With the strength of Russia increasing, its multi ethnic and multicultural heritage is also getting the highlight it has long deserved. The mainstream media white washes the Russian identity and the first images that appear in our minds are of stiff angry men holding vodka bottles, enshrouded in ugly brown mink coats standing in the middle of a bone chilling blizzard. The truth is far from that. The Russian state is a secular communist republic that stretches from the western tips of the American Alaska to the Eastern ends of Europe, and has very vibrant and liberated Muslim community.
The centre of Muslim Russia is in Kazan city, in the Autonomous Russian Republic of Tatarstan. While there is a blood-stained history between the Russian Empire and the Khanate of Kazan back in the 16th century, which ended with the Tsar Ivan the Terrible conquering the Khanate, there has been a recent revival of Islamic Identity, interest and community with in Kazan. An evidence of which is the recently reconstructed Qul Sharif Mosque that was destroyed by Russian Imperial Armies centuries ago. The newly constructed Qul Sharif Mosque is regarded a symbol of Muslim revivalism in Muslim Russia.
While the Soviet Union broke up into many smaller states back in 1991, many former Soviet states still have strong diplomatic and economic ties with Russia. Most of these former Soviet states that are now independent and have predominantly large Muslim populations. Most hotels now in Kazan and Moscow recognize this and offer Muslim friendly environments, food and recreation for not only the Muslim businessmen that come to Russia from all over the central Asia but for Russian Muslims and Muslim tourist looking for a change of perspective and broader vision of the world.
Kazan, however, remains the soul of Muslim Russia. Visiting Kazan, one cannot complete the journey without first going to see the Tartar Queen Soyembika tower, which was once leaning to the side and adorned with a Russian twin headed eagle at its cusp. Now, thanks to many conservationist movements and architectural enhancements, the tower no longer leans and a Muslim crescent glitters on the top most point of the tower. The architecture of the building is said to have inspired the Kremlin in Moscow, which further reiterates the impact Islam continues to exude on Russia.
The Qul Sharif Mosque was once the largest mosque in Russia and Europe outside of Istanbul. The original structure was destroyed but by the help of many Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates the Mosque has been rebuilt and renovated. The architecture of the mosque is inspired by Ottoman and Bulgarian designs. It has eight minarets and sky blue dome right at the centre of the structure. Some claim that the original building inspired the Orthodox Russian Christians to build the Saint Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. The Mosque now can house six thousand worshipers and is also an Islamic museum showcasing the Islamic heritage of Kazan.
Kazan is also host to Marcani Mosque, which was built by Empress Catherine the Great, for the Muslim community in Kazan in 1770. It was the only mosque to survive the Soviet era closure of mosques. On the other side of the town, is the Acem Mosque that was constructed by a wealthy Tatar merchant called Mortaza Asimov, in 1887. It was a gift from the merchants to the Muslim population of Kazan. The Mosque is a cathedral Mosque, meaning that even though the mosque has a minaret and a dome, the architecture that fills the walls and the layout of the window resembles that of a cathedral. Museum of the one thousandth anniversary of Kazan show cases the Tartar history and the proud Muslim heritage of Russia and offers an insight into the traditions and culture of Muslim Russia.
Realizing this tourism potential, The Russian Muftis Council has decided to build twenty more hotels in Kazan. Each hotel will provide Muslim friendly environments, halal food, gender partitioned bathing and spa areas and pools as well as dedicated halls for an in house Mosque. To express their great intent the Russian centre of Halal standardization and certification wants to grade the hotels with a number of crescents rather than stars to represent the level of service the Halal Muslim service they provide.
Most Muslim friendly hotels in Russia have a praying mat, rosary, a copy of the Quran and an arrow demonstrating the direction of the Ka’abah in the rooms for Muslim tourists and businessmen. Islam is regarded in the Russian Constitution as an integral part of Russian cultural heritage and it has been the case for centuries. Most people in Urban Russia, as well as the Muslim majority areas of Russia, are well educated in the demands and needs of Muslim tourists and visitors.