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History of Islam in russia

14.01.2009 12:05

The Russian Federation covers a great territory stretching from Eastern Europe to Northern Asia. The history of its development from an unstable conglomeration of small Slavic principalities into great Eurasian power is closely connected to one of the largest Medieval states — the Mongol Empire. The Golden Horde, a part of the great empire of Genghis Khan, had covered the same territory as the Soviet Union did several centuries later. With the subsequent disintegration of the Golden Horde in the 15th century Moscow principality developed into a powerful state integrating all 10 of the Tatar successor states of the great empire of the Golden Horde.

The Russian Federation covers a great territory stretching from Eastern Europe to Northern Asia. The history of its development from an unstable conglomeration of small Slavic principalities into great Eurasian power is closely connected to one of the largest Medieval states — the Mongol Empire. The Golden Horde, a part of the great empire of Genghis Khan, had covered the same territory as the Soviet Union did several centuries later. With the subsequent disintegration of the Golden Horde in the 15th century Moscow principality developed into a powerful state integrating all 10 of the Tatar successor states of the great empire of the Golden Horde.

The first Muslims on the today Russia’s territory were Da¬ghestani people converted to Islam during the life of the third caliph of the Arab caliphate Usman. It happened in the region of Derbent that being the most northern point of the Sasanid Empire along with the Persian state was included into the Caliphate (in 653 A. D.). Derbent thus was the starting point for proliferation of Islam in the South of Daghestan.

The next stage of proliferation of Islam concerns the Khazar Kaganate, a large state spread from the Volga river to the Black sea (the middle of the 7th century – 965). Islam was one of the official religions of the Kaganate along with Judaism professed by ruling clique and in the Kaganate capital Itil there were Muslim residential areas with mosques and madrasah.

Islam entered the most territories of contemporary Russia amicably. It started with the official legation of the Abbasid caliphate in the Volga Bulgaria (the north of the Volga region) upon their invitation. In 922 in the presence of the Arab envoys the ruler of the Volga Bulgaria declared the acceptance of Islam.

Bulgars and their descendants — Tatars — were the ones to bring Islam through the centuries despite the persecution. At first Bulgars were attacked by the Mongols who invaded and destroyed the Volga state at the beginning of the 13th century. However the collective influence of Muslim nations including the Volga Bulgars, Khorezmi and some others in the Western part of the Mongol Empire later made the Mongol khans become the followers of Islam. In the early 14th century during the reign of one of the most powerful Golden Horde rulers Ozbek Khan Islam was declared official religion of this country. However all across the northern part of Eurasia it remained fairly tolerable to Orthodoxy. In fact Russian princes were free to constitute an Orthodox eparchy in the Golden Horde capital — the town of Saray (1263). Ever since the archbishop of this eparchy (now carrying a different name) is still the second significant person in Russian Orthodox Church.

In the 15th century the Golden Horde disintegrated into several independent states. Taking advantage of the confrontation between closely¬related Tatar sovereigns Moscow rulers launched a new political project called “The Third Rome” meaning that Constantinople overthrown by the Turks and Osmans succeeded the role of “the centre of the Universe” to Moscow. Using the conflicts between the Tatar Khanates to its merit Moscow one by one integrated the Kazan Khanate (in 1552), the Crimean Khanate (in 1556), the Nogay Khanate (the middle of 17th century), the Kasimov Khanate (in 1682) and finally in the middle of the 19th century the Caucusus. Thus Islam became the second most widespread religion in the Russian Empire where it was long persecuted. Then Islam remained the second most widespread religion in the Soviet Union that was carrying out atheistic policy destroying temples and persecuting the clergy of all confessions. Nowadays the number of Muslims in the Russian Federation totals to 14.6 million (10% of all citizens) and if the migrants from newly independent Central Asian republics are to be taken into consideration the number of Muslims is estimated at 20 million. Major Islamic communities are concentrated among 9 minority nationalities: the Adyghs, Karachay and Cherkess, Kabardins and Balkars, Ossetins, Ingush, Chechens, Daghestani, Tatars and Bashkirs. Muslims are dispersed all over the country but most communities are concentrated in the Caucasus, the Urals, Western Siberia and in the Middle Volga Basin.

The Muslim population of the Volga Federal District (VFD) counts over 6 million which makes over 20% of all the VFD population. The Volga Federal District is a historical motherland of the two largest Muslim nationalities — the Bashkirs (1.7 million) and the Tatars (5.6 million). In the years of Russian Empire and the Soviet Union the Tatars settled all over the country and presently in the VFD there reside over 40% of the Tatar nation. Every seventh resident of the Volga Federal District speaks the Tatar language. Tatarstan is a unique region of the Russian Federation. Officially it has the status of one of the 21 republics of the RF but technically it determined the very form of present statehood of the Russian Federation.

The capital of the Volga Federal District is Nizhny Novgorod founded by Russian princes in 1221. A legend says that Nizhny Novgorod is built on a place where there used to be a Bulgar settlement called Ibrahimov gorodok (Ibrahim’s place) first. This version isn’t proved historically but there are plenty of archeological evidence of the Islamic proliferation in the Volga Basin found right in the middle of the city, in the Kremlin, dated back to its Golden Horde period. Some historical sources suggest there used to be a Golden Horde legation in the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin. Yet more significant is the fact that in the times of the Golden Horde Nizhny Novgorod was the capital of a sovereign principality independent from Moscow and prosperous due to lively trade with eastern Muslim countries induced along the main trading water¬way of the Eastern Europe Volga (the symbol of the Tatar nation river Idel giving the name to the capital of Khazaria — the town of Itil). Thus Nizhny Novgorod has always been in close relations with the Muslim world and a large Muslim community has always resided in the centre of the city.

