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History of Hajj in Russia from 18th to 21st century

By Bekmurza Bekmurzaev, Minister for National Policy, Religious Affairs and External Relations of the Republic of Dagestan | 05 Dec 2011

50 to 80% of Russian pilgrims have always been Dagestanis

Dagestan is historically and traditionally the leading Russian region, where most of Russian Muslims go for pilgrimage from. Since the adoption of Russian citizenship, in the late 18th - early 19th centuries, 50 to 80% of Russian pilgrims have always been Dagestanis. Traditionally, no local authorities, Muslim communities, or religious preachers from the outlying regions of Russia haven’t carried as much work on the explanation of canonical and state regulations, date, place and order of performing rites and rituals of the pilgrimage, as has been carried in Dagestan.

How it all began

We should recall how it all began in the period before the Revolution of 1917, in the years after the revolution, during the perestroika years from 1985 to 1992, and after the collapse of the USSR. These are the main stages of Russia’s path and experience in organizing the Hajj in the contemporary history. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, when the number of Muslim citizens of the empire grew up to 16 to 20 million people, according to various estimates of contemporaries, the issue of pilgrimage to Mecca was assuming ever greater importance. The naturalization of the people of traditionally Muslim Caucasus outlying disctricts of the empire together with the Russia-dependent Bukhara and Khiva khanates significantly influenced the growth and the influence of Russia on world politics.

Russia declared itself to the world not only a traditional Orthodox power, but also a community of people practicing traditionally Muslim way of life and culture. It assumed the historical responsibility of maintaining domestic and international circumstances for the development of their social, cultural, ethnic and religious identity. During the whole 19th century and by the early 20th century, Russia developed its own concept, strategy of the empirial management of national borderlands and tactics of the organization of the integration of peoples and their religious organizations, which developed into the public governance of state affairs, formation of a new type of religious and public relations which take into account religious and national peculiarities.

The strategy and tactics of Russia have been unique and differed fundamentally from the European standards of violent colonization and assimilation. Having said that, there still have been periods of escalation of tensions and military and punitive moves and campaigns as these relationships developed.

An impartial analysis of historical events and evidence suggests that, as Russia intensified its military, political and diplomatic influence in the European affairs, continued penetration into the countries of the Middle East, stirred up efforts in the Southeast Asia, Europe always intruded and “punished” Russia with protracted armed conflicts in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and on the Chinese and Japanese borders. However, it were not wars and conflicts that defined Russia’s main domestic and foreign policies with the Muslim world. Instead, it was and has always been the concern for the security of peoples and religions of great Russia, successor to the Byzantine spirit of religious tolerance, and the belief in the peaceful coexistence of Orthodox and Muslim nations and their national traditions within a united and indivisible homeland, that have always been the main factors. Such has been the policy of those having strong spirit, the policy of a strong and powerful, united and secure-for-all Russia, successor to Byzantium, where everyone: Jews, Christians, and Muslims, would live and work peacefully, as fraternal nations created by the common Creator. This scared Europe. That’s why, as we are being divided nowadays along ethnic and religious lines, remember the centuries-old tragedy of Russia - the collector and combiner of lands and peoples - that Europe always divided and opposed. Think of the author of the idea of the Muslim threat to the world and of the incompatibility of other religions with Islam.

In these difficult circumstances, Russia sought and often found original ways and methods of influence and management of complex and contradictory processes at the distant national frontiers of a United and indivisible Homeland. It devoted much attention to meeting national, cultural and religious needs of Muslim subjects of the empire and their involvement in the management of the affairs in their traditional areas of residence, of the issues of social and foreign security in the South and of Russia as a whole. Since the religious issues were quite delicate and vulnerable, the imperial administration of territories constantly strengthened its collaboration and cooperation with the renowned religious leaders and Muslim communities.

Great importance was attached to the organization of the Hajj, its foreign depoliticization (struggling against the interference of Persia and the Ottoman Empire in the organization of the Hajj from Russia), to the attempts of using pilgrimage for subversive actions and embedding of unconventional, sectarian and ultra-radical beliefs into the minds of Muslims; these beliefs being diffused by the colonial powers (Britain, France, Germany, and the U.S. in the 20th century) in the countries of the Middle East and which have nothing to do with the traditions of Russian Islam. A special emphasis should be made on the fact that nowadays such perilous ideas have been actively diffused by anti-Muslim and anti-Russian European political regimes into the public conscience of Russian Muslims, as it had been done in the past, in the 18-20 centuries.

