Islam: Islam in the Caucasus and the Middle Volga

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When the first Arab invaders appeared in eastern Transcaucasia in the seventh century, the Caucasus was a borderland between the nomadic world to the north and the old sedentary world to the south, and between the Greek civilization in the West and the Iranian world in the East. It had a highly sophisticated urban civilization where several world religions, including Judaism, Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Christianity, were already well entrenched. Among the Christians, the Georgians and Alans were Orthodox, and the Armenians and Albanians were monophysites. Unlike Central Asia, which has been characterized by religious tolerance, the Caucasus for centuries has been the fighting ground for three great monotheistic religionsChristianity, Judaism, and Islam.

Islam in the Caucasus

The spread of Islam was inhibited by powerful political rivals who reinforced religious rivalries. The Turkic Khazar empire in the north formed an effective barrier against the progress of the conquering Arabs north of Derbent; the Christian Georgian and Armenian principalities, backed by the Byzantine Empire, presented an insuperable obstacle to Muslim progress westward.

The slow Islamization of Dagestan

The Arabs penetrated into Azerbaijan in 639; local rulers agreed to become subordinate to the caliph but retained their Christian faith. In 643, the Arabs reached Derbent (which they called Bāb al-Abwāb) and in 652 attempted to move north of the city but were heavily defeated by the Khazars. For almost a century the territory of present-day Dagestan was disputed between the Khazars and the Arabs, as expeditions and counterexpeditions succeeded each other almost without interruption and without any decisive victory. Not until the governorship of Marwān ibn Muammad (734744) were the Khazars decisively defeated in Arrān. Derbent, solidly held by an Arab garrison, became the northernmost bastion of Islam facing the world of the Turkic nomads. Several thousand Arab settlers from Syria and northern Iraq were established in northern Azerbaijan by the governor Maslamah ibn ʿAbd al-Malik.

First inroads

Notwithstanding several Khazar expeditions between 762 and 799, by the end of the eighth century Islam was already the dominant religion of Arrān and of the coastal plain south of Derbent. Even so, Christian and Jewish communities survived in the area. Indeed, in 1979 there were in northern Azerbaijan and southern Dagestan some 5,919 monophysite Christian Udins, the last survivors of the Albanian church. There were also about 30,000 "Mountain Jews," or Dagh Chufut, the descendants of the Jewish military colonists established in the Caucasus by the Sassanid kings. In recent years, most of them have migrated to Israel.

The progress of Islam into the mountains was, by contrast, slow and difficult. According to Dagestani legends, Maslamah ibn ʿAbd al-Malik (r. 723731), having conquered all Dagestan, imposed Islam on the local rulers. In reality, the submission of the indigenous chieftains was purely formal. As soon as the Arab control weakened, the local population reverted to their ancient religion. In some instances, after Dagestani rulers embraced the new religion, their subjects remained Christian, Jewish, or animist. The northern Caucasian mountain area remained virtually untouched by Islam into the tenth century. In southern Dagestan, the ruler of Tabasaran professed Islam, Christianity, and Judaism simultaneously. All three religions were represented among the Zirīhgarāns of central Dagestan. The Lezghians of southern Dagestan were "infidels." Sarīr, in the Avar country of western Dagestan, had a Christian prince (Orthodox of Georgian rite), but his subjects were in the majority animist, with traces of Zoroastrianism. Samandar in northern Dagestan was governed by a Jewish prince related to the Khazar khagan, but all three religions were represented among his subjects. The majority of the Iranian Alans of the central Caucasus were Christian Orthodox of Byzantine rite, while the Kabardins and the Cherkess were animist, with a Christian minority. On the Black Sea coast the Abkhaz paid tribute to the Arabs but remained Christian. At the end of the tenth century, the borderline of the dār al-Islām ("abode of Islam") was still situated three miles north of Derbent. Islam was solidly rooted only in Derbent, which was an important fortress, a prosperous economic center, and one of the wealthiest cities of the Arab caliphate, and also in the Lakh country of central Dagestan. According to a local legend, a mosque was built in the Lakh capital, Kazi-Kumukh, in 777.

This first period of Islamization of the Caucasus (through the tenth century ce) was marked by exceptional religious tolerance. Not only did the three monotheistic religions coexist peacefully, but there was toleration of those not originally included among the "people of the Book" (ahl al-kitāb )Zoroastrians and animists. In short, Islam was only superficially superimposed on a deeply rooted set of pre-Islamic beliefs, customs, and rites.

Further expansion

In the eleventh century, a new phase of Islamization began. The Khazar empire had been destroyed in 965 by the Russes, thus removing the main obstacle to relations between the Muslim Bulgar kingdom in the far north and the lands of the caliphate on the one hand, and to the Islamization of the Turkic nomads beyond Derbent on the other. Meanwhile, in the south, the foundation of the Seljuk empire improved security along the trade routes and favored the peaceful penetration of Islam into the mountains. This movement was facilitated by two additional phenomena. First, in the tenth century, the old clanic formations were replaced by stronger feudal principalities in Dagestan: the Nutzal of Avar, the Ūsmīyat of Kaytāk in the Darghin country, the Shāmkhālat of Kazi-Kumukh (central Dagestan), and the Maʿūmat of Tabasaran in southern Dagestan (Lezghian country). By the end of the eleventh century the rulers of these principalities were already Muslim, and their vassals and subjects tended to follow the example of the suzerain. Second, there was a total disappearance of the old alphabets (Aramaic, Pahlavi, Albanian) formerly used to transcribe the local languages. These were replaced by Arabic, which became and remained henceforward the only literary language of the area.

