It made headlines, 10 years ago, when an Orthodox Archpriest of Russia, Viacheslav Polosin, announced his conversion to Islam. Polosin, a prominent priest of the Kaluga, a fortress city of the Russian Federation, barely 188 km. Southwest of Moscow, was holding an important position of Head of the Administration of the Committee on Relations with Public Associations and Religious Organizations of the State Duma of the Russian Federation, when he entered in the fold of Islam. He declared: â€œI decided to bring my social status into line with my convictions, and to testify publicly that I consider myself an adherent of the great tradition of the true faith of the Prophets of Monotheism, beginning with Abraham. And thus I do not consider myself a priest or a member of any Orthodox church.â€
After 10 years, conversion of Orthodox Christians goes unnoticed as such conversions are taking place routinely. There is a surge in Muslim population in traditionally Salvak Orthodox majority country. The Times of London published a report on August 6, 2005, under a startling headline â€œRussiaâ€™s Turning Muslim, Says Muftiâ€. According to report: Ravil Gaynutdin, head of the Council of Muftis of Russia, announced that Russiaâ€™s population of 144 million contains 23 million ethnic Muslims â€“ and not, as the census indicates, 14.5 million, or, as the Orthodox Church estimates, nearer to 20 million. An estimated 3-4 million Muslims are migrants from former Soviet regions, including 2 million Azeris, 1 million Kazakhs, and several hundred thousand Uzbeks, Tajiks and Kyrgyz.â€
Prof Paul Goble, who is regarded as an expert on minorities in the former Soviet Union, agreed with the Mufti and noted that Islam is exponentially growing in Russia, since the disintegration of Soviet Union in 1985. He wrote: â€œRussia had only about 300 mosques in 1991 and now there are at least 8,000, about half of which were built with money from abroad, especially from Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. There were no Islamic religious schools in 1991 and today there are between 50 and 60, teaching as many as 50,000 students. The number of Russians going on the Hajj has jumped from 40 in 1991 to 13,500 in 2005.â€ He quotes a Russian commentator predicting that within the next several decades there will be a mosque on Red Square.
According to BBC analyst, Steven Eke, population of Russia is declining by approx 70,000 people annually. However there is a surge in Muslim populated areas. Demographic data show that the average age of ethnic Russian males is around 58 years, but in Dagestan, Chechnya, Tataristan and other Muslim populated areas it is 68 years. Experts have also indicated that sex appeal in ethnic Salvak is on decline and youth are becoming least interested in marriage institution. Married couples also refrain from expanding their families. According to 2002 census national fertility rate is just 1.5 children per woman while it is 1.8 in Dagestan. Goble has even claimed that rate of birth in Muslims is as higher as 8 to 10 children per woman.
However it is evident that Islam is gradually reclaiming its lost ground in the region. During Communist hegemony, more that 7,000 mosques were destroyed or converted into clubs and other community facilities. Congregations for Friday prayers were banned and practising Muslims put on persecution and prosecution. Thousands of Imams and preachers were murdered. During Ramadan, gangs of Communist workers stormed in Muslim localities and used harsh measures to force the faithful to break fast.
Now the situation has changed. The Qurâ€™Än is most sought after book and new Mosques are coming up in quick succession. Recently a huge Mosque, â€œKadyrov Mosqeue,â€ named after, Akhmad Kadyrov, the first President of Chechnya Republic was inaugurated with great fan fare. In Khazan Kremlin city in Tatar region too a grand Mosque Qul Sharif has been rebuilt on the site where a mosque and spiritual centre of Sufi Qul Sharif was destroyed, as were hundreds of other mosques in the region, after the Russian conquest of Kazan in 1552 during crusade wars under Orthodox Christian Church.
