Islam and Muslims in Russia
(Based on interview)
Dr. Mozammel Haque
This write-up on Islam and Muslims in Russia is based on an interview with Dr. Madina Kalimullah, head of Economic section of the Council of Muftis of Russia who came to London, United Kingdom in 2011 to attend an Islamic Finance Conference and also visited the office of the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB). I had the opportunity to meet her and interview her. This write-up is based on that interview and my research on the Muslims of Russia.
Islam is the second most widely professed religion in the Russian Federation. Russia has now 23 million indigenous Muslims. Unlike other Muslim minorities in Europe, Russian Muslims are not foreign immigrants. They are the native indigenous citizens of the country in which they live. Muslims form an integral part of the Russian community. For instance, during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Russian athletes won 23 gold medals, 10 of which were obtained by indigenous Muslim athletes. The majority of Russian Muslims live in the Volga-Ural region and the Northern Caucasus. Other parts of Russia including megacities, such as Moscow or Saint Petersburg, also have significant Muslim population.
“Officially there is about 20-25 million Muslims in Russia, but if we take in huge number of immigrants in whole land officially unedited statistics, may be 10 millions more,” Dr. Madina from the office of the Russian Mufti Council told me in an interview with me in July 2011. “We should also take into account this is official statistics, but there is no poll that includes the question of religion but even the last poll we had last year did not include the question of religion. Only they question the nationality but you cannot tell by nationality of what religion you are,” she said.
“Officially 15% of the population of Russia is Muslim. But unofficially may be 20% and above,” Dr. Madina told me. This includes an estimated 3 million to 4 million Muslim migrants from former Soviet states — roughly 2 million Azeris, a million Kazakhs and several hundred thousands Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.
Advent of Islam in Russia
Islam in Russia has had a long presence, extending at least as far back as 7th century. Islam came to Russia back to seventh century, first of all, came to Dagestan. Islam first entered Russia through Dagestan from the mid-7th century and started to spread to the Northern Caucasus. By the year 21 AH (Islamic Calendar) (641 CE), the Muslim army under the leadership of Abd Rahman ibn Rabiah reached the Southern Caucasus northward after taking control of Persia and Al-Quds (Jerusalem). Dr. Madina told me, “Islam came to Russia back to seventh century, first of all, came to the Durban city, Dagestan; it is the city where the tombs of the As Sahabe Nabican be found as well. So this is more about Dagestan.”
Subsequently, the Northern Caucasus which was previously a vassal of the Khazar Kingdom, became a part of the Umayyad Empire, and Muslims then transformed the region into an important administrative empire and introduced Islam to the tribes of the Caucasus. Islam gradually established itself in the Volga basin through trade and other economic relations with the Muslim world.
The Bulgar Kingdom, which existed in the Middle Volga region from the 8th century until its invasion by the Mongols in 1236 CE, recognised Islam as an official religion of the state in 922 CE (304 AH). Secondly “Islam came at the 8th century, 922 CE, more than 1000 years ago to the territory after 66 years Vladimir chose orthodox religion from the tier of Byzantine. When Islam came to the territory of modern Tatarstan, it was called Volga Bulgaria at that time; and the people were called as Bulgars,” said Dr. Madina. Probably they have something familiar with modern Bulgaria. Still some Tatars called themselves Bulgars, as they considered their name came from later on.
The first Muslims within current Russian territory were the Dagestani people after the Arab conquests in the 8th century. The first Muslim state in Russia was Volga Bulgaria in 922. The Tatars inherited the religion from that state. Later most of the European and Caucasian Turkic peoples also became followers of Islam.
Starting from the central region, Islam spread to the northern and eastern parts of Russia, particularly to Siberia.
Second wave of introducing Islam
The second wave of introducing Islam to Russia took place during the period of the Golden Horde which was established as a north Kingdom of the Mongols in 1242 CE. In fact, the small numbers of Mongols who stayed in the area did not have any significant impact on the fabric of the local society. So, culture, language, religion and social life remained the same.
At the beginning of the 15th century, a number of independent Islamic Khanates emerged from the gigantic Golden Horde. These khanates covered almost all of the modern Russian territory, except the region between the cities of Moscow and Kiev where the majority of Russians used to live in a number of principalities. Until these Islamic khanates were defeated by the Russian empire in the 16th century, Islam dominated most parts of modern Russia.
