Tatar New Age in a Muslim Shop
Author: Agnès Kefeli
I entered the field of New Age spirituality by accident. For years, I focused on the history of conversion to Islam in Eurasia. Then, an encounter with one particularly fascinating book made me realize that the Tatars did not automatically return to Islam when the USSR collapsed.
When in Kazan, I always love to visit mosque bookstores and Muslim clothes shops in search of contemporary Islamic material or reprints of old Islamic texts that I cannot find in libraries. In 2018, I entered one of these shops in the Old Tatar neighborhood in Kazan. One Tatar book attracted my attention. Except for its title – When the Gate of Heaven Opens – it did not look like a typical Islamic book. The bottom of its blue front cover showed a superimposed bricolage of Ancient Egyptian temples and obelisks, Ancient Greek temples, Roman pantheons, medieval castles, a mosque with multiple minarets (in the style of the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan), and New York’s skyscrapers irradiated by a descending light coming from the very top of the cover. Its inner cover was even more puzzling: it showed a Michelangelo-style god with a long beard – a taboo in Islam – creating the universe with dots of light circling around his finger. The author of the book, Sultan Shamsi (b. 1946), did not talk about the Tatars’ obligation to return to the faith of their ancestors, nor did he call upon his people to observe the tenets of their faith more scrupulously. Instead, Shamsi, who once worked in the editorial office of the well-known literary journal Kazan Utlarï (The Fires of Kazan), shared his enthusiasm for reading Russian translations of American New Age “channelers.” The oracular messages of individuals speaking for disembodied cosmic entities, historical figures, or extra-terrestrials had rocked his mind: it felt like a revolution, an earthquake, and a mysterious force now compelled him to share all this in his native language. Surprisingly, Shamsi did not bother to introduce those “teachers” from other worlds. He clearly expected his audience to understand who they were and even to have previous knowledge of the body of texts he referred to. Not only did his book indicate that New Age spirituality was not just a post-Christian phenomenon in the Eurasian space, but also that the Tatar religious landscape was not confined to Islam. Tatar interest in spiritualism and channeling had deeper roots. Shamsi’s book also raised other questions: could a Muslim-born intellectual follow a Western esoteric path? How could Tatars contribute to New Age philosophy?
After the break-up of the Soviet Union, ethnic Russians in Kazan were not the only ones fascinated by esotericism. Tatars, too, were infatuated with the occult – much to the dismay of many Tatar intellectuals. For Rafael Mustafin (1931–2011), former editor-in-chief of Kazan Utlarï, the return of religion led to foolish superstition and mystical nonsense. Although he was not a Muslim believer himself, Mustafin had not forgotten his grandmother’s frightening warnings about the End of Times (Akhïr zaman), which had kept him awake at night when he was a boy. As a mature thinker, Mustafin appreciated how religious eschatology prepared men and women for death, even if he no longer took that eschatology literally. The gods that people called Osiris, Buddha, Perun, God, Allah, Fate, or Telepathy were simply those things that they did not know or understand. For Mustafin, the universe was a random accident, not a design. Still, one could commune with the gods (sic) through nature, music, and art. One could also learn from how Tatars read the book of nature in their proverbs and weather lore. In the end, Mustafin identified himself with materialist philosophy that dismissed the belief in UFOs and spirits and called for the conservation of nature.
Another Tatar pedagogue and activist, Il’dus Amirkhan (1941–2018), who worried about the Tatars’ interest in esotericism, recognized that such interest revealed that the Tatars had finally moved away from a purely atheistic materialistic worldview. Nevertheless, for the believing Muslim Amirkhan, such literature had its limits from a theological point of view: it had no firm foundation in the Qur’an and hadith revelations. Worse yet, it was the product of a Judeo-Christian, Vedic-Buddhist, and Anglo-Saxon mindset, which he felt was totally foreign to the Tatars’ ancestral religious identity. Ultimately, both Mustafin and Amirkhan wondered about the compatibility of Tatar ethnic identity with New Age spirituality.
The most difficult task, however, was to date this so-called infatuation: was it really a post-Soviet phenomenon? Moreover, did all Tatars perceive this phenomenon as incompatible with Tatar identity and its historical evolution? Shamsi’s expectation that his readers would automatically understand his references indicated that there was a more profound history behind his spiritual thought. The key to this history was Il’dar Khanov, a healer, painter, sculptor, and architect born to a family of factory workers in 1940. In 1992, after having a vision of Jesus, Khanov started building the Universal Temple (Galäm äkhramï in Tatar, Vselenskii khram in Russian), a structure mixing different religious architectures, at a time when his people were busy restoring prerevolutionary mosques and madrasas.