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the majority of the Darghins and the Lakh of central Dagestan became Muslims, and Islam penetrated into western and northern Dagestan. By contrast, the more remote territories, bypassed by the main trade routesin particular, the Chechen and Ingush countriespreserved a purely prefeudal (clanic) society and were resistant to Islam.

In the middle of the twelfth century, a visitor to Dagestan, Abū āmid al-Andalusī of Granada, discovered traces of Christianity and Zoroastrianism among the Zirīhgarāns; he also found many Christians and animists among the Avars.

Mongol era

The Mongol invasion did not modify the complicated religious situation of the northern Caucasus. As elsewhere, in Central Asia, in the Bulgar country, or in Iran, the first wave of Mongol invaders were animists, Nestorian Christians, or Buddhists, and generally hostile to Islam. But the destruction wrought by the expeditions of Sübetey and Djebe (1220) and of Batu (1239) were not followed by religious persecution. During the Mongol rule, Caucasian Islam ceased to be exclusively the religion of rulers and of elites and became more deeply rooted in the popular elements. The Caucasus was divided between two rival Mongol khanates, the Golden Horde in the north and the khanate of the Il-khanids in Iran. The third khan of the Golden Horde, Berke (r. 12571266), embraced Islam, and although his successors reverted to their ancestral religion, they remained tolerant and even favorable toward Islam.

In 1313, Uzbek Khan, a Muslim, became the ruler of the Golden Horde. His reign marked the final victory of Islam among the Turkic nomads roaming the immense steppe area between the Crimea and the Volga. One of the Turkic tribes, the Nogai Horde, played an important role in the Islamization of the northern Caucasus during the fourteenth century. It was through the Nogais that Islam made inroads for the first time among the Cherkess, the Kabardins, and the Chechen. Also, in the first half of the fourteenth century, the ūfī brotherhoods began to appear in the northern Caucasus as well. Shaykh Muammad al-Baāʾiī of the Rifāʿī arīqah (order) founded a khānqāh ("lodge") in Machar in the steppeland of the northern Caucasus. This arīqah disappeared a century later, however.

Timurid rule

The final phase of Islamization in Dagestan took place in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, during the reign of Timur (Tamerlane). The great conqueror led several expeditions into Azerbaijan and Dagestan between 1385 and 1395. He took a personal interest in the destruction of the last survivals of pre-Islamic religions, and Islam became henceforward the only religion of the Lakh of central Dagestan. In turn, the Lakh became the champions of Islam against those neighbors remaining animist or Christian. The city of Kazi-Kumukh, the capital of the principality of the Shāmkhālat Lakh, was the new center for the Islamization of Dagestan and the lands beyond its western frontiers, and it was the Lakh missionaries who brought Islam to the Chechen and the Kumiks. Timur also dealt a deadly blow to the power of the Christian Alans of the north-central Caucasus (the ancestors of the Ossets). The Christian Alans had been the mightiest nation of the Caucasus, and their decline was followed by a new expansion of Islam in the northern Caucasus.

During Timur's period, the majority of the Kāytāks became good Muslims. Earlier, the Kāytāks were considered as "people without faith" (bī-dīn ) or as a "people of bad faith." Subsequently, the Lezghians of southern Dagestan and the Avars turned Muslim as well.

It was in this high, mountainous territory that Christianity held out longest, and its survival was important to the Georgian kings' efforts to protect their coreligionists. The village of Karakh in the high Avar country did not adopt Islam until 1435. The Dido and the Andi tribes remained Christian until 1469, and Gidatl became Muslim in 1475 or 1476.

At the end of the fifteenth century, two new Muslim powers appeared on the Caucasian scene, and their influence on the process of Islamization became decisive. The Ottoman Empire brought the spirit of jihād (religious war) to the Caucasus. The rulers of the Crimean khanate dominated the lowlands of the western and central Caucasus. The Ottoman advance was marked by the gradual conversion of the Laz of the southwestern Caucasus (they were formerly Christian) and of the Abkhaz of the Black Sea coast. At the same time the Crimean Tatars introduced Islam among the western and eastern Cherkess tribes. Derbent and Shirvan in eastern Transcaucasia were conquered by the Safavids in 1538. As a consequence, the Twelver Shīʿī rite of the Safavid rulers became the dominant form of Islam in Azerbaijan.

In the middle of the sixteenth century, Sunnī Islam of the Shāfiʿī rite was solidly established in Dagestan, while the anafī rite was making steady progress in the western Caucasus. The tribes of the central Caucasus, howeverthe eastern Cherkess, the Kabardins, the Ossets, the Balkars, the Karachays, the Chechen, and the Ingushwere for the most part Christian or pagan, and only the upper level of their feudal aristocracy had adopted Islam.