Late in the 15th century Nizhny Novgorod became a part of the Moscow principality losing its independence for good. In the middle of the 16th century Moscow Tsar Ivan the Horrible conquered the Kazan and the Astrakhan Khanates ruining Nizhny Novgorod economical prosperity through putting an end to trading with the East.

Despite the persecution of Islam following the conquest Islamic followers managed to found several settlements on the territory of the Nizhny Novgorod region. The oldest ones of the contemporary Tatar settlements are dated back to early 16th century. Muslim Tatars took oath of faithfulness to Moscow Tsar and honestly served the throne guarding the borders of the ever growing Moscow state. This made Tatars essential during Smuta — a period of interregnum at the beginning of the 17th century. It were the Tatars who annihilated one of the pretenders aspiring to take over the Moscow throne. Furthermore, one of the leaders of home guard to free Moscow of Polish¬Lithuanian intervention was a Tatar of Nizhny Novgorod origin Kirisha Minibayev known in history by his russified name Kuzma Minin.

Russia’s policy toward its Muslims was marked by systematic repression and destruction of Islamic civilization within Russia’s borders up to the end of the 18th century when the Empress Catherine the Great came to power and changed the policy declaring Islam a tolerable religion. However the role of a mediator between Russian and Eastern territories that Nizhny Novgorod played made this area attractive for traders. The Makariev fair (Makarievskaya Yarmarka) near Nizhny Novgorod attracted many merchants from all over the country — from Chinese to European borders. Naturally Muslim merchants practiced their religion down here in the Nizhny Novgorod area and that’s why there was a mosque at the Makariev fair and it had appeared long before the liberalization of religious life in the country. And at the very beginning of the relative freedom of religious practice Nizhny Novgorod Tatars were among the first ones to take advantage of it and built several mosques and madrasahs in their villages. In fact many of these madrasahs functioned as mini¬universities ensuring the development of progressive¬thinking among several generations of Russian Muslims. Liberal ambiance in Nizhny Novgorod determined by free merchant air rather than by Moscow militant policy has always contributed to tolerant coexistence of many nationalities and religions along with reformist opinions concerning Islam of local Muslims.

At the beginning of the 20th century Nizhny Novgorod became a centre of Muslim progressive thinking. In 1905 the first unauthorized Muslim Congress was held here. Tatars, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, and Caucasians gathered here the next year for the III Muslim Congress laying the groundwork for initiating a Muslim fraction in the first Russian Parliament — the State Duma. The resolutions of these first congresses held in Nizhny Novgorod were later developed into a theory of national autonomy of Turkic Muslims of the Volga region. Thus the appearance of the first national Tatar and Bashkir Military Council Harbi Shuro in Kazan during the Civil war of 1918–1920, the foundation of the first national state Idel¬Ural State in the same years and appearance of national autonomies of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan in the Soviet period are the results of the processes initiated on the land of Nizhny Novgorod.

The Yarmarka mosque (Trade fair mosque) of Nizhny Novgorod is worth mentioning for playing a symbolical role in the history of Nizhny Novgorod. It was opened right after the famous Makariev fair was transferred to Nizhny Novgorod in 1917. It was attended not only by the Volga Tatars, the traditional Muslims in this area, but also by Eastern merchants — Indians, Azerbaijanis, Muslims from China and Crimean Tatars. Upon governmental decision this mosque was used as an architectural prototype for building many mosques in the Russian Empire up until the 20th century.

This is the history of Muslims in the Volga region and of its capital Nizhny Novgorod in short. The history of our city very visually represents the theory of Eurasian merging: Europe and Asia merge here on the border of Christian European and Islamic Asian civilization. The Volga Federal District and Nizhny Novgorod in particular represent an exemplary mediator between Russians, Tatars and Jews with tolerance, cooperation and love for peace and in this respect the three great states of the Volga region — Khazaria, Russia and the Golden Horde — united by Volga¬Idel¬Itil symbolizing the centre of activity.

Working on the revival of Russia we should restore its economy and therefore recreate such conditions that would make it attractive for foreign businessmen from all over the world. It takes being open to everybody and accepting everybody irrespective of the skin color. Paraphrasing the famous saying by Leo Tolstoy we may say that beauty, love and ... trade will save the world from wars and conflicts.

We are sure to have Muslims among the businessmen coming to our country meaning that we are to reconstruct the Yarmarka mosque — the true symbol of our city. The 100th anniversary of its foundation contemporizes with the 800th anniversary of Nizhny Novgorod itself.

Nizhny Novgorod has always been famous for its trading fair bringing great profit to both the city and the country. Nizhny Novgorod Tatars, Muslims, believe that reconstruction of the mosque and restoring of the merchant spirit would help to overcome the ignorance and misery, the poverty and indifference among people. Not missiles and chemicals but concern of people will restore Russia to a worthy life.

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