Though in most parts, authorities do not allow calling Azan on loudspeakers, people gather to offer prayers and iftars. In spite of resistance from Orthodox Clergy and Jewish Groups, Muslims are freely leading their religious life. During Ramadan these activities are more visible in Muslim areas, near and around Mosques and Muslim houses. A report from Moscow says: Dozens of religious people came to one of the main mosques in Moscow, the Moscow Cathedral Mosque, in order to celebrate the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. Like other Muslims from across the globe, they will spend this month praying and reading the Koran on a daily basis. â€œThere are in all, six mosques designed for 1500 persons are operating in the Russian capital city.â€ Mosque officers noted that the majority of persons coming for prayers are young under 35 years of age. Kazakh people who work in Moscow also came to the mosque to say their prayers and to listen sermons. Marat Arshabayev, Imam of Moscow Cathedral Mosque said in a statement on the eve of 1st Ramadan: â€œThe holy month of Ramadan is a long-awaited month for every Muslim including those from Russia, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of the world. Remembering the words of the Prophet at least on these days is considered to be a great advantage for our businesses, deeds and actions.â€
In the middle of the holy month, a charitable â€œRamadan tentâ€ will be established near the main memorial mosque in downtown Moscow. After sunset, Muslims and guests will be able to try hot dishes prepared by cooks from Turkey and Iran.â€
A student from Ghana, who visited Moscow during the last Ramadan and spent one week there, narrates: Moscow is home to about 2 million Muslims. The atmosphere of Ramadan here is well experienced in and around the Masajid. Here, the iftaars, i.e. time for fast breaking are well organised. In the Masajids dates, water and food are provided for all visitors. Among the foreign students too, who live in hostels, collective iftaars are organised. In these Iftaars, students from in and out of the hostel are also invited, even non-Muslims also share. In the mosques after Isha taraweeh prayers are organised. In some hostels too students offer prayers in congregation. However in some places, people disperse after iftaars, say prayers separately.â€ In and around Mosques, dates, Caps, Tasbeeh, Prayer Rugs and Scarves, etc. are available on stalls.
Most people prefer iftaars with their family members at their houses. Special light dishes along with dates, fruits and tea, etc. are common. Here fasting period is longer than 16 Â½ hours. (On 30th August, Fajr time falls before 4 AM and iftaar at 8.36 PM.) In northern regions it is even longer. But the climate is cold and more and more people observe fast and offer Salat.
Last year more than 15 thousand Muslims along with the Minister Louis Farrakhan, offered Eidul Fitr prayer at Cathedral Mosque of Moscow. Many of them have to use their coats as Prayer Rugs. After Eid Prayer and Sermon, the Minister offered Eid Greetings in his brief address.
The new regime of President Dmitry Medvedev is sympathetic towards Muslims and wants their cooperation in nation building. Barely 20 days after Obamaâ€™s famous address to the Muslims in Cairo, President Dimity Medvedev, addressed the Arab League Conference on June 24 in the same city and insisted: â€œIslam is an inalienable part of Russian history and culture, given that more than 20 million Russian citizens are among the faithful.â€ Consequently, â€œRussia does not need to seek friendship with the Muslim world as our country is an organic part of this world.â€ On July 15, 2009 he visited the Central Mosque in Moscow, where he stressed the importance of Islam in the Russia. â€œRussia is a multi-national and multi-confessional country. Russian Muslims have enough respect and influence. Muslim foundations are making an important contribution to promoting peace in society, providing spiritual and moral education for many people, as well as fighting extremism and xenophobia. There are 182 ethnic groups living in Russia, and 57 of them claim Islam as their main religion. This figure speaks for itself.â€ He also promised the government would continue to assist with funding organisations to train imams and teachers.
The importance of resurgence of Islam in Russia shows the dying desire for spirituality after the failure of pure materialistic philosophy of life, which was imposed upon by Communist regime on the whole USSR. However this resurgence is not without hiccups and difficulties. Though the growth of Islam in this region is natural, some forces are creating fictitious hindrances. For example last November, Shah Khalid Bin Abdul Aziz offered to fund a Mosque and Islamic centre at Moscow, as present six mosques are not enough for two million Muslims of the city. But the Orthodox Church tried to block this offer by proposing that King must give permission to build an Orthodox Church in Makkah.
The writer is Gen.Sec. Forum for Civil Rights and a senior Urdu Journalist. Emal: syyedagha@hotmail. com.