Islam and Russia: History lessons

28 March 2019

A system of religious and cultural values that influence the functioning of the Russian society has been developed in Russia over its thousand-year history.


Islam, as one of the traditional confessional communities in Russia, plays an important role in its socio-political life. Being a factor in the formation of public consciousness, Islam has been contributing to the development of principles that help people of different confessions to co-exist peacefully for many centuries. Besides, it has been influencing the course of socio-political events.


The principles of peaceful co-existence


Russia has been functioning as a multi-national and multi-confessional society for many centuries, therefore there have been developed certain principles of co-existence among different confessions.


The dogmatic postulates of religions cannot be seriously discussed among representatives of different faiths. Interfaith dialogue is not about convincing your partner of your truth or making someone move towards a syncretic agreement. This dialogue can take place only when adherents of one religion try to understand another religion with the help of their faith and self-consciousness and respect it even if they do not share its provisions. On the one hand, it requires a clear and correct expression of thoughts, on the other hand – one needs to be open and honest. One should not speak so much but listen. They are not statements that are made, but focused and interested questions can help to reduce misunderstanding in the current situation and overcome prejudices. 


For many centuries optimal forms of co-existence among different confessions and peoples have been developed in Russia. Over a thousand-year history of Islam, there were very difficult periods of time for Muslims in our country. In that regard, they tried to develop principles of peaceful co-existence in their relationships with people of different confessions on the basis of common sense.


The Islamic-Christian borderline which has been developed as a unique phenomenon in Russia, in fact, has not been violated within centuries-long cohabitation of peoples in our country. This historic experience has been formed, primarily, on the principles of common sense and understanding of the current situation. It cannot be considered as a sort of a compromise among religions. It is an attempt to build intra-religious life and relationships with neighbours according to the true principles of their religions that are above immediate political decisions. 


History lessons


The dissemination of Islam in the territory of Russia is, primarily, a continuation of a universal religious community’s formation and its transition to a different qualitative state. Islamic civilization has gone beyond the Arabic-language world in the process of expanding its borders. Before the time when Islam appeared in the territory of modern Russia it had absorbed the achievements of the Iranian-Indian, Turkic (in Central Asia) cultural areas. Muslims themselves had already lived in conditions of the common culture.


The penetration of Islam into the territory of modern Russia occurred initially as a result of the Arabian conquests. In 685-686 Arabians conquered Derbent which became the centre of Islamization within the territory of North-East Caucasus since those times. It was called “Bab al-Jihad” (“Struggling in the Way of God”). In 722-723 the army of the Arabian commander, Jarrah, entered internal parts of Dagestan. In 732-739 an Arabian commander, Marwan ibn Muhhamad, undertook 6 military campaigns to Dagestan.


It should be borne in mind that the adoption of Islam by the peoples of the North Caucasus lasted almost a thousand years and the process was gradual and peaceful. For instance, in the 18th century some state formations already existed in the territories of Dagestan, Ossetia and Kabardia but as for mountain dwellers of Chechnya and the West Caucasus, they preserved a tribal way of life till the beginning of the 19th century.


Islam appeared in the territory of the Mid-Volga Region also very early, first of all because of trade and economic bonds with Central Asia. The dissemination of Islam in Bulgharia is connected with the arrival of three Companions of Prophet Muhammad. The most common version of that event is presented in the book “Tavarihi Bulgharia” by the author of the 13th century, Muslimi. In his book he describes in details how in the year 9 according to the Hijri calendar (631/32) the Prophet sent three Sahabahs, the Companions of the Prophet (Gabd al-Rahman bin Zubayr, Zubayr bin Djagda and Talha bin Usman), to Bulgharia for spreading and teaching the true religion.

“They were teaching the basis of the religion and the canons of Shariah in Bulgharia for 3 years. They built the Cathedral Mosque and introduced the Koran to people. They read Friday and holiday prayers (Namaz) and opened a Madrasa”.


In 3 years two of them returned to Medina and Zubayr bin Djagda stayed in Bulgharia. He married the daughter of the Khan, Tuybike, and, having lived with her for 20 years, died in Bulgharia. Since that time Bulgharia finally took shape as a state on the political map of the world. And the arrival of the embassy from Baghdad in 922, in this sense, played the role of the official diplomatic recognition of a new state.


In the Golden Horde, like in Volga Bulgharia, the task of the religious and political leadership, apart from the consolidation of the faith, was to reach the order, peace and prosperity in the country. One of the most important consequences of that was relative tolerance in Islam where different points of view were allowed but only in case they were not imposed by force and the struggle over them did not lead to the disintegration of society.


In the Golden Horde it was manifested in the attitude of Islam towards other religions and regarding intra-Muslim differences as well. Religious scholars of different madhhabs (Shafei, Maliki) lived in the capital of the Golden Horde, there were various Sufi communities. And all that was perceived as a necessary attribute of a proper state that was to develop options for meeting the spiritual needs its citizens.


In the Golden Horde there was understanding of the fact that a state should not base its existence on the principles of suppressing religious rights among representatives of different confessions. It is proved by the fact that since 1261 Sarsky and Podonsky Dioceses of the Russian Orthodox Church were functioning in the territory of the Golden Horde and the residence of the ruling Bishop was situated in the capital of the Golden Horde, Sarai.


Strengthening the positions of Islam and the Muslim clergy began in the middle of the 14th century and ended with the formation of independent Muslim states – the Khanate of Astrakhan, the Khanate of Kazan, the Crimean Khanate and others. In those states which were located rather far from the main centres of the Muslim civilization, ijma (the consensus of legal scholars) played the main role because it helped to legitimize regional differences.


It was described by a famous Russian historian, Mikhail Hudyakov, who claimed that “one of the brightest sides in social life of Kazan Khanate was full tolerance which was in close accordance with a trade character of city dwellers. To signify the fact that adoption of Islam in the Khanate of Kazan was accomplished peacefully, mullah stands at prayer (Khutbah) in mosques of the Kazan Region leaning on a stranger’s crook instead of a warrior’s sword like in Turkestan”.


To be continued.


Raphik Muhametshin. “Spiritual heritage of Russian Muslims”.