There are about 20 million indigenous Muslims living in the Russian Federation where the total population is over 140 million (about 15 percent of the total population). Unlike other Muslim minorities in Europe, Russian Muslims are not foreign immigrants. They are native citizens of the country in which they live in.
The majority of Russian Muslims live in the Volga-Ural region and the Northern Caucasus. Other parts of Russia including megacities, such as Moscow or Saint-Petersburg, also have significant Muslim populations.
The ethnically Muslims are predominant in seven republics of the Russian Federation which are the Republics of Bashkortostan and Tatarstan in the Volga-Urals region, and the Republics of Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachay-Cherkessia in the Northern Caucasus.
Roots of Islam in Russia
Islam first entered Russia through Dagestan from the mid 7th century it started to spread to the Northern Caucasus. By the year 21 AH (Muslim calendar) (641 CE), the Muslim army under the leadership of ‘Abd Rahman ibn Rabiah reached the Southern Caucasus northward after taking control of Persia and Al-Quds (Jerusalem).
The Muslim army achieved victory over the powerful Khazar Kingdom during the Umayyad rule in 119 AH (737 CE). Subsequently, the Northern Caucasus, which previously was a vassal of the Khazar Kingdom, became a part of the Umayyad Empire. And, Muslims transformed the region into an important administrative centre and introduced Islam to the tribes of the Caucasus. Islam gradually established itself in the Volga basin through trade and other economic relations with the Muslim world. The Bulgar Kingdom, which existed in the Middle Volga region from the 8th century until its invasion by Mongols in 1236 CE, recognized Islam as an official religion of the state in 922 CE ( 304 AH).
Starting from the central region, Islam spread to north and east parts of Russia, particularly to Siberia. The second wave of introducing Islam to Russia took place during the period of the Golden Horde (Jusi Ulusi or Altan Ordon ), which was established as a north kingdom of the Mongols in 1242 CE.
In fact, the small numbers of the Mongols who stayed in the area did not have any significant impact on the fabric of the local society. So, culture, language, religion, and social life remained the same. In the beginning of the 15th century, a number of independent Islamic khanates emerged from the gigantic Golden Horde. 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.
Until these Islamic Khanates were defeated by the Russian Empire in the 16th century, Islam dominated the most parts of the modern Russia. Due to the importance of the Volga River for transportation to Tsarist Russian Empire, the Volga-Ural region was the first to fall under the newly-established mighty Russian Empire. On October 15, 1552, after the conquest of Kazan Khanate-which was previously the strongest state in the region-the way for the Russians to occupy the entire Volga region and the Caspian Sea was wide-open.
Independence: Hope and Reality
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 inspired hopes of Muslims living under the Russian control for several centuries for self-determination.
Following the declaration of independence of the former Soviet Republics in the Baltic, Central Asia and Caucasus, most autonomous republics adopted Declarations of State Sovereignty that proclaimed their sovereign status. In October 1991 Chechnya declared its independence from Russia after Djohar Dudayev (1944-1996) was elected by referendum as the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Russian troops left Chechnya, and for the next three years, the country gained de facto independence. In 1992 the republic of Tatarstan held a referendum on independence from Russia, and 62 percent of those who participated voted in favor of independence.
Then it was in Kazan, the capital city of Tatarstan, the first President of the Russian Federation Boris Yeltsin (1931-2007) made his oft-quoted statement to Russia’s different regions: “Take as much sovereignty as you can swallow”.
However, in reality, the movement of independence among nations of the Volga region and the Northern Caucasus ended with the First Chechen War (1994-1996) leaving 7,500 Russian military casualties, 4,000 Chechen combatants and no less than 35,000 civilians-a minimum total of 46,500 while others have cited figures within the range of 80,000 to 100,000 .
The International Community did not recognize the independence of Tatarstan too. On February 15, 1994, the Treaty On Delimitation of Jurisdictional Subjects and Mutual Delegation of Authority between the State Bodies of the Russian Federation and the State Bodies of the Republic of Tatarstan was signed between the Russian Federation and the Government of the Republic of Tatarstan.
Leaders of the Tatar freedom movements, such as the party of “Ittifaq”, accused Tatarstan government of putting off the independence of Tatarstan for cheap sale. And, despite strong disagreement of national independence movements, all articles mentioning the sovereignty of Tatarstan were withdrawn from its Constitution.
Consequently, the Constitution itself, which was adopted on November 30, 1992 by the parliament of the republic, was amended 15 times between 1994-2005. Thus, by legal and military means, Russia succeeded in maintaining its system of federalism that was once prevailed during the Soviet Union’s era. Currently, the Russian Federation consists of 83 subjects: 21 republics, 46 oblasts (provinces), 9 krais (territories), 1 autonomous oblast (The Jewish Autonomous Province), 4 autonomous okrugs (district) and 2 federal cities.
The Republics in general represent areas of non-Russian ethnicity. Unlike other subjects, republics are nominally autonomous and each republic has its own constitution, president and parliament. Every republic is meant to be the home to a specific ethnic minority.
