Russian Muslims: Religious Leaven in a Secular Society

By Gradirovski, Sergei; Esipova, Neli | Harvard International Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Russian Muslims: Religious Leaven in a Secular Society


Gradirovski, Sergei, Esipova, Neli, Harvard International Review


Islam in Russia is full of surprises. It suffered serious human and institutional losses during periods of extreme intolerance. In the nineteenth century, for example, Tsarist Russia rested on "orthodoxy, autocracy, populism"--the three "root essences" of Russian society put forth by Count Sergey Uvarov, the president of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in 1833. Muslims in the North Caucasus region at times resisted two of those pillars--adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church and submission to Russian rule--and suffered persecution for their resistance. Under the Soviet Union's cult of militant atheism all religions were suppressed, and Islam was certainly no exception. The character of Islam in Russia has been affected for centuries by its close proximity to Slavic and Finno-Ugric cultures. But despite such challenges, the faith has survived in Russia, and its tenacity speaks to the devotion of the country's Muslim communities.

For the first time in 2007, the Gallup Poll provided a rare look at Russia's estimated 15 to 20 million Muslims. Gallup asked respondents in Russia: "Do you consider yourself to be religious, or not?" Those responding affirmatively were then asked for their religious affiliation. In addition to the national sample, supplementary interviews were conducted in two regions, Dagestan and Tatarstan, with high concentrations of Muslim residents. The resulting sample contained a total of 673 Russian Muslims.

Do Russian Muslims Adhere to Islamic traditions?

Perhaps the most obvious question regarding Muslims in Russia is the degree to which they adhere to traditional Islamic beliefs and practices in an environment where religious expression has been suppressed for so long. Gallup asked Muslim respondents about four of the five "pillars" of Islam, the five ritual practices considered the duty of every Muslim.

1. Namaz. About half of Russians identifying as Muslims (49 percent) say they never perform namaz, the ritual prayer in supplication to Allah. Among young Russian Muslim--those aged between 15 and 24--this number reaches two-thirds (66 percent). These figures are notable in light of the fact that calling oneself a Muslim and never performing namaz would be nonsensical in the Middle East or any other region of the Islamic world.

On the other hand, many Russians would be astonished by the fact that as many as 16 percent of Muslims living in the country perform namaz five times a day exactly as commanded, a difficult requirement for anyone involved in the mad rhythm of modern life. Furthermore, half (50 percent) of Russian Muslims feel it is necessary to create areas for namaz in public places and establishments, such as train stations, airports, universities, and institutes.

2. Shahadah. Just over half of Russian Muslims (54 percent) were able to correctly complete the Sha-hadab, the ritual Muslim declaration of faith, once the interviewer began it. Given that the Sbabadah is considered the most fundamental of the five pillars, this figure may seem low to many in the Muslim world. Consider, however, that by comparison, only 13 percent of Russian Orthodox respondents could continue the first lines of the Niceno-Constantino-politan Creed, the obligatory ecumenical church chanted within the framework of every liturgy.

3.Ramadan. Thirty-five percent of Russian Muslims say they do not fast during the sacred month of Ramadan, and another 34 percent say they fast "as much as possible" during that time. Only about one in four (28 percent) say they "fully" observe the Ramadan fast as required by Islamic law.

4. Hajj. Only 5 percent of Russian Muslims said they had already performed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obliged to make at least once in their lifetime. The remaining 95 percent were asked to indicate the extent to which they would like to perform the Hajj. About a third (37 percent) indicated that they wanted very much to perform the Hajj by giving the highest rating on a five point scale, while 18 percent say they have no desire to do so, giving the lowest rating. …

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