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A home to three religions

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There’s a religious revival going on in Russia’s provinces. We travel to the town of Malmyzh, on the border of Kirov and Tatarstan, where Islam is experiencing a renaissance. RU

Ekaterina Loushnikova
25 January 2016

One hundred kilometres from Kazan, we find the small town of Malmyzh. Located in Kirov province, Malmyzh is home to around 7,000 people — ethnic Russians and Tatars, as well as Maris and Udmurts.

Malmyzh is home to three religions: Christianity, Islam and the Mari traditional religion. The town is now in the grip of a religious renaissance of sorts, but from an unlikely source. This historically Christian settlement now has only one functioning Orthodox church, and three mosques — one older temple and two built only recently. All are well-visited.

More unexpected is the conversion of local people to Islam who didn’t have any previous contact with religion, both Tatars and ethnic Russians. As you walk down the street, you see men and women dressed in traditional style: the women in long loose dresses and hijab; the men with skull caps, shortish trousers and long beards.

This historically Christian settlement now has only one functioning Orthodox church, and three mosques — one older temple and two built only recently

The little town has changed in appearance, too. The houses are well built, often with two floors, and they all have gas, electricity, hot water, satellite TV – in other words, everything you need. All that remains of the old village life are the wood-fired bathhouses.

In most back yards, you can find farm animals: cattle, sheep, horses, chickens and geese. You can’t survive in the countryside without a smallholding — all the workshops and small factories of the Soviet era are long gone.

The Islamic renaissance

Young Russians move to the cities in search of work and a better life. The Tatars stay and start families, trying to live by traditional Sharia rules. Instead of going out and drinking, they go to the mosque five times a day, learn Arabic and study the Quran.

“I had a friend who was a combine operator,” says Valery Konstantinov, the former district council chief who is showing me round. “He was a typical bloke — he drank, ran after girls, occasionally ended up in a ditch. And then he suddenly announced he was a Muslim. He grew a beard, started wearing a skullcap, stopped drinking wine and eating pork. Now he’s one of the faithful and I’m an infidel. He doesn’t even look at me when he walks past me in the street, and who knows what he’ll do next!”

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Kul Sharif Mosque, Kazan. CC Sergey Yeliseev / Flickr. Some rights reserved.“Did you ever think about adopting Islam?” I ask him. “You’re a Tatar, after all.”

 “We converted to Christianity back in the days of Ivan the Terrible,” Valery declares proudly. “We are Orthodox!”

Konstantinov crosses himself as we pass the town’s church, but admits that he only goes inside for church festivals, doesn’t observe Lent and other fasts and has his doubts about life after death

Konstantinov crosses himself as we pass the town’s church, but admits that he only goes inside for church festivals, doesn’t observe Lent and other fasts and has his doubts about life after death. Valery’s faith is more like the healthy scepticism of the peasant with his feet on the ground — his own ground.

Valery’s old friend, businessman Nurgayan Nizamutdinov, is cut from the same cloth. Not long ago Nurgayan was still a member of the Soviet Communist Party, though admittedly not out of choice…

“They locked me in the District Committee headquarters and said: ‘Fill in the application!’ ‘I’m not ready to join, comrades,’ I said. ‘I’m not yet worthy.’ Then my wife runs in: ‘Get out and feed the sheep! One of them has lambed, and you’re sitting here! Sign the thing, for heaven’s sake!’ So I signed.”

“But have you always believed in Allah?” I ask.

“In my heart, yes, but it wasn’t something you could talk about. Our family came to Malmyzh at the beginning of the last century, fleeing from persecution. In those days there was discrimination against the mullahs and anyone who believed in Allah, so people fled. But we’re still here.”

“What’s life like for Tatars now?” I ask Nizamutdinov.

“Life is good if you have work; but if you don’t, then it’s not. You just need to work!” he says.

“I drove through both Tatar and ethnic Russian villages to get here,” I tell him, “and there’s a huge difference between them. The Tatar villages are all spick and span, but most of the Russian ones are unkempt, with houses leaning this way or that. What do you think that’s about: is it religion or just good old Russian laziness?”

