East-West Church & Ministry Report
Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1994, Covering the Former Soviet Union and East Central Europe


Islam in Pre-Soviet Eurasia

Don Fairbairn

Muslim expansion into lands which would later become a part of the Russian Empire began with Islam's conquest of Azeri tribes in the Caucasus, in what is now Azerbaijan, in about 645.  Some nomads of Central Asia came under Islamic sway between 650 and 750.  Thus, the Muslim roots of these lands were in place more than two centuries before the first Christian missionaries came to East Slavic regions, long before Russia itself became a world power.  However, conversion to Islam proceeded more slowly east of the Caspian Sea.  Significant portions of the populations of Central Asia, in what is today Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, began to convert to Islam in the tenth century, but the people of Kazakhstan, not until the fifteenth century.

The Mongol Empire
During the thirteenth century, the vast armies of Genghis Khan and his successors swept out of Mongolia and ran roughshod over the lands of Eurasia.  This empire, which included all of Central Asia, Kazakhstan, the Caucasus, and Tatarstan, ushered in a long period of decline in the emerging Islamic civilization there.

As the Mongols organized their imperial government, they showed considerable tolerance in allowing subject nations their religious freedom.  However, they completely destroyed the administrative and economic foundations of the societies they had conquered, replacing them with governmental structures led entirely by their own officials.  This action meant that the mullahs, spiritual leaders who previously had exercised influence on all aspects of their societies, were now powerless in any sphere save of that religion.  As a result, Muslim authorities became increasingly dogmatic and strict in their control of religious life?the one aspect of society over which they still had power.  This rigid control expressed itself most prominently in the reestablishment and close application of the shariah (Islamic law).

The combination of Mongol oppression and a demand for strict conformity by native mullahs provoked a reaction from many Central Asians.  In many parts of what would later become the Soviet Union, but especially in Central Asia, a number of secret societies emerged, offering a more private and less rigid version of Islam.

The Rise of the Russian Empire
As the Mongol threat receded in the fifteenth century, a growing religious and political zeal led Russia to turn its attention to the Islamic lands on its borders.  Tsar Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible) undertook the conquest of neighboring Muslim states with the same determination that Western Christendom had mustered during the Crusades a few centuries previously.  The first Muslim land to fall was Tatarstan on the middle Volga.  Ivan's forces, using the most explosives ever assembled to that point in history, captured its capital, Kazan, in 1552.  After the fall of the city, the Russians forced massive numbers of Muslims to convert to Russian Orthodoxy, and the quest for a "Christian" empire was under way.  Ivan had St. Basil's Cathedral on Red Square in Moscow built to commemorate his victory at Kazan.  Its eight colorful domes represent the turbaned heads of the eight Muslim chieftains who were beheaded after their capture at Kazan.

From 1552 until the eve of the October Revolution, the tsarist regime systematically extended its conquests of Muslim lands and incorporated them into the Russian Empire.    In the eighteenth century Russia gained control of the Crimea, followed by virtually its entire Muslim population  migrating to Turkey between 1783 and 1893.  By 1848 all of Kazakhstan and Central Asia, as well as Tatarstan, lay in Russian hands.  In every case, a conquest was followed by massive migration of Russians into a conquered territory and the replacement of the native governing classes.

Because of the sense of Christian destiny propelling the Russian advance, the conquerors showed none of the religious tolerance Mongol rulers had exhibited.  Campaigns against Islam were common, as were forced conversions of Muslims to Orthodoxy, like the ones which had followed the capture of Kazan.  And up to the mid-eighteenth century Russians destroyed mosques, prohibited schools in which the Koran was taught, and executed those who sought to proselytize for the Muslim faith.

By portraying its conquests in such overtly religious terms, Russia made it impossible for conquered Muslims to regard their situation simply as that of subject nations.  Instead, the issue became one of whether Islam or Christianity was the superior religion.  Thus, it is hardly surprising that the advance of the Russian Empire met with massive religious resistance in Central Asia.

