Damir Mukhetdinov is Head of the Centre for Islamic Studies at St Petersburg University and First Deputy Chairman of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Russian Federation. He has presented his dissertation for the Doctor of Theology degree. The title of the study is ‘Islamic Renovationist movement from the end of the 20th century to the start of the 21st century: ideas and prospects’. The members of the Dissertation Council voted unanimously to award a doctorate in theology to Damir Mukhetdinov.

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The defence was conducted under St Petersburg University own terms. The academic consultant of the research was the Head of the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Academician Vitaly V. Naumkin.

The Dissertation Council included: Nikolai Diakov, Professor Emeritus of St Petersburg University, Head of the Department of History of the Middle East Countries; Efim Rezvan, Head of the Laboratory ‘The International Centre of Islamic Studies’ at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography of the Russian Academy of Sciences (MAE RAS); Mathias Rohe, Professor at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen–Nürnberg (Germany); and Leonid Syukiyaynen, leading research associate at the Institute of State and Law of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Professor of the Higher School of Economics. The chairman of the council was Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum and Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University.

The dissertation contains two parts. In the first part, Damir Mukhetdinov provides an overview of the ideas of the largest representatives of the first wave of neo-modernist Islamic thought (late 20th – early 21st centuries): Fazlur Rahman; Mohammed Arkoun; Muhammad Shahrur; and Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd. In the second part, the author presents his own renovationist programme, basing his argument on the works of neo-modernism and the Russian theological school. Damir Mukhetdinov’s key concept is that the idea of renovation in Islam– tajdid – is rooted in the spiritual live of Muslims.

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In his speech, Damir Mukhetdinov emphasised the importance of transformation of religious thought in the modern world, as well as the relevance of studying the neo-modernist teaching. ‘The Russian school of the renovationist movement ceased to exist with the death of the great theologian and philosopher Musa Bigiev. He lived the last 25 years of his life overseas and died in Cairo in 1949. Thus, the development of renovationist tradition of tajdid in Russia was interrupted for more than 70 years,’ Damir Mukhetdinov noted. According to him, Islamic neo-modernists are not opposed to the traditional approach, but regarded it as a source of their own ideological freedom and spiritual independence. They saw in it the dialectic of continuity and rupture, probable and possible.

‘The current situation of COVID-19 pandemic proved to me – a Muslim and Islamic theologian – that the issues highlighted by neo-modernists at the beginning of the 20th century are still relevant today. Many traditions failed before our eyes, particularly those that were affected by the closure of mosques around the world. The Muslim Ummah has never seen anything like that throughout its 1400 years of existence. We are living in a different reality. Worshippers are not allowed to enter a mosque to attend a Friday prayer, which is one of the most important prescriptions of Islam. This suggests that at present the ideas of neo-modernists are more important than ever,’ Damir Mukhetdinov emphasised.

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In addition, Damir Mukhetdinov mentioned Husain Faizkhanov, who was an outstanding Islamic thinker, orientalist, and founder of the renovationist movement in Russia. Husain Faizkhanov started working at the Faculty of Oriental Studies at St Petersburg University in the early years after its establishment. The integration and assimilation of religious and secular traditions made Faizkhanov one of the key figures in Russian Islamic modernist and neo-modernist thought.

I hope that the path Husain Faizkhanov laid out for us – the ideas of a theologian who dedicated his life to scholarship and religion, will help us to educate a plethora of Russian theologians and activists. By combining religious and academic schools of thought, they will be able to revive the Russian theological school.

Damir Mukhetdinov, Head of the Centre for Islamic Studies at St Petersburg University

‘I believe that the dissertation submitted for our consideration is a significant step forward in the development of both Russian theology and Russian Islamic studies. The work examines an extremely important period in the history of Islam in the world and in Russia,’ Professor Nikolai Diakov pointed out in his review.

Leading research associate at the Institute of State and Law of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Professor of the Higher School of Economics Leonid Syukiyaynen noted in his review that without examining the theoretical and fundamental issues of Islam it would be impossible to approach the solution to the most complex problems of the modern world. To an extent, all the problems of today’s world are related to religion. These include: the problems of terrorism and extremism; human rights; globalisation; the political future of the Muslim world; and the dialogue of cultures.

Mathias Rohe, Professor at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen–Nürnberg (Germany), emphasised the innovative character of the work presented by Damir Mukhetdinov: ‘It was a real pleasure for me to read this study. It is distinguished by a high degree of innovation: it combines deeply rooted knowledge of Islam in all its richness and diversity and trends in its development with the universal research methodology.’ He added that the publication of the monograph will enrich the international scholarly community. ‘The work enables us to see beyond the Arab world, not only in a geographical sense. I believe that Islamic thought is profound and it is open, compared to the Islamic thought of any given Arab country,’ said Mathias Rohe.

The work is original and audacious, and incredibly relevant. Of the doctoral dissertations that I have read, rarely have I seen studies that have direct practical significance. We are talking about the restoration of the Russian Muslim theological school. In order to write about this, the author must have a number of distinct and specific competencies. It can be said that the author has proven that he mastered them all. Moreover, to my knowledge, there are few such experts not only in our country, but also in the world.

Efim Rezvan, Member of the Dissertation Council, Head of the Laboratory ‘The International Centre of Islamic Studies’, MAE RAS

The chairman of the Dissertation Council Mikhail Piotrovsky, Dean of the Faculty of Asian and African Studies at St Petersburg University also commended Damir Mukhetdinov’s dissertation: ‘This is an important contribution to our cause. This study provides insight into the neo-renovation movement, which has never been done before. The most characteristic phenomena of a whole set of terms of the Shariah-oriented paradigm are analysed. The full description of the principle of renewal is given; namely, more attention is drawn to the ethical aspects of the Qur’an, rather than its legal aspects. The programme proposed by Damir Mukhetdinov reveals – in a rhetorical manner – the author’s vision, which is, indeed, a development of the ideas of neo-modernists.’

‘I would like to note that Damir Mukhetdinov is a person who combines two natures – a devout Muslim and an Islamic theologian and scholar. He is inspired with the idea of tajdid and he brings this idea to life,’ commented the academic consultant, Academician Vitaly Naumkin.

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In his final address to the audience, Damir Mukhetdinov thanked the members of the Dissertation Council for the high assessment of his study. He also acknowledged the support and assistance offered by his academic consultant, Academician Vitaly Naumkin and the chairman of the Russian Islamic Scholars society Taufik Kamel Ibragim. ‘I would especially like to thank the Rector of St Petersburg University Nikolay Kropachev. It was Professor Kropachev who initiated and authorised my defence here at the University. And I would like to express my gratitude to Mufti Sheikh Ravil Gainutdin. Throughout all these years, when I was working on my dissertation, he helped me with instructions, comments and advice,’ he added.