“I don’t know what it’s about. I just know that Tatars are up at the crack of dawn and at work by six o’clock, and only stop when it gets dark. Your Russian, on the other hand, sleeps until lunchtime, eats, takes a smoking break and then it’s time for a drink!”

“But are Tatars allowed to drink?” I ask.

“Drinking is a sin whether you’re a Russian, a Tatar or a Jew. But we still have the odd drink! Civilisation has arrived here; a new drinks chain has just opened a shop and you can buy vodka there, which is very tempting!”

“And can a Tatar take a second wife?”

“It’s allowed under Islam, but the only polygamist here is an ethnic Russian. He has two wives: the older one is a Tatar, the younger a Russian. He built a separate house for each of them, but they share a courtyard. They both work, and bring up the children together. But I have no idea what religion he follows. He might be a Muslim, he might be an Orthodox Christian — or he might be something in between.”

“How can that happen?” I ask.

“We all live together here, our communities all intermix and we live in harmony. We don’t have any Wahhabis or jihadists, and if any of them turn up in our mosques we’ll throw them out straight away. We don’t need war in Russia!”

“There have been seven generations of Islam in my family”

Today is Friday, the Muslim holy day, and everyone has gathered in the mosque for the special prayers. There are grey-haired elders in their best green skullcaps, well-dressed men who have arrived in expensive cars and young guys who look as though they have wandered in from an internet café. It’s difficult to believe that they are into religion. But as soon as the call to prayer rings out in Arabic, they all kneel and bow in unison on the carpet in the centre of the mosque.

To my surprise, they allow me, a female journalist obviously not dressed for the occasion, to be present at their service. I sit down quietly in a corner.

There are no other women present; they have a separate prayer session at a different time. The young imam recites some verses from the Quran. Ravil is a highly educated young man, who until recently taught at Kazan’s Islamic University and speaks not only Tatar and Russian, but Turkish, Arabic and Farsi too.

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Ravil Romankulov. Image courtesy of the author. “There have been seven generations of Islam in my family,” Ravil tells me. “My great grandfather was executed under Stalin, and the family moved to Kazakhstan, where I was born. It was difficult there; there was a lot of discrimination against Muslims. Mullahs were murdered, mosques ravaged, holy books destroyed. Before the 1917 Revolution, the Tatar language was written in Arabic script, then for a while it adopted the Latin alphabet and eventually ended up in Cyrillic, like Russian. So what old books had survived were very hard to read.”

On the question of whether Muslims face discrimination today, Ravil replies: “We have no problems now. We can worship as we like; the mosques are open; we can educate people about Islam and can read the Quran and Hadith freely. Make the Hajj to Mecca – no problem! There has never been such a favourable climate for Islam in Russia for the last hundred years. The only fly in the ointment is the disruption of our relations with the Turks, who are our brothers in faith.”

“But if Russia is already an Islamic state, why do people go off and join ISIS?” I ask him.

“They are ignorant, misled. They adopt Islam on the Internet, not in a mosque. As the Prophet wrote in one of his Hadiths: ‘Satan does not fear an ignorant Muslim who prays at night, but he does fear even a sleeping scholar.’ You can have a skinhead who beats up Muslims one day and becomes a Muslim the next, and goes off to be a jihadist.”

The young imam smiles and introduces me to one of his parishioners, a middle aged businessman called Rifat whose son has brought him to the mosque.

“These days it’s the children who bring their parents to religion,” Rifat sighs. “When I was young I had no interest in religion; I grew up on the streets. We fought, acted like hooligans, worked out, tried to be cool. It was the 90s and I was into business. Allah – who was he? But my son started going to mosque in his early teens, off his own bat.

"Then after a year or two he started asking: ‘Dad, why don’t you go to mosque? Come along with me.’ So I went with him and I really liked it. Islam is the most benign religion. In Islam you’re not only forbidden to hit anyone – you can’t even say something nasty to them! If you fall out with someone, you need to make it up inside three days; otherwise you’ve committed a sin!”

“These days it’s the children who bring their parents to religion”

“How did your wife and friends react when you started living according to Sharia law?” I ask Rifat.