Il’dar Khanov’s interest in Eastern and South Asian cultures started in childhood when he discovered that he possessed the gift of healing. An aspiring boxer, the nine-year-old Il’dar gave a massage to the gymnasium janitor, a Chinese immigrant who had moved to Kazan after his embassy had been evacuated from Moscow to the Volga in World War II. In gratitude for Il’dar’s healing touch, the janitor showed him a book of traditional Chinese medicine. Fascinated by the “hieroglyphs,” the young Il’dar was introduced to Chinese energy therapy and wushu martial arts.
Later, Khanov also gained access to underground yoga literature. After graduating from the Kazan art school in 1960, he studied in Moscow, where he began practicing yoga. Soviet Indian-Russian cooperation in the late 1950s and 1960s triggered official interest in the physical aspect of yoga as a tool of possible human enhancement that could be studied scientifically. Soviet authorities even invited the famous guru Dhirendra Brahmachari in the early 1960s to train future cosmonauts in Moscow. Coincidentally, during those years, Khanov, while a student at the Surikov art institute, had been asked to draw portraits of the hero-cosmonauts and provide them with his alternative medical therapies.
Most important, in May or June 1960, Khanov met Sviatoslav Roerich (1904–1993), the youngest son of the mystical artist Nicholas Roerich. During a visit to India, Nikita Khrushchev, the First Secretary of the Communist Party, had personally invited the younger Roerich to Moscow after seeing his painting “When the Yogis Gather” (1939). The young Tatar student and Sviatoslav clicked immediately. They shared a common interest in international peace, alternative medicine, painting, yoga, and Buddhism. Despite Roerich’s busy schedule, they discussed the possibility of building an ecumenical temple (vselenskii khram). At the time, Khanov imagined it to be on top of the mysterious mount of Verkhnii Uslon, facing the Volga River, which he used to see from his childhood window. There, over the sky, he could see unidentified secret objects, messengers of alien civilizations. The temple would be adorned with cupolas, and stairs would go down to the Volga River. As they discussed the project, Sviatoslav took a piece of paper, and a fantastic city grew around the temple. A new bridge emerged, connecting the old to the new Kazan.
Later, probably in September 1961, Sviatoslav, who served as a cultural ambassador for India, invited Khanov to the Indian embassy. For the special occasion, Khanov had to borrow a suit from his friend Bulat Okudzhava (1924–1997), the rising Soviet poet and singer. There, the theosophical painter introduced Khanov to the prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964), as his artist friend and a gifted healer. Nehru looked tired, and Roerich asked Khanov to use his healing skills to restore the minister’s strength. After his séance had been held in relative privacy (all official guests had departed), Khanov hurried to show him the temple sketches he had discussed with Roerich. Nehru, who had been initiated in the Theosophical Society by Annie Besant at the age of thirteen, approved his project, and according to Khanov, the Indian leader’s face lit up when the young Tatar mentioned his intention of building the temple in Kazan. Nehru had visited the city in 1955 and greatly admired his people who, he added, also lived in India. Besides Nehru, Khanov practiced his healing skills on Sviatoslav’s wife, the famous Indian actress Devika Rani (1908–1994). A picture showed them together in 1989 during one of these seances when Sviatoslav and Khanov met again to discuss Khanov’s ecumenical temple. In a thank-you note, Sviatoslav congratulated him for his talent as a yoga healer and wished that God would give him the strength to build the temple of the unity of souls: “Know that many people listen to you, but they don’t hear you. But soon, the hour will come!” Khanov ended up building a significant portion of his temple between 1992 and 2013, not on the mount of Verkhnii Uslon but on the opposite side, in Staroe Arakchino, where his parents’ home stood.
