Islam in the Volga Region


Between Embracement and Phobia
By Elmira Akhmetova
Freelance Writer

The Qul Sharif Mosque in Kazan, capital of the former Soviet republic of Tatarstan. Qul Sharif was a Prominent Muslim scholar, killed during the Russian siege of Kazan in 1552 and his name was given to the mosque.
Presently, Muslims constitute about 15 percent of the total population of the Russian Federation (about 20 out of 142 million). Ethnically, Muslims belong to different groups, such as the Volga Tatars, the Siberian Tatars, Chechens, Ingushs, Bashqorts, Dargins, Balkars, Avars, Karachays, and others.

Unlike other Muslim minorities in Europe, Russian Muslims are not alien immigrants. They are ordinary citizens of the country who live in their native land. Islam came and gradually established itself in the Volga (Itil) region through trade and other economic relations with the Muslim world. Today, this region is inhabited by the Volga Tatars, who are direct descendants of the Bulgars.

• Bulgar Kingdom
Early Embracement of Islam
• Spread of Islam
• Period of Golden Horde
• Islam and the Russian Empire
• Islam Today

Bulgar Kingdom
Early sources spoke of the name Bulgars, who were groups of people of Turkic origin that lived northeast of the Caucasus during the 5th century of the Christian Era. In the mid of the 7th century, part of the Bulgars went up north to the Volga region, following the collapse of their kingdom at the hands of the Khazars.

In the 8th century, the Bulgars established the Bulgar Kingdom in the Middle Volga region, a territory of the modern republic of Tatarstan. Before the coming of the Bulgars, this area was inhabited by Ugro-Finn people, yet the establishment of the Bulgar Kingdom was peaceful. The Ugro-Finn nations, such as Mordva, Mari, Chuvash, and Udmurt, lived together with the Bulgars in the Bulgar Kingdom in peace.

The Bulgar Kingdom was located in a strategic area where two rivers, Kama (Chulman) and Volga (Itil or Idel), unite in one stream. Thus, the kingdom was a center for important trade routes between Asia with Europe. Traders from many countries met in this place, especially in the Aga Bazar (Great Bazaar), which was located near the Volga River, not far away from the port. Traders from India, China, Iran, and Central Asia brought gold, silver, silk, decorated silver, decorated dishes made of porcelain, perfumes, books, paper, fruits, and spices.

Carpets came from Byzantine and Armenia. Traders from Damascus, Iran, and France contributed swords, daggers, and knives. The Russians brought slaves and fur. Traders from Europe and the Baltic area brought slaves and amber, while those from the Caspian Sea area brought salt. The traders of the north forests brought animals and fur.

The Bulgars themselves contributed many commodities to this trade. Famous Muslim historian and traveler Imam Muhammad Al-Maqdisi gave a long list of goods that came from the Bulgars to one of the bazaars in Transoxania (present-day Uzbekistan and parts of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan). He wrote, "Wax, arrows, birch bark, high fur caps, fish glue, fish teeth, castoreum, amber, prepared horse hides, honey, hazelnuts, falcons, swords, armor, Khalanj wood, Slavonic slaves, sheep, and cattle, all of them came from the Bulgar" (Barthold 235). 

Because of these strong trade activities, the Bulgar Kingdom became the richest state in the Eurasian continent at that time. One tenth of the profit was paid by traders to the Bulgar state as tax. Also, through these trade relations with other Muslim people, Islam found its way into the area in the early years of its spread.

In fact, Islam spread in the Bulgar lands through peaceful interactions between the Bulgars and Muslim traders and preachers.
Early Embracement of Islam

There is no clear evidence on the exact date when the Bulgars began to embrace Islam. Shihabetdin Marjani, a Tatar historian and philosopher of the 19th century, said, "The city of Bulgar was the third most advanced city in Europe after Rome and Constantinople, and Islam entered this city either right after or at around the same time as it entered Andalusia" (Marjani 51).

In fact, Islam spread in the Bulgar lands through peaceful interactions between the Bulgars and Muslim traders and preachers. There is clear evidence that Islam was recognized as an official religion of the Bulgar Kingdom in 922 CE.