“My wife is Russian. She was fine with it, and started to go to Muslim prayers too. So now we are a Muslim family. It was more difficult with friends. A lot of meetings and corporate events involve alcohol, but now I’m a Muslim I can’t drink. I tried to explain to my friends and colleagues that from now on we would only drink tea, and in the end they understood what I was about.”

“European values are not for Muslim nations”

I am introduced to another Muslim convert, a woman called Nurfia, who adopted Islam at the age of 45. Nurfia previously worked as a livestock technician, a secretary and an insurance agent, and had no interest in religion. And then suddenly, to the surprise of friends and family, Nurfia converted. Now she always wears a hijab and a long loose dress, prays five times a day and has recently made a hajj to Mecca.

“I bought 20 goslings,” she tells me over tea and sweets, “reared them and sold them for 20,000 roubles [£185]. I also borrowed some money from my husband and earned some more by selling insurance to people. I don’t know how I deserved Allah’s grace, but I was able to go to Mecca. It is such a holy place, so extraordinary! I was in tears the whole time there! We slept in a tent in the desert, and people brought us blankets and lamb and oranges to eat.”

“Nurfia, have you had any problems since you converted?”

“A few. Even my family kept telling me how beautiful I was with my curly hair, and there I was hiding it under a hijab. Wasn’t it too hot? But I don’t find it hot, and I don’t have headaches any more.”

Nurgia looks disapprovingly at my uncovered hair, which is not only short but also dyed. I feel uncomfortable under her critical gaze.

“Tell me,” I ask, “is it true that under Islam women who commit adultery are stoned to death?”

“Yes, that’s true. Adultery is a terrible sin and can only be cleansed by death. But the adultery has to be proven; there have to be witnesses, so it’s difficult to verify.”

“And what if a man commits adultery?”

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Malmyzh's newly-built mosque. Image courtesy of the author.

“That’s bad as well, but not as sinful as for a woman, because the man can marry the woman he has seduced. He can take her as his second or third wife – but only if his first wife agrees and he can provide for all his wives. Because a Muslim woman shouldn’t work to earn money, only for her own satisfaction, if she wants to. The husband should support the whole family, both wives and children. He doesn’t even have the right to ask his wife how much money she earns; it’s a gift from Allah. But a man mustn’t ask for a hand-out.”

“What about divorce – what can a Muslim woman expect? And can she divorce her husband?”

“In Islamic countries, a woman can apply to a Sharia court and explain why she wants a divorce, but there has to be a very serious reason for it — if her husband is infertile, for example, or if he refuses to support his family or beats or insults his Muslim wife. Under Sharia law, a husband can’t beat his wife — even raising his voice to her is already a sin. If a judge rules that there is sufficient reason for divorce, he will grant it. She then takes her dowry back, her personal belongings and any gift she has had from her husband. These are her property and no one can take them from her. But her children stay with their father and his family. It makes sense, because she will have problems remarrying if she has children, and her new husband is unlikely to love them as if they were his own.

“So that’s how we live by Sharia Law. European values are not for Muslim nations — they represent depravity and are a sin before Allah.” 

An ordinary tragedy

That evening, Valery Konstantinov, the local council chief, invites me to dinner. He is pleased to see that I don’t refuse a glass of vodka. “I was afraid you would convert to Islam,” he says.

I start wondering whether I could become a Muslim. In terms of theology, probably I could. (The idea of one God seems more simple and logical than the complex Christian doctrine of the Trinity. It would be pleasant to pray sitting on a beautiful carpet, rather than standing for hours in a heavy coat in a stuffy, packed Orthodox church.) 

But I can’t see myself in a long dress and hijab, submissive to my husband, and I don’t fancy being stoned to death. On the other hand, what I find attractive in Islam is the sincerity and readiness to suffer for one’s faith that one finds in its adherents. It was the same in the Orthodox Church when it was persecuted under the Soviet Union, but that has pretty much disappeared since it became Russia’s official religion.

Perhaps it is this passionate faith that attracts young people. On my way out of the village, I thought about the Russian revolutionaries who threw bombs at Tsars and governors, dreaming of world revolution and the happiness of the working masses. History does indeed repeat itself, but alas, not as farce — but a tragedy.

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