For instance, at the turn of the 18-19 centuries, religious and political emissaries from Iran and Turkey acting under the auspices of Britain, France, and Porte (Turkey) were urging Dagestanis to an exodus promising assistance and protection. At the same time, these emissaries accused Russia of infringement of religious rights, inability to govern their Muslim subject population and of suppressing their desire to secede from Russia. A special attention should be made that this work had been carried out along two main directions. On the one hand, this was done to ensure the international isolation of Russia after its victorious defeat of Napoleon, which stunned Europe, and the successful extension of Russia’s influence and strengthening of its authority in the Orient.

On the other hand, Europe was carrying out an active policy of undermining the international stand of the Turkish Caliphate in its governance of traditionally Muslim areas of the East, Europe itself, Central Asia, Transcaucasia and North Caucasus. Given the complicated international circumstances since the late 19th and early 20th centuries, military and political agents of Russia on the Muslim territories of the empire and in the embassy in Constantinople (Istanbul), in the consulates in Baghdad, Mashhad, Jeddah, monitored the situation in the area of pilgrimage from Russia as the most vulnerable area for the unity, integrity and security of the Russian Empire.

They reported that there is an extensive network of “authorized people” and “guides” in the empire who are beyond the control of the local authorities and the state, and who practice “extortion” of pilgrims that brings them “great profits”. Russian pilgrims “are using old Turkish, Persian, Bokharan and even Chinese passports to leave the empire”. In the late 19th century, this was largely due to “the bureaucratic hurdles on the way to obtain a foreign passport in Russia”. Russian agents abroad reported to the imperial authorities anxiously that the lack of Russian passports not only did not diminish the number of pilgrims, but also “did make the pilgrims dependent from all kind of rogues who used to charge from them high prices for passports and guide services”.

The dispatches from abroad, and especially from Jeddah, reported that “ it was completely impossible to define the precise number of Russian pilgrims, as the vast majority of them were arriving with no passport at all”. It was claimed that the information that was circulating in the empire about the participation in the Hajj of 8-10 thousand pilgrims annually was not adequate, and that the real number of those arriving in Mecca was estimated at 18-25 thousand pilgrims per year. Proposals were submitted to the imperial authorities to consider “the issue of streamlining of the pilgrimage of Russian Muslims”. Attention was paid to the death of the two thirds of pilgrims en route and upon arrival in the holy cities due to the dangerous diseases - plague, cholera, typhus, smallpox. The reports pointed out possible risks of importation and spread of these diseases on the territory of the Russian Empire. In 1896-1897 after the return of some of the pilgrims from the Hajj, a plague broke out in the Astrakhan province. In the same period, the Caucasus was engulfed by cholera. In January 1897, a Special Commission on combatting the plague under the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Russian Empire was established directed by Prince A.P. Oldenburg. The issue of streamlining of the pilgrimage of Russian Muslims was transferred to the responsibility of this Commission. The Commission performed a huge work.
Doctors Sokolov, Dalgat, Takaev, Tulanov were sent to Jeddah.

For the first time in the history of Russian pilgrimage, a Muslim Russian Army officer, Abdul Aziz Davletshin, was sent to Mecca for a comprehensive assessment of religious and political, medical and epidemiological aspects of the Hajj. His classified report, published in 1899, played an important role in the impartial assessment of the role and importance of Hajj for Muslims departing from Russia, for the empire itself and its international prestige. Davletshin’s Report, entitled abroad as the “Secret Mission of a Russian officer”, opened an absolutely new chapter in the organization of the Hajj from Russia.

