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Living in Islam: Russian Muslims tell their stories

Ten Moscow Muslims speak of faith, joy and attitudes towards Islam in Russia today.

 

Russian society first encountered its ethnic Russian Muslim population relatively recently, in the latter half of the 2000s. Back then, the fact that Russians had begun to convert to Islam was discussed widely, as was their prominent presence in civic life. These people, of course, were from all walks of life, and they converted not only to marry partners, but also as conscious spiritual choices.

Indeed, the existence of Muslim converts in Russia, with its traditional Orthodox-cum-secular background, seems paradoxical. The country’s recent history of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, which goes back to the 1990s, when explosions ripped through apartment blocks in Moscow and Volgodonsk, has led to serious levels of Islamophobia. On the street and in private, girls who chose to wear hijabs were seen as potential terrorists: people tried to stay away from them on public transport, and police officers frequently checked their papers. People saw immigrants from the east as Muslims—whether they were or not—and thus a foreign element inside Orthodox Russia. 

Ali Vyacheslav Polosin, an Orthodox priest who converted to Islam, says that there are more than 10,000 ethnic Russian Muslims in Russia today. We’ve spoken to several of them, and here you’ll find out how to make a hijab out of a Pavlov-Possad shawl, whether Russian Muslims face Islamophobia and why converts don’t have to take second names. 

1. Irina Amina Bakyr, 35, language specialist

I’ve been a Muslim for about ten years. I don’t quite remember when it happened, but I can count the number of Ramadans that have passed, so it must have been 2006.

I’ve always been interested in religion and spirituality in general. At one time, I was attracted to Hinduism because of its depth and rich mythology. But even reciting mantras took a minimum of 40 minutes a day, and I didn’t find that easy. I have, however, continued to be a vegetarian—it’s enriched my life. 

I couldn’t find answers to my questions in the Russian Orthodox faith: there was too much dogma to absorb and too much intellectual speculation. I wanted to access the divine through my heart.

I feel closer to mystic movements such as Sufism in Islam and Quietism in Christianity. I also find it hard to understand the concept of sin—all that emphasis on human life beginning with original sin and our nature being flawed from the start.

I used to write for a newspaper in Vorkuta, and I had to write about religious sects, which being a good Orthodox girl I naturally disapproved of.

Later, I visited an Islamic country. I wandered into a mosque, and immediately felt at home. I didn’t know what was going on; I just saw people kneeling and chanting something. But then I learned more and more about it – I read, talked to Muslims and watched them. At a certain point I had to sit down and read the Quran, and as a sincere person I couldn’t help recognising its truth. So I converted to Islam.

To be a Muslim you have to observe the Five Pillars of Islam: belief in Allah and his Prophet, his angels and life after death; prayers five times a day; fasting during the month of Ramadan; going on hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) at least once in your life and giving alms to the poor. I was happy to be able to change my name: Amina sounds so much better than Irina. I work with words, so I’m very sensitive to sounds. 

I have two sons: the older one is 14 and I consciously don’t force my religious practices on him. He knows Islam is the true way: he’ll choose it if he wants to. My younger son is only two and a half, and he loves to imitate the sound of our prayers. And since he lives in a Muslim environment, he has been picking up the basic principles from the start. 

I find it difficult to talk about Russian Muslims because ethnicity has little meaning for me. We are all, first of all, brothers and sisters. At first, of course, I’d think: ‘Oh, he’s a Muslim; he’s like me!' But then you realise that everyone is different; people can be at different stages of consciousness about their faith, as they are about anything else. Each person has their own path in life. Over my years in Islam, I have become more tolerant and forgiving of others’ mistakes.

Russian Islam has a bright future, as do other religious movements. People clearly miss the higher truths: they’re hungry for spiritual nourishment.

2. Anastasia Zaira Lotoreva, 27, housewife

I used to think very seriously about religion. I didn’t just flit between faiths; I spent time studying them, reading and talking to people.

I had a friend who was born into a Muslim family. I now realise that she wasn’t in the least religious herself, but I learned a lot about Islam from her.

