Staunton, April 11 – Every year in the spring, groups of Muslims at the behest of the Council of Muftis of Russia (SMR) and the Muslim Spiritual Directorate (MSD) of Moscow visit the Muslim sections of the major cemeteries of the Russian capital to make sure that all is in order with the graves of Muslims there after harsh winters.
This act of respect, even veneration, resembles the pilgrimages that many Muslims in the North Caucasus make to the graves of Sufi saints, but in Moscow, most of those taking part and most of the graves they are attending to are ethnic Tatars who until recent decades formed the core of the Muslim community there.
Among the graves that these Muslim activists have been maintaining over the last 20 years is that of Fazylya Shirinskaya (1901-1992), the daughter of a family of an ancient Tatar aristocratic family that was reduced to the status of peasantry for refusing to convert to Orthodoxy and who helped keep Islam alive in Moscow during Soviet times.
During Soviet times, the imams of the only mosque allowed by the communist authorities to continue to operate – both for propaganda reasons and to service Muslim diplomats – did what they could to keep Islam alive in Moscow. But they were assisted by other believers, typically elderly people who had been trained in medressahs and mektebs before 1917.
As the men died out, their female relatives and friends increasingly filled this role beginning in the 1940s. Fazylya Shirinskaya was among the first, most prominent and longest servicing. Born in January 1901 in a Tatar village in Tambov Guberniya, she was trained as a teacher at a local medressah.
In 1919, she married and subsequently moved first to Leningrad and then to Moscow where her husband worked in the Tatar-dominated fur industry. In late 1920s, her family suffered from collectivization; in the 1930s, from Stalin’s repression; and in the early 1940s, from the war in which she lost three sons.
During and immediately after the war, Shirinskaya began her religious work as an instructor in the faith for many Moscow Tatars and as someone who bathed the bodies of the deceased. She organized meetings and said prayers at funerals. Because of her immense pre-1917 knowledge and her contacts in the community, she was an increasingly respected figure.
Her earthly life ended on January 2, 1992, one week after the Soviet Union ceased to exist.