Elmira Akhmetova[i]

When we hear the expression ‘European Muslim’, the first thing that usually occurs in our minds is the Muslims of the West, mainly immigrants with Muslim backgrounds or white Western converts. This short essay narrates another image of ‘European Islam’: Islam on Russian soil. The Russian Federation (RF) is one of the most diverse countries of Europe, where Muslims and Christians are living side by side more or less peacefully for many centuries. Islam in Russia is not a religion of postcolonial immigration, nor is it a manifestation of the recent acceleration of globalisation and cultural exchange. Unlike other Muslim minorities in Europe, Muslims in Russia are indigenous citizens of the country who live in their native land. In 2000, the Muslims of Russia celebrated fourteen centuries of Islam on Russian soil. Throughout these centuries, Muslims took an active part in building what we call today ‘Russian civilisation’.

History of Islam in Russia provides a unique story of co-existence of two great religions, Islam and Christianity, for long centuries, their long journey of learning to live side by side in peace and harmony from their errors and severe crimes. This story is not merely one of conflict, conquest and resistance. Rather, relations between the Christian Russians and Muslims, both within Russia and between Russia and other Muslim countries, have also marked by the periods of co-existence, tolerance, accommodation, and even cooperation. The period of the Russian Empress Catherine the Great’s reign (r.1762-1796) provides an early and good example of such mutual accommodation and cooperation.

Roots of Islam in Russia

It is difficult to establish exactly when Islam first appeared in ‘Russia’ because the lands that Islam penetrated early in its expansion were not part of Russia at the time, but were only several centuries later annexed to the expanding Russian Empire. In the eighth century of the Common Era, Islam was already in existence in the region, whereas Russia was confined to the pagan Kievan Rus, lying about two thousand kilometers away from today’s Tatarstan and Bashkortostan lands. The famous Russian historian S. Solovyov in his History of Russia Since Ancient Times noticed that: “In times long ago, when the Russian Slavs had not yet begun to build Christian churches on the Oka river, and had not yet occupied these places in the name of European civilization, the Bulgars were already listening to the Quran on the banks of the Volga and Kama rivers.”[ii]

According to the early Arab sources, Islam first entered the territory of the modern Russian Federation, particularly the Northern Caucasus, as early as the seventh century, following the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Persian Empire in 641 C.E.  In 654 C.E., the Arabs took the city of Derbend (now in Dagestan), which subsequently became the focus for the Islamisation of the North-Eastern Caucasus, referred to as bab al-jihad (the gateway of jihad).[iii]  In 737 C.E., the Muslim army under the then general Marwan ibn Muhammad, who later became Marwan II the last caliph of the Umayyad dynasty (r. 744-750), achieved a significant victory over the Khazar Kingdom (existed around 652-1016), the strongest military power in the region. At its height, the Khazar Kingdom and its tributaries controlled much of the territory that is today called southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, large portions of the Caucasus (including Circassia, Dagestan, Chechnya, and parts of Georgia), and the Crimea. With the success of Marwan II, the Northern Caucasus, which previously was a vassal of the Khazar Kingdom, as well as the lower Volga region became a part of the Umayyad Empire.

In the central parts of the modern Russia, the upper Volga basin, Islam gradually took root through trade and other economic relations with the Muslim world. The first independent Muslim state in the modern territory of Russia was the Bulghar Kingdom in the Middle Volga region (a territory of the modern Republic of Tatarstan), which existed from the eighth century until its invasion by the Mongols in 1236 C.E. Bin Salki Belekvar, who was a ruler (almas or almish) of the Bulghar between 895 and 925 C.E., sent a letter to the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 908-932) asking him to dispatch Muslim scholars who could teach the religion and Islamic law among the Bulghars. Thus, a delegation set off from the city of Baghdad towards the Bulghar Kingdom. As a consequence, the Bulghar king voluntarily recognised Islam as an official state religion in 922 C.E. in the presence of the Abbasid delegation and the majority of the Bulghar population accepted Islam.  From there, Islam spread to other parts of modern Russia, including the Urals region and Siberia.[iv]

The next wave of the spread of Islam in Russia took place during the period of the Golden Horde, a western province of the Chenghizid Empire, established in 1242 as a result of the Mongol invasion of the Bulghar Kingdom and other neighbouring territories including the Kievan Rus. Under the rule of Uzbek Khan (r. 1312-42), Islam became the official religion of the entire kingdom, while the Volga Bulghar elite dominated its cultural and Islamic discourse. Under the Chenghizid rule, the Russian Orthodox Church was given a preferential legal status, which enabled it to strengthen its economic and political positions in Rus principalities.[v] The territories of Christian subjects, such as the Russians, Armenians, Circassians, Alans, and Crimean Greeks, in fact, were regarded as peripheral areas of little interest as long as they continued to pay the jizyah. These vassal states were never incorporated into the Golden Horde, and the Russian rulers obtained the privilege of collecting the jizyah themselves. Also, these nations were able to preserve their religion under the Muslim rule, which continued for more than two centuries. This fact perfectly portrays the tolerant nature of this rule.[vi] Yet, the Russian perception of an Islamic threat had been intensified close to the demise of the empire in 1437.