Bin Salki Belekvar, who was a ruler (Almas or Almish) of the Bulgar between 895 and 925 CE, sent a letter to Abbasid Caliph Al-Muqtadir Billah asking him to dispatch Muslim scholars who could teach the religion and Shari`ah. He also asked the caliph to send engineers who are skillful in the building of mosques and fortresses. The Caliph accepted these requests and sent scholars and skillful construction engineers. Thus, on Safar 11, AH 309 (921 CE), the delegation set off from the city of Madinat As-Salam (present-day Baghdad) toward the Bulgar Kingdom.

Abu Al-`Abbas Ahmad bin Fadhlan Al-Bughdadi was a personal secretary to the envoys of the Abbasid caliph. He wrote an excellent account on the local people that the delegation encountered in the Volga region during this long trip. Describing the life and customs of the Bulghar Kingdom, he said,

One day before reaching the destination, we were received by four of the ruler's men, the members of his family, and children. They welcomed us with bread and meat and silage for our horses, and they accompanied us during the rest of the journey. Two leagues [about 4.5 km] away from the Bulghar city, the king himself came out to greet us. Upon seeing us, he thanked Allah and prostrated himself to Him. Then he tossed coins on our path. Thus, we reached our destination on the 12th day of Muharram, AH 310 (922 CE); it was Sunday. It took us 70 days to arrive here from the Khorezm city of Djardjania [present-day Urganch and Uzbekstan]. We entered and rested in the tents that were erected for us. On Wednesday, all of the administrators and other public figures arrived to listen to the caliph's letter to the king. On Thursday, we opened our luggage, took out our clothes, brought forward the saddled horse, and dressed the king with special black dress and a head gear, which are the symbols of the Abbasid Caliphate. Then, I read the caliph's letter to the king. The king, out of respect, stood up to listen. After that, I read out the vizier's letter, and the king also listened while standing (Marjani 124–125).

Then the Almas (king) declared Islam to be the official religion of the kingdom and changed his name to Ja`far bin `Abdullah. The relations between the Abbasid caliph and the Bulgar Kingdom did not end with the end of that journey. A few years later, a Bulgar delegation, together with the king's son, arrived in Makkah for Hajj. Muslim historian Ali Al-Mas`udi mentioned that the Bulgar delegation also visited Baghdad and brought gifts to the caliph. Al-Mas`udi also wrote that the Bulgar king was a Muslim who converted to Islam in AH 310 (922 CE).

Spread of Islam

Islam had flourished in the Bulgar Kingdom under the patronage of the ruling family. The Bulgars played a significant role in spreading Islam to other regions of the present Russian territory. For instance, in AH 375 (985 CE), the Bulgar king sent some Muslim scholars to the Russian king Vladimir the Great to introduce Islam to him. However, when King Vladimir got to know about the prohibition of alcohol in Islam, he refused to accept that religion and chose Orthodox Christianity in 988 CE.

The Bulgars also brought Islam to the Bashqort people, who live in the region of the Ural Mountains. Muslim geographer Yaqut Al-Hamawi wrote that he saw a Bashqort Muslim in Aleppo. This person informed Al-Hamawi that seven Muslims came from the Bulgar Kingdom and spread Islam among the Bashqorts (Marjani 134).

Freedom of religion and tolerance toward followers of other creeds were highly practiced during the rule of Berke Khan and throughout the entire age of the Golden Horde.
Period of Golden Horde

The second wave of the Islamization of Russia took place during the period of the Golden Horde ("Jusi Ulusi" or "Altin Urda"), which was established as a kingdom in 1242 CE.
The land of the Bulgars was invaded by the Mongols in 1236 CE, after 13 years of fighting. After conquering the Bulgar Kingdom, the Mongols conquered the territories of some other peoples, such as the Alans, Kypchaks, Mordva, and other Ugro-Finn tribes. Finally, in 1240, all petty Russian kingdoms were conquered one by one (from 1237 to 1240). In 1242 (or the beginning of 1243 according to other sources), the Golden Horde Kingdom was established in Eastern Europe, north of the Caspian and Black seas, east of Moscow, and up to the Irtysh River in the east.
The small numbers of the Mongols who stayed in the area did not have any significant impact on the fabric of the local society. Culture, language, religion, and social life remained the same.

In 1261, Berke Khan (Barakat in Tatar sources), who was a ruler between 1255 and 1266, accepted Islam. This was an impetus for other Golden Horde inhabitants to become Muslims. Yet, freedom of religion and tolerance toward followers of other creeds were highly practiced during the rule of Berke Khan and throughout the entire age of the Golden Horde. For instance, Berke Khan gave a permission to Alexander Nevsky, Grand Prince of the Novgorod and Vladimir principalities, to build a Christian Orthodox church in Sarai, the capital city of the Golden Horde.