Battle with Muscovy

After 1556, the power of Muscovy appeared in the Caucasus. As a consequence, relations between Islam and Christianity were dramatically modified. Specifically, the era of religious tolerance came to an end, and the Caucasus entered a new period of religious confrontation. Both Moscow and Istanbul favored their coreligionists. Temrük, the great Kabardian prince (a Muslim), accepted Russian sovereignty and married his daughter, Maria (converted to Christianity), to Ivan the Terrible. The central Caucasus was thus opened to Russian influence. Christian missionaries were sent in great numbers, and churches were built in Kabardia, among the eastern Cherkess, and in Ossetia. In 1584, Muscovy began its military advance southward, and three years later, the Russians reached the Terek Valley. In 1590, their vanguards appeared on the Sunzha River, threatening Dagestan, but already the Crimean Tatars and the Ottomans were reacting vigorously. In the same year, the Ottomans, advancing from the south, occupied Derbent; in 1587 the Crimean khan had already invaded and ruined Kabardia, Moscow's principal ally in the northern Caucasus. In 1594, there was a major confrontation: on the banks of the Sulaq River in northern Dagestan, a Russian army was opposed by a joint force of Ottomans, Tatars, and Dagestanis. In a furious battle, with all the characteristics of a "holy war," the Russians were pushed back. They returned in 1604 and were once again heavily defeated. Thus, the first jihād in Dagestan and the religious competition in Kabardia between Christianity and Islam ended with a complete Muslim victory. Russian influence was pushed back as far as Astrakhan and the Lower Volga. Kabardia, strategically the most important area of the northern Caucasus, became a solid Muslim bastion.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Ottoman Turks and the Crimean Tatars continued their steady efforts to introduce Islam among the remaining Christian or pagan tribes of the northwestern Caucasus. These tribes included the Karachay, the Balkars, the western Cherkess, the Abazins, and the Abkhaz. In 1627, southwestern Georgia was conquered by the Turks, and a part of its population embraced Islam. The descendants of these Georgian Muslims, the Adzhars, totaled from 100,000 to 150,000 people late in the twentieth century.

The period of the "Holy Wars"

The Russian advance toward the Caucasus, suspended in 1604, was resumed in 1783 after the conquest of the Crimea and the occupation of the steppe areas north of the Kuban River.


The arrival of the Russians, this time with overwhelming force, coincided with the appearance of the Naqshbandīyah ūfī brotherhood in the northern Caucasus. This was a Turkistani order founded in Bukhara by Muammad Bahāʾ al-Dīn Naqshband (13171389). For more than a century, the adepts of the Naqshbandīyah were the organizers of the "holy war" against the advancing conqueror. It was during the struggle against the "infidels" and the "bad Muslims" who served them that Islam became the dominant religion of the northern Caucasus and that its character was fundamentally modified. At the end of the eighteenth century, the superficially Islamized communities were tolerant toward their neighbors who remained Christian. They also tolerated those who remained attached to numerous pre-Islamic beliefs and rites and followed various non-Muslim customary laws (ʿādāt ). But a century later, Caucasian Islam, deeply rooted in the rural masses, was characterized by its rigorous conservatism, by its intolerance toward non-Muslims, and by its strict adherence to sharīʿah law.

The first Naqshbandī jihād against the Russians was led by Imām Manūr Ushurma, a Chechen who was probably the disciple of a shaykh from Bukhara. The movement began in 1785 in Chechnya and spread to northern Dagestan and the western Caucasus. But Manūr was captured in 1791 in Anapa and died two years later in the fortress of Schlüsselburg. It was a short-lived attempt to stop the advance of the invaders. Even so, during Manūr's rule Islam became deeply rooted in Chechnya, formerly only about one-half Muslim.

After Manūr's defeat, the Naqshbandīyah disappeared from the northern Caucasus for nearly thirty years, and during this period the Russians, almost unopposed, made substantial advances. The arīqah reappeared in the 1820s in the province of Shirvan, however, with the Naqshbandī missionaries coming this time from the Ottoman Empire. The second Naqshbandī murshid ("guide") to preach "holy war" was Shaykh Muammad of Yaraglar. He was the master of Ghāzī Muammad and Shāmil, the first and the third imām s of Dagestan. The long and fierce resistance of the mountaineers lasted from 1824 to 1859, when Shāmil was finally defeated and captured. Despite its failure, this second Naqshbandī jihād left an indelible impact on northern Caucasian Islam. Shāmil liquidated forever the traditional customary legal system and replaced it with the sharīʿah. Moreover, in the nineteenth century, classical Arabic became the official written language of the imamate and also the spoken intertribal language of Dagestan and Chechnya. Thus, for the first time in history, the northern Caucasian population was united by a strong religious, linguistic, and cultural bond. Finally, the intense work of the Naqshbandī missionaries in the central and western Caucasus achieved the Islamization of all Cherkess and Abazin tribes. During Shāmil's rule, Dagestan became an important center of Arabic culture. Its scholars, the so-called Arabists, were exported to the entire Muslim world.