We didn’t argue on the subject: it was more of a dialogue. We shared our knowledge of Christianity and Islam, and I'm very grateful to her for her patience. 

I was born in Kazakhstan and have many friends from there now living in Moscow. I remember coming here to study (at the People’s Friendship University of Russia) and finding an old childhood friend from a Muslim family. We started seeing a lot of each other. I told him that I wanted to become a Muslim and he helped me do that, although he was surprised at my decision. 

My family were fine about it: my grandmother’s second husband was Tatar, and my father's brothers were Muslims. My dad was just annoyed that I hadn’t told him straight away. Now he tells me how good I look in a hijab.

The first thing I wanted to know about when I converted to Islam was polygamy, which I found difficult to accept, although it must be right because it's in the Quran. But you need to know the context: how polygamy operates in today’s world, does it work as it should in Islam? Can a man treat all his wives and his families equally? And in today’s Russia, second wives have no legal rights, which is discriminatory. Polygamy is more an option for women with children who become second wives. It’s a form of aid to the community.

People react differently when they find out that I'm a Muslim. When I converted to Islam my friends said, 'You're out of your mind! We need to phone your parents and get them to sort your head out!' But some people supported me: I talked it all through with one girlfriend and we decided that nothing had changed between us. Everyone reacted differently.

My husband is half Turkish and half Uzbek. His family accepted me completely, despite my being Russian – the main thing was that I was Muslim. This has nothing to do with prejudices: it’s just a question of practicalities – it's important how we bring up our children, for example. Women should know their rights in Islam: my husband and I are equal, it’s just that he has more responsibility for the family, so I trust him to take decisions about many things.

I would like Russian Muslims to keep their identity – their names, for instance. My husband likes my Russian name, Anastasia, and he loves Russian culture. He works as a journalist. I’d like Russian Muslims to value their own culture more, and not just copy eastern values.

Living as a Muslim means being obedient to God's will. Islam is a way of life, not just a collection of dogmatic precepts. You can’t lie; you can't steal. You try to live a pure life and remember God.

The number of Russian Muslims will grow, because now is a time of spiritual searching. It's great that people are finding themselves through Christianity, Judaism or Islam – in other words, belief in God. I would like our community to be more active in society, so that there were more Muslim doctors, teachers and scientists. So that Muslims became a fully accepted part of Russian life.

3. Yekaterina, 35, embroidery designer

I'm 35, and I’ve been Muslim since 2008. The moment of truth for me came with the death of my father: that changed a lot in my life.

After he died I started trying to find myself, and looked at a number of faiths. Russian Orthodoxy just didn’t satisfy me, although perhaps I was just unlucky with my priest. I couldn’t find an answer to the question of why one person was recognised as a saint and another not, even though they had lived a righteous life. But Islam felt right for me so I have stayed with it. 

I think everyone believes in one God. My family were all Christians, my Grandfather was an Old Believer; they were from Kirovograd. I’m the only Muslim in the family, apart from my son, I suppose. 

My son is five now, and any child born to a Muslim woman is also a Muslim. We had him circumcised in Egypt: in Russia it’s only done for medical reasons. But I’m bringing him up to accept all faiths – he's just like all the other kids. I’m bringing him upon my own. 

A friend from Cairo helped me take my first steps in Islam; he’s a doctor and speaks good Russian. He started telling me about it, prompting me. Then I met the father of my child, who also gave me advice – although I converted to Islam on my own. When I was in Egypt I went into a mosque and after a chat with the imam I made my profession of faith. I then learned a few verses from the Quran and began reading them at bedtime. I find them very helpful; I feel so good in my soul afterwards. 

My mother was very supportive when I became a Muslim. My brother and sister were very hostile at first, but we get on very well now – they've got used to it and can see how I live and the fact that I’m happy. My sister and brother help me with my work, and everything’s going well. God sends me the people I need – I always have good people around me. 