In the beginning of the fifteenth century, a number of independent Islamic khanates (or states) emerged from the gigantic Golden Horde such as Kazan, Crimean, Siberian, Noghay and Astrakhan Khanates. These khanates covered almost all of central parts of the modern Russian territory, except the region between the cities of Moscow and Kiev where the majority of proto-Russians used to live in a number of principalities.

Muslims under the Russian Imperialism

The political status of Islam had been changed drastically in the region by the mid-sixteenth century, when a pattern of conquest and incorporation was reversed by the newly-established mighty Russian state under the Ivan IV (the Terrible), who invaded the Kazan (1552 C.E.) and Astrakhan (1556 C.E.) states. Over the next three centuries, Russia continued its expansion into Muslim-inhabited lands of Siberia, the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1859, Muslims of Dagestan (Chechnya and Ingushetia were altogether a part of Dagestan) lost their country to Tsarist Russia after 34 years of resistance under Imam Shamil (1797-1871).[vii] The Russian victory had a devastating impact on Caucasian Muslims. Thousands were deported to Siberia, and hundreds of thousands were forced to flee to the Ottoman Empire. Russia’s conquest of Central Asia was completed in 1884-85. Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Russian Empire (aside from the protectorates of Bukhara and Khiva), included more than 14 million Muslims, which constituted more than eleven per cent of the total population.

The liquidation of the governing bodies of these invaded territories was followed by a systematic occupation of the former Muslim lands, and Muslims were expelled from all important cities and from the best lands along the rivers. A network of fortresses, inhabited exclusively by the Russians, was established at strategic points, reducing the native Muslim populations to minorities within the framework of Russian settlements. The suppression of Islam, accompanied by coercive Christianization and Russification, were central to Moscow’s policy of integrating non-Russian territories within a centralized Russian state, excepting the reign of Catherine the Great.[viii] This state was purely Russian and even Great-Russian, indifferent to the problems of relations between the Russians and other nationalities. Muslim principalities were integrated into the Muscovite Tsardom, and Muslim inhabitants were treated as Russian subjects to whom the rights reserved to Christians were completely denied.[ix] Functioning mosques were destroyed and new ones were not allowed to be built. Such hostile atmosphere and forceful Christianization policies resulted in systematic uprisings of Muslims under the banner of Islam, culminating in the second half of the eighteenth century during the Batyrsha Revolt and the Pugachev Rebellion.

Close to the end of the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great initiated a new system of incorporation of the Muslim community into the governmental structure. Restrictions placed on Muslim trade and entrepreneurship were partly lifted, cultural life of Muslims received a boost from the proceeds of international trade and manufacturing. New mosques were built and religious schools were opened in big cities such as Kazan, Ufa, and Orenburg. The emergence of such relative religious, intellectual and economic freedom due to the imperial reforms of the late eighteenth and also in the nineteenth centuries initiated an Islamic renewal and reformist movement among Russia’s Muslims. The Muslim intellectuals of Tatar origin such as Abd al-Nasr al-Qursawi (1776-1812), Shihab al-Din Marjani (1818-1889), Abd al-Qayyum Nasiri (1824-1902), Musa Jarullah Bigiyev (1875-1949) and many others advocated the creative and flexible potential of Islam and its compatibility with modern progress. In the beginning of the twentieth century, this religious-educational movement evolved into a broader socio-political and cultural phenomenon which was also referred to as Jadidism.

During the years of the First Russian Revolution of 1905–1907, Muslims formed a political party called “Ittifaq al-Muslimin” (Union of Muslims), which represented the liberal opposition and adhered to peaceful parliamentary methods of political struggle. The Muslim Fraction participated in four State Dumas between 1906-1916. Political achievements of Muslims were frustrated by reassertion of tsarist authoritarianism and, later, by the establishment of the Soviet Union and its brand of nation-building. After the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, antagonistic policies of the Communist regime disrupted the traditional religious, social, economic and political foundations of the Muslim society.

The Muslim Population of the Russian Federation

Today the RF has the largest Muslim-minority population of any country in Europe. There is no official record of the exact number of Muslims in the RF as the 2010 census did not include a question about religious beliefs. Nevertheless, most official estimates put the number of Muslims in the RF between 16 and 20 million, which is about 13-15 percent of the total population (about 146 million as of January 2015).

