Muslim Theology in Pre-Revolutionary Russia

31 October 2023

At a meeting with the heads of the country’s muftiates held in Kazan in 2018, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted the global recognition of Russian Islamic theology in the pre-revolutionary era. Before meeting with the muftis, the head of the state was shown a model of the Bolgarian Islamic Academy, which opened a year earlier in Bolgar, next to an ancient monument of the Republic of Tatarstan. More than a thousand years ago, the historical state of Volga Bulgaria, one of the centres of Islamic theological thought in the lands that today form the constituent entities of Russia, was located in this place.

Islam penetrated the historical lands of the Russian Federation in the VII century in the city of Derbent, now the capital of the Republic of Dagestan in the North Caucasus. In the X-XI centuries Muslim culture in Derbent received the highest development. The city became a place of spiritual and intellectual quests, and Derbent theologians were recognized by the Muslim world. The original work written by a representative of intelligentsia of medieval Derbent – the manuscript Basil of Truths and Garden of Subtleties by Abu Bakr Muhammad al-Darabandi, a scholar of the XI century has survived to our days. The theological work is an encyclopedia of concepts, rules and moral and ethical norms of Sufism – Muslim asceticism, and later a separate trend.

It is important to note that theologians from Muslim peoples living in the historical territories of Russia wrote their works mainly in Arabic. In the North Caucasus, where strong traditions of Sufism developed in the context of Arab culture, the XIV-XVII centuries are considered time of rapid spread of local theological literature in Arabic. The name of Muhammad ibn Musa al-Quduqi, the founder of the theological school of the North Caucasus, is associated with this period. In the early XVIII century, the entire Avar Khanate learnt from his works, and the literature heritage of the Islam revivalist was translated into many other languages.

Among the ancestors of Crimean Muslims there was always a respectful attitude and aspiration for scientific, theological and literary activities. This is evidenced by a large number of Crimean scholars in the XIV-XV centuries, as well as the vast geographical area of their activities: Cairo, Damascus, Al-Quds (now Jerusalem), Bursa and so on. The sources tell in the most detail about Ibrahim al-Kirimi, a vivid representative of Crimean Sufism of the XVI century, known as the “Tatar Sheikh”.

Sufism is a facet of the Muslim tradition in Russia, and its heritage can be traced even in Siberia. The spread of not only Sunni Islam but also Sufi methods of knowledge in the Volga region and the Urals in the X century influenced the formation of theological thought in the historical Russian lands. The religion introduced Volga Bulgaria to the achievements of high Muslim culture and determined the direction of civilizational contacts of the state. A Tatar theologian, Shigabutdin Marjani, the author of the historical study Useful News about the State of Kazan and Bulgar, gives in his work not only the names of Bulgar theologians of the XI-XII centuries, but also foreign Islamic scholars of the XIII-XIV centuries, whose activity and life were connected with the ancient city.

The views of Russian theologians were not always unanimously recognized by Muslim scientific community. The convictions of reformer Gabdennasyr Kursavi, a Tatar theologian of the XVIII-XIX centuries, almost led to the execution of the thinker due to their rejection by the scholars of Bukhara. The controversy was caused by Kursavi’s views on a number of theological issues related to the essence and attributes of the Almighty. The rebellious scholar was supported by his teacher, an honourable Bukhara sheikh, Niyaz-kuli at-Turkmani, and secretly left the city. Returning home, Kursavi made a stopover in Astrakhan, where he entered into a discussion with Shiite scholars, who had to recognize the Tatar theologian’s profound knowledge of the proofs and justifications of Shiite Islam.

Reformist views were conditioned by a turning point in the life of the nation, associated with the turn of the XVIII-XIX centuries, when the ideas of capitalism penetrated Russia. The public thought of that time simultaneously reflected both the need for change and the desire to preserve traditions. Gabdennasyr Kursavi was a supporter of religious reforms in some aspects of life in Tatar society. The reformer believed that it was the duty of every educated co-religionist to find his own way to the truth through independent interpretation of the Quran. Following an authoritative opinion, sometimes outdated, is required for those incapable of searching, by cautiously choosing the most competent scholar.

Representatives of the other trend considered it necessary to return Muslims to the true faith from which they had departed. The supporters of the revivalist ideas emphasized the legal aspects of solving the arising issues, referring to the canonical works of the Islamic legal school. They included Tatar theologian Gabderahim Utyz Iymani, who devoted his scholarly work to rethinking tradition in the conditions of the new times. The thinker is widely known to the Muslim world as the restorer of the oldest copy of the Quran, which according to legends belonged to the third righteous Caliph Uthman ibn Affan.

Under the influence of the ideas of his predecessors, the views of Shigabutdin Marjani, a Tatar theologian, historian and educator of the XIX century, were formed. In 1870, Marjani’s book The True View Proving the Obligation of Night Prayer, Even if Dusk Does Not Fade was published, with religious reformist ideas new for that time and his native environment, which brought the author wide fame not only in his native land, but also in the whole Muslim East. Being the rector of the oldest mosque in Kazan, Marjani was a supporter and ideologist of renewal in all spheres of life of the Tatar people. The reformer, who was the first to attempt to establish a Tatar national historical science, considered it possible, even necessary, to teach Muslims the Russian language and secular subjects.

It was Shigabutdin Marjani, as well as enlighteners Khusain Faizkhanov and Kayum Nasyiri who stood at the origins of Jadid madrasah. Jadidism is a social phenomenon in Muslim culture, which emerged at the turn of the XIX-XX centuries, caused by the objective need to introduce modern sciences and achievements of the new industrial era into the educational process. One of the founders of Jadidism was Crimean Tatar educator Ismail Gasprinsky. His ideas were transmitted through the newspaper Translator, which was published and edited by Gasprinsky himself. The enlightener could not imagine that his publication would become more popular with foreigners than with his compatriots. Despite his status of a political figure, Ismail Gasprinsky’s views are on a par with the ideas of prominent theologians of the late XIX – early XX centuries.

The rich heritage of the centuries-old history of theological thought of Muslim peoples of Russia cannot be contained in one article. Some works of scholars have been irretrievably lost for a variety of historical reasons: from centuries ago to the anti-religious measures of the Soviet authorities. Individual works still remain undiscovered. However, no less important than the study of the past is the development of Muslim theology in present and future Russia. For this reason, the opening of the Bulgarian Islamic Academy in 2017 was an important step towards the establishment of the All-Russian Union of Muslim Scholars.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"

Photo: Pentocelo/Creative Commons 3.0