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Young Russians in search of faith are turning to Islam

In the Russian heartland, young people are discovering spiritual fulfillment by turning to Islam, the religion of their Tatar ancestors.

That's not exactly radical. But he knows, uneasily, that there's more to his Islam than that. Faith is difficult and much is demanded. Islam has powerful enemies, not only the non-believers who wage war on Muslims but also the devil that lives in everyone. Error is widespread, and Sarachev is keen to avoid it, if he can only be sure how.

Sakhibzyanov tells his followers that the struggle is between the soul and the brain - between faith, in other words, and thought. The Muslim must strive for faith.

If that's true, his detractors argue, it's no wonder the imam's Islam has such a strong appeal for those who learned their values on the street, in the with-us-or-against-us world at the margins of society.

But not every young worshiper here has that background. Guzel Sharipova, 23, was everything as a student that Sarachev was not; she studied chemistry on a full scholarship in Kazan, and graduated with highest honors. It was in Kazan that Islam found her, thanks to 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."

Sharipova says, "Everyone has a time to come to Islam." She draws deep satisfaction from the rules it imposes. That frees up so much. She works now as a chemist - with her brain - but she gives her attention to her soul.

And where Sarachev hopes Islam will bring him modest comforts, Sharipova treasures the way it allows her to discard life's vanities. "I'm trying to spend time on only necessary things," she says.

New expectations

Rustam Sarachev came to the mosque knowing almost nothing about Islam. Now he knows that praying to ancestors, or saints, is the worst imaginable sin. He knows that being Muslim is more important than being a Tatar. He knows that the Russian special services don't like Islam because the alcohol and tobacco Muslims reject are big businesses. He knows those same special services dread the day when all people turn to Islam.

His ancestors, in centuries past, drank beer and mead at weddings and often sought the intercession of their forebears in prayer. Would Sarachev consider them Muslims if he met them today - or devils? In his earnest way, he's only beginning to deal with the difficult questions. He's happy that Islam is helping him find the answers.

"Everyone eventually asks, 'Why am I here? Why will I die? What will happen after I die?' You gradually start to understand who you are and why you were created."

It is, he says, to live a pure Muslim's life. And, through Islam, all is spelled out. "The prophet showed people everything - from how to go to the toilet to how to run a state." But there's still so much to get straight in his own mind.

Last year, Sarachev got to know some young men who wanted to pick up guns and go fight abroad. They weren't from the mosque. He thinks they had taught themselves Islam on the Internet. Sometimes, when they met on the street, they'd start urging him to go off and fight against Americans.

He says he was troubled by it, and as he describes it he still looks troubled by it. He's struggling to understand even now what's expected of him by his religion. He went to the mosque and asked the imams for advice.

They explained to him, he says, that these young men were mistaken. "Those people who say they want to fight, they're like foam on water. There's a lot of foam, but it's useless."

Eventually they went away, he doesn't know where. Sarachev, yearning to dig deeper into Islam, is still uncertain about jihad, and the fight against devils. "It's very complicated. I don't want to be wrong."

Sakhibzyanov knew about the would-be fighters. All Muslims, he says, know they are part of a larger community that must defend itself. But leaving Tatarstan to fight elsewhere is, he says, the wrong choice. "They are needed here."

The imam is a savvy navigator in a potentially hostile culture. Islam, he says, is a peaceful religion, violence is a sin and the task for Rustam Sarachev and other young Muslims is to keep studying and deepening their certainty in its purity and oneness. And then more will follow, and then more.

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