Muslim populations exist in all of the territorial divisions of the Russian Federation. Yet, ethnic Muslims are predominant in seven out of the twenty-one republics: Bashkortostan and Tatarstan in the Volga-Urals region, and Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia in the Northern Caucasus. Other parts of Russia, including large cities such as Moscow, Nizhniy Novgorod and St Petersburg, also have significant Muslim populations. The Muslim community of Moscow alone is estimated to be around 2 million (about 20 % of the total), and St Petersburg’s Muslim population is approximately 700,000 (out of a population of about 4.78 million, according to the 2010 census). Major areas of Muslim concentration in Siberia and the Far East include Omsk, Tyumen, Tobolsk, Novosibirsk,Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Urengoi.

Russia’s Muslims belong to more than 40 ethnic groups,  such as the Volga Tatars, the Siberian Tatars, Chechens, Ingush, Bashqorts, Dargins, Balkars, Avars, Karachays, Lezgins, Kabardins and many others. The majority of them follow two Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence – the Hanafi and Shafi’i madhhabs. Muslims of the Volga-Urals region and the Nogais, Karachays and Balkars in the Northern Caucasus follow the Hanafi madhhab, while Muslims of Dagestan, Chechnya and Ingushetia are practicing Shafi’i madhhab. Shi’ites are a small minority to be found almost exclusively in the Caucasus, among Azeri Turks and part of Dagestan’s small Muslim ethnic group, the Lezgins.

Experts on Russia’s demographic development predict Muslim majority in Russia in the second half of the twenty-first century. They observe the decline in the ethnic Russian population and the rapid growth among the country’s ethnic Muslims. A significant gap exists between the birthrates of ethnic Russians and Russia’s predominantly Muslim ethnic groups: 1.7 births per 100 women for ethnic Russians annually, which is below the replacement rate, and 4.5 births per 100 women for Muslim ethnic groups.[x] Besides, Muslim  immigration  from  Central  Asia and  the  South  Caucasus  is  increasing  inexorably due to higher demand for labour force in Russia.

Islam and the State

As a result of the introduction of religious freedom in the 90s of the last century and subsequently the appearance Islamic renaissance, Russian society adapted to the fact that it is not only a multiethnic, but also an entity of religious diversity. A preamble of the 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience, a supplemental law on religion, identifies Russian Orthodoxy, Judaism, Islam and Buddhism as traditional religions of the Russian Federation. Islam is routinely affirmed to be part of Russian society by the Russian authorities and political leaders. During his visit to Ufa in November 2011, the then-President Dmitry Medvedev stated that: “Our huge country is a common historical motherland for the Christians as well as Muslims; not one of them arrived at here from outside, but did accept Christianity or Islam here, on this land.”[xi] Citing the significant role of Muslim statesmen, artists, scientists, soldiers and businessmen in Russian history, the current Russian President Vladimir Putin, during his meeting with muftis in Ufa on 22 October 2013, emphasised that Islam shines in Russian culture.[xii] Nonetheless, the attitude of the Russian ruling establishment to Islam is rather reserved. The Kremlin wants a conformist Islam and reacts negatively to any deviations from conformism, particularly since the 90s, when Islam served not only as the banner of the Chechen resistance, but was also employed by the opposition in other Muslim regions.

The Islamic factor played a minor role in the declaration of war by the Russian government against Chechnya in 1994 and 1999. Yet, the horrible consequences of these wars, together with the 9/11 attacks in the United States, played a fundamental role in creating a negative image of Islam and Muslims in Russia. In the wake of the Russian Extremist Law of 2002, adopted after the declaration of the US-led global ‘war on terror,’ cases of discrimination and violation of Muslims’ rights have significantly increased. Dozens of organisations such as Hizb al-Tahrir, Jama’a al-Tabligh, Nurdzhular, Salafism, Wahabism and others had been banned as being ‘extremist’ and ‘contradictory to the traditional Hanafi madhhab,’ marking a slow erosion of religious freedom in Russia. Dozens of mainstream Islamic books such as the Riyadh al-Salihin (The Gardens of the Righteous), Sorok Khadisov (Forty Hadiths) of Al-Nawawi, Mizan al-Amal (Balanced Criterion of Action) of Imam Ghazali,  Jizn’ Proroka Muhammada (The Life of the Prophet Muhammad) of Ibn Hisham and al-Mubarakfuri, parts from the Risale-i Nur (The Epistles of Light) of Said Nursi have been indiscriminately banned in various district courts in Russia for allegedly inciting interreligious and interracial hatred and promoting exclusivity and superiority on the basis of religion. In 2014, for example, a district court in Apas, Tatarstan, banned the Russian translation of the hadith collection of Sahih Bukhari for supposedly inciting interracial and interreligious animosity.[xiii] Since this hadith collection is considered by Muslims to be a second source of their religion after the Qur’an and the majority of Muslims have it in their houses, even ordinary Muslim individuals may be charged with keeping it and other recently prohibited books. These bans have inevitably led to the arrests of dozens if not hundreds of Muslims in Russia on allegations of belonging to “extremist groups.”

