the peninsula but also in the neighbouring Black Sea region. What was this Islam like? Referring to the doctrine, we mainly find the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, i.e. typologically the Islam that is still practised by most Turkic peoples from Central Asia to Anatolia.

Carlo Bossoli - Palace of the Crimean Khan in Bakhchisarai, 1857

Since Islam, like Christianity, has a certain tradition of spiritual succession, the influence of people from today’s Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, and Iran is recorded in the networks of knowledge transmission from one generation of scholars to the next. Some of them settled in Crimea and continued to teach, others had many traveling students, and yet others moved on after visiting Crimea, namely to Syria and Egypt under the Mamluk Sultanate, and later to Ottoman Anatolia. Crimea became a kind of transit point in the north, not only adopting the Islamic tradition from the east, but also transmitting it further south and even west (many migrants from Crimea put down roots in the Balkans). Such a broad geographical context could not but affect Crimean Islam itself: there were, for example, various Sufi brotherhoods (none of which dominated), quite strong local ethnic beliefs, often borrowed from pre-Islamic times etc. One can say, that the Qirimli were beginning to form their own regional identity, in synchrony with similar processes throughout the Muslim world.

In the period of the Crimean Khanate, which was the 15th to 18th centuries, one feature that can be considered specifically Crimean has developed, that is the sacralisation of the homeland. Islam generally prefers either global (belonging to the ummah) or tribal identity, but in the case of Crimea, geography is a significant factor. Firstly, the natives of the peninsula almost always retained their toponymic name "Qirimi", and secondly, there are many works where belonging to Crimea was positioned as a constituent of religious consciousness. For example, Ibrahim al-Qirimi (who died in 1593), the teacher of Khan Devlet I Giray and later of the Ottoman Sultan Murad III, considered Crimea to be the beginning and end of the historical circle of the world soul. A later author, Qutb al-Din al-Qirimi, who left the peninsula after the Russian annexation in 1783 (now called the "first" annexation), wrote in his treatise that Crime´s falling into the "hands of infidels" was a divine punishment and nearly a sign of the end of the world.

Among Crimean emigrants the theme of returning home was constantly present. For instance, Mahmud al-Kafawi, a well-known biographer of the sixteenth century, recalled various facts from the lives of his countrymen, including the Crimean Sufi sheikh Taqi al-Din, who, after years of travelling, returned home to his bride. Al-Kafawi turned a typical and emotionally poor biography of a sheikh into a bright literary work. There are many explanations for this "nationalisation" of Islam, but the main factors include the formation of a settled civilisation surrounded by predominantly nomadic communities and, accordingly, the emergence of a new identity, the awareness of an own political tradition (khanate rule) with a significant geopolitical scope.

Noman Chelebidzhikhan

The first Russian occupation in 1783, despite the empire's attempts to make the Crimean Tatars a loyal majority, was generally ineffective. Unlike the Muslim peoples of the imperial hinterlands (like the banks of the Volga or northern Kazakhstan), Crimea was located on the border with Turkey and the Balkans, and the Crimean Tatars themselves preferred to leave rather than integrate into the community of prisoners of the "prison of nations". However, it was primarily the so-called "Nogai", i.e. the descendants of the nomadic part of Crimean Tatar society who left, having a weaker attachment to their homeland. The remaining part of the Crimean Tatars continued to develop close ties with the Ottoman Empire and other parts of the Islamic world. It is not by coincidence that such an outstanding personality as the educator and reformer Ismail Gasprinsky (1851-1914) emerged in Crimea.

Further attempts by the Crimean Tatar people to build up a national state taking advantage of the window of opportunity of 1917-1918 were suppressed by Bolshevik expansion. But they paved the way for a struggle in which religious and national issues were perceived as an entity. Representatively, the leader of the Crimean People's Republic, Noman Chelebidzhikhan, was both a political figure and a spiritual leader. A lot can be said about the role of Islam in the Crimean Tatars' struggle for their rights in the twentieth century, but in most cases we rather come across modern nationalism, in which religion is not so much about belonging to a global ummah as it is underlying a national, specifically "Crimean" identity.

The theme of homeland bonds was extremely fostered by the trauma of criminal deportation in 1944. Finding themselves in the Islamic environment of Soviet Uzbekistan, Crimean Tatars went through an experience of religious decline and revival like the peoples of Central Asia - except that many of them did not regard themselves "at home" and were awaiting to return to their true homeland. In the early 1990s completely new processes began here, which today largely determine the face of Crimean Tatar Islam.

Formal and "true" Islam

In 1991, following the model of other republics of the USSR, the Crimean Tatar community established the Qadiyat of Muslims of Crimea (later renamed into Muftiate), headed by Seitjelil Ibrahimov, a graduate of the only higher Islamic school in the USSR, namely the Miri-Arab Madrasah in Bukhara. The Qadiyat went through several transformations, but in the late 1990s it was a centralized structure controlled by the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, headed by a mufti. A situation arose that later caused many problems: ideologically, the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar people, acting without official recognition, was based on nationalist ideology, and the corresponding religious structure was fully controlled by the secular one, in much the same way as other spiritual administrations in post-Soviet countries were incorporated into the system of the power vertical.