After 1859 and the subsequent Russian occupation of the Caucasus, the Naqshbandīyah went underground. Its leaders migrated to Turkey or were deported to Siberia. Some became abrek, "bandits of honor," forming guerrilla groups in the mountains. Another ūfī order, the Qādirīyah (or Kunta Haji arīqah ), replaced the Naqshbandīyah on the front line of religious resistance. This order appeared in the Chechen country in the 1860s, when "infidel" domination had become a fact of life. It was different, at least at the outset, from the militant Naqshbandīyah in that its ideology was inspired by the mystic search for God rather than by "holy war." Even so, it was rapidly outlawed by the authorities and was obliged to go underground. At that point, the Qādirīyah became another center of military resistance to the Russian presence. Both the Naqshbandī and the Qādirī arīqah s played an active part in the anti-Russian revolt of 18771878 in Dagestan and Chechnia.

The Qādirīyah were vigorous missionaries. Because of their activities, the Ingush, who had remained animist until the fall of Shāmil, finally became Muslim. The last animist Ingush village was converted to Islam in 1864.

The Russian Revolution provided the ūfī adepts with the opportunity to shake off Russian rule. During this period, the Naqshbandīyah surfaced and made one last attempt to expel the "infidels." They fought for four yearsfrom 1917 to 1921first against the White armies of Denikin, then against the Red Army. Their resistance was finally crushed in 1921, and after their defeat, both ūfī brotherhoods were subjected to a long and bloody persecution. But they survived. In 1928, the Qādirīyah and the Naqshbandīyah joined together in a revolt in Dagestan and the Checheno-Ingush republic. This armed uprising was followed by similar revolts in 1934 and 19401942. The revolt during World War II was led by nationalists, but the Qādirīyah were numerous among the guerrilla fighters.

The level of religious feeling among the Muslim population of the Caucasus is quite high, especially in Dagestan and in the Checheno-Ingush republic, where more than 80 percent of the population are considered "believers." The strength of Islam in the northern Caucasus is due, in part, to the intense activity of the ūfī brotherhoods. The arīqah s still control a network of houses of prayer and Qurʾanic schools, where children are taught Arabic and receive the rudiments of the Muslim faith. The schools and mosques are often organized around the holy places of pilgrimage, generally tombs of ūfī shaykh s.

ūfī arīqah s are especially active in the Checheno-Ingush republic and in northern Dagestan, while they are not represented in the central and western Caucasus. The Naqshbandīyah dominates Dagestan, northern Azerbaijan, and the western districts of Chechnya. In the northern Caucasus, the Qādirīyah, more popular and more dynamic, is divided into four sub-arīqah s, called wird s. These are the Batal Haji, Bammat Giray Haji, Chim Mirza, and Vis (Uways) Haji. The Qādirīyah arīqah is predominant in the Checheno-Ingush republic and is spreading into western Dagestan.

Islam in the Middle Volga

As early as the fifth or sixth century a few Turkic tribes, the ancestors of the Volga Bulgars, began settling in the territory of the Middle Volga. These tribes were the first Turks to settle down and to abandon the nomadic way of life.

Islamization: trade, conquest, Sufism

The areathe Kama River and the Uralswas situated at the crossroads of two main trade routes during the Middle Ages. The fur route ran from northern Russia-Siberia (Ar al-ulm, the "Land of Darkness" of the Arab geographers) to the Muslim Middle East, and the Silk Road linked northern and central Europe to China. The Turkic Bulgars were traders in furs, slaves, amber, and ivory. Accordingly, they traveled widely, some as far as Baghdad and Gurganj on the Amu Darya, coming into contact with Arab merchants as early as the ninth century. It is through such trade relations that Islam penetrated into the Middle Volga, initially from Khorezm, then from Baghdad farther west.

The Bulgar kingdom

In 921, the Bulgar king, Almas, received an embassy sent by Caliph al-Muqtadir and converted to Islam on May 12, 922. His example was followed rapidly by the ruling elite of the kingdom. At the end of the tenth century, most of the Bulgars were already Muslim, and there were mosques and schools in virtually every village. For three hundred years, the Middle Volga area remained a Muslim islandthe northernmost vanguard of the dār al-Islām completely surrounded by Christian or animist neighbors. Its ties with the faraway Muslim world were maintained through the Volga trade route.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, their isolation, the Bulgars were zealous Muslims from the beginning. They played a role in the conversion of some nomadic Turkic tribes, the Pechenegs and Cumans, to Islam. They also nursed hopes of spreading Islam to the Russians, who were at that time still animists. In 986 a Bulgar embassy was sent to Kiev with the aim of converting the grand prince, Vladimir. The Russian Primary Chronicle recounts that some time later, Vladimir, in search of a suitable religion, also received representatives of Western and Eastern Christianity and of Judaism and heard each speak in turn of the merits and tenets of his faith.

Little more is known about the cultural history of the Bulgar kingdom prior to the thirteenth century. One may assume that Islam remained the religion of the Turkic city-dwellers, the feudal elite, and the merchant class, while the rural population, of whom the majority was ethnically Finnic, remained animist.

