Islam in Russia
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

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 of eternity.”
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.

Most Russian 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 continued)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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