From a dead Islam to a living Islam?

What we have here is a classic "no comments" situation for GetReligion readers. I am about to praise a major Washington Post piece about religion on the other side of the world. It's even about Islam. You've been warned.

A major theme here at GetReligion is that the mainstream press rarely gives us information about how the deep and at times violent divisions inside Islam affect believers in practical ways. Meanwhile, how do these differences affect sermons, families, worship, fasting, personal prayers and other basic elements of daily lives?

The Post just served up precisely this kind of piece in an A1 news feature about young Russians who are turning to Islam in search for a strong faith that is rich in tradition and will help them straighten out their lives. This is, of course, taking place in a land in which cynicism and corruption are often more powerful than any kind of law, whether we are talking about laws are secular or sacred.

However, the headline does not tell us much about the actual content of the story. Instead of "Young Russians in search of faith are turning to Islam" it should have said, "Young Tatars in search of faith embrace a different Islam."

Here's the opening of the report:

ALMETYEVSK, RUSSIA -- Rustam Sarachev should have had a hangover the first time he set foot in the central mosque here. He had wanted to throw a raucous party the night before, a send-off for himself on his way to Islam. But the guys he was with had mocked him for even thinking about the mosque, and had gone off drinking on their own.

So here he was, regretfully clearheaded in the daylight, 500 rubles unspent on vodka and still in his pocket, heading up the steps of the big salmon-colored mosque that dominates one end of this minor oil city east of the Volga.

It was late September 2006, the beginning of Ramadan. As he looks back on it now, he remembers that he wasn't sure why he had decided to come, or what to expect. He was 17, at loose ends, a self-described hooligan, a troublemaker, starting to get hardened by a life that was heading for the verges of the law, yet still vulnerable to the insults and disdain that seek out young men with no future here.

When he walked through the great double door of the mosque, he was taking his first steps toward joining an intense Islamic revival here in the Muslim heartland of Russia that is drawing particular strength from its young people.

Here's the key: Sarachev was already a Muslim. He grew up in what is described as a more moderate, rational, worldly Tatar culture that, after decades of evolution in the Soviet era, apparently has lost its power to mold young Muslims. At least that is what the Post reports. The young Muslims who are making this leap of faith are, aided by rivers of Saudi Arabian money and imams trained in Salafi schools in the Middle East, turning to a much stricter form of Islam.

It is a clash of two cultures, a clash between two forms of Islam. These young people are also struggling to make sense out of a powerful and complex word -- "jihad."

Here is a vital piece of the history behind this story, a passage that provides key insights into the life of this fervent young man and also into the lives of his divorced parents who are, to put it bluntly, freaking out. What has happened to their son?

Sarachev is a Tatar. His ancestors converted to Islam in the 9th century, when Tatarstan was a powerful state in its own right. For the past 450 years, the Tatars have lived under Russian domination; proud of their heritage, they consider themselves the natural leaders of Russia's 30 million Muslims. But Sarachev's forebears didn't practice Islam the way he understands it today. Over a millennium, Tatars had developed a rich and complicated theology, comfortable with rational thought and mindful of the need to coexist with the Christian Russians. In Kazan, Tatarstan's capital, the religious establishment endeavors to carry on that tradition today.

But Soviet hostility to religion left most Tatars with only a perfunctory sense of their own Muslim inheritance. Growing up, Sarachev remembers, religion meant grandparents and holidays, and little else. Yet even then, just after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Arab proselytizers had come to Tatarstan, and they were preaching a different sort of Islam -- starker, simpler, more puritanical. It has taken root here, and it appeals powerfully to young people who, like Sarachev, are drawn to its order and rules, and to its purity.

Fighting alcohol? A strong faith helps. Looking for order in the midst of domestic chaos? A return to tradition offers guidance. The list goes on and on. And Sarachev is not alone. Readers also meet Guzel Sharipova, a brilliant young scientist who is on the same path, introduced to Islam by an Arab boyfriend.

She was living with her great-aunt, Galima Abdullina, a retired schoolteacher, and began asking her about the prayers she recited. Eventually, she put on a veil.

"She was a girl who loved life, and suddenly she became so religious," says Enzhe Anisimova, Abdullina's daughter. "We watched her as a baby, and she was so beautiful, and spreading light. Now she's so serious. Islam is very close to me, but that doesn't mean that I accept everything. Something in it really attracts Guzel. But what is it? If she has found answers to the questions she was trying to find answers to, maybe that solved something for her."

There is so much more. In Tatar tradition, Muslims pray with their ancestors who play a role similar to that found in ancient Christian traditions about the saints. Is this heresy? The Tatars drink beer and mead, even at weddings. Forbidden? The ultimate question: Have his family members been deceived by demons? Are they practicing a false Islam?

By all means read it all. We need more stories of this kind, if we are to understand the complexity of Islam around the world and how it is changing.

One more comment: This feature is part of an ongoing "Path to Jihad" series. I must admit that I look forward to a Post series on the other world religion that is growing as fast as Islam, or even faster. Many of the world's most tense borders are linked to tensions between these two evangelistic faiths.

PHOTO: Inside the giant Qolsharif Mosque in Kazan Kremlin, a major symbol of Tatar culture. Second image is a Tatar Koran and reading stand.

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