The Golden Horde

The Bulgar kingdom was destroyed by the Mongols around 1236. This was a major disaster that left the country devastated and ruined. But its Islamic character survived. The economic and political center was transferred from the valley of the Kama River to the Volga, near what is now the city of Kazan. Subsequently, Kazan became one of the most prosperous trading centers of the Golden Horde. In this area there was a biological and cultural merging of the indigenous Muslim Turks and the invading Mongols, with the less numerous Mongols assimilated by the Muslim Turks. Even so, the new nation was called "Tatar," the name of a Mongol tribe.

During the period of the Golden Horde, Uzbek Khan (r. 13131341) adopted Islam as the official religion of the Mongol rulers. This example was followed by all the Turkic and Mongol tribes roaming in the steppes between the former Bulgar kingdom and the Black and Caspian seas. Islam gained a firm footing in the Crimea as well.


It was also during the period of the Golden Hordebetween the thirteenth and fourteenth centuriesthat Sufism was brought to the Volga region. It was introduced by adepts of a mystical Turkistani brotherhood, the Yasawīyah arīqah, founded by the Turkic poet and mystic Amad Yasawī (d. 1166?). Thanks to the efforts of the ūfī preachers, Islam was no longer limited to being the religion of rulers and scholars: it became deeply rooted in the countryside among the rural populations and even among the nomadic tribes.

In 1445, with the weakening of the Golden Horde, Kazan became the capital of an independent Tatar khanate that lasted until 1552. It was a wealthy city, a world capital of the fur trade, and a brilliant cultural center famous for numerous mosques and madrasah s. In the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries, a new ūfī brotherhood became active in Kazanthe Naqshbandīyah arīqah, which, as mentioned above, later opposed Russian advances in the northern Caucasus. An intellectual order representing the city elites, the Naqshbandīyah practiced the silent dhikr, or ūfī prayer litany. In contrast, the Yasawīyah practiced the "loud" dhikr with songs and ecstatic dances reminiscent of old Turkic shamanistic rituals. The influence of the Naqshbandīyah on Tatar literature became predominant, and nearly all the Tatar poets from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century were adepts of the order, including Muammadiyar, the sixteenth-century author of Tukhfat-i mardān (The gift for the courageous) and Nūr-u udūr (The light of the soul), Mawlā Qulī in the seventeenth century, Utyz Imānī al-Bukhārī (17541815), ʿAbd al-Manih Kargaly (17821826), ʿUbayd Allāh āib (17941867), and Shams al-Dīn Zakī ūfī (18251865).

Russian rule

In 1552, the khanate was destroyed by the Russians and its territory was incorporated into the Muscovite state. In 1556 and 1598, two other Muslim remnants of the Golden Horde, the khanates of Astrakhan on the Lower Volga and of Sibir (or Tumen) in western Siberia, were conquered and annexed by Muscovy. Their inhabitants, whether Muslim or animist, were incorporated into the fabric of Russian Orthodox society. They were treated as Russian subjects, but were denied those rights reserved to Christians. Only by religious assimilation, that is, by their conversion to the Orthodox faith, could the Tatars become the equals of the Russians. Russia, except for Spain, was the only European power to attempt systematically to convert its Muslim subjects to Christianity. Missionary activity was begun in 1555 by Arkhiepiskop Gurii, the first archbishop of Kazan. This initial attempt at conversion was relatively liberal. Tsar Ivan the Terrible, who was tolerant in religious matters, advised the Kazan missionaries to work "through persuasion and not through compulsion." The effort was partly successful and resulted in the conversion of a large community of Christian Tatarsthe Old Converts (Starokriasheny; Tatar, Taze Kryash). However, the majority of the converts were former animists, not Muslims.

The anti-Muslim campaigns

The campaign of conversions, interrupted during the seventeenth century, was resumed with a new vigor under Peter the Great and continued violently until the reign of Catherine II. Mosques were destroyed, Qurʾanic schools were closed, and special schools were opened for the children of the converts. At the same time, Muslim counterproselytism was punishable by death. The climax was reached under the reign of Empress Anna (17301740), when some forty to fifty thousand New Converts (Novokriasheny; Tatar, Yeni Kryash or Aq Kryash) were added to those who had been converted during the sixteenth century.

To strengthen the religious pressure, civil and economic coercion was added. The feudal landed nobility, considered by the Russian rulers as their most dangerous adversary, was either physically liquidated or deprived of its feudal rights (Muslim landlords were forbidden to have non-Muslim serfs), dispossessed of its property, and ruined. Muslim urban dwellers, merchants, clerics, and artisans were expelled from Kazan. Tatar farmers were forced to leave the best agricultural lands along the river valleys and were replaced by Russians.

