The history of Muslim libraries in Russia

23 April


Allah Almighty said: “Read in the name of your Lord, Who created all things”. This was the first Revelation brought to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ by the angel Gabriel. The command became the duty of Muslims from that times and developed their affection for reading books. This is evidenced by the legendary libraries of Islamic civilization, which were born at the will of the caliphs, lived for the benefit of people and died in the flames of ignorant wars, but were reborn from the ashes. Muslim libraries in Russia have an equally rich history, inextricably linked with the past, present and future of Islam in these places.

The penetration of Islam into Derbent (modern Dagestan) awakened the intellectual potential of local cultures. Already in the 8th century a mosque with a library was built here. Clashes between the Arabs and the Khazars and the internecine wars of local princes couldn’t have a positive impact on the preservation of book collections. Despite all the vicissitudes, no country in the world knows such a dense concentration of manuscripts in such a small territory as Dagestan. This was largely facilitated by waqf (charitable in a simplified sense) libraries, widespread in the region and of great interest to researchers.

The next, in chronological order, area of penetration of Islam into the territory of modern Russia was the Volga region. The religion of submission to the Almighty became official for the state of Volga Bulgaria in the 10th century. The establishment of relations with other countries, especially the Muslim East, accelerated the development of culture. The bazaars in Central Asia, which were visited by Bulgar merchants and shakirds, were centers of book trade. Manuscripts in Eastern languages were brought to Volga Bulgaria, replenishing the libraries of the nobility, collections of mosques and madrassas.

In the 13th century, the centers of the Bulgar civilization turned into ruins and, as occupied territories, became part of the Golden Horde. Despite the Mongol invasion, over time Volga Bulgaria became one of the prosperous emirates of the Jochid Empire - descendants of Genghis Khan. The Ulus of Jochi included lands with a Turkic population, so the predominance of strong Islamic traditions in the state became a pattern.

Bookishness of this period acquired its own special features. Large manuscript collections, usually of personal origin and use, were replenished by imported Muslim books - expensive and carefully decorated by calligraphers. In everyday life, were used copies of more modest design, but accessible to a wide range of readers. The scribes of these manuscripts were the shakirds of the madrasah. They exchanged copies from their libraries, promoting the spread of books.

At the beginning of the 15th century, the Golden Horde split into several large states: the Kazan, Crimean, Astrakhan and Siberian khanates, the Great and Nogai Hordes.

The bibliophilic tendencies of the Arab East penetrate into the Kazan Khanate. Book collections at the palace of the Kazan khans and mosques, small but carefully selected handwritten collections of clergy, their followers and students testify to the importance of the written word for Tatar society. This is also evidenced by the cult status of Sufi manuscripts, still protected by the Siberian Tatars, who once inhabited the Siberian Khanate. The era of the Crimean Khanate became the heyday of Crimean Tatar culture, art and literature.

In 1552, Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquered the Kazan Khanate, and in 1556, the Astrakhan Khanate. Gradually, other successors of the Golden Horde were annexed to Tsarist Russia. The relatively peaceful coexistence of Russia and the Crimean Khanate was disrupted in 1776, when Russian troops led by Field Marshal Christopher Munnich burned Bakhchisarai. The best libraries perished in the fire, but the Russian statesman Grigory Potemkin managed to take the royal archive to St. Petersburg. By decree of Empress Catherine II, ancient manuscripts were confiscated from the madrasah and the population.

But connections between the Crimean Tatar and Russian peoples continued to develop, as evidenced by toponymy in Moscow: Krymsky Val, Arbat (a word derived from the Turkic “arabat” - “suburb”), Chongarsky Boulevard and others. In Zamoskvorechye there were the Crimean courtyard, the Nogai courtyard, and the Tatar settlement, where merchants and translators lived. The historical mosque in the Tatarskaya Sloboda and the Cathedral Mosque in the Meshchanskie streets area united all the Tatars of Moscow. These places of worship had the richest collections of Islamic literature.

The visit of Empress Catherine II to Kazan in 1767 and her historic decree “On tolerance of all religions” mark the revival of Islam in the Russian Empire. The publication of the Quran in Russian at the end of the 18th century laid the foundation for Muslim printing. After the opening of the first Muslim printing house in Kazan in 1801, the mushafs of the Holy Quran began to rapidly spread throughout the country.

An Eastern Department appears in the Russian Academy of Sciences, and the Imperial Public Library begins collecting Arabic publications. Faculty of Oriental languages are opening at the universities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The St. Petersburg University Foundation is enriched by the book collections of Kazan University and the Odessa Richelieu Lyceum. Since 1840, the Department of Oriental Languages at the Asian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs began to operate with a rich collection of Arabic manuscripts (today it is owned by the library of St. Petersburg State University).

In a word, in the 19th century in Russia the tradition of studying the Quran, literary monuments of the East and Islamic studies in general was established. Years pass, the world changes, and the industrial revolution brings the socialist revolution to Russia. In the first decade, the Soviet government treated Islam more tolerantly than other religions. Since 1918, on the initiative of the writer Maxim Gorky, the publishing house “World Literature” began its activities, where the Eastern department was organized with the participation of famous academicians of Islamic studies.

On October 25, 1926, the All-Russian Muslim Congress took place in the Ufa. At the congress, was noted with great satisfaction the increase in the number of Islamic libraries in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Karakalpakstan, as well as the transfer of the “Othman Quran” for storage to the Tashkent. Among the priority decisions of the congress was the opening of religious libraries at mosques and madrassas. However, at the end of the 1920s, the activities of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims were curtailed by the atheist state.

In the post-war period (1957), by decision of the Presidium of the USSR Academy of Sciences, the Publishing House of Oriental Literature began to operate. The result of its work was about 8 thousand publications. Book series (for example, “Monuments of Eastern Literature” - founded in 1959), published by the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, generously replenished the library collections, helping to promote Islamic thought and Muslim mentality. In the last years of the Soviet Union, attitudes towards Islam changed for the better. Already in the new millennium, Russia, as a member country of the International Cultural Organization Uniting Turkic-Speaking Countries (TURKSOY), interacts with Muslim states within the framework of the “Association of Libraries of the Turkic World”.

A brief overview of Islamic librarianship in Russia demonstrates the absence of great monuments like the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. Nevertheless, the pages of the history of Islam in Russia are intertwined with the special attitude of believers to reading. Today, Muslim publishing houses are publishing more and more Islamic books in Russian, bringing together fellow believers of different nationalities. The digital revolution has not alienated Russian Muslims from reading, but has facilitated access to ancient publications. A unique example of this is the electronic library “Dar al- qutub”, formed by the Religious Board of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan in 2013.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"

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