Chief Imam: "Performing Ritual Sacrifice on the City Streets and Sidewalks is Savagery"

As the Muslim world celebrates its most sacred holidays, the Hajj and the Eid al-Adha, we spoke to St. Petersburg chief Imam Munir Beyusov about ritual sacrifices, radical Muslim youth and what it takes to preserve Islamic traditions today.

As the Muslim world celebrates of two of its most sacred holidays, the Hajj and the Eid al-Adha, we spoke to St. Petersburg chief Imam Munir Beyusov about ritual sacrifices, radical Muslim youth and what it takes to preserve Islamic traditions today.

Imam Munir, as we know, the feast of Eid al-Adha is preceded by the Hajj –the pilgrimage to Mecca. Do Muslims that don’t participate in the Hajj nevertheless pay attention to what is happening in Saudi Arabia during these days? What is required of Muslims during the Hajj, and what is the connection between the Hajj and celebration of Eid al-Adha?

Munir Beyusov: Of course all believers who observe the faith try to remain aware of all the events that are going on in Muslim countries; they worry about their fellow believers who travel to the birthplace of one of the three Abrahamic religions. The Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam; it is an event which takes place only once a year –within the first half of the month of Dhu al-Hijjah [‘the month of pilgrimage’]. This annual event plays a huge role in the Muslim world. Imagine the picture of over seven million people going to one place, where they greet one another and shake each other’s hands. Setting aside social, ethnic and other differences, during the pilgrimage all Muslims pray together, in the same breath. Actually, the word ‘Hajj’ – great pilgrimage, is sacred to us. According to the word of the Prophet Muhammad, if the Almighty accepts a pilgrim’s pilgrimage, he will be granted forgiveness and the fragrance of paradise.

When he chooses to go on the Hajj, the believer must first take courses to improve his religious knowledge, especially relating to the pilgrimage. While among the holy places, he is obliged to comply with the terms of the Hajj – to comply with local laws and to reject all that is bad.

Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, has ancient roots going back a thousand years, and is linked to the Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) and his son Ishmael. The Lord, testing his prophet, commanded him in a dream to sacrifice his son. But God does not need human blood. When Ibrahim confirmed his firmness of faith, God ordered him to sacrifice a lamb, and to let go of his son. These events occurred in those places where our pilgrims are now carrying out their pilgrimage. For their edification, the Lord commanded all the descendants of Abraham to perform the rite of pilgrimage, so that people will remember the enlightening history of the prophets. Therefore, the feast of Eid al-Adha has a deeper meaning. It teaches the value of human life, reminding believers that the blood of human beings should not be spilled on this Earth. This celebration teaches mercy. The meat of sacrificial animals is distributed to the poor for free, the orphans and the disabled – to those who do not have enough money to purchase expensive food.

Some Hajj organizers have noted that this year is the year of a special Hajj, the ‘Hajj Akbar’, similar to the one carried out by the Prophet Muhammad in his own time. This is connected to the fact that this time, the Day of Arafa will be celebrated on a special day, when the central rite of the Hajj –standing at Mount Arafat, is carried out. Could you please explain the difference between the Hajj Akbar and the normal Hajj, which is performed annually? How often does it occur?

Munir Beyusov: In reality, the Hajj Akbar is similar to a normal Hajj. Sometimes the Day of Arafa and the Friday day of ‘Dzuma’ [the day of collective Friday prayers] fall on the same day. This is a rare occurrence. The Arabs call this Hajj the ‘Hajj Akbar’ –‘The Great Hajj’. When the Prophet Muhammad made his pilgrimage, the day of standing on Mount Arafat coincided with a Friday. And in these days, according to legend, the Lord takes the prayers of believers.

What is the state of organization of the pilgrimage by the Saudi Arabian hosts? Do you have any comments or suggestions you would like to address to them?

Munir Beyusov: Personally, I cannot give any estimates on numbers, and can say only that each year the number of participants increases. Yes, due to foolishness and unwillingness to follow rules of safety, tragedies occur; there are cases of fires and people being trampled. Therefore we always ask our pilgrims to act respectably and be vigilant for their safety.

What, in your opinion, is the spiritual meaning of the Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr holidays, and their relevance today?

Munir Beyusov: As I’ve mentioned earlier, these holidays are a lesson for reflection. The Hajj calls for unity and consolidation, and the Feast of Sacrifice teaches mercy to those around you and those who are in need of help. The great ceremonies tell humanity ‘do not shed your blood, live in the world as brothers and sisters, do not follow Iblis, the Devil!’ The Hajj brings together people of different nationalities; they have varying cultures and languages. But all their differences do not prevent them from being together and living in peace. Today in the world we do not have enough understanding and respect for one another. More and more often, people chase after material wealth, and many hearts have lost their faith, have lost the ideals of kindness toward their parents and neighbors. The holidays make us stop and reflect on these topical issues.

Why is the Eid al-Adha, like the holiday of Eid al-Fitr, celebrated for three days? When was this tradition established? How do Muslims spend these days after the Eid prayer? What kinds of traditions of celebration are there?

