Islam in Russia
by Abdur Rauf
What is the present position of Islam in contemporary Russia and China? In order to provide a perspective answer to this vital question this article presents a summary of an up to date history of Islam in these two famed states of the world.
History of Islam in Russia
The long history of Islam in Russia is grand and glorious as well as doleful and dreadful. Many stringent steps were taken against Islam and the Muslims during and after the Russian Revolution. Those tough and tight measures, however, failed to wipe out the Muslims and their rich cultural heritage. On the contrary, the present position rather confirms the fact beyond doubt that like all other Muslim regions of the world the Russian Muslim areas are also in the grips of a rising wave of awakening. Despite strict Russian censure of the media the entire world has known by now how vigorously the people of the Muslim majority areas of Russia have asserted their separate political identity and revitalized their distinctive cultural heritage. The more recent upsurges in all the Muslim states of Russia are simply eye-opening for everyone. All awakening movements among the Russian Muslims have always been distinctly Islamic in letter and spirit.
Islam and Muslims in Russia
Islam entered on the Russian scene in the seventh century A.D. (first century A.H.). Even during the Rightly Guided Caliphate at Madinah, the Muslim armies had started making penetrations into Russian soil. In 642, Azerbaijan came under Muslim control. The Muslims also occupied the extreme border town of Darbund in 658. After the conquest of eastern Caucasia (Qafqaz) Islam began to spread in these areas without any resistance. The Muslim armies crossed river Oxus in 673. Bukhara fell to the Muslims in 674.
The series of such conquests went on up to the tenth century when Islam became the most popular religion in the entire central Asia. With the passage of time these very areas began to be considered as the main centres of Islamic civilization and culture. Thereafter Islam’s popularity went on increasing in the whole of Russia. Such developments inspired and encouraged missionary activities of the Sufi saints of central Asia Qafqaz.
Unfortunately, however, Russia had a tight grip over the Muslim territories from the middle of the sixteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth. But despite her oppressive operations there was never any decline in the spread and popularity of Islam in Russia. The pace of Islam’s dissemination maintained a high momentum in eastern Russia. The Russian Muslims of these areas maintained their brotherly links with the rest of the Muslims world for quite a long span of time. Central Asia and Qafqaz played a vital role in promoting the Islamic civilization and its culture for full one thousand years. These areas enjoyed the same honours in the rise and glory of Islam as have gone to the lot of Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and the indo-Pak subcontinent. Taimur’s capital was Samarqand. From the literary point of view, Persian became popular in Bukhara for the first time. Khawarizam was the ancestral city of the renowned Muslim physician-cum-philosopher, Avicenna.
Movements for Autonomy
After the Russain Revolution of 1917, the Russian Muslims faced a highly hazardous situation. The leaders of the communist revolution were determined to impose such on authoritarian system over the entire Russia as was totally hostile to the religion and traditions, civilization and culture, politics and polity of the Muslims. Around 1924, a tight iron curtain was imposed on the Muslim areas. Consequently, the Russian Muslims got dissociated from the rest of the Muslims world.
Immediately after the start of the regular official moves against Christianity in Russia, a series of organized onslaughts started against the Muslims in 1928. In Spain, the inimical efforts to eliminate Islam and the Muslims after their downfall had yielded great success. But it was quite different in Russia. All Soviet attempts at uprooting Islam and the Muslims failed flatly. The period of the Russian Iron Curtain from 1928 to 1968 was the most painful tragedy of the Russian Muslim history. During that perilous period attempts to lure Muslims away from Islam and their forcible conversion to communism became a recurring routine with those in power.
Tyranny and oppressive measures gave birth to a wave of new awakening among the Muslims. Movements for independence and self-determination erupted all over the Muslim areas. Among these freedom movements, the guerilla organization called the "Basmachi Movement" is quite well-known. Unfortunately, however, the Russian Muslims got entangled into the wilderness of mutual differences and dissensions, rifts and conflicts. They were then unable to defend themselves as a united block. Consequently, all Muslim areas were forcibly annexed to the Russian territory one after the other.
Ever since Russian occupation of the Muslim territories the Soviet Union had utilized all possible devices to put an end to the distinct spiritual, moral, cultural and political identity of the Muslims. All sorts of traps of atheism, baits of modernization and lures of lewd recreations had been tried in quick succession. These dirty devices, however, failed in toto to dissociate the Muslims from the main stream of their religion and traditions and to get them merged into the blind ocean of communism.
It now appears that no power on earth can diminish or destroy the Russian Muslims’ inherent commitment to their religion and civilization. An illustrative example is the recent upsurge in Azerbaijan which erupted in 1989. It was backed by the most popular political organization of the Soviet Azris, the "Jamiat-i-Watan" (Patriotic Front). Even the most savage ‘Tank Diplomacy’ of the tumbling Russian empire failed rather miserably to quell this historic uprising. In Uzbekistan, a new underground organization, "Islamic Party" had been formed. It called for a federation of all Islamic Central Asian republic independent of Moscow. In 1990, even Tajikistan joined the great upheaval. Its capital, Doshambe, was the scene of the most violent political demonstrations against Russian communism. Thus republic after republic came under the powerful grip of the Islamic awakening. The eagerly-awaited day dawned at last. The year 1991 saw the disintegration of the Soviet Union and complete collapse of world communism. With this, started a new era in the history of the Russian Muslims. The famed Muslim states of Central Asia declared their independence. They are now cementing their broken ties with the rest of the Muslim world. They have been admitted as members of the Organization of Islamic Conference.
