Islam in Russia is full of surprises. It suffered serious human and institutional losses during periods of extreme intolerance. In the nineteenth century, for example, Tsarist Russia rested on "orthodoxy, autocracy, populism"-the three "root essences" of Russian society put forth by Count Sergey Uvarov, the president of the Russian academy of Sciences, in 1833. Muslims in the north Caucasus region at times resisted two of those pillars-adherence to the Russian Orthodox Church and submission to Russian rule-and suffered persecution for their resistance. Under the Soviet Union's cult of militant atheism all religions were suppressed, and Islam was certainly no exception. The character of Islam in Russia has been affected for centuries by its close proximity to Slavic and Finno-Ugric cultures. But despite such challenges, the faith has survived in Russia, and its tenacity speaks to the devotion of the country's Muslim communities.

For the first time in 2007, the Gallup Poll provided a rare look at Russia's estimated 15 to 20 million Muslims. Gallup asked respondents in Russia: "do you consider yourself to be religious, or not?" those responding affirmatively were then asked for their religious affiliation. In addition to the national sample, supplementary interviews were conducted in two regions, Dagestan and Tatarstan, with high concentrations of Muslim residents. The resulting sample contained a total of 673 Russian Muslims.

Do Russian Muslims Adhere to Islamic traditions?

Perhaps the most obvious question regarding Muslims in Russia is the degree to which they adhere to traditional Islamic beliefs and practices in an environment where religious expression has been suppressed for so long. Gallup asked Muslim respondents about four of the five "pillars" of Islam, the five ritual practices considered the duty of every Muslim.

1. Namaz. About half of Russians identifying as Muslims (49 percent) say they never perform namaz, the ritual prayer in supplication to Allah. Among young Russian Muslims-those aged between 15 and 24-this number reaches two-thirds (66 percent). These figures are notable in light of the fact that calling oneself a Muslim and never performing namaz would be nonsensical in the Middle East or any other region of the Islamic world.

On the other hand, many Russians would be astonished by the fact that as many as 16 percent of Muslims living in the country perform namaz five times a day exactly as commanded, a difficult requirement for anyone involved in the mad rhythm of modern life. Furthermore, half (50 percent) of Russian Muslims feel it is necessary to create areas for namaz in public places and establishments, such as train stations, airports, universities, and institutes.

2. Shahadah. Just over half of Russian Muslims (54 percent) were able to correctly complete the Shahadah, the ritual Muslim declaration of faith, once the interviewer began it. Given that the Shahadah is considered the most fundamental of the five pillars, this figure may seem low to many in the Muslim world. Consider, however, that by comparison, only 13 percent of Russian orthodox respondents could continue the first lines of the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed, the obligatory ecumenical church chanted within the framework of every liturgy.

3. Ramadan. Thirty-five percent of Russian Muslims say they do not fast during the sacred month of Ramadan, and another 34 percent say they fast "as much as possible" during that time. Only about one in four (28 percent) say they "fully" observe the Ramadan fast as required by Islamic law.

4. Hajj. Only 5 percent of Russian Muslims said they had already performed the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are obliged to make at least once in their lifetime. The remaining 95 percent were asked to indicate the extent to which they would like to perform the Hajj. About a third (37 percent) indicated that they wanted very much to perform the Hajj by giving the highest rating on a five point scale, while 18 percent say they have no desire to do so, giving the lowest rating.

Findings regarding Islamic dietary restrictions also give some idea of the extent to which Russian Muslims adhere to traditional Islamic precepts:

* 27 percent of Russian Muslims say that it is not important to them that they eat halal food (food that is permissible under Islamic law), while 16 percent indicate they do not even know what halal food is.

* Half (50 percent) say they drink alcohol more or less frequently. Of the remaining 49 percent who say they never use alcoholic beverages, only 16 percent say that they do this for specifically religious reasons. However, 47 percent of these people do admit that abstaining from drinking is a personal ethical decision. Among those Russian Muslims who do drink hard alcohol, about half (52 percent) say they drink vodka-a sharp point of distinction from other Muslims worldwide, who rarely ever drink vodka-but a cultural commonality that links them to other communities in the cold expanses of Northern Eurasia.

