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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

City Moslems Celebrating Ramadan and Revival

From Prospekt Mira, the Moscow Sobornaya Mosque, with its sky-blue walls and rounded domes powdered with snow, could easily be mistaken for a Russian church.

But on Jan. 10, when most Muscovites were thinking of Old New Year and festivities, Moscow Moslems were celebrating the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. Rhythmic words of Arabic prayer coming out of the mosque's speaker filled the night. A large crowd in a festive mood flooded the mosque's brightly-lit courtyard. Children stood on the steps with their hands outstretched in hopes of receiving a holiday offering, while older worshippers entered the mosque to secure a place to kneel for prayer.

Ramadan -- the commemoration of Allah's gift of the Koran to his followers -- ends Feb. 9 with a feast in mosques and Moslem households, and this season the Moslem community feels it has much to celebrate. More Moslems are returning to their religious traditions and celebrating Ramadan in accordance with the rules of their faith, which call for four weeks of purification, celebration of God's name, prayer and charity, fasting from sunrise to sundown and abstinence from carnal pleasure and luxury.

"The spiritual need to rediscover common roots is uniting Moslems, whether they are practicing or not," said Ravil Gaynutdin, a mufti, or spiritual leader in Islam, at the Sobornaya Mosque. "The mosque is not just a religious center, it is also a cultural center where people can sing Tatar songs, ask members of the community for help and have festive meals."

Of the 13 million Moslems residing in Russia today, 85,000 live in Moscow. Most of them -- over 50,000 -- are Tatar Shiite moslems. Sunni Moslems from Azerbaijan are the second largest group, numbering about 21,000. Shiite Moslems from Chechnya, Dagestan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan make up the third group, though exact figures are not available.

This sizable community remains largely invisible for Moscow inhabitants, but with the blossoming of religious freedom in post-Soviet society, its life has gained energy and definition. The two Moscow Shiite mosques -- the Sobornaya and the Istoricheskaya, in the Zamoskvoreche district, where Tatars have lived since the 14th century -- have become the centers of this revival.

Sitting in his large office full of bright oriental rugs whose windows look out on the entrance to the mosque, Gaynutdin chronicled the costs of religious repression to the Moslem community during the Soviet period. Fourteen thousand mosques were destroyed, he said, and about 30,000 of the most prominent Moslem scholars and religious leaders were exiled to Siberia, where they perished, essentially stagnating Moslem scholarship. The mosques that remained open were run by KGB-trained muftis, and therefore could not provide true spiritual guidance.

"We are working very hard today to rebuild what has been destroyed during the Soviet period, just like Christians and Jews," Gaynutdin said half an hour before the beginning of Ramadan prayer at the mosque. "We are restoring old mosques and building new ones. We collaborate with Russian scholars and finally have the opportunity to work with our colleagues from the Arab world. Restoring knowledge of Moslem culture and history is vital for us. But the most important thing, of course, is to instruct people in our faith, to provide the community with true spiritual guidance," he said.

The Moslem community is responding in kind, with interest and enthusiasm. "At the age of 62 I am learning Arabic and classical Tatar. I am finally learning about the history of Tatar people and of Islam. I found new friends who share my background," said Nadezhda Aligverovna, a Tatar Moslem who started to take courses in Tatar history several years ago at the Sobornaya Mosque. "I was surprised to learn about how prominent Tatars have been in Russian history. I certainly did not know this from Soviet history books," she said.

A Moscow map itself bears witness to the influence on Russian culture of the Tatars, who have been living in Moscow since the 14th century, said Wali Akhmed Sadour, who runs the Islamic Congress of Russia. Tolmachevskaya Ulitsa, Bolshaya Tatarskaya and Arbat are among the city streets with Tatar names, while a number of Russian noble families and luminaries, such as writers Alexander Kuprin and Nikolai Karamzin, Count Orlov of Catherine the Great's circle and Prince Ryurikovich, have Tatar origins.

Always a minority in Russia, the Moslem community has been subject to attempts to assimilate it into Russian culture and the Orthodox faith, including forced conversions. But the eradication of ethnic and religious differences reached its peak during the Soviet period. "There was no Moslem community in big cities like Moscow. We were not drawn to one another on the basis of ethnic similarities, and religious beliefs did not play a dominant role in our lives," Nadezhda Aligverovna said. "Even though my father knew Arabic and recited prayers by heart, he never taught me."

Lela Safina, 21, a student of the Moscow State Linguistic University, is a Muscovite and a Tatar Moslem. In her fifth year of university studies, she teaches English at the university and at the Moscow High Islamic College.

"I was born and grew up in this city, and consider it mine. But I grew up in a fairly religious Moslem family. We spoke both Russian and Tatar at home. I draw different things from the two cultures," said Safina, a soft-spoken but confident young woman, her head covered with a white lace-trimmed scarf. "I enjoy Russian literature and art. Russian is my native language. But I draw spiritual strength, happiness, and light from Islam, from my community at the mosque and the college."

Safina's parents were thrilled when their daughter became serious about Islam upon returning from a year of study in Germany, where she met Moslem students from the Arab world who helped her realize the power of Islam. "That is where I learned that prayer is the highest gift from God for us," Safina said with conviction.

The need for cultural and religious services for Moscow's Moslems has grown at such a rapid pace in recent years that two new Shiite mosques are being built in Moscow with donations from the Moslem community. A new mosque in the northeastern district was completed last week; the second one, on Poklonnaya Gora, should be finished later this year. There are also two Sunni mosques in Moscow, one of them on the premises of the Iranian Embassy.

The Spiritual Administration of Moslems of the Central European Region of Russia is one of the Moslem organizations in Moscow that offers educational services to the community. Their curriculum includes 22 language, religious, and history courses, open to anyone interested in the subject of Islam.

"The religious revival gives all former Soviet Moslems a sense of unity and identity, whether they are Chechen or Tatar. Religion is by far the largest part of the ethnic identity of any Moslem," said Sadour of the Islamic Congress. "If you look at such cultural Tatar traditions as taking off one's shoes in a home, extreme cleanliness, pronounced respect for the elders, and modesty required of women, they all go back to the Koran."

A sense of community is an integral part of these Moslem traditions. "As a Moslem, you cannot turn away anyone in need. Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam," said Ramil Bakhtiarov, 18, a freshman at the Moscow High Islamic College. The tall young man dreams of "giving people the same sense of peace and happiness" he has discovered through Islam when he becomes a mufti.

Bakhtiarov and his friend Ramil Safulin, 17, were looking forward to a feast on the last day of Ramadan where traditional Tatar, Caucasian, and Central Asian dishes, such as sweet pilaf with raisins, Tatar belyashi, or stuffed fried dumplings, noodle soup, and chakcha, or round biscuits, will be served.

"We will even do a bit of singing," Bakhtiarov said. "I love traditional Tatar songs to the accompaniment of accordion. When I sing these songs, all the troubles I have fall away and my soul lifts to the heavens."