Lectures on Islam in the Volga Region Started in Kazan

17 February 2022


Islam is the second most widespread religion in modern Russia. At the same time, among Muslims there are representatives of different nationalities living in our large country. As for the Republic of Tatarstan, Islam has a long history in this land. This year we are celebrating the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam as the official state religion by Volga Bulgaria. But historians and researchers are convinced that Islam was known and popular in the territory of ancient Volga Bulgaria long before 922 and the arrival of Ibn Fadlan.


However, the year 922 became a landmark in the life of the state: the arrival of the embassy from the Abbasid Caliphate and the adoption of Islam turned over a new leaf in the history of Volga Bulgaria. In modern terms, this event meant diplomatic recognition on the part of a more powerful and influential state, which made it possible to eliminate the vassal dependence on the Khazar Khaganate. The expansion of political, economic and cultural relations with the outside world, predominantly with the Muslim countries lay ahead of Volga Bulgaria. Thus, Volga Bulgaria, which had previously been on the periphery of the world political map, gained influential allies that could help it to overcome a certain lagging behind other centres of world civilization.


It was from this date that the further spread of Islam into the lands of the Volga region began, which played an important role in preserving Tatar identity during hard times. This is why it is no surprise that the late XIX – early XX centuries witnessed the heyday of the Tatar theological thought. 


What is Tatar Islam like?


Islam is an integral part of the Russian statehood and culture. Along with other conventional religions, Islam has been significantly contributed to the maintenance of interethnic peace and harmony, being one of the pillars of sustainable development of the nation and state. As part of the celebration of the 1100th anniversary of the adoption of Islam by Volga Bulgaria, the Centre for Islamic Studies of the Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan has launched a series of public lectures which will be dedicated to the history of Islam and development of the Muslim community among the Tatars.


What is Tatar Islam like? What role did it play in the life of the entire nation? What place do Tatar Muslims occupy in the world ummah? These are the questions having been raised at the first lecture of the series by Daniyar Gilmutdinov, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Islamic Studies, Academy of Sciences of the Republic of Tatarstan.


According to the lecturer, few Muslim people in the world have such a long history connected with Islam and Islamic genealogy. The Tatars are an example in this sense, a kind of guiding star for many peoples, for the bulk of the Muslim peoples that exist today. This is because the Tatars have combined in themselves two qualities: native Islam and diaspora Islam. There is very little correlation of this kind. It is very interesting in terms of dialogue of cultures and existence of Islam in a non-Muslim environment.


‘But there are some problems as well. Firstly, they are the peculiarities of modernization that affected Islam. The Tatars brought this wave of modernization (jadidism) into Islam. This trend prevails nowadays in public Islamic life. Discontinuity of history and intergenerational cultural interactions: Tatars and their ancestors were often subjected to historical perturbations unwillingly and were a party that experienced certain political or military events, which changed their identity, culture, history and statehood as a result. It also contributed to the perception of Islam. Another fact is that the Tatar Muslims are the farthest from centres of the Muslim world, and the Arab culture is alien to them. The Arab tradition was difficult for understanding and accepting among the Tatar Muslims. They always considered themselves to be a part of the Muslim world and always got interested in the life in the centre of the Muslim world, but it is difficult to say that they fully associated themselves with that world,’ Daniyar Gilmutdinov is convinced.


Russian Emperors and Islam


During the lecture, the speaker paid particular attention to the fact how the Russian Emperors’ attitude towards Islam and the Muslim peoples of Russia had changed over time and under the influence of certain events. For instance, Russian rulers were characterized by a mismatch between their external and internal attitudes towards Islam, and an incomplete acceptance of everything related to Islam.


‘For example, Peter the Great. Of course, he did a lot in terms of the perception of Islam: he ordered to translate the Quran, established a printing office with Arabic script, and opened the Asiatic Museum. During his reign, he did many things that were useful for understanding Islam as a whole, its true essence,’ the lecturer explained.


The first translation of the Quran into Russian, made not from the Arabic original but from the French translation by Andre du Ryer, was printed in St. Petersburg in 1716. The full title of the work is ‘The Quran about Mohammed of the Turkish Law Translated from French into Russian. It Was Printed by the Order of His Majesty in St. Petersburg Printing House in 1716, in the Month of December’.


