Chapter 6. Reformism: a Re-evaluation of Religious Thought

(on Vaisov’s sect)

For Volga Tatar reformers, nonconformism meant much more than the campaign being waged against scholasticism. It designated a whole spectrum of religious attitudes, including puritanism, mysticism, and even a renewed, more tolerant view of the Shiite sect. In fact, a re-evaluation of the Sunni/Shiite relationship had reached even the more conservative regions of Central Asia, and in 1907, the kazi of Ashkhabad, Haji Mir Ibrahim, recommended a union between the Shiite and Sunni Muslims in a fatwa (opinion on an issue of Muslim canonic law) delivered in Khiva. It seems, however, that the still conservative Central Asia was not ready to consider this recommendation seriously, and the violent clashes between the two sects that took place in Bukhara during the winter of 1910 were a testimony to the enduring animosities. The Volga Tatars, however, remained consistently tolerant toward the Shiites and even collected money to send to the Emir of Bukhara for distribution among those who had suffered during the violence.

The Volga Tatars did not extend the same toleration toward the puritanical, extremist religious sect of the Vaisites, known among the Russians as the Vaisov Bozhii polk. This lack of tolerance was based primarily on the fact that the social and political views of the Vaisites, who advocated an isolationist Utopia, conflicted with the Tatars' own determination to achieve progress and gain more rights within the existing state structure.

The Vaisites were a puritanical Muslim Sufi sect, founded in Kazan in 1862 by Bahaeddin Vaisi and directed against the authority of the Russian state and its institutions, which they refused to recognize. [63] They claimed to be the only true heirs of the ancient Bulgars, and always used the name Bulgar instead of Tatar. Theirs was, in fact, a diferent response to the economic and russifying pressures the Tatars confronted during the nineteenth century. Rather than emigrating or becoming reformists they took a passive stand.

Chiefly peasants and impoverished craftsmen, the Vaisites advocated a "return to the land of Bulgar instead of emigration to Turkey." [64] They argued that those who accepted the authority of the infidels were not Muslims anymore, and they called for strong opposition to civil registration. They also refused to pay taxes, perform military service, or attend mosques where prayer was led by mullahs who had conformed to the requirements of the Russian language examination. [65] They seceded from the Muftiat, organized their own autonomous Muslim leadership, and established a Chancellery of Muslim Old Believers. [66]

The conservatism of the Vaisites brought pressure upon them from two different directions: from the Russian government and from the majority of Tatars, who favored reform and development rather than a return to the distant past. In 1884, the Vaisite prayer house was closed, and the founder of the sect, Bahaeddin, was exiled to Siberia along with many of his disciples. Those who remained in Kazan were rounded up and brought to trial. [67]

The activity of the sect was revived in 1906 by Bahaeddin's son, Inan, as a result of the more tolerant laws regarding religion enacted after 1905. However, a denunciation of the sect soon came – from one of its own members, a Kazan meat merchant named Abdulla Kildishev. [68]

Despite this denunciation and the general contempt in which they were held, the Vaisites maintained a following until 1917, when they emerged on the national scene on the side of the Bolsheviks. The alliance between the atheistic Bolsheviks and the ultraconservative splinter Sufi sect could be regarded as unusual, although not surprising. What led to this strange rapprochement of Vaisites with Bolsheviks was not a common ideology; perhaps it was the social program of the Russian Social Democrats and the promises for self-determination that they made. [69]


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63. The Vaisites called themselves Naqshbandi, but they were a totally different group from the Naqshbandis of Kazan. Chantal Quelquejay, "Le Vaisisme a Kazan," Le monde O'Islam 1 – 2 (1959): 95.

64. M. Sagidullin, K istorii Vaisovskogo dvizheniia (Kazan, 1930), p. 20. It is conceivable that the extreme nationalism of the Vaisites, and their hope for the restoration of the land of Bulgar, were in response to their economic and social situation rather than an expression of a clearly defined religious doctrine.

65. The Vaisites were really swimming against the current because the number of Muslim mullahs who learned Russian had registered a steady increase. The law of July 16, 1888, concerning the educational census of Muslim clerics was enforced on January 1, 1891. On that date, 31 mullahs successfully passed the Russian-language examination (according to the information provided by the governor-general of Kazan). Also, one-third of the medrese students were learning Russian. N. N. Firsov, Proshloe Tatarii (Kazan, 1926), p. 34. At the same time, the Tatars had become more and more interested in zemstvo activities, although they were seldom elected to the zemstvo boards. See B. Veselovskii, Istoriia zemstva za sorok let, vol. 1 (St. Petersburg, 1909-1911), pp. 213-14.

66. The anarchism of the Vaisites closely resembles that of the Russian Old Believer sects, with whom they might have been acquainted. See Chantal Quelquejay, "Le Vaisisme a Kazan," p. 100. For another account of the Vaisite sect, see E. V. Molostvova, "Vaisov Bozhii polk," Mir Islama 2 (1912): 143–52.

67. "Posledovatel' Vaisova," Kazanskii birzhevoi listok 130 (1891): 2.

68. For a detailed account of this incident and some of the practices of the Vaisites, see N. O. Katanov, Novye dannye o Musul'manskoi sekte Vaisovtsev (Kazan, 1909), pp. 7-16.

69. The Bolsheviks, in fact, armed the Vaisites in September 1917, a month before the October coup, and thus the Vaisites became the only Tatar group to fight alongside the Russian workers and soldiers in October. A rather embarrassed explanation of this cooperation has been provided by Sagidullin in K istorii Vaisovskogo dvizheniia, p. 13.