The Russian media and cinema industry also adopted a hostile stance towards Islam and Muslims and played a vital role in creating a negative image.[xiv] Several negative developments consequently took place in Russia, such as cases of public and official objections by the Orthodox Church, regional administration and non-Muslim populations to the construction of new mosques and the refusal to give jobs to head scarf-wearing women and bearded men. For example, more mosques are needed for practising Muslims in many regions, especially in Moscow. There are currently four mosques functioning in Moscow, which together can accommodate only a few thousand believers. Sergey Sobyanin, the Mayor of Moscow, warned Russian Muslims in 2013 and again in 2014 that no permissions would be granted to build new mosques in Moscow, which is home to about two million Muslims.[xv]  

The growing tensions between the West and the Russian Federation over the Ukrainian crisis since 2014 and the serious economic consequences of the European sanctions, yet,  induced Russia to detach itself from the US-led ‘war on terrorism’. In its foreign relations policy, Russia turned towards the Muslim East, particularly Turkey, becoming extremely cautious on Islam and Muslims. In fact, the Islamic factor used being served in the country’s foreign policy for a long period to corroborate the claim about Russia´s special place in global politics, about its “intermediary” situation as a Eurasian state which enables it to play the part of a bridge between the Muslim world and the West. From 29 June 2005, the Russian Federation earned “an observer” status at the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). Political leaders of the majority-Muslim Republics, especially of Tatarstan and Chechnya, as well as Muslim religious elites are actively involved in Russia’s foreign strategy in the Muslim world.



[i] Elmira Akhmetova, a Tatar scholar from Russia, is an Assistant Professor at International Islamic University Malaysia (IIUM). She has published a number of academic articles, book chapters and monographs on the issues of Islam in Russia, Islamic history, interfaith dialogue, Islamic political thought and civilisational studies. Email: eakhmetova@yahoo.com

[ii] S.Solovyov, History of Russia since Ancient Times, quoted in Ravil Bukharayev, Islam in Russia: The Four Seasons, (UK: Curzon Press, 2000), p. 6.

[iii] See, Galina Yemelianova, “Islam in Russia: An Historical Perspective” in Islam in Post-Soviet Russia: Public and Private Faces, edited by Hilary Pilkington and Galina Yemelianova (New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), p. 28.

[iv] Elmira Akhmetova, Islam in Russia: Historical Facts and Modern Developments, (Malaysia: IAIS Publications, 2013), pp. 5-8.

[v] Pilkington and Yemelianova, Islam in Post-Soviet Russia: Public and Private Faces, p. 21.

[vi] Akhmetova, p. 9.

[vii] On the Caucasus resistance under Imam Shamil see, Anatol Lieven, Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), pp. 304-318; and Lesley Blanch, The Sabres of Paradise: Conquest and Vengeance in the Caucasus, (London: Tauris Parke, 1960).

[viii] Pilkington and Yemelianova, Islam in Post-Soviet Russia, p.6.

[ix] See, Alexandre Bennigsen and Enders Wimbush, Muslims of the Soviet Empire: A Guide, (London: Hurst, 1986), p. 8.

[x] Shireen Hunter, Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security, (New York: M.E. Sharpe, Inc., 2004), p. 45.

[xi] “O tom, Kto Rodnoi, a Kto Prishliy, Rasskazal Prezident Rossii,” www.islamnews.ru/news-98641.html, accessed 15 March 2014.

[xii] “Islam Shines in Russian Culture: Putin,” www.onislam.net/english/news/europe/465089-islam-shines-in-russian-culture-putin.html, accessed 21 March 2014.

[xiii] http://www.azatliq.org/archive/news/20150105/570/570.html?id=26777290 and http://www.islamnews.ru/news-437012.html, accessed 21 March 2015.

[xiv] For instance, in the Russian movie Orda (international title is The Horde, 2012, director Andrei Proshkin) the Tatars, who are the largest Muslim group in modern Russia, are displayed as barbarians, brutal, bloodthirsty and evil-minded people.

[xv] Elmira Akhmetova, “Russia” in Jorgen Nielsen (ed), Yearbook of Muslims in Europe 2013 (Leiden: Brill, 2013), vol. 6, pp. 517 and 527.

This article originally was published in Spanish entitled “Rusia, pasado, presente Y futuro” in Vanguardia Dossier (56), in 2015, pp. 88-93.