Bureaucratic theology and traditionalism: what is the difference between modern and traditional religiosity?

Today, scientists around the world are talking about the return of religion to the public space. The following words are often used: post-secularism, the return of religion, traditionalist upheaval. But in modern state traditionalism, there is a property that repels a traditionally thinking person, including a Muslim. More about the nature of this property read in the author's column for our publication by columnist for Realnoe Vremya, expert of the Centre for Islamic World Studies Karim Gaynullin.

Traditional and liberal society

As a definition of concepts, we should say: what kind of fault allows us to divide modern and traditional society? In terms of ideas and thought, this rift is associated with the formation of liberal ideology. Liberalism is the first political ideology — that is, the belief that not religious law, not the decision of God is the source of the sovereign's rule, but the free decision of the association of people.

The rejection of the divine mandate from the government was made by English thinker and theologian Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes himself is hardly a liberal, but he influenced liberalism very much. Hobbes, in his work “Leviathan”, did not consider the sovereign's rule as a direct decision of God — he called the source of his rule the decision of people to swear an oath to one person to stop the total war of “all against all”, that is, to get out of the state of anarchy, which is not beneficial to anyone.

It was Hobbes' thought that influenced another English thinker, John Locke. Locke himself was engaged in trade, and his political thought is inspired by market concepts. For Locke, the source of government is not an oath, but a contract of equal subjects, similar to a market contract. This is called the “social contract” — the concept underlying the liberal doctrine of the state.

The concept of “equal subject” is very important. Here the second difference between the traditional society and the states of Modern history is manifested.

The “equal subject” of the three ideologies of modernism — liberalism, communism and fascism — can also be defined through the concept of “atomic”. This means that a person's political status in no way depends on his social stratum, and all collective identities of a person are not politically important. The unit of government is a person with his individual rights, not society. Yes, the person himself, with the ideas and interests present in him, is different from other people — but these differences are not of a functional nature, because they do not manifest themselves in his legal status. All of them are depoliticised, hence the separation of the Church from politics.

In this sense, the Medieval model is radically different from the modern one. The medieval state can be imagined as an association of different societies — guilds of merchants, knights' orders, peasant communities, churches or Islamic waqfs. Man was not conceived outside the framework of his society. This is less radically expressed in Islamic culture, more — in Hindu culture. But the man, one way or another, politically was something more than himself, lonely — he was a member of the community, engaged in a common cause.


Despite the apparent advantage of this approach — the freedom of politics from any form of collective identity — it also has its own problems. Politics is not just any of the spheres of life, but the “liberation of politics from religion” is not just some self-evident truth.

Power is related to how we will manage and build our lives. Therefore, the question of the structure of the world, as well as the structure of one's own life, is paramount.

Hence the question arises — if such an important institution that regulates public life is not built on the basis of any collective values, except for maintaining the atomic character of the population through “freedoms”, then what values should the individual have? Moreover, it comes to the point that the family is already deprived of the right to “impose” their ideas on how to live on children. Where should individuals get values from?

Any young (and not only) person is constantly faced with the question: “How do I live?" Complete freedom breeds confusion. And confusion often generates a desire to get rid of such freedom.

This desire is a psychological prerequisite for the fascist's thinking. Fascism is also one of the ideologies of the alienated man of modernity. A lot of atomised people exist and live solely for the sake of maintaining the efficiency of the corporate state and its superiority. The power that exists in order to transform the world in accordance with the highest values becomes a value itself, replacing everything related to the Highest Order.

We saw the most pronounced implementation of such a corporate state in the 20th century. Humanity faced a total state mobilsation, which led to two world wars, the bloodiest in history.

Religion was directly involved in this struggle: what is more, in two sides of the conflict. However, it cannot be said that religion played a primary role here — after all, political ideologies do not tolerate competition on the basis of controlling the human soul.

Who is the bearer of divine truth?

In the post-secular era, religion returns to the public space. But here it faces a modernist state, while the religious community itself is just being formed.

The state turns to religion to realise its own interests. But the religion postulated by officials and the religion postulated by the clergy are very different from each other. When the secular state officials get the right to interpret religion, not the clergy and religious jurists, we can talk about such a phenomenon as “bureaucratic theology”.

In the pre-modern, traditional society, there was a strong and influential spiritual estate. In the formation of the modern state, the clerics were subjected to all kinds of persecution, up to complete extermination.

We can understand this based on our own history. In the Kazan Khanate and other Horde political formations, there was a whole stratum of “Sayyids” — descendants of the Prophet Muhammad, engaged in spiritual affairs. It was an institution that had the opportunity to interpret religious norms. One can imagine that it was extremely influential and even able to impose “correct” ideas about religion on the state.

Already in the Russian Empire, the clergy, represented by Sufi mentors, became an important institution protecting the Muslims of the Urals and the Volga region from religious assimilation. It not only fought against Christianisation, including violent (the uprising of Mullah Batyrsha), but also opposed the rudiments and borrowings of pagan rituals. Besides, it acted as an intermediary in communication between the Muslim community and the Russian state.