Seitjelil Ibrahimov

Formally, the Muftiate had control over the entire network of rebuilt and newly constructed mosques, but the late 1990s and especially the early 2000s revealed a crisis in religious life. The vacuum of authority and the inability to respond to the current challenges became a window of opportunity for various transnational Muslim movements (Hizb ut-Tahrir al-Islami and others). Just as in other regions of the post-Soviet space, a gap has emerged between "ethnic Muslims" and those who have begun to realize their Islamic identity. Simply put, full-fledged religious practice (prayers, fasting, etc.) became associated with various "non-traditional" Islamic movements. In general, the Crimean Tatar community has experienced and is experiencing the same processes as in other regions of the post-atheistic space: there was a Muftiate associated with formal religiosity, and various movements new to Crimea that promoted "true Islam".

In and out of occupation

The crisis of authority became even more pronounced after the "second" occupation of Crimea in 2014. While before that, speaking at the Crimean Euromaidan, Mufti Emirali Ablaev had called for the fallen heroes to be buried as martyrs (even though they were not Muslims), today the Crimean Muftiate in its entirety supports the Russian "special operation", writes "reports" on disloyal Muslims, praises Russian policy in Crimea in every possible way, demonstrating full loyalty to the occupation authorities.

Those Crimean Tatars who moved to mainland Ukraine and formed (not without the influence of the Mejlis) an alternative Spiritual Direction of Muslims of Crimea, dealt with a whole conglomerate of religious movements - from Salafism ("Wahhabism") to members of various Turkish "Jamaats", later also "Hizb ut-Tahrir", etc. It is remarkable, though, that national unity outweighed religious differences: the communities managed not only to elect a mufti, but also to build a decentralized system of relations, where the units have a certain degree of autonomy, and to establish cooperation with various institutions in the Muslim world. In fact, Ayder Rustemov, the Mufti of the mainland Crimean SDM, became a spokesperson for the Crimean Tatars, also at various international platforms.

Ayder Rustemov

However, in today's context, it is extremely difficult to trace any single and specifically "Islamic" narrative among Crimean Tatars: there are more and more movements, approaches and visions, some of which are secular, some religious, liberal and conservative, but ideologically almost all of them are tied to Crimea as a kind of "sacred territory", in much the same way as hundreds of years ago. This "Crimeanness" has, in fact, become the key to coexistence between Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians, where religious differences, no matter how significant, fade into the background.

While for the secular Crimean Tatars, the de-occupation of Crimea is a guarantee of national revival, for religiously minded people it is also about Islamic revival, even if in a secular state. Much can be said about the success or failure of Russian propaganda, including religious propaganda (about Russia being a "friend and protector of Muslims"), but except for Central Asian labour migrants fleeing to Moscow from economic despair, Russia has not become a coveted destination for Muslims. And it is unlikely to become one due to its everyday racism and cultural racism, numerous anti-Islamic bans and persecution.

The Crimean Tatar community faces a difficult existential choice: either to leave the occupied peninsula (where the share of Crimean Tatars has already fallen below 10%) or to stay in their homeland and pave the arduous path, where some will go into internal migration, others will cooperate with the occupiers (the latter are still the least), and others will wait for liberation. No matter how hard some religious figures try to isolate themselves from the political situation, it is becoming increasingly clear that even the Islamic revival (primarily at the level of values and cultural guidelines) is directly linked to the future of Crimea. It seems that historical fate has not yet provided other options for Crimean Tatar Islam.

About the author: Mykhaylo Mykhaylovych Yakubovych (Ukrainian: Михайло Михайлович Якубович, born 1986) - is a translator and scholar of Islamic Studies from Ukraine. He received his PhD from the National University of Ostroh Academy where he worked as an Associate Professor and researcher in Islamic Studies. He later moved to Uni Freiburg, Germany. He conducted his research on the Medieval Islam during his fellowships in Poland (2008, 2009), Italy (2009, 2011), Saudi Arabia (2010) and United States (Princeton, Institute for Advanced Study, 2014). He published few books, numerous articles and translations in various scientific journals in Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Great Britain and Turkey ("Religion, State and Society", "Journal of Ottoman Studies", "Yearbook of Muslims in Europe" etc.). He completed the first full translation of the Qur’an into the Ukrainian language, approved for publishing by the King Fahd Glorious Qur’an Printing Complex (Madinah, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) and released in 2013 (second edition: Kyiv, 2015). He is a member of the research projects on the reception of the Arabic culture in Poland (2013-2015, 2016-2018, Warsaw University).

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