Asia’s Muslim Heartland
The independence of these six Central Asian Muslim republics is a great land mark in the contemporary history of Islam. Some of their basic facts are given below:
Name of the State Capital Population 1. Azerbaijan
In addition to these Muslim majority areas, a large chunk of the population in Kremia is also Muslim. They are Tartars. Apart from touching Kazakhistan, Russain Muslims resemble more their co-religionists in the neighbouring Muslim countries rather than the Soviet communists.
All of these sovereign Muslim States enjoy some God-given distinctive advantages as compared to the rest of Russia. Some such unique boons are:
(1) Significant Strategic Setting: By virtue of their close location to Iran, Afghanistan, the Persian gulf and Pakistan the special political and military significance of these areas look quite manifest. Russia in particular and the rest of the world in general can never overlook this significant strategic setting of these territories.
(2) Mineral and Agricultural Wealth: These areas have been blessed with valuable natural resources. World’s largest gold mines lie in Uzbekistan. Azerbaijan’s Baku has the biggest oil fields. Similarly desert areas of several Muslim territories have huge reservoirs of minerals, gas and oil. From the agricultural point of view these areas are not only self-sufficient but also the major sources of good supply to the rest of Russia. Unfortunately, however, it is these very areas where the Muslims had been subjected to a pathetic state of utter economic deprivation.
(3) Population Growth Factor: Since the movement of family planning has met with little success in the Muslim areas, their population growth rate was five times higher than the average Russians. The unusually high rate of population growth has also generated apprehensions that in times to come the Muslims may form majority in the entire Russian set up. This basic demographic factor was a unique advantage favouring the Russian Muslims.
According to the 1918 Constitution, all Russian nationals are guaranteed complete religious freedom. Yet religious preaching had been banned. All sorts of anti-religious propaganda was encouraged. Under flimsy pretexts, Islam was commonly subjected to the worst possible criticisms. In spite of all that, however, the Russian government always remained highly suspicious and apprehensive of its Muslim population. The Muslim areas have a network of mosques, religious education institutions and cultural centres. But extremely subtle and severe restrictions had been imposed on the religious festivals and gathering of the Muslims. All sorts of wicked devices were employed to keep the Muslims aloof and even estranged from the rest of the ummah. One of the mysterious anomalies marring the past Russian foreign policy baffled all understanding. On the one hand, Russia desired to win sympathies of the Middle-East Muslims as a part of her anti-American measures. Simultaneously, however, it never refrained from a repressive and even barbarous policy towards its own Russian Muslims of Central Asia as it had done with the Muslims of Afghanistan during the recent past.
Accusations of Foreign Intervention
The tempo of the growing Muslim awakening proved beyond any shadow of doubt that the situation was slipping fast beyond the Russian control. It is really unfortunate that instead of understanding the dynamics of these upsurges Russia was all along resorting to play up ‘the foreign hand scenario’. At one time it put the blame on a triangle of conspiracy against the Soviet Union. It alleged that a trio comprising the following foreign powers was instigating the upsurge in the troubled Muslim state: (1) Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), (2) the United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), (3) the Afghan Mujahidin’s organization, "Hizb-i-Islami", headed by Gulbadin Hikmatyar.
The accusation of foreign intervention looked utterly absurd in the face of real facts. It is Russia and Russia alone which was actually responsible for all that was happening within the Muslim states. The two major factors responsible for the more recent unrest and uprising were as follows:-
(i) Economic Exploitation of the Russian Muslims: Despite their rich natural resources all the Soviet Muslim republics had been purposely kept backward. They looked like typical colonies of the vast-Russian empire. They were obliged to export their raw materials to the developed Russian republics for paltry returns. They were constrained to import everyday consumer goods from them at exorbitant prices. This unjust and unbalanced situation has sown the seeds of poverty, deprivation, frustration and unrest in these states.
(ii) Systematic Suppression of Muslim Culture: The other main factor was the constant cultural suppression of the Muslim population. All sorts of the alien Russo-European cultural patterns and practices were being imposed on them rather unthinkingly. The Muslims felt like living in a foreign land.
Rising Strength of Renaissance
The most painful aspect of this cultural suppression was the fact that a variety of shrewd and irrational measures were being constantly adopted to alienate the Muslims of these republics from the rest of the Muslim world. However, like the Chinese Muslims, the Russian Muslims were becoming increasingly fond of cementing their fraternal bonds with the Muslim world. To fulfil this dream they had constituted a strong Islamic organization. The mounting wave of autonomy gripping the Muslim state of Azerbaijan and other Muslim states had upset the Russian plans. The Russian Muslims remained more resolute than ever before they regained religious, political and territorial independence from the iron curtain.
The other concrete proofs of the growing strength of the rising wave of renaissance among the Russian Muslim republics were:
1. increasing interest in the reading of the Holy Qur’an;
2. rising attendance at the mosques for prayers and other religious programs and construction of new mosques;
3. increasing projection of Islamic features in the radio and television programs;
4. growing demand for the restoration of the original Arabic scripts in their languages, etc.
Unfortunately, however, the Soviet Union failed to realize the futility of putting impediments in the way of this mounting wave of renaissance and autonomy. Such an undemocratic stand was neither reasonable nor even favourable for Russia’s own interests. Freed from the Russian dominance these strategic Central Asian states are now destined to play their vital roles as sovereign Muslim states.