I didn't wear a hijab for several years, and don’t always wear one now. I feel comfortable wearing one, protected. But it’s not always possible. In my ordinary life I dress like everyone else, and started wearing a hijab again only recently.

I recently took part in a TV show called 'Let's Slim Together'. I had to appear in just a swimsuit, and not everybody approved; some people even came up to me and said that this was inappropriate behaviour for a Muslim woman. But my family and friends were supportive of me. Now I try to cover up more, and feel calmer and happier.

New converts to Islam are very conservative; they try to observe everything in the Quran, and precisely as it's written. People who converted ten years ago live completely differently. They are more thoughtful, calmer about everything. They have realised that Islam is a long journey leading to spiritual perfection.

I don't attend mosque in Moscow. They are always full of different people who sometimes say the wrong things, if you know what I mean. In any case, visiting a mosque is not an essential Pillar of Faith in Islam. I try to speak to imams directly – asking them questions on social media, for example.

I don't think Russian Muslims exist as a separate group. Everyone is in contact with everyone else, and sometimes you have no idea where someone is from. Sometimes a name will prompt you, but it’s not important.

I like wearing traditional Russian dress—sarafans, for instance. They are long and high necked and very appropriate for Muslims. I’m sure that fashion is coming back. When I’m in a shop I often hear men saying to their wives: 'Why don’t you dress like that?’ You don't have to be all in black with a niqab, you just have to cover yourself up. 

Life as a Muslim means doing good to others. I hope there are good times ahead for Islam in Russia.

4. Ivan Akhmad Platonov, 20, entrepreneur 

My parents are Russian Muslims. My dad converted back in the 1990s—he was involved in business at the time, and he had partners from Chechnya. He became interested in their way of life, and he began to visit the mosque. In the end, he himself converted. He’s still the same person, and observes all the rules. My mum converted after him. 

Religion was never forced on me. I grew up outside it, so to speak. My path to Islam started two and a half years ago. My situation was pretty bad at the time: smoking, drinking, recreational drugs, girls. That’s what life in Lyublino [a Moscow suburb] is like. I realised that something had to change—I started doing sport, put an end to my bad habits. Then later, at my parents house, I watched a film about the Sahabah. I liked the way the film showed how people live. I compared my life here with their life there, and realised that I wanted to go in that direction. That’s how my move to Islam happen.

I wasn't particularly interested in Christianity from the beginning. There was my parents' example, and that’s why I paid attention to Islam immediately. Though I'm dating a girl currently, and I really like her, she's a Christian. So I also read certain books so I can talk to her, have an idea of what's going on. I’m bothered that she's a Christian. The important thing is that she believes in god. If everything turns out, we'll get married and then I'll prove to her that Islam is the right path

To me, Islam seems very logical, very simple. Nothing changes in it, and there's few interpretations. There's a single god. Living in Islam means to think about you can give another person. Not to take, but to give. I still have to strive for this.

My life as a Muslim, of course, is cardinally different from my previous one. I’ve started working, opened my own business. I met my business partner, by the way, in Moscow’s Islamic College. 

I'm really into self-improvement, self-education. I don't waste time on trivial things. My home is tidier—I’ve got a prayer mat now.

I've become more diligent in my work. I want to do everything as best as possible, to make sure I'm not ashamed of it. So people don’t think 'a Muslim's done that'. 

My circle of friends has really changed. My friends approved when they saw how I'd changed: 'Vanya, you're the best!' Unfortunately, though, they just continued doing the same thing as before—drinking and smoking. They're still my childhood friends, and so they'll remain.

I don't differentiate between Russians and non-Russians. There's believers and non-believers. I'll always find a common language with someone who believes in god.

Russian Muslims aren't any different from other Muslims. Maybe they're more prone to thinking for themselves. We have to be pretty insistent, active and decisive to convert to Islam and live righteously.

I don't know what the future of Islam is in Russia. Everything depends on us—how we behave. It's up to God's will in the end. 

5. Anastasiya Ezhova, 31, journalist

I've been in Islam since I was 15, 1999. I started to observe the canons later, in 2003. I’ve always read a lot about it, the culture appealed to me, and I was interested in all of that. I’ve been reading around the topic probably since I was 13. 

