1. Who is your course intended for?
I read lectures on Islam and Muslim culture or Muslim philosophy for different groups of students.
I graduated from the Oriental Studies Department of MGIMO. I studied at the Indian Faculty where the main foreign language was Urdu used by Indian Muslims and the state language of Pakistan after country’s division in 1947. Certainly, Muslim culture was inside my sphere of interests, and after my graduation in 1959 I was invited to the Institute of Philosophy. Back then, it was decided to establish the Oriental Philosophy Sector. Since the Philosophical Faculty had no specialists who would know Oriental languages, they needed orientalists. The Sector was established in 1960. I had been its head for 32 years (between 1980 and 2012) and I still work there.
I read the first special course called The Role of religious and cultural traditions in the Oriental countries’ history for fourth- and fifth-year students of the Department of the History of Oriental Countries at MGIMO. Prof. Meliksetov, Head of the Department, offered me and prof. Leoniv Vasiliev to read lectures.
It was an innovative course. You know, back then graduates of the Oriental Department had a wide range of disciplines including languages, history, literature, international economic relations and so on. In other words, they had everything that was necessary for a diplomat in the Eat, except the most important subject, in my opinion. That is the role of religion in culture and politics of Asian countries.
Why were we supposed to read a course on religion? Because finally it became clear that without this knowledge, international relations experts and diplomats were helpless. Leonid Vasiliev lectured on Confucianism and I lectured on Islam and Hinduism.
This special course had an unusual success. Even other lecturers attended it. You can imagine that the course was attended by current Foreign minister Sergey Lavrov! Many of those who later became ambassadors listened to our lectures.
We taught from 1969 to 1974. Then I moved to Canada with my husband, where we worked for six years. On my returning home in 1980, Mr. Tikhvinsky, Diplomatic Academy’s rector, invited me to lecture at the Academy.
The course was expanded and, apart from Islam and Hindu, it covered Christianity and Buddhism. However, since Islam played a proactive role at the international arena, it took the leading position in the course.
I worked part-time for 15 years at Diplomatic Academy where I received the title of professor. Then the State Academic University for the Humanities was established. Its aim was to marry academic science with training. Academician V. Stepin, head of the Institute, asked me to read a course on Oriental philosophies. At first, I did it alone, and then my colleagues joined me. We established the Oriental Philosophy Department.
What is special about our training? It is not an optional, but a compulsory course for students of the Faculty of Philosophy and Political Science on three main philosophical traditions of Oriental civilizations, which are Chinese, Indian and Muslim traditions.
Currently, I offer an introduction to Oriental philosophy in the first semester, then in the second semester my colleagues hold seminars on each civilization, while I lecture for political scientists.
We moved forward and currently we offer Farsi and Sanskrit for everyone. Why did we choose those languages specifically? Because the cultural centers of Iranian and Indian embassies have an agreement with us and pay for the courses, and we really appreciate their support.
Those students who are willing to specialize in Oriental Studies, have to write a paper, then a master’s degree thesis. Some of them even complete postgraduate studies. For example, there are three senior research associates in our Sector, who previously finished postgraduate courses on Chinese philosophy. The Sector of Islam Philosophy, headed by my former graduate student and current director of the institute Andrei Smirnov, studies the Persian language. There are four graduates of our department. Those students who don’t work in the academic field, use the knowledge in other spheres.
Why do we pay such great attention to teaching Oriental philosophies? Unfortunately, both the West and our country had an illusion started by Hegel who declared that there is no other philosophy but European. Our main task is to move away from this false and harmful statement.
We didn’t have any manuals. I wrote a textbook which was reissued three times. Currently, the Academic Project Publishing House is going to issue the fourth edition of the textbook. This is the only textbook on Oriental philosophy with anthology and texts. Its first edition was translated and issued in the US and Vietnam.
Over the past five or six years we managed to introduce the main Oriental cultural traditions to ninth and tenth graders. With former Russian Railways CEO Vladimir Yakunin’s permission, we developed a course on the dialogue of cultures for the Russian Railways schools in 14 Russian regions. We issued the Program, the teacher’s Workbook and the Textbook. Annually, our advanced training courses were attended by 20-40 teachers. Unfortunately, this initiative was frozen after the change of leadership. Nevertheless, we are ready to continue with this initiative.