Islam in Russia has had a long presence, extending at least as far back as the conquest of the Khanate of Kazan in 1552, which brought the Tatars and Bashkirs on the Middle Volga into Russia.
Concentration of Muslims
Speaking about the concentration of Muslims, Dr. Madina said, “They are all around the country. I cannot found any town or city where no Muslim could be found, of course except in some Far eastern or Far north Arctic north regions. Majority of Muslim are in three regions; the biggest region is the Volga region. Then there is the region of Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Mordovia, and some regions nearby. The second largest region is the Caucasus which has Muslim Republic of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan; the biggest region is the Dagestan in the Caucasus. These are the Muslim Republics in the Caucasus. The third largest region is the Central region which is Moscow which is the biggest city of about 2 million Muslims and apart from that you can find from the north, north west St Petersbourg and in Siberia quite Tatarstan living and all the other regions.”
As regards Mosques in Russia, there is a big revival in Russia and consequently, the number of Mosques gone up. Dr. Madina said, “I do not remember the exact number of Mosques in Russia at the moment; but I can check figure later on. But I think about 10,000. Before the Soviet coalition, there was 20,000 more; they were almost all were destroyed and only 70 Mosques were left in the whole territory of Russia. Now of course, there has been big revival, thousands of mosques have been built during 20 years. There are now 10,000 mosques in Russia or may be less.”
Speaking about Maktabs and Madrasahs, Dr. Madina said, “Each mosque has its own Maktab, which operates mainly on weekends. Some of the Central Mosques have Madrasah as well which operates every day of the week. According to the law, since last year, 2010, the Islamic schools of higher educational enterprises received the right to give the state diplomas; they have to upgrade the schedule and they have to include some secular subjects in order to fulfil the requirements of the Ministry of Education.”
There are local Muslim organisations around every Mosque. “These local Muslim organisations – Tasibat – are united into Kasibat – religious boards. They are religious boards of Muslims. They are the umbrella organisations of the Republic, as for example, the religious board of Muslims of the Republic of Tatarstan. There are, in total, 18 religious boards of Muslims. They are united into the Russian Muslim Council. Russian Muslim Council is the highest level of Muslim organisations. Each province has its own Mufti and therefore there are 18 Muftis in total under the Grand Mufti of Russia. They are under the chairmanship of the Russian Mufti Council,” said Dr. Madina.
Russia is a secular state. There is no interaction between the government and the religious bodies. They are partners and so this is the representation of Muslim rights to the government. Mufti council represents within the government. Dr. Madina said, “We are invited to a meeting of religious sometimes to say our opinions on this or that. The chairman of the Russian Mufti Council as a member of the public chamber of the Russian Federation and we also cooperate on different levels, on the ministerial level, on the state human level, on the parliament level.”
Russian Mufti Council
Speaking about the organisation of the Russian Mufti Council, Dr. Madina said, “The Muftis of all the regions joined together and united and created the Russian Mufti Council. The chairman of the Russian Mufti Council is elected every five year. He is assisted by co-chairmen who are also elected for five years. There is about 20 to 25 staff in the Russian Mufti Council.”
This structure is quite new, quite young; because the new administration was formed at the end of 2010. “You will find that all the staff are young people; young managers of course with religious and secular education in their fields,” said Dr. Madina.
How Mufti Council represents Muslimswith the Government
In reply to my queries about how does the Russian Mufti Council make their representation to the government, Dr. Madina said, “First of all, I have to differentiate between President and the Government. President’s Office has a special task mission who is responsible for and in connection with the religious communities. He is constantly cooperating with Muslims as well as other religious communities. He met with the Muftis and other officials at all events and discussed some issues and suggested some issues and sought suggestions from our part. This is counsel on the day-to-day basis.”
“But the President himself holds things at least four times a year with all the religions - all the heads of religions, the Orthodox religion the largest one; then comes Islam the second largest religion, then comes the Jewish, the Judaism and Buddhism; but they are less than Muslims. So meetings are held on a quarterly basis within the council of the President, where sometimes very important issues were raised. Sometimes separate meetings were held only to discuss Muslim affairs; for example, recently there was a meeting the President of the main Muslim figures, not the chairman of the Russian Mufti Council, but some other Muftis on the social exhibits from the Muslim origin to discuss the main problem within the society, such as extremism; disturbances in the Caucasus, prohibition of religious literature etc. Hijab was not a problem,” she said.