By the time I was 20, I had a group of Muslim friends, which drove me on to observe the rules—wearing a headscarf, regular prayer. I was regularly in touch with [prominent radical Islamic thinker] Geidar Dzhemal back then: I was his assistant for a long time and he was my first teacher. Now our paths have diverged.

I was never concerned with what people around me thought. Which is why it was easy for me to become a Muslims. I was more concerned by what clever people thought. I’ve got a lot of friends, and not only among Muslims. I visit secular places, beauty salons, and everyone reacts to me as normal. I can’t say that our society is Islamophobic.

I don’t believe my conversion to Islam at that age was an act of rebellion. I’m 31 now, and I’ll stay a Muslim all the same. The choice of and conversion to Islam were conscious decisions. At 15, a person is already completely responsible for themselves. I have several friends now who also converted to Islam at an early age. And they’re fine, they live, develop themselves, everything’s good.

My life back then didn’t change a huge amount. At 15, I still hadn’t discovered alcohol, cigarettes, and so giving those up wasn’t so hard. In general, living in Islam is comfortable. I love the sea, and often travel to the beach. I just choose those places where there’s separate male and female beaches. I like cinema, and don’t see a reason to give it up. In fact, there’s no serious bans—a lot is permitted. And there’s rules which are fairly easy to follow.

A lot has changed in Islam over the past 15 years. Now I’m a Shiite, which is pretty rare in the Muslim world, and in Moscow – there’s only a few of us.

It seems to me that Russian Muslims retain their sense of national identity, some features, the Russian mentality, you could say. One thinks of Dostoevsky: categorical judgments, emotions guide our decisions. A Russian always wants to dig down to the truth in everything. That’s why Russian Islam is purer than its ethnic counterpart. A Russian comes into it not as some kind of subculture, but as a real religion—in search of truth.

Of course, lots of different Russians come to Islam—for love, to protest. Some leave, some stay. This is normal, natural. But a lot more stay, and this makes me happy.

Today, I try not to divide Muslims into Russians and non-Russians. Although at the start I hung out only with my own people [Russians]. I had certain prejudices. But now my best friends, it turned out, aren’t Russians.

Islam promises only good things for Russian people. I notice that most people who convert – remain and find their own path here. They’re happy in Islam.

There’s a split emerging now, though, between different groups of Muslims, including Russians. The divides are the same all over the world—between Shiites and Salafis. That could be dangerous.

6. Anastasiya Aisha Korchagina, development trainer

I've been in Islam for four and a half years. I was an Orthodox Christian before that. I was baptised at a conscious age, 19. I took my godparents by the hands and entered the church.

If you compare Islam and Orthodoxy, then Islam wins. There’s no barriers, you don’t need anyone to talk to god. The imam is also your spiritual leader—a person who knows all the facets of Islamic law. He’s your teacher, and confidant, but not your medium. Islam is the final version of the holy word. At least that’s the main thing that attracted me. People convert to Islam according to the will of the Almighty. 

Five years ago, it just so happened that I began to spend a lot of time with Muslims—‘ethnic’ Muslims. And I noticed that we thought in the same direction, our ideas and conclusions were very similar. 

It seems to me that there’s three main reasons for converting to Islam. The first is the influence of a male partner, relative or friend. The second is the search and choice of religion. And the third is an epiphany, God’s grace.

I experienced the latter. I remember walking around for three days, and I couldn’t get this tune out of my head. I’m walking along, singing it to myself and at some point I realise I need to figure out what it is. I type it into the search engine, and realise that I’m singing the first part of the Shahada [Arabic: ‘the testimony’, an Islamic creed declaring acceptance of God]. Why? How to understand this? This is how Islam entered my life.