After more than a century of sustained pressure, the very existence of the Islamic civilization in the Middle Volga was in danger. But the pressure produced conflicting results. The landed nobility disappeared as a class; although some of its representatives became Christian, its most dynamic elements remained Muslim and became merchants, traders, and small industrialists. Expelled from the cities, the Tatars took refuge in the countryside. By the seventeenth century, Tatar Islam presented a curious and unique feature in the Muslim world: it had become a rural religion with its most famous mosques and madrasah s situated in small villages. In the same way, Tatar merchants expelled from the cities of the Volga-Kama area migrated eastward, where they formed trading colonies in Siberia, the Kazakh steppes, along the Lower Volga, in the Caucasus, in Turkistan, and as far as China. Already in the seventeenth century, the Tatar nation, reduced to a minority in its Volga homeland, had become a diaspora community led by a dynamic merchant class. Religious persecutions against Islam created a lasting hatred among all the TatarsMuslim and Christian alikeagainst Russia and the Russians.

During the reign of Catherine II, the anti-Muslim campaign was halted and even reversed. The empress, who personally deemed Islam to be "a reasonable religion," succeeded in gaining the sympathies of the Tatars. She closed the schools for Christian converts and allowed the Tatars to return to Kazan and to build mosques and Qurʾanic schools in the cities of the Middle Volga and the Urals. Religious persecution was stopped, and a modus vivendi was achieved between the Russian state and its Muslim subjects. The Russian authorities even helped Tatar "clerics" to build mosques in the Urals and in the Kazakh steppes. By a 1773 decree they were granted religious freedom, and in 1782, a Muslim spiritual board (muftiat ) was established in Orenburg and invested with authority over all religious matters. The chairman of the board was appointed by the Ministry of the Interior in Saint Petersburg. Those Tatars who had been converted to Christianity began to return to Islam. Finally, the last decade of the eighteenth century was marked by a new phenomenon: the massive conversion to Islam of the indigenous Finnic tribes of the Middle Volga region. These tribesCheremiss, Mordvins, Udmurtswere formerly animist or superficially Christianized; after conversion, there was rapid "tatarization."

The pressure against Islam was renewed under Nicholas I and Alexander II, however. By new methods, including education and propaganda, efforts were made to attract Tatars to Christianity. In 1854, a special anti-Muslim missionary department was organized by the Kazan Theological Academy. In 1863, a new educational policy was elaborated by Nikolai Ilʾminskii, a missionary and orientalist professor at the Religious Academy of Kazan. His aim was to create a new native Christian elite of Tatar intellectuals, educated along European lines but retaining the use of its native language. This Christian elite, which had not broken its links with the national past, was charged with missionary work among its Muslim brethren. As a result of this effort, assisted by an intense and brilliant propaganda campaign, more than 100,000 Muslims and almost all the remaining animists from the Volga area were converted.

The economic threat from Russia

Yet another danger threatened the Tatar nation: Its economic prosperity was in jeopardy. During the late eighteenth century and the first half of the nineteenth, the Tatar merchant class had been allied with the young Russian capitalists and had acted as an intermediary between Russian industrial towns and the markets of Turkestan. But that fruitful cooperation was not to last: During the second half of the nineteenth century, after Russian armies had opened the gates of Turkestan to Russian enterprise, Russian capitalists were able to dispense with the Tatar middlemen. The two bourgeoisies had become rivals, and the Tatar bourgeoisie, as the weaker, appeared to be doomed. The economic threat, coupled with the resumption of the policy of religious and educational assimilation, produced a lively reaction among the Tatar bourgeoisie during the reign of Alexander III. The jadid reformist movement, which has been properly called "the Tatar renaissance" of the nineteenth century, was the direct consequence of this threat, as well as of the desire to unify all the Muslim and Turkic peoples on the basis of a religious, ethnic, and cultural ideology. The Tatar merchants, supported by the young intelligentsia and the modernist ʿulamāʾ, or religious scholars, were aware that a successful resistance would involve confronting Russian imperialism with another imperialism. They knew that it would be necessary to extend their economic and cultural scope to all Muslim peoples of the empire, and that they would have to constitute themselves as the leaders of Russian Islam and, taking advantage of the linguistic similarity and of their common religion, propagate the notions of pan-Islam and pan-Turkism.

The jadid renaissance

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Tatar community was a curious element in the Muslim world. It had survived centuries of political and religious pressure, and, led by its merchant bourgeoisie, it had reached a high economic and cultural level. In the Middle Volga area, the proportion of literate Tatars was greater than among the Russians, especially among women. The Tatar bourgeoisie was aggressive and dynamic, able to compete successfully against its Russian counterpart. But at the same time, the Tatar elite lived intellectually in a conservative medieval world. Indeed, their strict conservatism had protected their community from contamination by a technically more advanced Russian establishment and preserved its Islamic character. But by the end of the nineteenth century, it had become obvious that "the Tatar oxcart" could no longer compete effectively with the Russian "steam engine." In order to survive in a modern world, it was necessary for the Tatars to modernize their intellectual Weltanschauung rapidly and thoroughly. Without questioning the religious foundation of Muslim society, Tatar reformers applied themselves to modernizing Islam by imitating the spirit of Western liberalism.

The reformist movement manifested itself in almost all the Muslim countries, from the Ottoman Empire to Indonesia, but nowhere was it so dramatic and so deep as in the Tatar country. There, the problem facing the native elite was not merely how to regain its lost power; rather, it was concerned with survival itself.

