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Shireen Hunter
The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World What is This? Provides comprehensive scholarly coverage of the full geographical and historical extent of Islam


Islam arrived in parts of what is now the Russian Federation (RF), notably the North Caucasus, as early as the seventh century A.D., following the Arab conquest of the Sassanid Persian empire in 642 C.E. Archeological evidence also points to the existence of links with the people of Bashkortestan, located in the RF's Ural mountains region, dating back to the eighth century A.D. By the tenth century, the Bulgar kingdom on the banks of the Volga River had accepted Islam and incorporated Bashkortestan into its domain.

Between the tenth century and the Mongol conquest of Kievan Russia in the thirteenth century, there were both peaceful and conflictual relations between Russia and Muslim peoples. However, in this period, both peoples developed a mostly negative perception of one another. Thus in the Russian perception in the tenth century, “the borderline between ‘civilization’ and ‘barbarism’ followed more or less exactly the frontier which today separates the Slavic Europeans peoples from areas populated by Muslims.” Meanwhile, Muslims viewed the “Rus” as “wild and primitive natives and dangerous neighbors” (Bennigsen and Broxup, p. 6).

The Mongol-Tatar conquest of the Kievan state and, later, their conversion to Islam under Öz Beg Khan further intensified this Russian perception of an Islamic threat, which still persists. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the pattern of conquest was reversed with the Russians under Ivan IV (the Terrible), who took Kazan, the capital of the Tatar kingdom. The conquest of Kazan was accompanied by material and human destruction the memory of which is still alive among the Tatars and occasionally is a bone of contention between the Tatars and Russians. Over the next three centuries, Russia continued its southward expansion into Muslim-inhabited lands of the Caucasus and Central Asia. Thus, at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution, Russia's Muslim population stood at 20 million.

Russian Federation's Muslim Population.

There is no agreement among various Russian institutions and experts regarding the exact number of Muslims in the Russian Federation. Even the last census (2003) failed to provide exact information because the questionnaire did not include religious affiliation. Nevertheless, most estimates put the number of Muslims in the RF between 18 and 20 million (Hunter, pp. 43–44). In view of the higher birth rate among Muslims, the percentage in Russia's overall population is likely to increase in the coming decades unless the negative birth rates among ethnic Russians are reversed.

Muslim populations exist in all of the Russian Federation's eighty-nine territorial divisions, including some of the most remote areas such as the Kamchatka Peninsula. However, the Muslim population is concentrated in two regions: the North Caucasus (Southern Russia, as it now is called) and the Volga-Ural region. In the North Caucasus, Islam is the dominant religion in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Kabardino-Balkaria, and the Karachaevo-Cherkesia. In the Volga-Ural region, Tatarstan and Bashkortestan have the largest number of Muslims. In addition, approximately 3.2 million Muslims live in Central Russia, 2 to 3 million around Moscow and St. Petersburg. Major areas of Muslim concentration in Siberia and the far east include Omsk, Tyumen, Tobolsk, Novosibirsk,Vladivostok, Khabarovsk, and Urengoi.

Socioeconomic Conditions.

Economically, Muslims are in a disadvantaged position compared to other Russians. This is the case not only in the traditionally agricultural and poor regions such as the North Caucasus, where the only major industry was pre-war Chechnya's petroleum sector, but also in the more industrialized republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortestan.

This situation is a consequence of both Soviet-era economic policies and more recent events, notably war and displacement of populations. Economic conditions in the North Caucasus are particularly bad, with wages far below the national average and unemployment extremely high. Although exact figures are hard to come by, unemployment in the predominantly Muslim republics of Dagestan and Ingushetia is estimated to be 20 to 50 percent, whereas the figures are lower for those republics with a significant percentage of ethnic Russians in the total population. Muslims are generally represented in the unskilled-labor category, including a variety of low-paying agricultural jobs. Muslims also have been more negatively affected by the economic downturn in Russia, at the same time benefiting little from the economic liberalization. For example, there are no Muslim “oligarchs” in Russia.

Cultural and Political Conditions.

Tsarist and Soviet rule not only destroyed much of the Muslim physical infrastructure, they also dealt a heavy blow to Islam's intellectual infrastructure, including its religious and educational institutions. These policies also led to a depletion of Muslim intellectual capital. The negative results of this, including the propensity of some Russian Muslims to look to foreign religious leaders and their vulnerability to the attractions of radical discourses of Islam, are still felt today.

In light of this history, the restoration of Islam's physical and intellectual infrastructures has been a major priority for Russia's Muslims since the beginnings of perestroika and glasnost in 1987. This has led to the repair and reopening of remaining historic mosques, especially in the republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortestan, as well as to the building of new mosques. According to some statistics, between 1991 and 2000, the number of officially registered mosques in Russia increased from 870 to 7,000. In 2001, Dagestan boasted the highest number of mosques (1,200). However, few of these mosques are purpose-built or cathedral mosques with proper domes and minarets. Most are small prayer halls with rudimentary outward signs, such as tin roofs where the symbol of a crescent is displayed.