I believe that I showed the preconditions for converting to Islam long ago. Back in 1996 I was trying to convince my husband to travel to Istanbul. My main argument was 'Istanbul is such a beautiful city'. We went. And it’s definitely beautiful. I’ve always liked Arabic, eastern culture and architecture. Ten years later, I bought a paranja in Antalya. As I put it on in the shop, I experienced a state of nirvana. But I decided that it didn’t belong to me, it was part of another faith, and put that feeling to one side. I still bought it and brought I back to Moscow. Now I understand that these were all preconditions, which made my path to Islam possible.

We were married for 14 years. Then we divorced. Eight months later, I’d read the shahadah and got married again, this time to a Muslim man. I’d always wanted my husband to share my religious beliefs. I had to put mine in order first, though.

My previous marriage was a happy one, but at some point I lost their direction, and though I couldn’t rebuild them initially, in the end I just wasn’t interested. I have a son and daughter from my first marriage. Their father is kind, caring. My daughter has now finished ninth grade, and my son – fifth. They know how the world works. And, with the grace of god, they’ll make the right choice.

It just so happened that I read the Shahadah three days after the bomb attack on Domodedovo airport in 2011. My friends were shocked back then, and were really scared. They decided that I’d fallen under the influence of something bad, and that I was also preparing to blow myself up. My brother thought it was just a phase, though he respects me even more now. Everyone calmed down eventually. Now everything's fine.

I don’t like reading about Islam on the internet, a lot of bad stuff is written on there. Like everywhere else. And it’s really easy to fall under bad influence, false ideas. I was lucky, I’ve got good teachers and a wonderful husband.

Now I’m a coach and trainer, I help young Muslim women communicate. I was in management before, then documentary film. I’m actually trained to be a doctor. They didn’t manage to make a doctor out of me though, I took other people’s pain too much to heart. You can’t have a doctor like that.

Russian Muslims are connected to Russia, and think of their lives as being here. I really want more people to convert to Islam in Russia, and for everything to be fine here, especially in such difficult times.

7. Klavdia Hadidja, 28, deputy director of a Muslim women's club

I converted to Islam 10 years ago. My family wasn’t religious, and I’ve never had any religious experience. My mother brought us up alone, and we used to spend a lot of time outdoors. We were an average Soviet family.

Once I started chatting to my bosses at this Arab-owned company, and they told me about Islam. I was really surprised—they were talking about my rules of life, I’d always lived this way! It seemed to me to be an instruction for life, which I’d already started following. I grew up in a suburb, and we had the same notions there—honor, dignity. It’s very similar.

In our centre, the Aisha Women's Club in Moscow, we organise emergency help for girls rejected by their families for converting to Islam. Sometimes they tell us horrible stories. We have to help them for years, helping them adapt for life and new relations with people. Sometimes we even help them financially.

My case was different. I just came home and said: 'Mum, I’ve converted to Islam.' She reacted calmly. She started calling me the 'infidel', but she was just joking. She’s happy I’m not an addict, I don’t sleep around or drink, and I obey and respect my parents, as per Islamic tradition.

I remember reciting the Shahadah and feeling surprised—nothing seemed to change. I was expecting some kind dramatic enlightenment, but it didn't come. Eventually I started wearing a headscarf (actually at first I simply fastened my shawl at the back of my neck). Then I started recite namaz and eventually got things straight.

I've got three children, but I'm not married. I was married according to Islam, but it didn't work out. It happens, we aren’t different from anyone else—it doesn’t work out for everyone the first time. I approve of polygamy. I don’t really have any chance to marry again in the secular world. Who needs me at 30 and with three kids? But in Islam I can be a second wife, and I am even choosing a husband for myself.

My children know about Allah, about Islam. I am teaching them to be patient, to be grateful for everything good they get. My daughter wears a headscarf. Once they were playing snowballs at school, and she got tired and stopped. Other children started shouting: 'Run, or they will hit you!' And she replied: 'If Allah does not want it, they will not hit me.'

Russian Islam is pure. We don't have any national traditions that contradict the canons. Lore is more important here than tradition. That's why I'd say that Russian Islam is closer to the truth.