* Almost a third of Russian Muslims (27 percent) acknowledge that they eat pork. In the Volga and the Urals, the places inhabited by the Tatars and the Bashkirs, pork is referred to-not without irony- as the "meat of the white lamb." this tolerance of forbidden food may have roots not only in the persecutions of the Soviet period, but also in the prevalence of the Russian secular tradition of drawn-out celebratory feasts. It may also be the result of close proximity to the Slavic and Finno-Ugric peoples, who include pork in their daily diets.

The Role of Islam in Society

Overall, responses to questions addressing the role of Islam in society also suggest Russian Muslims hold views consistent with relatively moderate Muslim populations, though they may be considered less moderate by non-Muslims in Russia. When asked "what influence should religion have on political decisions in the country?" about one-third of Russian Muslims indicated religion should not be on the sidelines, saying it should have "the most important" (8 percent) or a "major" (26 percent) influence. Conversely, 25 percent said it should have a minor influence, and 32 percent said it should have no influence at all. Responses from Orthodox Christians were similar: 29 percent said religion should have the most important or a major influence, 30 percent said it should have a minor influence, and another 30 percent said it should have no influence at all.

Specifically, about half of Russian Muslims (51 percent) say they believe that shari'a, Islamic law, should be one source of legislation, though only about one in eight (12 percent) go so far as to say shari'a should be the only source of law. One in four (25 percent) believe that shari'a should not be a source for law, indicating that laws should be purely secular in nature.

Here we can compare these results with those from 11 predominantly Muslim countries surveyed for Gallup's 2006 world Poll. The results from Russia are comparable to those from several predominantly Islamic populations including those in Iran, Lebanon, Indonesia, and Malaysia. In turkey, an overtly secular state, residents are less likely than Russia's Muslims are to say shari'a should be a source of law.

Regarding the place of religion in the country's schools, Russian Muslims are slightly more likely to say it should not be taught at all (26 percent) than they are to say it should be a mandatory subject (22 percent). However, 42 percent take a middle-ground position, saying religious education should be an elective subject.

Muslims in Russia also show a relatively high degree of tolerance for religious pluralism. Just 16 percent say they believe Islam is the one true religion in the world, while 42 percent say they think it is one of a few true religions, and 38 percent say it is just one among many religions that are equally good. Again, this pattern of responses is very close to the one given by Russia's orthodox Christians.

Attitudes of Women Among Russian Muslims

Much western criticism of the Muslim world has focused on the status of women. Among Russian Muslims, women are as likely as men to indicate that traditional Islamic values and practices are important to them. In fact, in a few cases, women are more likely than men to observe Islamic tradition:

* Women who say they strictly adhere to the Ramadan fast outnumber men, 32 percent to 25 percent.

* 27 percent of women say they perform namaz at least once per day; among men, the figure is somewhat lower at 19 percent.

* Women were also more likely than men to correctly complete the Shahadah begun by the interviewer- 57 percent to 49 percent, respectively.

About one in four Muslim women in Russia (25 percent) say they wear the hijab, or Muslim head scarf, in public places at all times, while a similar number (28 percent) say they do so sometimes. In some cases, they are willing to do so in the face of challenges from Russia's government. In 2003, for example, a group of Muslim women in Tatarstan-with the help of a Protestant lawyer-successfully defended their right to be photographed for their civil identity papers with their heads covered.

Furthermore, women do not appear to feel unduly pressured by men to wear the hijab in Russian Muslim communities. In fact, there is virtually no difference between the percentage of men who say they think all females should cover their heads in public places (25 percent) and the percentage of women who say the same (24 percent). Similarly, about 7 in 10 among both men (70 percent) and women (69 percent) replied that each Muslim woman must decide for herself whether she should cover her head or not.


In a world in which international terrorism is a constant preoccupation, the subject of jihad must not be overlooked. Particularly since 9/11, many in the west understand the term to mean a holy war against infidels. However, in Islamic culture the meanings attached to jihad are more varied and complex. The word is literally translated as "struggle" or "effort," and in its theological context it can refer to any kind of struggle that that has spiritual significance-i.e., any perseverance that brings one closer to God.

Russian Muslims were asked to choose from a series of five descriptions the one that most closely matched their understanding of jihad. Two of these descriptions were clearly negative, reflecting associations commonly made in the west. The other three were mostly positive, reflecting conceptions of jihad that are more common among predominantly Islamic societies.