It would be wrong to assume that Shamsi and Khanov were marginal: behind them were communities of readers and admirers from all walks of life – artists, intellectuals, administrators, workers, students, police officers. Readers of Kazan Utlarï welcomed Shamsi’s esoteric pieces, which were first printed in the same journal, and asked for more like them. By tying Tatar folklore to Mayan, Sumerian, Egyptian, and Greek esoteric mythology, Shamsi’s cosmology allowed the Tatars to participate in the advent of a luminous, hopeful New Age. Likewise, the building of Khanov’s temple, based solely on donations and volunteering work, attracted people from all social backgrounds. Officially, the temple housed a center that combatted drug and alcohol addiction and an art school. Starting in 2001, tenth- and eleventh-grade students from the prestigious Tatar gymnasium no. 2 visited the temple. They helped clean it and build sections of it while learning Islamic calligraphy. Khanov, in turn, introduced them to the mysticism of the Roerichs and to the thought of the Soviet dissident ethnogenetic theorist Lev Gumilev (1912–1992). Khanov also applied alternative medicine to his patients who, in exchange for his services, voluntarily participated in the construction of the Universal Temple.
Some Tatars objected to Khanov’s activities as alien, but those closest to him insisted on his Islamic Tatar identity. Pictures published by his wife, Rauza Sultanova, showed him donned with a Muslim skull cap. For the playwright Rabit Batulla who translated the Qur’an from a Turkish tafsir to Tatar, Khanov was not an “infidel” but a Muslim. There was nothing wrong with studying other religions: the Torah, the Psalms, the Gospels, and the Qur’an all came from God. For the architectural historian Niiaz Khalitov, not everyone could see Turkic pagan steppe influence in Khanov’s abstract work, but in his view, Khanov had kept the genetic memory of the religious tolerance of the ancient Turkic Bolghar kingdom and the Mongol Golden Horde. Azgar Shakirov, a Tatar actor, echoed the same sentiment: a Russian would never build a mosque near a church, but only a Tatar could have overcome such parochialism. In therapy, Khanov applied hypnosis, electricity, acupressure on auricular points, and energy massages that had no connection with Islamic medicine; nevertheless, the Tatar sculptor Al’fret Abdrashitov recalled that during his massage, he would only think about Allah to make him whole again. Likewise, for the Tatar historian Damir Iskhakov, who had also enjoyed Khanov’s therapeutic massages, Khanov was a true representative of Tatar culture: he had chosen to be buried according to the Islamic tradition, and his temple had emerged from his parents’ home. Finally, the imam who conducted Khanov’s funeral in 2013 declared that Khanov rightly understood that Tatarstan was the land of many different nationalities and religions. In Khanov’s view, all nationalities constituted one motherland and worshiped the same God.
Shamsi and Khanov were contemporaries. They shared the same esoteric language. While Khanov left behind an unusual stone building that has attracted many tourists of different faith and nationalities, Shamsi’s book found its way to an unusual place, an Islamic clothes shop. Lying in the middle of other books devoted to Muslim prayers, Shamsi’s monograph contained many elements that a Muslim Sunni theologian would object to. For example, he promoted the concept of reincarnation borrowed from nineteenth-century Western theosophical reinterpretations of Hindu and Buddhist traditions. He also did not regard the Qur’an as God’s unique and final revelation. For Shamsi, foundational myths of other cultures, the Torah, the Gospels, the Hindu epic Mahabharata, the Avesta, the Mayan calendar, ancient Greek legends, or even Tatar folklore could be interpreted as divine revelations. Perhaps, because Shamsi could relate to a generation born before World War II, who, like Khanov, had been exposed to both materialist philosophy and New Age spiritualities, his book found its spot in that store. After all, for Shamsi, the Prophet Muhammad was a very special channeler of esoteric knowledge. Muhammad’s essential role was not appropriately recognized in Western esoteric literature, which privileged Christ, Buddha, or Hindu gurus. In the end, Shamsi himself, Khanov, and their friends sought to reconcile New Age spiritualities, Islam, and Tatar identity. Muslim New Agers no longer constituted an oxymoron. Not surprisingly, when an imam publicly disapproved of Carlos Castaneda’s Teachings of Don Juan, the Tatar academic Aidar Khairutdinov retorted that mullahs should not act as censors. Castaneda’s work had helped him to appreciate Sufism. In other words, New Age had become part of the Islamic discourse and experience, and Shamsi’s book, contrary to what I initially believed, did indeed have a place in the Muslim garment shop that I visited in 2018.
Featured image: Ildar Khanov self-portrait in the Temple of All Religions, 2018 ©Diego Fiore
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Cite this article as: Agnès Kefeli “Tatar New Age in a Muslim Shop”, in New Age in Russia, 30/04/2022, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=6421
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