It is difficult to overestimate the influence of this institution, at least in that it stands at the origins of the Tatar nation. After all, the legalisation of the concept of “Tatars” belongs to the Sufi mentor and Hanafi mufti Shigabutdin Marjani. Thus, the Tatar nation itself comes from the Muslim community of the Ural-Volga region, led by the clergy.

That is why the Bolsheviks, after the Great Break, so furiously tried to destroy any hints of the existence of the Muslim clergy, whether it was “reactionary” (Kadimists) or “progressive” (Jadids). So the head of the second eastern department of the NKVD, H.S. Petrosyan, wrote about it: “I replied that there was essentially no difference between them, that we would beat both of them, without uniting anyone else.”

The new Bolshevik communist ideology could not tolerate competition in the religious field, having gathered itself to become the sole ruler of souls. The religious character of Bolshevism was expressed by communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci: “Socialism is exactly the religion that should kill Christianity. Religion in the sense that it [socialism] is a faith, it has its mystics and his practices: religion, because it replaced the transcendent god of Catholics in the minds of people with the faith in man and his best powers as the only spiritual reality”.

Today, the Muslim community in Tatarstan is forced to generate spiritual teachers for itself almost from scratch. To the credit of the Tatarstan leadership, it does not directly interfere in the affairs of the Muslim community, allowing Muslims to determine religious attitudes for themselves and educate spiritual teachers.

The Kemalist ideology in Turkey also actively fought with the Islamic clergy in the face of Sufi Tariqas. But this manifested itself in a milder form than in communist Russia. Some tariqas made a deal with the authorities, limiting their religious aspirations to secular Kemalist ideology — and some went underground, which created the phenomenon of Turkish secret “jamaats”. Today, these Sufi tariqas have become actors in the return of religion to public policy.

However, the Turkish bureaucracy of the ruling party also plays a big role in this “return”. The fact that in addition to the official establishment, there is also a strong role of religious jamaats, allows the latter to disagree with the “only true” position of officialdom. Due to the huge inflation in Turkey, Erdogan called for the abandonment of interest rates corresponding to the inflation rate — saying that interest is prohibited in Islam as usury. This was opposed by Cubbeli Ahmed Hoja, who occupies one of the most important positions in the Turkish Jamaat “Ismail Aga”. He said that interest rates corresponding to the inflation rate do not contradict Islam, adding that it is necessary “either to introduce Sharia or not to use religion in your rhetoric”:

“Listen, this situation is causing great damage to Islam. I don't know if they know about it, but we see it from the inside. If you continue this economic policy and people end up impoverished, then everyone will start blaming Islam. There are fatwas that say that [in the current conditions] interest can be fixed in relation to the depreciation of money [inflation].” (translation: “The Voice of Turkey”)

The conflict between the religious rhetoric of Turkish officials who use religion for their own economic interests and the clergy of Turkish jamaats is the conflict between “traditional” and “official” theology.

The specifics of the existence of Orthodoxy in the Soviet state gave rise to the phenomenon of “Serginianism”, when the church, in order to preserve itself, was forced to make a deal with the atheistic Soviet government. The name of this phenomenon comes from the name of Metropolitan Sergius of Starogorod, who issued the Declaration of 1927, which described the form and principles of the existence of Orthodoxy in the Soviet state. Soviet Islam accepted similar conditions for itself.

The principles that formed the basis of “Serginianism” formed the basis of the principle of “bureaucratic theology” of the Soviet and post-Soviet times, when clerics are forced to accept those theological norms that the secular state imposes on them from above. The dispute over whether a beard is an attribute of Islam or not loses its intra-sharia plane and depends on the preferences of the apparatus of secular officials. In Soviet times, the Declaration of 1927 was a necessity, but how is the evolution of the church or the Muslim community in our time?

One shouldn't think that secular officialdom acts as a tolerant arbiter for the clergy. We see this in the example of India, where the Hindutva nationalist Hindu movement has recently begun to play a huge role. The latter is a clear example of “bureaucratic ideology” when a political party interferes in the sovereign affairs of religious communities. It destroys ancient mosques (like the Babri Masjid of the 16th century) and prohibits Muslim women from wearing headscarves in educational institutions.

(A Muslim woman stands alone against a crowd of Hindu nationalists, defiantly wearing a hijab to an educational institution)

In the “post-secular” upheaval that is taking place all over the world, including Russia, I see a big problem: by whom will it be carried out? If religion becomes the lot of secular officials, and not sincerely believing people who have devoted their lives to religion and do not betray its values out of political necessity, as it was in traditional society, we may find how the phenomenon of “official theology” turns into “religious fascism”. This can manifest itself even more strongly when a person, taken away from all collective identities, turns to religion for spiritual guidance — but translates it through the prism of modern political attitudes, turning for guidance not to religious authorities, but to the power and might embodied by the state.

Karim Gaynullin

The author's opinion may not coincide with the position of the editorial board of Realnoe Vremya.