Islam in Russia is only going to grow. I can see how man people come to us. Russian Muslims aren't unique anymore. There are more Russian girls than men; men usually leave for Egypt or Saudi Arabia. It is easier for girls to adapt and live in Islam.

8. Alexei Abdulla Terekhov, 50, English teacher

I converted to Islam 10 years ago. At first I stopped smoking. In the Quran it is said that everything is predicted, and I think that this had something to do with following events. Initially, I got really depressed. I understood that my life was very sad, I was already 40, and I was not doing anything serious, had no family, no job, no flat. Everything was really bad.

And then I started reading the Quran—the Krachkovsky translation from—and in his version every surah finished with words: 'Maybe you be happy.' Why? Who? When? I liked it. Maybe I will be happy.

I pulled myself together and went to mosque. I did not know anything then. I knew only that I had to take off my shoes. I came and saw that all men had beards and did not look like Russians. I was afraid. But I stayed, it was interesting – I felt lonely at home, at home I was depressed.

My case is different from many people. I did not search for truth for years. I came, I liked it and then I felt good, and I stayed. That is all. Now I do not regret anything, I am happy as I was promised.

I think that Islam is the last place Russian person can look at, but for me it happened like that. I began with Christianity, as everybody, my grand-mother used to bring me to church, she kept saying: 'You see, Christ has died, it's Easter.'

My wife calls me Abdulla, but I'll always be Alexei to my mother. I like it. When I converted, somebody advised me to choose a new name. I took one which sounded like mine. Alexei – a Godly man, and Abdulla means more or less the same.

After my conversion I married a girl I had been living with for a long time. I understood that we need children and a family – now I have two little ones. At first, when I became Muslim, I did not tell anything to anybody. My wife suspected something, as I got changed, but I could not explain it to her – just kept saying that surahs promise happiness. Then she went to mosque with me and she also liked it there. There is a special balcony for women in mosque and other women explained something to her.

For a long time I didn't say anything to my parents. Now it is easier – my mum has granddaughters thanks to Islam. My children are raised not as Muslims, I would say, that they are just raised in a moral way. We are bringing them up as good and kind people. They are not wearing headscarves- they are still children, why would they do it? 

I made new friends, though, and my old friends eventually left. The only friend I've kept is one woman from Germany, she was one of the few who was happy for me. 

I want my wife to wear a Pavlov-Possadsky shawl and make a headscarf out of it. We have to stick to our Russian traditions—pinafore dresses, for example. Recently I have become a Russophile, especially as our traditions perfectly match Muslim rules. 

I do not divide Islam into Russian and non-Russian. All people are the same. I have only language problem with Tajiks and Uzbeks: we cannot communicate. Speaking to people from Caucasus is fine, we can communicate. 

I would like to resurrect Russian culture. Not necessarily with Muslims. Maybe with Orthodox people. I like Orthodox people by the way. My neighbors are Orthodox, and they are good people: they always bring garbage to the garbage bin. I feel relaxed with them. 

9. Anastasiya Nasima Bokova, 32, journalist

I converted to Islam 15 years ago. I did it consciously, when I was 18, not because I loved a man of different faith. That was my independent decision. I had my own spiritual quest, and I was interested in many different ideas, and then once I talked to some people about Islam and got interested. Islam seemed to me a simple and understandable system of values, it tells you how you should live. So I quickly jumped ship and became Muslim.

I had some questions, which I could not answer with the help of Christianity. Why do they have icons and why do you have to pray in front of them? There are some nuances, which are absent in Islam. And of course, Islam matched some of my inner tunes.

My conversion was really easy for me. It was a very intimate process – I started reading many books, as I wanted to know everything about Islam. I can be easily carried away. So, I read many books and immediately decided for myself where real Islam was and where - just layers of national rules and traditions.

I converted to Islam at home; I didn’t go anywhere. It was late at night; I was sitting at my desk and decided firmly that I am a Muslim now. In the morning I told my mother about it and asked her to take away sausages, dogs etc. I immediately tried to practice Islam—the maximalism of youth. 