On November 19, 1742 a decree was signed by Empress Elizabeth on the destruction of all the mosques erected ‘behind the forbidding decrees’. The destruction of mosques started in many settlements. Representatives of the Tatar population appealed to the government to stop that policy and restore the destroyed mosques. Thus, on 13 April, 1744, the Senate decided to permit by decree to build mosques only in those villages, where there were neither Russians, nor newly baptized.


Against this backdrop, another event of extreme importance to the local Muslim community took place – in 1745, Sagit Khayalin, a merchant from the Trans Volga region, was granted permission to establish a small Tatar settlement, Kargala, or Seitov Sloboda, not far to the north of Orenburg. 200 Tatar families were housed there, exempt from taxes and obligations. Their own mosque was erected there too. A huge volume of trade with the Kazakh steppes and Central Asia soon began to go through the settlement. Madrasahs were also built there that for many years became a recognized centre of scholarship not only in the Kazan Province, but also the centre of Islamic life in the Russian Empire as a whole. It was the place where Bukhara Emirs sent their letters of appeal to scholars. Later the Tatar town hall was established there as a self-administration body, and the settlement was renamed into Seitov Posad.


‘Thus, we can see that the second half of the XVIII century was marked by a radical change in attitudes towards the Tatars. Catherine II, who was in power at that time, treated the Kazan Tatars well. She gave her permission to build mosques of any height and area in the territory of Kazan,’ Gilmutdinov explained. The expert, however, added that the Empress left a bad impression of herself in the Caucasus and western borders. This shows the discrepancy in attitudes towards ‘internal’ Muslims and ‘external’ ones.


Important events in the history of Islam in Russia took place at the very end of Catherine the Great’s reign. On January 28, 1783, the Empress issued a decree ‘On permitting the subjects of Mohammedan law to elect akhuns for themselves’, but these akhuns had to be subjects of the Russian Empire. In 1784 there was issued a decree ‘allowing Tatar Princes and Murzas to enjoy all privileges of the Russian nobility’. According to it, Tatar Murzas and Bashkir foremen were granted the rights of the Russian nobility. 


On September 22, 1788, by decree of Catherine II, ‘a Spiritual Assembly of Mohammedan Law’ was established in Ufa with the authority to manage religious affairs of the Muslim population in Russia, except for the territory of the former Crimean Khanate. In other words, a state organization officially regulating the life of the Russian ummah was established. On the same day another Decree appointed akhun of Kargala Mukhamedzhan Khusainov as the Mufti. He was assisted by three qadis (judges of a Shariah court) from Kazan Tatars. The future mullahs had to pass exams in the Spiritual Assembly, and were also required to have certificates of bona fides signed by local provincial boards. That system existed until 1917.


‘As for Islam among the Tatars in general, it has been Turkic Islam, if we do not take into account modern changes (this is about Arabization). Now, unfortunately, we are witnessing the alienation from our natural culture. Islam today has to compete with other lifestyles, subcultures, information flow and other everyday events that fill people’s life. In order to accept and understand Islam, your traditional culture, you need to immerse yourself into your mind, reflect on your own identity, and understand the worldview of your people and each other. Today we are immersing ourselves into the world of reveries that are generated by the modern film industry. Film characters are becoming more interesting and attractive than the search for truth, inner search and interest in your own culture. These problems make it possible to understand why there is the alienation from the understanding of your own traditional culture,’ Gilmutdinov is convinced.


‘The first madrasahs were established by Muslim Turks’


The expert drew particular attention to the significance of religious education, which the Tatars have always been famous for.


‘It is worth noting that the first madrasahs, functioning independently, separate from mosques, were established by Turkic peoples. And this is not surprising because madrasahs in the Turkic Muslim world played an important role. It was the sphere of education that transmitted Islamic understanding from generation to generation,’ the speaker highlighted.


Madrasahs in cities of the Volga region had existed at least since the Golden Horde era, and were destroyed after the fall of the Kazan and Astrakhan Khanates in 1550. At the turn of the XVII and XVIII centuries a revival of Muslim scholarship among the Tatars began. The revival of madrasah education was led either by the Tatars themselves, who were often educated in Muslim countries, or by natives from Muslim states, predominantly from the Caucasus and Bukhara. 