Russian tactics had implications which extended far beyond the original conflicts they provoked.  Virtually all of the peoples subjected to Russian rule are intensely antagonistic toward their former masters.  However, we need to remember that in the case of Muslims, this antagonism toward Russia derives ultimately from a religious clash and from the inexcusable tactics tsarist Russia used to demonstrate Christianity's "superiority" over Islam.

This hatred and the events which have given rise to it are not simply of historical interest to evangelicals working among Eurasian Muslims.  For many of these people, Russian Orthodoxy is the only form of Christianity they have ever met, and to be Christian is to be Russian.  As a result, hatred of Russians often includes deep hatred of Christianity in general, and perhaps of all Westerners as well.

Islam on the Eve of the Revolution
Resistance by Eurasian Muslims to the Russian occupation did not express itself solely in opposing the conquerors' efforts to convert them to Orthodoxy.  In the nineteenth century a reform movement developed within Islam, the purpose of which was to modernize and unify Muslim groups within the Russian Empire so that they could effectively resist tsarist rule.

This reform movement had four basic components:  religious, cultural, educational, and political.  In matters of faith, many Muslims sought to break with the traditionalism which since the Mongol invasion had invested absolute authority in the mullah.  Instead, reformers sought to bring reason and critical thinking to bear on religious questions.  Practically, this meant the right of each individual to personally read the Koran and the Hadith (Muhammad's extra-Koranic sayings), rather than relying upon mullahs for guidance.  Educational reform saw a similar modernizing influence, as Muslim schools began to teach reading phonetically and to include secular subjects in the curriculum.

Culturally, the reform movement sought to revive Tatar, Azeri, and Kazakh as literary languages, in order to enhance people's recognition of their Islamic heritage.  Finally, political efforts sought to unify various Muslim groups in order to strengthen them and enable them to stand as a united front against the Russians and the West.

This movement resulted in a Muslim contingent within the Empire which was a good deal less "backward" than Muslims in other parts of the world.  Reform-minded Muslims were able to stand as virtual equals with their Russian conquerors, both educationally and culturally.  However, the goal was not to emulate the Russians or simply to gain rights equal to theirs, but to gain leverage so as to be able eventually to oust tsarist forces from Muslim lands and to reestablish autonomous Muslim societies. 

Don Fairbairn, academic dean at Donetsk Bible College, Donetsk, Ukraine, will analyze "Islam in the Soviet Era" in the next issue of the EWC&M Report.  His unabridged 93-page paper, "The Straight Path or the Way of the Cross?" (1993) is available from the Institute for East-West Christian Studies, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL 60187-5593 U.S.A. for $10.00 (IL residents add 6.75% sales tax) plus postage/handling $2.40 (U.S. and Canada, 1st class) or $4.75 (Europe, printed-matter airmail).  Contact the East-West Institute for mailing rates outside North America and Europe.


Recommended Reading on Islam in Eurasia

Bennigsen, Alexandre and Marie Broxup.  The Islamic Threat to the Soviet State.  New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1983.

Bennigsen, Alexandre and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay.  Islam in the Soviet Union.  New York:  Frederick A. Praeger, 1967.

Bennigsen, Alexandre and S. Enders Wimbush.  Muslims of the Soviet Empire:  A Guide.  London:  C. Hurst and Company, 1985.  27.50

Carrere d'Encausse, Helene.  Islam and the Russian Empire:  Reform and Revolution in Central Asia.  London:  I.B.  Tauris, 1988.  35.

Taheri, Amir.  Crescent in a Red Sky:  The Future of Islam in the Soviet Union.  London: Hutchinson, 1989. 7.99

Editor's note:
The last three titles are still in print.  The London phone and fax for the three relevant publishers are:  Hurst (44-71-240-2666; 44-71-240-2667); Tauris (44-71-483-2681; 44-71-483-4541); and Hutchinson/Random House (44-71-973-9000; 44-71-233-6058).


Don Fairbairn, "Islam in Pre-Soviet Eurasia," East-West Church & Ministry Report, 2 (Summer 1994), 2-3

Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.

1994 Institute for East-West Christian Studies
ISSN 1069-5664


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