Theological reform

The movement began in the early nineteenth century with an attempt by Tatar ʿulamāʾ, educated in Bukhara, to break with the conservative Central Asian traditionalists who had dominated the spiritual life of Russian Muslims. The first to challenge their scholasticism was Abu Nasr Kursavi (17831814), a young Tatar teacher in a Bukhara madrasah. Accused of impiety by the emir of Bukhara and by the muftī of Orenburg, he was obliged to flee to Turkey. Later challengers included Shihabeddin Mayani (18181889), the greatest and the most respected among Tatar scholars, and a generation of modernist theologians including Ibrahim Khalfin, Husein Faizkhanov (18251902), Rizaeddin Fahreddin Öglu (18591936), and Musa Jarullah Bibi (18751945). Their action restored life and vigor to the Muslim religion in Russia and exercised an undeniable influence on the neighboring countries. Especially affected was the Ottoman Empire, where the prestige of Tatar jadid thinkers was invoked by all those who sought to undermine the authority of medieval scholasticism.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, Tatar Islam was endowed with a powerful religious establishment consisting of thousands of mosques and schools (maktab s and madrasah s) using the jadid system of teaching. It also included a brilliant new literature inspired by the challenge of the modern world and committed to religious and political reforms, along with a rich, diverse, and sophisticated periodical press in the Tatar language.

Language and literature

One figure dominated the literary scene of the Tatar world. The Crimean Tatar Ismail Gaspraly (Gasprinskii) (18511914) was a historian, philologist, novelist, and politician. Over a period of twenty-five years, he developed in his magazine, the celebrated Terjümān, published from 1883 in Bakhchisarai, the doctrine of a liberal modernist pan-Turkism summed up in its watchword, "unity of language, of thought, and of action" (dilde, fikirde, işte birlik ). Gaspraly called for the union of all the Turkic peoples of Russia and for a new Muslim culture, which would be in contact with the West through the medium of Russian and Ottoman models. To achieve this unity he elaborated and used in his Terjümān a common pan-Turkic language based on a simplified Ottoman Turkish that would be understood by all the Turks from the Balkans to China.

Gaspraly also reorganized the teaching system, and his model madrasah in Bakhchisarai was imitated throughout Russia, especially in the Volga Tatar country. Some of the reformed madrasah ssuch as the Huseiniyeh of Orenburg, Aliyeh of Ufa, Rasuliyeh of Troitsk, and Muhammadiyah of Kazanwere among the best educational establishments of the Muslim world.

At the turn of the century, in response to the great effort made by the people as a whole, the cultural level of the Volga Tatars had been raised to a remarkable degree. The cities, particularly Kazan, Orenburg, Ufa, Troitsk, and Astrakhan, had acquired the character of genuine intellectual centers.


After 1905, the reform renaissance passed beyond the confines of education, language, and theology and became a political movement, an attempt to shake the pressure of the West without abandoning the Islamic basis of the Tatar society. The defeat of Russia by Japan in 1905, revealing Russia's weakness and stirring the hope of revenge among the subject peoples of the empire, was the psychological shock that transformed cultural reformism into a political movement. For the Muslims, and particularly for the Tatars who at that time were playing the role of the unquestioned intellectual leaders of Russian Islam, this defeat demonstrated that the tsarist empire was not invulnerable and that a political struggle was possible.

Between 1905 and 1917, the Tatar political scene became highly diversified and sophisticated, with all political trends involved. At the extreme right were the ultraconservatives, represented by a puritanical ūfī brotherhood, God's Regiment of Vaysī, a dissident offshoot of the Naqshbandīyah. Founded a half-century earlier, in 1862, the brotherhood rejected the authority of the Russian state and refused to pay taxes or perform military service. Moreover, it condemned all the other Muslims as "infidels" for their submission to Russian rule. The Vaysī brotherhood was persecuted by the Russian authorities and brought to trial several times. In 1917, its adepts sided with the Bolsheviks; their leader, Shaykh Inan Vaysov, was killed by the Tatar counter-revolutionaries while fighting alongside the Red Army. Less radical was the traditionalist (qadim ) wing of the Tatar community, which dominated the official Islamic administration until the revolution. Its representatives were conservative in religion and politics. They were law-abiding citizens, hostile to the reformist movement, loyal to the tsarist regime, and personally loyal to the Romanov monarchy.

The majority of Tatars belonged to the liberal and radical trends. The liberals, followers of Ismail Gaspraly, believed that open struggle against Russia would be impossible and ill-fated. They advocated peaceful cooperation between Russia and the Muslim world, arguing that this would be of great and lasting advantage to Islam. The liberals dominated the Tatar national movement until the revolution, but even though they were culturally united, they were politically divided. A few liberals sought to satisfy their demands within the framework of the tsarist autocracy; the majority envisaged a more or less lasting cooperation with the Russian liberal bourgeoisie. After 1908, Tatar leaders convinced of the impossibility of achieving reforms and equality of rights with the Russians by legal methods within the framework of the tsarist regime began to migrate to Turkey. Alternatively, they moved nearer to various socialist-Marxist or non-Marxist parties, giving birth to an original cultural and political movement, Muslim socialism. After the revolution, Muslim socialism became Muslim communism. From Russian (or European) socialism, Muslim communism borrowed its phraseology, certain features of its agrarian program, its methods of propaganda, and organization; even so, it remained deeply rooted in the Islamic tradition.