Munir Beyusov: The number days for the holidays are connected to the life of Prophet Muhammad. He celebrated for three days, and so we do so as well. During the holidays, the faithful give alms, children are given gifts, and people visit their parents, relatives and each other. The meat of sacrificial animals is used to prepare meals, and guests are invited into homes. Everyone prays for the well-being of our country, and for the Almighty to forgive the souls of the dead. In St. Petersburg, the holiday is celebrated like it is elsewhere. On October 5, in honor of Eid al-Adha, the local Tatar community will hold a Majlis, a get-together where everyone sits, at a city café, which will be open to all the Muslims in the city.

Moscow in recent years has banned the slaughter of sacrificial animals within city limits, and the right is performed at specially-designated farms and slaughterhouses in the Moscow Region. How are things in St. Petersburg in this regard? What has been common practice in previous years, and will there be any changes this time?

Munir Beyusov: Performing the rite of sacrifice in the city, on its streets and sidewalks would be an act of savagery; anyone who does so acts contrary to the canons of our religion. Islam calls for cleanliness and tidiness. I always encourage my fellow believers to strictly adhere to the laws and to only conduct the slaughter ceremony in specially-designated places. There are several places allocated for this purpose. Anyone who is interested will receive detailed information during the time of the Friday prayers.

In the past, you have served as an advisor to the chief of the Nizhny Novgorod Region’s police and a member of the force’s Public Council. How would you assess the current level of cooperation between the Muslim community and local authorities, including law enforcement? Is there complete mutual understanding, or do some inconsistencies still exist? Have there been any incidents during Eid al-Adha in the past?

Munir Beyusov: It is true; the holding of these sorts of large-scale events requires a great deal of strength both from religious organizations, and from local authorities. Thankfully, we have a record of warm dialogue and cooperation with the authorities; they always work to meet our needs. Provocations may occur, but we will not allow anyone to ‘rock the spiritual boat.’

Just how many Muslims are there in the St. Petersburg and the Leningrad Region? Is the community increasing in size, or is it being maintained at a stable level? How many people usually come to pray at the mosque during the holidays of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr? Is there a shortage of places for the faithful during major holidays?

Munir Beyusov: The number of Muslims is growing; this is connected mainly to an increase in migration. Exactly how many Muslims there are I cannot say, but it is probably a million, and maybe more. During the holidays, we receive about seventy thousand people. The two existing mosques in the city cannot accommodate so many believers. The authorities have suggested that we rent additional space during the holiday period. As far as I am aware, these questions have not yet been resolved.

One often hears that Muslim youth are susceptible to a variety of radical pseudo-Islamic movements. The reasons cited include youthful maximalism, problems related to social integration and a variety of others. How serious is this problem in your region? How do you work to prevent extremism among young people and within the Muslim community generally?

Munir Beyusov: The trend toward extremism has indeed become a kind of disease, especially among young people. Radicalization has its underlying causes. First of all, it is a lack of proper upbringing and parental control. Secondly, there is a lack of competent imams who could communicate the correct traditional values intelligently. Thirdly, we face a lack of our own websites and literature. All the heresy and ideological contagion comes through the Internet. To this day, pseudo-Islamic Russian language sites remain open. They sew an anti-Russian ideology and discord in the minds of our young men.

We are fighting extremism on a daily basis. We conduct lectures, write articles and deliver sermons. Extremism can be destroyed only under one condition: we, the imams of traditional Islam must work much more actively than the radicals. As long as our imams remain passive, this disease will not be possible to cure.

In recent months, the Russian and foreign media have discussed and debated the politics of Ukrainian authorities in the Donbas, as well as the actions of the militants of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which had proclaimed a caliphate on the territory of these countries. How are these international events viewed by the Muslim community, given their present and potential effects on Russia?

Munir Beyusov: For my part, I have from the beginning supported the balanced and competent position of President Vladimir Putin. In my prayers, I always ask the Almighty for the establishment of peace as soon as possible in our fraternal country of Ukraine. As we know, power in Ukraine was grabbed by people who glorify the ideas of fascism. Oligarchs, supported by the West, began a war against their own people. Sensible people who did not want to submit to the will of the nationalists chose to defend their values, losing their homes as a result. Our grandparents also came face to face with fascism, but the Lord gave them the strength to defeat it. Speaking frankly, if a need arises to fight for the independence and integrity of my country, I will follow the example of my ancestors, and will defend my homeland without any hesitation.

The world is experiencing processes related to global change. In the Middle East, a series of revolutions resulted in turmoil and unrest. The new leaders in the Arab countries are not capable of halting the growth of radicalism. The so-called Islamic State consists of “soldiers of fortune” –international terrorists. They don’t care about the welfare of the people; they are fighting for money, and their goal, I believe, is to weaken the positions of Russia, Iran and the supporters of Bashar al-Assad. The IS has nothing to do with Islam. This is a gang of misfits, who failed to make anything out of themselves in their own countries.

Imam Munir, one final question. What will you tell believers when you address them with a festive sermon on the occasion of Eid al-Adha? What can you wish Muslims on this day?

Munir Beyusov: In my sermon, I will try to convey to believers the most important aspects of the Eid al-Adha – I will talk about the meaning of the holiday and its origins. I will touch on the topic of equality among all people, and the importance of respect toward all people; all things in the world are fleeting, but the spirit is forever. I will call on them to be useful to their country –to Russia.

I sincerely wish all my fellow believers well and that they are healthy and strong in their faith. May the Lord reward your good deeds with his endless mercy!

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