I presented a paper on The dialogue of Cultures at leading universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg where it received positive reviews. Currently, we got a license to conduct the 72-hour course in the future. We introduce Chinese, Buddhist and Islamic culture to teachers. That's what we do in the field of teaching.
Our textbook has already been translated into English by The Dialogue of Civilizations Research Institute which has its headquarters in Berlin. Currently they are searching for a suitable publishing house. So it seems like things are going in the right direction.
2. Which features of Muslim philosophy could be close to our culture in your opinion? Is there anything useful that we can adopt?
As you know, Muslim philosophy is diverse. It began with theology, with kalam. Therefore, it is close to us to some extent since both our religions are monotheistic.
Islam, Christianity and Judaism have common features, such as teaching about prophets, for example. Muslims consider Muhammad is the final prophet or in other words “the Seal of the Prophets”. However, Jesus is understood to be the penultimate prophet and therefore he is highly honored.
The concept of monotheism and prophecy unites those religions and allows us to compare them and find their common features.
As for Falstaffian philosophy, which began its tradition from the Peripatetic movement, here we can find features that are close to us by virtue of the fact that ancient philosophers Aristotle and Plato had the greatest influence on the Falstaff as well as on European and Russian philosophy.
To some extent, Sufism is close to us too, since the spiritual tradition in Russian culture and philosophy has always been prevailed. Therefore, students also are very interested in Sufism.
As to the adoption of features from Muslim culture, I think people should refer to the Quran and literature on Muslim tradition, it will help to understand it better.
The interpretation of monotheism and its features, and the understanding of revelation are not just some interesting things, but also a possibility to compare our traditions and become convinced in their commonality. Current political situation has resulted in the wrong interpretation of Islam. Islam has become the antipode of our culture. In my opinion, there is another important thing which people should learn about. Though the Quran is the book of Revelation, we should pay attention to how it put emphasis on people-to-people relationships, especially its attitude to orphans and widows. It is equally important that the Quran condemns amassing unjust wealth. Riba, gains made in trade, is unacceptable in the Quran. I am not going to urge people to avoid using banks. Though, I think that it would be useful to clean our banks from lies.
Now, a point on the behavior of young Muslims from the North Caucasian republics. They treat elders with respect. As an elderly person, I and all my friends note that these young men, who come here to find a job, are the first who offer their seats in subway. They treat us with respect since it is their native custom. In my opinion, it is an excellent traditional feature which ought to be followed faithfully.
They also have such features as hospitality and generosity, which does not means that they always live well. I know Muslims well since I visited Central Asian republics for many times. However, they always share with guests everything that they have, even when they have nothing except tea.
All this needs to be covered in a positive way, which actually shows the truth. We should break away from false stereotypes associated with Muslim terrorism.
We should bring truthful information about the five main pillars of Islam and stress that jihad has never been one of them. The original main pillars are monotheism, faith in One God and his Prophet Muhammad, daily prayers, fasting during the month of Ramadan, the Hajj, and Zakat that means sharing with the poor.
By the way, I think it would be useful for us to adopt such a tax. It could be a tax for our oligarchs in favour of poor people. It is a useful initiative, though its proper distribution is another question. As a rule, such taxes are distributed in favour of orphans, widows, sick people and so on.
As to jihad, it is quite a recent phenomenon. Most frequently, it is not an aggression, but defense. Terrorists emerged because of some political actions.
In many ways it is the fault of West since it began to destroy local regimes and caused harm to the Muslim civilization. Everyone, who is engaged in studying of Muslim culture, followed the events in Iraq, then in Libya with bitterness. Honestly, I used to watch CNN, but after events in Iraq, I refused watching it since I resent its position. I just don’t understand how politicians fail to realize that their behavior is unacceptable.
Even though those secular regimes were dictatorships, however, they brought some positive social results, and, most importantly, they brought communities and ethnic groups close together. It was unnecessary to apply external pressure. As a result, we reap what we sow.