Another Muslim ruler, Uzbek Khan, who ruled between 1312 and 1342, forced the Mongol elite to convert to Islam, but at the same time, he was quite tolerant toward Christians and the local pagans living in the Kingdom of Golden Horde.
The Golden Horde was an Islamic state. The territories of Christian subjects, such as the Russians, Armenians, Circassians, Alans, and Crimean Greeks, were regarded as peripheral areas of little interest as long as they continued to pay the jizyah.

These vassal states were never incorporated into the Golden Horde, and the Russian rulers obtained the privilege of collecting the jizyah themselves. Also, these nations were able to preserve their religion under the Muslim rule, which continued for more than two centuries. This fact perfectly portrays the tolerant nature of this rule.

In the beginning of the 15th century, a number of independent Islamic khanates emerged from the gigantic kingdom of the Golden Horde: the Nughay Khanate, Astrakhan Khanate, Crimean Khanate, Siberian Khanate, and Kazan Khanate. 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. Very soon, the Russians managed to unite their petty kingdoms, forming a mighty Russian empire, which rapidly began to colonize neighboring states.

Russian Empire was born...and religious tolerance that once existed in the lands of the Bulgars and the Golden Horde disappeared.
Islam and the Russian Empire

The Kazan Khanate, which was situated in the territory of the former Bulghar Kingdom, fell to the Russians on October 15, 1552. After the conquest of this strongest state in the region, the way to occupying the entire Volga region and the Caspian Sea was open for the Russians. In 1556, they conquered the Astrakhan khanate, and in 1557 the Bashqort and Udmurt lands. By 1598, the entire Siberia became under the Russian rule.
As a result, the Russian Empire was born, after it had brutally subdued its subjects. Racial and religious tolerance that once existed in the lands of the Bulgars and the Golden Horde disappeared.

For more than four centuries, Russia and later the Soviet Union adopted policies that were meant to make Islam disappear. Various techniques of persecution were employed to that end: some were violent, like killing, exiling, or imprisoning active and intelligent Muslims, and some were seemingly not violent, like imposing a secular education and a certain political system. This aimed to serve the government's interests and to influence the state of the masses' minds.

In fact, this intent almost succeeded during the Soviet era. Nearly all Muslim scholars, intellectuals, and ordinary practicing Muslims were taken away from their homes to jails and concentration camps.

The gruesome events of the Beslan school carnage in the beginning of September 2004 provided further impetus to the politics of hatred toward all things Islamic.
Islam Today

As time goes on, so does the political situation, which allowed for the renewal of Islam in the Russian Federation in general and in the Republic of Tatarstan in particular. Today, there are several dozens of mosques in the capital city of Kazan alone. On June 24, 2005, one of the largest mosques in Europe, the Qul-Sharif Mosque, was opened inside the Kazan Kremlin, declared the world's heritage site by the UNESCO in 2000. 

An Islamic university together with numerous religious schools (madrasahs) exist throughout Tatarstan and other neighboring republics. Muslim women wearing headscarves are no longer a surprising sight in Kazan. In addition, in 2002, Muslim women won a court case that allowed them to be photographed with the headscarf for the identification documents. Islamic books are being published with an expanding number of titles and enhanced quality.

However, the real picture of Islam in Russia is still not so rosy. The gruesome events of the Beslan school carnage in the beginning of September 2004 provided further impetus to the politics of hatred toward all things Islamic.

Under the pretext of "fighting religious extremism" and "Islamic terrorism," cases of violation of the rights of Russian Muslims increased significantly during the last years. Recently, a number of Islamic books were banned. Yet, history tends to repeat itself, and whatever the situation is today, there will surely be positive changes for Islam as well as Russian Muslims in the future.

Barthold, W. Turkestan Down to the Mongol Invasion. London: Lowe & Brydone Ltd., 1958.

Marjani, Shihabetdin. Mustafad al'-akhbar fi Ahwali Qazan wa Bulgar. Kazan: Tatarstan Publishing  
               House, 1989.

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Elmira Akhmetova is a freelance writer who covers current events including the situation of Muslims in the former Soviet Union. Akhmetova holds a MA in Fiqh and History.

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