By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
In Russia, there are
about 20 million Muslims, or those who profess to
be Muslims. This recent census figure that President
Putin accepts amounts to nearly 14% of Russia’s
147 million people, or little less than Saudi Arabia’s
(23.4 million, 2002 census). But, other than Islamic
scholars (and I am not one of them), I doubt many
people know how did Islam enter what is now Russia,
and when !
In Russia, Islamic roots go far and deep -- to about
1,400 years back. Think Derbent, Dagestan (a Russian
Republic, just north of Caucasus or Qafqaz mountains),
about 1,300 miles, as the crow flies, North-northeast
of Medina, 1,000 southeast of Moscow, and 150 miles
north of Baku, Azerbaijan, on the western shores
of the Caspian Sea across the Caucasus.
Within 10 years after the Prophet Mohammed’s
death (632 AD), the Arab forces had taken over Jerusalem
(638 AD), defeated the Byzantine and Persian empires,
and extended Islam's influence from the Arabia peninsula
across a large contiguous landmass all the way to
Azerbaijan. After Azerbaijan (in 642 AD), Arab armies
continued north-ward, crossed the Caucasus mountains
into Dagestan, and by 654 AD were in control of
Derbent ('Dar-band', Closed Gate in Persian).
Derbent, claimed to be the oldest city in Russia,
is older than ‘the eternal city’ Rome
itself. It is also the oldest European town with
continuous Islamic presence to date. First intensive
settlement in Derbent dates from the 8th century
BC, and during the 5th and 6th centuries, the area
became an important center for Christians in the
Caucasus. On its 5,000 year anniversary that was
held in October 2003, one of the local journalists
gloated, quite justifiably, that the city “smells
At least 40 companions (‘Sahebis’) of
Prophet Mohammed are believed buried in a Derbent
cemetery. In a number of Dagestani villages, most
of the evidence of Islamic influence exists in the
form of epitaphs in cemeteries and building inscriptions
that date back to the 10-12th century. It seems
that Harun al-Rashid, the fifth and the famous Abassid
caliph (786 to 809 AD), whose court is memorialized
in ‘The Book of One Thousand and One Night’,
spent some of his time in Derbent. [Incidentally,
Jafar, a character in Disney’s Alladin, seems
to be based on the son of Yahya the Barmakid, who
was Harun’s vizier Yahya, before both fell
out of favor with the Caliph in 798 AD].
By the 8th century, majority of southern Dagestan
was Muslim. Today’s Derbent (over 90,000 people)
is about 90% Muslim, the rest mostly ethnic Russian
Orthodox Christian and Jewish. With more than 36
traditionally-tolerant ethnic groups (the Avars
the largest at 20% of population, Dargins, Kumyks
and Lezgins; Laks, Tabasarans and Nogai, to name
but a few others) and 80-plus nationalities, Dagestan
is one of the most ethnically, culturally diverse
regions, not only in Russia but perhaps the world.
This fortress city has a unique strategic location
[42°3'10" N, 48°17'49" E]: a narrow
strip of land (over 3 km between the Caspian Sea
and the Caucasus, about 300 m wide) that forms a
natural pass that has controlled the traffic from
the Middle East to South-eastern Europe since 1,000
BC. Strong fortification and defense structures
were built, starting in early 6th century AD: first,
the citadel (Narin-Kala, meaning "Solar Fortress"),
built on a high spur of Dzhalgan mountain range,
enclosing a 4.5 hectare area surrounded by thick
and high walls; then the two parallel defense walls
(north and south) about 300-400 meter apart, and
continuing 40 km over the mountains (west) and extending
500m into the sea (east). This elaborate fortification
was in continuous use for some 15 centuries through
the Arab, Mongol, and Timurid reigns.
Narin-kala is well-preserved,
and includes an ensemble of buildings, including
the most important and still existing Juma Mosque,
built in 733-34 AD (according to an inscription
on it) and renovated/rebuilt in 14th and 17th century.
Right in front of the mosque is also a 15th century
madrassah. Other mosques, built much later, also
exist in the area: the 17th century Kyrhlyar mosque,
the Bala mosque and the 18th century Chertebe mosque.
In addition, there are underground water tanks,
baths, cisterns, old cemeteries, a caravanserai,
an 18th century Khan's mausoleum, and an Armenian
Church. Another mosque in the Kumukh village (Lak
district) dates back to 779 AD. Both were built
with stone, which is one of the reasons they have
survived this long.
Arab control over Derbent collapsed in the 10th
century, after which it was turned into another
battle arena, and changed hands a few times: from
emirates to Genghis Khan/Golden Horde (13th through
15th/16th century) and after the Persian-Turk wars
to Persian control (1735) and a Khanate, and then
after defeat in wars with tsarist Russia (18th and
19th century), to Russia under the Gulistan Treaty
(1813). It was later absorbed into the Soviet Union
(1920), and after its 1991 dissolution, emerged
as one of the Republics.
It was during the long resistance to Russian authority
that Dagestan’s political and military culture
was infused with Sufi Islam: Perhaps the most notable
Caucasian religious, military and resistance leader
was Imam Shamil (1797-1871), third Imam of Dagestan,
still revered as ‘al-Imam al-Azam’,
who scored many victories over the Russians, before
he was defeated and caught. In 1869, he was allowed
to retire to Mecca. In 1871, he died in Medina and
is buried in Jannatul Baqi. To commemorate his 200th
birth anniversary, an "International Scientific
Conference Dedicated to the 200th Anniversary of
Imam Shamil" was organized by Dagestan branch
of Russian Academy of Sciences in October 1997.
Resistance a la Shamil still continues.
In 2003, UNESCO added Derbent’s citadel and
fortress building to the list of its World Heritage.
Around the world, there are nearly 800 such Heritage
sites, and they include Ellora and Ajanta caves,
Taj Mahal, Khajuraho, Mohenjadaro, Taxila, Thatta,
to name a few from the Indo-Pak subcontinent.
Muslims are Sunnis, except in Chechnya and North
Caucasus areas, there is a long tradition of Sufism,
introduced mostly by the followers of al-Ghazali.
The Naqshbandi tariqah is very popular while the
Qadiri tariqah seems more localized, mostly in Chechnya.
Together, they formed Muridism, a Sufi order in
Dagestan and Chechnya, which in the 19th century
was the moral spiritual basis of Caucasian resistance
to Russian onslaughts. With the exception of North
Caucasus, most Russian Muslims are Turkish in origin
and speak different Turkish dialects.
Most Dagestanis are Shafi’i, whereas the rest
of Russia is predominantly Hanafi. What Dagestan
has been struggling with now, as it has throughout
the 1990s, is the increasing influence of Wahabi
radical extremism, something that most Dagestanis
consider exported into their mostly Sufist culture.
Dagestan has its own untapped mineral and oil potential.
With its location on the oil-rich Caspian Sea and
its proximity to Azerbaijan, and as a conduit for
Caspian oil, Dagestan remains an area of great strategic
importance. This obviously is not lost on Russia,
which is determined to keep the north Caucasian
Republics under its control.
Muslim population in Russia has been growing steadily
at an annual rate of five-times that of ethnic Russians.
In addition, there are increasing reports of conversion
to Islam in significant numbers: About 20,000 people
converted to Islam in the period from January to
October this year in the capital Moscow alone, according
to the Council of Muftis of Russia, compared to
15,300 in the same period of 2003 and 12,450 in
2002. This makes Russian Muslims not only the largest
but also the fastest growing minority. The ethnic
bonds seem to be much stronger than religious identity,
which may be one of the reasons why no strong sense
of 'Ummah' exists among Russian Muslims. (To be