Madrasahs, best known for their high level of teaching and freedom of thought, were located outside Kazan and Kargala, but in Kyshkar (Arsky district), Machkara (Kukmorsky district), Sterlibash (Ural region). Only the creation of ‘Marjaniya’ in Kazan in 1877, ‘Khusainiya’ in Orenburg and ‘Rasuliya’ in Troitsk in the 1890s denoted the beginning of the tradition, when urban madrasahs prevailed over rural ones in the Volga region and the Southern Urals. In the absence of notable technical progress, the aim of madrasahs was to train the spiritual and secular national elite.


‘In the second half of the XVIII century and the first third of the XIX century, the largest complex for professional religious education among the Tatars were Kargaly madrasahs. They were Islamic educational institutions of the Central Asian type. It is typical that the founders of all famous and popular madrasahs of the Volga-Ural region were natives of Bukhara educational institutions,’ Daniyar Gilmutdinov stressed.


In terms of continuity and regional coverage among rural madrasahs the most representative was Machkara madrasah – a madrasah in the village of Machkara (Maskara) of Kazan Province, nowadays Kukmor district of Tatarstan. The existence of the madrasah in the village of Machkara dates at least back to 1758. For Kazan, from the second quarter of the XIX century, Apanayevsky madrasah became the centre for education. Its establishment dates back to 1770, when the second stone mosque had been erected in Kazan.


The history of the ‘Marjaniya’ mosque dates back to the 1770s, when the first cathedral mosque had been completed in Kazan. Shigabutdin Marjani succeeded for the first time in creating a classical type of madrasah in which the muddaris (mentor, teacher) was a completely independent figure. It was a new type of relationship between the muddaris and the head of the parish, between the teacher and students. The model of the famous theologian was first of all a scientific and educational one. He created the board of trustees on the basis of the madrasah and obtained the sanction for its existence in the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly that is he took the madrasah out of subordination to the particular bay’ah.


At the turn of the XIX-XX centuries, Ismagil Gasprinsky, the founder of Jadidism, managed to ensure the unity of the national elite. Thus, the madrasahs ‘Mukhammadiya’ and ‘Apanayevsky’ (Kazan), ‘Galiya’ and ‘Usmaniya’ (Ufa), ‘Khusainiya’ (Orenburg), ‘Rasuliya’ (Troitsk) and ‘Bubi’ where the program included teaching religion based on the Quran and Sunnah, history of Islam, Arabic, Russian and Tatar languages, Turkic Tatar history and scientific disciplines became centres of Jadidism among Tatars.


The ‘Mukhammadiya’ mosque in Kazan was established in 1882 by imam Galimjan Galeev (Barudi) and his father, merchant, Mukhametzyan Galeev. Very soon this madrasah became the first Jadid madrasah in Russia, when in 1891 Barudi began to teach students. For 14 years, they studied Arabic, Turkish and Russian, rhetoric, calligraphy, mathematics, geometry, physics, geography, psychology, methodology and pedagogy, medicine and hygiene, law, philosophy, general history, Russian history, history of Turkic peoples and other subjects. Religious subjects in Jadidism included fiqh, tafsir, hadith, sirah (prophetic biography), aqidah, akhlaq and history of Islam. Barudi invited prominent figures of science and culture, politicians and public figures to the madrasah to conduct classes.


The ‘Khusainiya’ mosque in Orenburg was established in 1889-1890 by the brothers Akhmet bay and Gani bay Khusainovs. The course of study was 14 years. The madrasah taught such religious disciplines as fiqh, tafsir, hadith, sirah, akhlaq, history of Islam and art of preaching in a Jadid version. At the same time, subjects of the natural sciences were taught: physics, chemistry, geometry and trigonometry, psychology, logic, elementary law (non-Muslim), hygiene and medical knowledge, political economics and trade, accounting. The madrasah was above all renowned for its humanities course. The madrasah students studied Russian, Arabic, Farsi, French and German. They were also taught Tatar, Russian, Arabic and Persian literature. There were world and Russian history and history of the Tatars,’ the lecturer concluded.



Ilmira Gafiyatullina