Overall, responses were fairly evenly split between the two categories: 32 percent of the respondents gave an "Islamic" characterization: jihad is a struggle on the path to the almighty (14 percent); jihad is one of the pillars of Islam in which every Muslim is required to participate (7 percent); or jihad is a Muslim political practice for achieving justice in any way possible (11 percent). On the other hand, a total of 34 percent gave a "western" definition: jihad is a practice as obsolete as the Crusades and should not exist (10 percent), or jihad is an extremist practice that has no place in a civilized society (24 percent).


Russia's Muslim community has been crystallizing in recent years, thanks in part to demographic growth among Muslims both in Russia itself and on its geopolitical outskirts. This trend, especially in the Caucasus, is cause for concern among the Russian authorities, who are poorly prepared for an authentic and independent revival of Islam after years of tight control. There were about 20 mosques in Tatarstan toward the end of the Soviet regime; today there are close to 1,300. Similar proliferations are occurring in Dagestan and Chechnya. In the Soviet years one could not even dream of purchasing the Koran-it was a considerable risk to even possess the sacred book in one's personal library. Since 1991, however, more than 10 new translations of the Koran have been produced in Russia.

The data gathered for this study paint a picture of the foundation on which this crystallization is occurring: a deeply rooted Muslim subculture in the midst of ideologically fragile post-Soviet Russia-a community of believers that is committed to Islamic values, but flexible enough in the expression of those values to endure the pressures of an environment that has at times been outright hostile to their faith.

Approximately 11 percent of those polled comply fully with three pillars of Islamic faith that affect everyday life-performing namaz, fasting during Ramadan, and reciting the Shahadah-and comply with the Islamic injunctions against drinking alcohol and eating pork. These people reflect the presence of an authentic religious leaven in Russian society. they comply with the requirements of Islamic law not because of tradition, but in spite of it. They do so without societal support, and often at personal risk of persecution from authorities who see religious zeal as a precursor of extremism, as has long been the case in the Caucasus.

However, it is also important to recognize that Islam in Russia has been strongly "seasoned" by the secular, Christian, and post-Christian customs and traditions that surround it-a reality that is perhaps most clearly seen in the tolerant attitude of Russian Muslims toward pork and alcohol. The influence of geography and of neighboring Slavic-Turkic cultures on Russia's Muslim communities is facilitated by the leniency of the Hanafi Mazhab school of Islam, which prevails among Russian Muslims. Indeed, Russian Muslims recognize that it is the flexibility and moderation of their brand of Islam that has helped the faith not only to survive in Russia, but to produce such rich variation and ideological diversity. The Hanafis in Tatarstan, the Sufis in Dagestan, the heirs of the reformist Jadid movement, and the supporters of "euro-Islam" all manage to live harmoniously in Russia.

Despite this crystallization, official efforts to repress Muslims are hardly relegated to Russia's past. A growing number of Islamic books fall into the banned list under Russia's "extremism law." Many of these books can be found in the home libraries of Muslims, and as a result a large number of common people are exposed to the threat of condemnation under antiterrorist clauses. Moreover, Russian authorities declare the followers of the less moderate Salafism and Hizb-ut Tahri movements as outlaws and repress them at every opportunity. Their members are arrested, interrogated, extradited, and condemned. In the Caucasus they are frequently tortured or murdered.

The official representatives of the Russian umma often support the persecution of less moderate movements, believing that the extremism of individual Muslims and sects runs counter to their strategic goals. The reasons for this vary. At times it is a desire to conduct a more subtle and careful policy in the interests of Islam, and to provide a firmer footing than that offered by the emotionalism and irreconcilability of the champions of the pure faith. In other cases, it may be driven by jealousy toward the success of different Islamic movements and the desire to have the authorities protect the traditional Muslim organizations from those newly formed.

But often, it is simply because supporting the authorities is a necessary price for preserving the wellbeing of the country's broader Islamic community- another reflection of the line between devotion and pragmatism that Russian Muslims have walked for centuries. This ability to adapt and persevere allows them to play a significant role in the political and economic life of the nation. Looking ahead, Russia will not become Muslim, but the "Islamic factor" in Russian society may well become more noticeable with the passage of time.