On my recent visit to Russia

Recently I had been invited as part of a UK delegation to visit Russia with Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad from the Cambridge Muslim College. Here is what Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad wrote about the experience:

On 23 September 2016 a delegation of CMC scholars attended Juma Prayers at the newly-rebuilt Moscow Cathedral Mosque. The experience was a fascinating one. Muslims in the UK all too often forget these brethren who inhabit the opposite end of Europe. We live on a small island, and our numbers are small. Russian Muslims, by contrast, live in the world’s largest country, and they number at least twenty-five million. So to visit the Moscow Islamic University and to meet their wonderful trainee imams, and then to pray in the vast new Cathedral Mosque, was to embark on a real voyage of discovery.

The Russian capital is home to an estimated two million Muslims, and this is their largest mosque. For this reason the old and inadequate nineteenth-century building which stood on the site has been rebuilt and enlarged, a project which was completed two years ago. The capacity of the new building is officially five thousand, but it was clear that many more were going to attend Juma today.

The new structure, located near Moscow’s Olympic stadium, is cleverly designed to reflect the historic Islamic influence on Russian architecture. Russian church domes and campaniles copied Tatar mosque design for centuries, since Islam was the major civilisational influence here in medieval times. The mosque therefore finds it easy to be Islamic and European at the same time, pleasingly abolishing a familiar tension. Here, as one walks through the rain towards the vast structure, one reflects on a European national culture which has always internalised Muslimness, albeit with many difficult episodes. Most Muslims here are not immigrants, and are not considered foreign: Islam came to Russia long before Christianity arrived. Countless millions of Russians today claim mixed Muslim and Christian ancestry. Everyone seems to have a Muslim neighbour. Old and young alike speak the national language. Here, Islam announces that it is entirely at home, and has always been so. Most of these worshippers claim no roots abroad.

Near the mosque the crowd becomes busier. Pedlars sell flat loaves of bread, horsemeat sausages, and juice from Siberian aronia berries. Next to the Islamic University there is a gift shop and a Tatar restaurant with eminently charming staff. But we are undistracted, and enter the courtyard, and then the excellently planned and spotless taharet area. Outside is the wet and cold of Russia, and so there is ample space for overcoats and heavy shoes. Ready to pray, we file up the magnificent central stairway, and enter the main worship space.

The walls around us are decorated with thuluth calligraphy by the Turkish master Hüseyin Kutlu. These take the form of great roundels, displaying texts carefully chosen by Kutlu himself for their appropriateness to each part of the sacred space. The mihrab, also Turkish in inspiration, is built in a light grey marble. It is truly enormous. And high above our heads, at the centre of the dome, we see a remarkable Russian-style joggled pattern, picked out in dark blue, turquoise and gold; another reminder of the Islamic influence on Russian architecture.

This ‘cathedral mosque’, as the local Muslims call it, is the official mosque of the Grand Mufti of the Russian Federation, Shaykh Ravil Gainutdinov, and hence is essentially Hanafi in its practices. Still, when the imam appears, taking step after step up a gigantic marble minbar, pausing on each step in the traditional way, the bulk of the khutba is in Tatar and Russian.

The mosque has nine imams, but today’s preacher is Shaykh Damir Dzhan. He wears the large white turban of ulema from the Volga region: traditionally the imams here are from the city of Nizhny Novgorod, a centre of Muslim scholarship some three hundred miles east of here. His subject is the tawaf, and for almost an hour he holds the congregation’s attention. These are educated people, and the khutba must be deep and reflective. He compares the tawaf to the natural geometries of the world, the anticlockwise motions of the solar system, the patterns of the cosmos. A complex and interesting argument unfolds.

The congregation is young: I see hardly anyone over the age of forty. Most have arrived early: the mosque was full even before the adhan. They are respectful and pay close attention to the sermon. A few are taking photographs, and in front of me a teenager in a high felt hat is on his feet, taking a video with his phone. There are policemen here and there. But the atmosphere overall is holy and restrained.

The khutba is over, and Imam Damir makes his long journey down the steps. He leads us in Surat al-A’la and Surat al-Ghashiya. After the prayer there is tasbih and dhikr, and then a visiting imam recites from the Qur’an, his glorious voice soaring up into the heights of the dome. He begins and ends with maqam Saba: his treatment purely classical in style, with nothing of the local about it; but thanks to the universality of beauty the cantillation fits in a dignified way into this space and into our hearts.

Afterwards there are hugs, tea, and conversations with this little-known European people. Everyone seems to be a keen Putin supporter, and I learn that the Russian president is more popular among Muslims here than among any other group of the Russian population. There is certainly much to think about.

Truly, a different age has dawned in the formerly grey and misanthropic Soviet metropolis, which saw so many ulema tortured and deported in the aftermath of Lenin’s brutal revolution. And there is so much love for God here! After communism spread its cold fog over these people for seventy years, hope and faith and optimism are back in amazing strength. Although the legacy of forced secularity has left many people with little religious knowledge, only six percent of Russians today call themselves atheists. This mosque, the soaring words of the Qur’an within it, and these rivers of young people who now flow out into the streets, recharged and reassured, show the truth of God’s word: ‘And God refuses anything other than the completion of His light, though the unbelievers disdain it.’

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