Relation between the Mufti Council and the Government
Speaking about the representation with the government, Dr. Madina said, “There are now regular meetings with the administration. There are now coordination between the President and the administration. We don’t have any Ministry for religious affairs. But in many ministries, there is separate office for religious affairs, for example, in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs there is a department for cooperation with the public organisations. Besides that, there is office of cooperation with the religious organisations. So again the department of Russian Mufti Council is on constant coordination with that office in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”
Political representation and participation
Speaking about the political participation and representation in the Parliament, Dr. Madina said, “There are many Muslims in the Council, in the Parliament and also in the Ministry. They have their own voice, their own opinions; but they are not representing Muslims. They are Muslims themselves but they are specialists in their fields. So they are doing their work according to their fields and specialisation, because they are specialists. Lot of Muslims in Russia is still thinking on the atheistic way. Though they have come out from the Soviet Union but they still don’t speak about religion, about Islam and not coming from religious backgrounds also.”
Mufti Council is the voice of the Muslim religious community.
The three most important activities of the Russian Mufti Council are, besides others holding Halal Food Exhibition, Qur'an Competition and Islamic Banking.
Halal Food Exhibition
Ten years ago, Russia had an interfaith exhibition in the All-Russian Exhibition. It was Central national exhibition. Many religions were represented there. “So we thought why not invite Halal producers. Thus how it started, three or four times. From 2007, we started this Halal Islamic sector within the interfaith exhibition,” said Dr. Madina.
“In 2009, we were thinking of launching Halal Exhibition because we already have a certification centre; had a Halal producer certified and we had the experience of other countries, especially Malaysia. Though we thought of this idea in 2009 we have to postpone it for one year due to crisis. So we launched it in 2010,” said Dr. Madina who was the chairperson of The Expertise Halal Standard.
Third Moscow International Halal Exhibition – Moscow Halal Expo 2012 was held in All-Russian Exhibition Centre, on June 7-10, 2012. For the first time, the Exhibition lasted for 4 full days. More than 150 companies representing Halal industry from different Russian regions (Moscow, Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, Siberia, Saint-Petersburg, Chechnya, Ingushetia, Babardino-Balkaria etc.) as well as from the foreign countries. This Exhibition received support from many Russian state organisations – the government of Moscow, the Agricultural Ministry of Russian Federation, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation as well as from the international organisations within the Countries of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) – the Islamic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ICCI), the Islamic Centre for the Development of Trade (ICDT), the Islamic Research and Training Institute (IRTI), Halal Journal, Halal Media etc.
Esteemed speakers from SMIIC, HDC (Malaysia), SFDA (Saudi Arabia), ASSAIF (Italy), WIEF and other national and international organisations participated at the business programme.
Mufti Council has separate department of Ulema which is not within the administration structure. Speaking about Qur'an Competition, Dr. Madina said, “The Qur’an competition was started eleven years ago, on the competition of the Moscow Madrasah. Then it embraced different regions of Russia. In 2009, it was passed to the international relations department as partner to hold because they had better experience and had better experience of modern day events.”
“After this we invited from different countries, such as Kazakstan, Kirgistan because as a federal international Qur’an competition. After this it was held in Moscow Cathedral Mosque and after this we set to upgrade. We want to upgrade, why not Qur’an competition on higher level, different officials, authorities, members ambassadors, guests, public figures, members of Russian Council Federation,” Dr Madina said.
Dr. Madina also mentioned, “We launch in 2009 a big event. We had about 25 participant from different countries and only two participants from Russia, why took two, there are mainly two reasons, from the Caucasus and Volga regions and the rest are from outside. I don’t exactly remember. It was in 2009. In this two years in 2009 and 2010 we had all kinds of countries beginning from the Middle East, Kuwait, Oman, may be Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, we had North Africa like Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, south Africa; we had from China, Malaysia, Indonesia; we had from Europe, from Bulgaria, Lathunia, from Scandinavian countries from Sweden, from 25 countries and one from each countries. We have change the issues, for example, in the Jubilee Competition from 5th Tilawa, last year only Tilawa and this year only Fiqh.”
The 12th Qur'an Competition was held on Sunday, the 25th of September 2011.