ISLAM IN THE SOVIET UNION
By Elmira Akhmetova
In the previous memories, Part One and Part Two and Part Three I spoke about the status of Islam during the Soviet Union in terms of praying, reading of the Qur’an al-Karim and the issues related to hijab. In Part IV, let me recall some childhood memories related to the Blessed month of Ramadan and the fasting ritual.
The usage of the Hijri calendar was outlawed by the Soviet Union in 1930s and, very soon, even the remembrance of the Hijri calendar’s details in public and private spheres was prohibited. Since I was born in the last decades of the Soviet regime, when the Communist doctrine has been believed to have an ultimate victory over all other ‘deviant’ ideologies, the word ‘Ramadan’ (Ramazan in Tatar) for me was a male name without any other connotations.
Yet, the memories about fasting were still alive among the elder generations although they never spoke about it openly. I grew up by being indoctrinated through school textbooks that Islam was used to abuse and torture people and children without permitting them to eat and drink for one month (!). We, school children, were very sympathetic with these ‘oppressed’ nations by ‘religious propaganda.’ One of the episodes which were so amusing for us that several young children were forced to fast by the religious authorities and they used to go to the barn and eat potato cooked for chickens.
At home, I heard different stories. My father, grandmother from father’s side and ladies in the neighbourhood sometimes whispered about how their fasting was nullified by the Soviet authorities by forcing them to eat, drink in public and even sometimes by forcing them to drink alcohol. Then they were remembering some names of those who were put in prison or lost even their lives after their ‘crimes against humanity and free Soviet people’ by fasting were discovered by the authorities. But my mother barely said any word. I knew the reason for her silence after few years when my elder brother died in the Blessed Month of Ramadan at the age of 16 after suffering from bone cancer for several years.
When we felt that the days of my brother are counted, my grandmother from mother’s side also stayed for a while in our house. And she was fasting. This was the first time for me to see a real person who fasts in secret by her own will (!) and by having a risk of being harassed. She said that harassment years are already gone and no one is interested in old people’s business anymore. In tahlil gatherings (in Tatar culture, tahlil gatherings are organized on 3rd, 7th and 40th days after the death of a person) after the death of my brother, we realized several more people who were fulfilling their religious obligation of fasting.
I tried to fast for the first time at the age of 20 with my roommates in Kazan State University hostel. The Soviet Union was already gone by leaving its pains, horrors and dark marks in the hearts of people. It was the time of searching for a new identity and for many of us Islam was a component of our traditional identity. So, Ramadan was coming and we decided to fast. But we did not know how to fast, from what time or until when.
We recalled all information we had known. Someone said that we can eat our sahur until seeing the sun so we did in the first days. Then another friend got an information that we should finish our sahur in darkness and we followed this new rule. But to spot the iftar time was easier for us. After our classes, we used to sit next to the window on the fourth floor of our hostel and observe the large red April sun to be disappeared in the horizon. This was our simple calculation of iftar without having any guideline, calendar, and proper knowledge. The calculation of the beginning of Ramadan and its ending was another puzzle for us as Russia was still in isolation and no news was coming from outside world.
Yes, we did many mistakes. We used to chew gums while fasting as, according to our logics, gum does not enter to stomach. Now I smile when remembering that we used to fast during menstrual periods as well. Only in the second Ramadan, we were warned by some religiously educated ones that fasting during periods is prohibited.
But we felt wonderful by being able to fast. It was a mixed feeling of belonging, calmness, satisfaction, obedience, and joy. It was a feeling of finding something very special and precious after searching for it for many years. It was the first taste we had experienced in our short lives of being obedient to the Creator, Allah Subhanallah wa Ta’ala.
May Allah bless you all.
June 18, 2017
Writer is a faculty member at International Islamic University Malaysia