Governmental reaction to the building of mosques has fluctuated over the years. Generally speaking, federal authorities have had a more liberal attitude toward this issue, whereas local reactions have varied widely. In some cases, popular opposition has either delayed or altogether prevented the building of mosques (Hunter, pp. 64–70).

Parallel with the building of mosques, there also has been an effort to reactivate historic institutions of Islamic learning and to build new Islamic educational institutions. Primary instruction is offered by most mosques. Major institutions of higher Islamic education are affiliated with the Spiritual Board of Muslims (SBM) of different republics or the larger umbrella organizations and are located in Tatarstan, Bashkortestan, and Dagestan and in Moscow. These include the following in the different regions.


  • 1. The Russian Islamic University;
  • 2. the Higher Muslim Madrasah (“Muhammadiya”); and
  • 3. the Higher Muslim Madrasah of the One-Hundredth Anniversary of Islam (in Tatarstan), all located in Kazan.
  • 4. The Intermediate Muslim Madrasah “Yulduz”;
  • 5. the Intermediate Muslim Madrasah  “Aq Mechet”; and
  • 6. the Naberzhney Chelney Islamic Institute, all located in Naberzhney Chelney.
  • 7. The Intermediate Muslim Madrasah “Rissaliya” in Nizhneykamsk.
  • 8. The Intermediate Muslim Madrasah of Riazeddin Faherddin in Almeteyevsk. Intermediate Muslim madrasahs also operate in the cities of Buinsk and Nuralt.

Each of these institutions hosts more than one thousand students and has affiliated beginner schools in which students are instructed in the basics of Islamic faith and its rituals. The higher educational institutions offer nonreligious education as well.


In Bashkortestan, the major madrasahs and institutes of higher Islamic learning include the following:

  • 1. The madrasah affiliated with Sobornaya Mosque, opened in 1990;
  • 2. the madrasah of the Lya Lya Tyulpan Mosque;
  • 3. Rizah Fakhertdin Islamic Institute; and
  • 4. Maryam Sultanova Islamic Institute.

In addition, in the republic there are 419 Muslim organizations, which provide some form of Islamic education.

North Caucasus.

In this region, the largest number of institutions of Islamic learning is located in Dagestan. These institutions include 17 Islamic colleges affiliated with the republic's SBM, 132 intermediate madrasahs, and 245 beginner-level schools; the latter operate under the aegis of the mosques.

Among the Islamic colleges in Dagestan, the Northern Caucasus Islamic University of Muhammad Arif, located in Makhachkala, also offers courses in Russian, English, and foreign literature. It also has a women's department where, in addition to religious subjects, women can learn nursing, medicine, and clothing design. In Ingushetia, the highest institute of Islamic learning is the King Fahd Islamic Institute funded by Saudi Arabia. Elementary religious education is offered by most mosques.


Moscow has a number of important Islamic educational institutions, including the following:

  • 1. The Moscow Islamic College, which trains imams for Muslim communities under the supervision of the Spiritual Board of Muslims of the European part of Russia (DUMER).
  • 2. The Rasul Al Akram Islamic College.
  • 3. The Ismailiya School, operated by the Moscow Assembly Mosque.

All of these institutions are affiliated with DUMER, which also sends more gifted students to other Islamic countries to study.


Other Islamic religious institutions include Mahinur and Medina in Nizhny Novgorod and the Islamic Institute of Haji Turhan in Astrakhan. Despite much talk of large sums of money being provided by the rich Arab states to Muslim institutions, in terms of equipment and other facilities, Russia's Islamic institutions are in relatively poor shape.

Islamic Print and News Media.

Another important aspect of Islam's post-Soviet revival in Russia has included efforts to expand publications and media outlets in order to provide a more balanced view of Islam to Russian audiences. This need has been felt especially strongly since the start of the Chechen war in 1994, and later the spread of terrorist activities to Russia proper, notably Moscow, by Chechen militants, which has led to the rise of anti-Muslim feelings among ethnic Russians.

However, the development of Muslim print and news media has not been sufficient to counter the often anti-Muslim bias of the Russian media. For a list of major publication and TV programs, see Hunter, pp. 75–78.

In addition to the mainstream media, since 1991 some of the radical organizations have developed publications. However, it is impossible to provide accurate data about their number because generally they do not last very long. Among these publications was al-Qaf, the organ of the Wahhābī organization Jamāʿat of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, which was published in 1994–1998. It stopped publication following the outbreak of the second Chechen war in 1998. The al-Qaf foundation also published the educational magazine Caliphate.

Political Parties and Groups.

The history of Russian Muslim political activism dates back to the early 1900s. In 1905–1907, when Russia was experimenting with democratic reforms, and again in 1917, Russia's Muslims formed political organizations in order to unite the empire's Muslims and secure a role in determining their destinies and cultural and political rights. However, these efforts were frustrated, first by reassertion of tsarist authoritarianism and, second, by the establishment of the Soviet Union and its brand of nation-building. However, it is important to note that divisions and factionalism among Muslims also contributed to the failure of these efforts.