Until the Revolution, even the most radical left-wing Tatar group, the Uralchylar (officially controlled by the Russian Marxists), refused to break away from Islam and to follow the antireligious line of the Bolsheviks.

Tatar Islam under the Soviet regime

For the majority of the Tatar jadid s, the Russian Revolution provided an occasion to fulfill their century-long struggle for the modernization and the secularization of their society. They took advantage of the downfall of the Romanov monarchy in February 1917 to create an independent religious establishment. The first All-Russian Muslim Congress, held in May 1917 in Moscow, abolished the tsarist practice whereby the muftī of Orenburg was appointed by the Russian minister of the interior. At this congress they elected their own muftī, Galimjan Barudi, a jadid scholar. The first ten years of the new regime were relatively quiet for the Muslims of the Middle Volga. Local power belonged to the Tatar communists, former jadid s who had joined the Bolshevik Party without breaking completely with their Islamic background.

The leader of the Muslim communists was a Volga Tatar, Mīr Said Sultan Galiev (18801936?), a companion of Stalin and, in the 1920s, the highest-ranking Muslim in the Communist Party hierarchy. Although Mīr Said Sultan Galiev was a dedicated Marxist and an atheist, he believed that "no antireligious propaganda may succeed in the East as long as it remains in the hands of the Russians"; he also believed that "the main evil threatening the Tatars [is] not Islam, but their political backwardness" ("Metody antireligioznoi propagandy sredi Musul'man," Zhiznʾ natsionalʾnostei, Dec. 14, 1921; Dec. 23, 1921). Sultan Galiev was denounced by Stalin as a bourgeois nationalist and was arrested in 1923; he reemerged briefly in 1925 but was arrested again in 1928. He and all his companions disappeared in the decade-long purge that followed.

The liquidation of Galiev and his followers marked the beginning of a full-scale government offensive against Islam. It began with the foundation of the Tatar branch of Sughushchan Allahsyzlar (the "union of godless militants") and the appearance in 1924 of an antireligious periodical press in Tatar, Fen ve Din ("science and religion"), replaced in 1928 by Sughushchan Allahsyzlar. By 1929 all religious institutions, such as religious schools, religious courts, and waqf s, had disappeared. During the 1930s most of the mosques were closed or destroyed. In 1931, 980 parishes with 625 "clerics" remained in the Tatar A.S.S.R. By comparison, in 1889 the muftī of Orenburg had 4,645 parishes (sg., mahalle ), served by 7,497 "clerics," under his jurisdiction. In the mid-1930s the anti-Islamic campaign culminated with the massive arrest of Muslim clerics accused of counterrevolutionary activity and espionage for Japan. The muftī of Orenburg, Kashaf Tarjemani, was arrested and executed.

During World War II, in 1942, one of the few surviving jadid clerics, Abdurrahman Rasuli (Rasulaev), approached Stalin with a view toward normalizing relations between the Soviet government and Islam. Stalin accepted the proposal, and a concordate was established. Persecutions were suspended, anti-Islamic propaganda lessened, and the muftiat reestablished (in Ufa instead of Orenburg). Abdurrahman Rasuli was appointed muftī and occupied this post until his death in 1962.

See Also

Jihād; Modernism, article on Islamic Modernism; arīqah.


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Abdullin, Yahya. Tatarskaia prosvetitelʾnaia myslʾ. Kazan, 1976.

Avksentiev, Anatolii. Islam na Severnom Kavkaze. Stavropol, 1973. Well-documented propaganda.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay. Les mouvements nationaux chez les Musulmans de Russie: Le Sultangalievisme au Tatarstan. Paris, 1960.

Davletshin, Timurbek. Cultural Life in the Tatar Autonomous Republic. New York, 1953. In Russian.

Fisher, Alan. The Crimean Tatars. Stanford, 1978.

Ibragimov, Galimjan. Tatary v Revoliutsii 1905 goda. Kazan, 1926.

Ishmuhametov, Zinnat. Sotsialʾnaia rolʾ i evoliutsiia Islama v Tatarii (Istoricheskie ocherki ). Kazan, 1979. One of the few Soviet works on Islam in the Tatar country.

Marjani, Shihabeddin. Mustafadh ul-akhbar fi ahvali Qazan ve Bolghar. 2 vols. Kazan, 18971900.

Minorsky, Vladimir. The Turks, Iran and the Caucasus in the Middle Ages. London, 1978.

Sattarov, Magsad. Islam dini galyglary haggynda. Baku, 1967. A biased but serious Soviet work on Islam in Azerbaijan.

Alexandre Bennigsen (1987)

Fanny E. Bryan (1987)

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Islam: Islam in the Caucasus and the Middle Volga

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