Islam spread and gradually established itself as an official religion in the territory of what is now known as the Russian Federation starting from the period of the Righteous Caliphs. In the eighth century, Islam was already in existence in the region, whereas Russia at that time was confined to the pagan Kievan Rus lying about two thousand kilometres away from today’s Tatarstan and Bashkortostan, the place, where the first Islamic state in modern Russian territory, the Bulghar Kingdom, was located from the eighth century until its invasion by the Mongols in 1236.
Early sources refer to the Bulghars as groups of people of Turkic origin that lived northeast of the Caucasus during the fifth century CE. In the mid-seventh century, part of the Bulghars moved north to the Volga region following the collapse of their state at the hands of the Khazars. In the eighth century, the Bulghars established the Bulghar Kingdom in the Middle Volga region, a territory of the modern republic of Tatarstan. Before the coming of the Bulghars. Before coming of the Bulghars, this area was inhabited by Ugro-Finnic people, yet the establishment of the Bulghar Kingdom was peaceful. The Ugro-Finnic nations, such as Mordovian, Mari, Chuvash, and Udmurt peoples, lived together with the Bulghars in peace in the Bulghar Kingdom.
The Bulghar Kingdom was located in a strategic area where two rivers, Kama (Chulman) and Volga (Itil or Idel), unite in one stream. Thus, the kingdom was a center for important trade routes between Asia with Europe. Traders from many countries met in this place, especially in the Aga Bazar (Great Bazaar), located near the Volga River not far away from the port. Traders from India, China, Iran, and Central Asia brought gold, silver, silk, decorated silver, decorated dishes made of porcelain, perfumes, books, paper, fruits, and spices.
Carpets came from Byzantium and Armenia. Traders from Damascus, Iran, and France contributed swords, daggers, and knives. The Russians brought slaves and furs. Traders from Europe and the Baltic area brought slaves and amber, while those from the Caspian Sea area brought salt. The traders of the north forests brought animals and furs.
The Bulghars themselves contributed many commodities to this trade. The famous Muslim historian and traveller Muhammad Al-Maqdisi gave a long list of goods that came from the Bulghars to one of the bazaars in Transoxania (present-day Uzbekistan and parts of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan). According to him, “Wax, arrows, birch bark, high fur caps, fish glue, fish teeth, castoreum, amber, prepared horse hides, honey, hazelnuts, falcons, swords, armor, Khalanj wood, Slavonic slaves, sheep, and cattle, all of them came from the Bulgar” (Barthold 235).
Because of these strong trade activities, the Bulghar Kingdom became the richest state in the Eurasian continent at that time. One tenth of the profit was paid by traders to the Bulghar state as tax. Through these trade relations with other Muslim people, Islam found its way into the area in the early years of its spread.
There is no clear evidence on the exact date when the Bulghars began to embrace Islam. Shihab al-Din Marjani, a renowned Tatar historian and philosopher of the ninetenth century, said that “The city of Bulghar was the third most advanced city in Europe after Rome and Constantinople, and Islam entered this city either right after or at around the same time as it entered Andalusia” (Marjani 51).
In fact, Islam spread in the Bulghar lands through peaceful interactions between the Bulghars and Muslim traders and preachers. There is clear evidence that Islam was recognized as an official religion of the Bulghar Kingdom in 922 in the presence of a delegation sent by the Abbasid caliph al-Muqtadir (r.908-932).
Bin Salki Belekvar, who was a ruler (Almas or Almish) of the Bulghar between 895 and 925, sent a letter to Al-Muqtadir asking him to dispatch Muslim scholars who could teach the religion and Shari`ah. He also asked the caliph to send engineers who are skilful in the building of mosques and fortresses. The Caliph accepted these requests and sent scholars and skilful construction engineers. Thus, on Safar 11, AH 309 (921 CE), the delegation set off from the city of Madinat As-Salam (present-day Baghdad) toward the Bulghar Kingdom.
Abu Al-`Abbas Ahmad bin Fadhlan Al-Bughdadi was a personal secretary to the envoys of the Abbasid caliph. He wrote an excellent account on the local people that the delegation encountered in the Volga region during this long trip. Describing the life and customs of the Bulghar Kingdom, he said,
One day before reaching the destination, we were received by four of the ruler’s men, the members of his family, and children. They welcomed us with bread and meat and silage for our horses, and they accompanied us during the rest of the journey. Two leagues [about 4.5 km] away from the Bulghar city, the king himself came out to greet us. Upon seeing us, he thanked Allah and prostrated himself to Him. Then he tossed coins on our path. Thus, we reached our destination on the 12th day of Muharram, AH 310 (922 CE); it was Sunday. It took us 70 days to arrive here from the Khorezm city of Djardjania [present-day Urganch and Uzbekstan]. We entered and rested in the tents that were erected for us. On Wednesday, all of the administrators and other public figures arrived to listen to the caliph’s letter to the king. On Thursday, we opened our luggage, took out our clothes, brought forward the saddled horse, and dressed the king with special black dress and a head gear, which are the symbols of the Abbasid Caliphate. Then, I read the caliph’s letter to the king. The king, out of respect, stood up to listen. After that, I read out the vizier’s letter, and the king also listened while standing (Marjani 124–125).
Subsequently the Almas (king) declared Islam to be the official religion of the kingdom and changed his name to Ja`far bin `Abdullah. The relations between the Abbasid caliph and the Bulghar Kingdom did not end with that first delegation. A few years later, a Bulghar delegation, together with the king’s son, arrived in Makkah for the Hajj. Al-Mas`udi mentioned that the Bulghar delegation also visited Baghdad and brought gifts to the caliph; he also stated that the Bulghar king was a Muslim who converted to Islam in AH 310 (922 CE).
Islam had flourished in the Bulghar Kingdom under the patronage of the ruling family. The majority of the Volga Bulghar population accepted Islam as their faith. The kingdom developed into an important center of Islamic civilization, with extensive ties to the rest of the Muslim world, especially Central Asia and Khorasan.
The Bulghars played a significant role in spreading Islam to other regions of the present Russian territory. For instance, in AH 375 (985 CE), the Bulghar king sent some Muslim scholars to the king of Kievan Rus, Vladimir the Great to introduce Islam. However, when King Vladimir got to know about the prohibition of alcohol in Islam, he refused to accept that religion and chose Orthodox Christianity in 988.
The Bulghars also brought Islam to the Bashqort people, who live in the region of the Ural Mountains. A Muslim geographer Yaqut Al-Hamawi wrote that he saw a Bashqort Muslim in Aleppo. This person informed Al-Hamawi that seven Muslims came from the Bulghar Kingdom and spread Islam among the Bashqorts (Marjani 134).