In the 1980s, Islam was the second most widespread religion in the Soviet Union; in that period, the number of Soviet citizens identifying themselves as Muslims generally totaled between 45 and 50 million. The majority of the Muslims resided in the Central Asian republics of the Soviet Union, which now are independent countries. In 1996 the Muslim population of Russia was estimated at 19 percent of all citizens professing belief in a religion. Major Islamic communities are concentrated among the minority nationalities residing between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea: the Adyghs, Balkars, Bashkirs, Chechens, Cherkess, Ingush, Kabardins, Karachay, and numerous Dagestani nationalities. In the middle Volga Basin are large populations of Tatars, Udmurts, and Chuvash, most of whom are Muslims. Many Muslims also reside in Ul'yanovsk, Samara, Nizhniy Novgorod, Moscow, Perm', and Leningrad oblasts (see Ethnic Composition, this ch.).
Virtually all the Muslims in Russia adhere to the Sunni branch of Islam. In a few areas, notably Chechnya, there is a tradition of Sufism, a mystical variety of Islam that stresses the individual's search for union with God. Sufi rituals, practiced to give the Chechens spiritual strength to resist foreign oppression, became legendary among Russian troops fighting the Chechens during tsarist times.
Relations between the Russian government and Muslim elements of the population have been marked by mistrust and suspicion. In 1992, for example, Sheikh Ravil Gainurtdin, the imam of the Moscow mosque, complained that "our country [Russia] still retains the ideology of the tsarist empire, which believed that the Orthodox faith alone should be a privileged religion, that is, the state religion." The Russian government, for its part, fears the rise of political Islam of the violent sort that Russians witnessed in the 1980s firsthand in Afghanistan and secondhand in Iran. Government fears were fueled by a 1992 conference held in Saratov by the Tajikistan-based Islamic Renaissance Party. Representatives attended from several newly independent Central Asian republics, from Azerbaijan, and from several autonomous jurisdictions of Russia, including the secessionist-minded autonomous republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The meeting's pan-Islamic complexion created concern in Moscow about the possible spread of radical Islam into Russia from the new Muslim states along the periphery of the former Soviet Union. For that reason, the Russian government has provided extensive military and political support to secular leaders of the five Central Asian republics, all of whom are publicly opposed to political Islam. By the mid-1990s, the putative Islamic threat was a standard justification for radical nationalist insistence that Russia regain control of its "near abroad" (see The Near Abroad, ch. 8).
The struggle to delineate the respective powers of the federal and local governments in Russia also has influenced Russian relations with the Islamic community. The Russian Federation inherited two of the four spiritual boards, or muftiates, created during the Stalinist era to supervise the religious activities of Islamic groups in various parts of the Soviet Union; the other two are located in Tashkent and Baku. One of the two Russian boards has jurisdiction in European Russia and Siberia, and the other is responsible for the Muslim enclaves of the North Caucasus and Transcaspian regions. In 1992 several Muslim associations withdrew from the latter muftiate and attempted to establish their own spiritual boards. Later that year, Tatarstan and Bashkortostan withdrew recognition from the muftiate for European Russia and Siberia and created their own muftiate.
There is much evidence of official conciliation toward Islam in Russia in the 1990s. The number of Muslims allowed to make pilgrimages to Mecca increased sharply after the virtual embargo of the Soviet era ended in 1990. Copies of the Quran (Koran) are readily available, and many mosques are being built in regions with large Muslim populations. In 1995 the newly established Union of Muslims of Russia, led by Imam Khatyb Mukaddas of Tatarstan, began organizing a movement aimed at improving interethnic understanding and ending Russians' lingering conception of Islam as an extremist religion. The Union of Muslims of Russia is the direct successor to the pre-World War I Union of Muslims, which had its own faction in the Russian Duma (see Glossary). The postcommunist union has formed a political party, the Nur All-Russia Muslim Public Movement, which acts in close coordination with Muslim clergy to defend the political, economic, and cultural rights of Muslims and other minorities. The Islamic Cultural Center of Russia, which includes a medrese
(religious school), opened in Moscow in 1991. The Ash-Shafii Islamic Institute in Dagestan is the only such research institution in Russia. In the 1990s, the number of Islamic publications has increased. Among them are two magazines in Russian, Ekho Kavkaza
and Islamskiy vestnik
, and the Russian-language newspaper Islamskiye novosti
, which is published in Makhachkala, Dagestan.