Muslim Republics of the Volga-Urals Basin
There are two indigenously-Muslim predominant republics exist in the Volga-Ural region, which are Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The Republic of Tatarstan is located in the center of the East European Plain, approximately 800 kilometers (497 miles) east of Moscow. It lies between the Volga and Kama Rivers, and extends east to the Ural Mountains. Its capital city is Kazan (Qazan in Tatar).
According to the All-Russia Population Census of 2002, the total population of Tatarstan is about 3,779,000. The ethnic Tatars constitute 52,9 percent of the total population of the republic, while 39,5 percent are ethnic Russians.
The neighboring republic of Bashqortostan (or Bashkortostan) is situated between the Volga River and Ural mountains with its capital city called Ufa. The total population of the republic is about 4,104,000.
According to the 2002 Census, the ‘national composition’ in Bashkortostan is as follows: Russians 36.32 percent, Bashqorts (Bashkirs) 29.76 percent, Tatars 24.14 percent, Chuvashs 2.86 percent, Maris 2.58 percent, Ukrainians 1.35 percent, Mordovians 0.63 percent, Udmurts 0.55 percent, Belarusians 0.42 percent, Armenians 0.21 percent, Germans 0.20 percent, Uzbeks 0.13 percent, Azeri 0.12 percent, Kazakhs 0.10 percent, Tadjiks 0.07 percent, Jews 0.06 percent ,and various other groups of less than two thousand persons each.
As these demographic figures demonstrate, the majority of the inhabitants of the two republics are Tatars and Bashqorts. The majority of both who are of Turkic origins are ethnically Muslims. Modern Tatars are direct descendants of the Volga Bulgars, who admitted Islam as an official religion of their state in 922 CE. The Bulgars then brought Islam to the Bashqort tribes, who lived in the region of the Ural Mountains. For instance, the 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.
Muslim Republics of the Northern Caucasus
There are five predominantly Muslim republics in the region, which are the Republics of Chechnya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachay-Cherkessia. Differing from the Muslim republics of the Volga region, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Northern Caucasus is quite low. During the Second World War, the Soviet Union deported many people of Northern Caucasus under the pretext of allegedly helping the German army during its invasion of the Soviet Union. Although the majority of the entire Muslim inhabitants of the regions of Chechens, Ingushes, Balkars and Karachays were deported from their native lands in 1944 to steppes of Kazakhstan, the social and demographic pattern of the region did not undergo major changes.
Currently, the Muslim population constitutes the overwhelming majority in Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia. According to the 2002 Census, the population of the Republic of Chechnya is approximately 1.1 million. Chechens are 1,031,647 million making up 93.5 percent of the republic’s population. Other groups include Russians (only 40,645, or 3.7 percent), Kumyks (8,883, or 0.8 percent, also Muslims), Ingush (2,914 or 0.3 percent) and other smaller groups, each accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the total population.
The neighboring republic of Ingushetia is the home of the indigenous Ingush/Vainakh tribes. The people of Vainakh are a group of people of the Northern Caucasus including modern Chechens’ and Ingushes’ ancestries speaking Nakh language. Ingushetia is Russia’s smallest federal subject with the population of 467,000. According to the 2002 Russian Census, ethnic Ingushes make up 77.3 percent of the republic’s population. Other groups include Chechens (20.4 percent), and Russians (1.2 percent).
The largest republic of Russia in Northern Caucasus in terms of area and population is Dagestan. Its total population is 2,577,000. Dagestan includes a large variety of ethnic groups as there are tens indigenous Muslim ethnicities. According to the 2002 Census, Northeast Caucasians including Avars, Dargins and Lezgins make up almost 75 percent of Dagestan’s population. Turkic peoples such as Kumyks, Nogais and Azeris make up 20 percent whereas Russians are only 5 Percent. Each other ethnic groups account for less than 0.5 percent of the total population. With such ethnic diversity, 90.4 percent of the population are Muslims.
The republic of Kabardino-Balkaria has a population of about 901,000. It consists of two ethnic territories: one predominantly of Kabardin (speakers of a North-West Caucasian language, the most of which are Sunni Muslims) and the other predominantly Balkars (speakers of a Turkic language, the most of which are also Sunni Muslims).
According to the 2002 Census, Kabardins make up 55.3 percent of the republic’s population, followed by Russians (25.1 percent), and Balkars (11.6 Percent). Other groups include Ossetians (9,845, or 1.1percent), Turks (8,770, or 1.0 percent), Ukrainians (7,592, or 0.8 percent), Armenians (5,342, or 0.6 percent), Koreans (4,722, or 0.5 percent), Chechens (4,241, or 0.5 percent), and a other smaller groups, each accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the total population. The neighboring republic of Karachay-Cherkessia’s total population is about 439,000. It consists of two ethnic Muslim nations of Karachay and Cherkes. According to the 2002 Census, Karachays make up 38.5 percent of the republic’s population, followed by Russians (33.6 percent) and Cherkes (11.3 Percent).
Other groups include Abazins (7.4 percent), Nogais (3.4 percent), Ossetians (3,333, or 0.8 percent), Ukrainians (3,331, or 0.8 percent), Armenians (3,197, or 0.7 percent), Tatars (2,021, or 0.5 percent).