My friends reacted in different ways. I had some Muslim friends already, and when I told them that I was Muslim, they asked my to recite the shahadah. I did it, and that was it. Since that moment, I became Muslim for everybody.

I remember my first visit to a mosque. They all surrounded me and started asking questions. They taught me how to wear a headscarf. They told me a lot of things I did not know. Now Russian Muslims aren’t news anymore. 

My mum was really stressed when I started wearing headscarf. I have thick curly red hair. And she likes it. Any by the way, when I started wearing it, I did not notice if people started paying me more attention. I got used since childhood that people approached me, started asking questions, dabbed their fingers at me. 

I remember meeting my university professor in the underground. He saw that I was in a headscarf and congratulated me with an Orthodox holiday. I told him that he was wrong—I was a Muslim. He was surprised and then said: 'Christians and Muslims should unite against Zionism.'

Police never stopped me to check my papers, and my Armenian friend is constantly checked. Strange, no?

After having lived 15 years as Muslim you start understanding that some things are really important and some are not. You become tolerant, and do not want to fight windmills anymore. I stopped being a ‘public Muslim’ and started my personal jihad—I think more about myself and try less to teach others. 

Russians in Islam are of course different from ethnic Muslims. It is first of all because of adat, national traditions. It is easier for Russians. Russian Islam is pure. We don’t need Russian dolls to balance daggers on for example. Russians don’t even have any special traditions that should be inherited and transferred. We were all raised in absolutely secular families. 

Islam in Russia is different: the Caucasus has one model, Bashkiria – another one. I think more and more people will convert to Islam. Russian Muslims are active and flexible, and that’s a good thing.

10. Viktor Abdulla, 31, bookseller

I've been in Islam for more than a decade. Like most Russians, I was Orthodox for a while. Then I became more involved with the church—I went to services, fasted, and was interested in taking monastic orders. I was really into the teachings of Saint Paithos of Mount Athos, and that’s how I encountered Sufism. It's an ascetic teaching. I became interested in it. 

After I read the kalimah 'There is none worthy of worship but Allah', I realised that I felt closer to Islam. I started reading Ali Vyacheslav Polosin, the former Orthodox priest who converted. I like his books. I don't like the Orthodox concept of the Trinity, and I don't like how Jesus is seen as God. I don't understand it, and don’t feel anything in common.

In the end, I also moved away from Sufism, and asceticism—I've got a family now, and we're currently expecting our third child. In general, Islam is, first and foremost, a lifestyle. The surahs call us to be active, get involved in civic life, develop ourselves and take care of other people.

Of course, my circle of friends has really changed. Before I converted, my friends were mostly Christians active in the church: my move to Islam was a heavy blow for them. My family took it easily, they understood. I've heard stories when sons and daughters have been forced out of their homes—nowhere to live, and nothing to eat. In this sense, everything went fine for me.

My wife is Russian too. That’s just how it happened, I don't think it’s connected to anything—she could have been non-Russian. In our community, the problem is the other way round: there’s more sisters than brothers. Finding a wife for yourself isn’t a problem. 

My children are Muslim. At least because they’re born to Muslim parents. We're teaching them to read namaz, observe the pillars. Islam teaches you how to raise children: at seven, you're praying; at 10, there’s more strict observance. My kids are called Madina and Mikael. 

There's a lot of Russians in Islam, although I try not to distinguish between people on grounds of nationality. The most important thing is for a person to recognise God in his own heart. 

Russians in Islam don't become Arabs—they don’t start drinking tea crouched down, or start speak in Arabic. If you come to my house, you'll see that it’s a normal home, just like yours. We buy our furniture and groceries at the same places you do.

Islam is going to develop in Russia. There’s problems, the frequent bans on publishing, for example, building mosques or the lack of religious education. More people convert every year. And that’s a good thing. 

All photographs by Sergei Karpov.

Editor's note: we are grateful to the Last30 project for permission to translate and their assistance in publishing this work. 

Standfirst image: September 2015, Muslims in Moscow celebrate Eid al-Adha. (c) Anton Karliner / Demotix.


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