Following this historic pattern, taking advantage of the political opening presented by Gorbachev's reform agenda, Russia's Muslims formed a number of political parties and groups. The first such party was the All Russia Islamic Rebirth Party (ARIRP), which, despite its national pretensions, was focused principally on Dagestan. It advocated the creation of an Islamic government in Dagestan through peaceful and gradual means, without, however, demonstrating separatist tendencies. The party failed to register for the 1993 parliamentary elections and soon afterward faded away.

The 1995 parliamentary elections served as an impetus for the formation of Muslim political parties. One such party was the relatively radical Islamic Committee of Russia led by Geidar Jamal, a controversial figure. The Union of Muslims of Russia (UMR) and All Russia Muslim Social Movement, commonly known as Noor, represented the more moderate Muslims. However, a combination of factionalism among Muslims and state manipulation meant that these parties did not fare well in the elections and gradually also faded away.

Another Muslim organization was Refakh, which supported the pro-Putin Unity Movement in the 1999 elections and managed to get twenty seats in the Duma. However, this victory was also short-lived. In 2001, the Russian parliament passed the Law on Political Parties, banning parties based on religion. Moreover, tougher requirements for political parties, such as having branches in at least forty of the territories, effectively meant the end of Muslim political parties.

Muslim Religious Establishment.

The first Muslim religious institution, called Ufa Spiritual Muhammedan Assembly, was created by Empress Catherine the Great in 1789 in Ufa, Bashkortestan. During the Soviet period, the religious life of Muslim-inhabited regions that are now part of the Russian Federation was managed by two central spiritual boards: the Muslim Spiritual Board of the European part of the USSR and Siberia, with headquarters in Ufa, and the Muslim Spiritual Board of the North Caucasus, based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.

This situation has changed drastically in the post-Soviet era. The Muslim religious establishment in Russia today is characterized by a high level of decentralization. This process in part reflects the diversity of Russia's Muslim population and post-Soviet democratization. Nevertheless, since 1997, the government, through the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations, has tried to halt this process of fragmentation.

Today the two main umbrella Muslim organizations are the Central Spiritual Board of Muslims of Russia and European Countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CSBM) and the Russian Council of Muftīs (RCM). Each of these organizations has a number of regional boards under its supervision.

The two organizations and their leaders, Muftīs Talgat Tazhuddin and Ravil Gainutdin respectively, are rivals. Gainutdin enjoys more credibility as an orthodox Muslim and scholar. However, loyalties and affiliations often depend on ethnic bonds. Thus, Gainutdin, a Tatar, is popular with Tatars, whereas Tazhudin, a Bashkir, is favored by Bashkirs.

This intra-Muslim friction has enabled the federal government to manipulate Muslim leaders and organizations in order to increase its control over them.

Religious and Ideological Trends.

Traditionally, the majority of Russian Muslims are followers of the ḥanafī school, with the exception of Dagestan, where the Shāfiʿī school is dominant. In the North Caucasus, various Ṣūfī brotherhoods are also very strong and influential.

In the past two decades, however, Salafī and Wahhābī influences have increased among the Russian Muslims, especially in the North Caucasus. The Chechen war has been a major impetus to this development and, in particular, to the spread of more radical or conservative tendencies. Some of these groups want to establish Islamic governments even, if necessary, by resorting to violence. For example, in 1998, Wahhābī extremist groups set up so-called Islamic Territories in the villages of Chabanmakhi, Karamakhi, and Kadar in Dagestan as a prelude to the creation of an Islamic state there. In May 1999, several Chechen militants came to Dagestan with the purpose of establishing an Islamic state.

These groups call themselves Jamāʿats and have now spread to other Muslim republics, notably Kabardino-Balkaria and Ingushetia. The general disappointment with the traditional Islam of the region, the identification of existing organizations with republican and federal governments, and severe socioeconomic problems, coupled with the infiltration of the region by foreign Islamists during the Chechen wars, are primary causes of the attraction of Wahhābī-Salaf ī Islam in the North Caucasus. Milder forms of Wahhāb ī influence are also observable in other Muslim republics, although not to the same extent as in the North Caucasus.

The spread of Wahhāb ī Islam has created tensions among the Muslims of Russia. In the North Caucasus, tensions are particularly high between Ṣūf ī brotherhoods and the Wahhābīs, who do not consider them true Muslims. At times, this leads to armed clashes. However, the majority of Russia's Muslims remain peaceful and committed to their traditional beliefs. Their aspiration is to assert their religious and cultural identity within the framework of the Russian Federation and through participation in the country's socioeconomic, cultural, and political life.


  • Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Marie Broxup. The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983.
  • Hunter, Shireen T.Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security. Armonk, N.Y.: M.E. Sharpe, 2004.
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