Many of its provisions are still relevant today. Original ideas and thoughts on building trust relationship at present and in the future with the Muslim world in Russia and abroad, and calls for combatting penetration and diffusion on the territory of the empire of separatist beliefs hostile to the traditional Islam run through the entire report. By the end of 1889, extensive foreign and national researches and materials were prepared for adopting the “Provisional Regulations on the pilgrimage of Muslims” in 1902. The regulations were expressed by a formula natural for Muslims: the Hajj is a pillar of Islam, one of the main manifestations of one’s belonging to the Umma, and one of the most significant elements of the relationship between the Russian state with its Muslim community and the Muslim East. Russia recognizes and respects the traditions of Muslims. It assesses impartially the international and epidemiological situation in the East. It acts on the premises of the need to strengthen the confidence measures between the government and the Muslims. At the same time, it is guided by the demands of public safety and national security of the empire and the safety of its Muslim subjects going on pilgrimage outside Russia. What was important in the Regulations, is that by the beginning of the 20th century, the Hajj had actually become a factor of trust between the government and the Muslim community, and it was recognized as an integral pillar of Islam and as an important element of the international religious relations. The Hajj was given the same status as the pilgrimage of Orthodox Christians and Jews to Jerusalem.

The Regulations put an end to the international and domestic anti-Russian provocative political speculations about the infringement of the Muslim rights in Russia. According to official data, in 1901 6000 pilgrims from Russia performed hajj, whereas after adopting the new Provisional Regulations in 1902 the number reached to more than 16000 people. At the same time, foreign sources reported that the real number of pilgrims that had arrived from the Russian imperial territories amounted to about 25 thousand pilgrims. After many years of estrangement and mutual distrust, a unique experience of peaceful coexistence of world religions and civilizations, domestic and international dialogue of cultures and religions of Russia started to revive and develop in the empire.

These were the centuries when “Russia of Peter (I) astonished Europe with its victories, while Catherine (II) accustomed Europe to her victories."

Statistics

In 1903 Russia sent for the Hajj 5000 pilgrims, in 1904 - about 7000, and in 1905 – 10000. In 1905 Russia entered the war with Japan and took a great stride into the first Russian revolution and civil war - the “European model of self-destruction for Russia”. That meant the sacrifice of its traditional Orthodox and Muslim spirituality and unity of nations - the foundations of its Majesty - to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. For the information of the reader, Japan contributed $ 10 million for the needs of the First Russian Revolution in 1905 - 1907.

The unique historical phenomena of the 20th century - revolutions and wars proved to be 1) a profitable business, 2) a powerful tool of domestic and foreign policies, 3) a disguised form of mass embezzlement of public funds, 4) a factor justifying corruption and organized crime groups’ activities, 5) an ideological justification of authorities’ illegal actions towards their own citizens in cases of emergency, 6) shadow schemes of mass outflow of raw materials, minerals, technologies, capital, intellectual resources and promising staff, etc.

In the early 20th century, the infused from abroad ideas about “the sovereignty of people, revolutionary reforms and democracy” that were imposed on Russia based on the Euro-Atlantic model of social development, hurled back the once a mighty power to the abyss of the world devastating civil wars and endless revolutionary reforms, repressions, thaws, stagnations, perestroikas.

The issues of the Hajj were pushed to the sidelines. The pilgrimage and religion, in general, were considered now old prejudices. After the repressions in the end of 1930s, the relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia “curtailed”, the embassy was closed. During the World War II in 1941 – 1945, the attitude towards organizing pilgrimage of Muslims somewhat changed. From 1945 to 1990, the Soviet Union could receive and use the quota of up to 25 people a year for a population of 250 million people, where Muslims constituted from 40 to 60 million, according to various estimates. In these circumstances, the Russian Federation (as the subject of the Soviet Union) had no quota of its own and had to ask occasionally from the Religious Boards of Muslims of the Central Asian republics for 4-5 places to be given to the Muslims of Russia.

Needless to say, the Muslims of Russia rightly drew the attention of Russian authorities to the clear injustice in dealing with the issues of religious rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the USSR. Until 1985, receiving of 3-5 places for Dagestani Muslims even not on a regular basis, was a marquee event, on the one hand, while on the other hand, it was accompanied by the scandals that pilgrims were going to the Hajj from the wrong regions.
Everyone used to think that it was him alone and his region only worthy of the right to go for pilgrimage. To be honest, it was a difficult period for the government and religious organizations.

Year 1985. Perestroika burst upon the scene and opened for its citizens the borders for exit and entry into Russia. As a result of the democratization of the public life, constitutional recognition and legislative consolidation of religious rights and freedoms, Muslims now had the right to perform annual pilgrimage.

The respect has been returning gradually for the traditions of Russian Muslims, for the historical experience of interaction and cooperation of authorities at all levels with religious organizations. Favorable domestic and foreign circumstances are provided annually in modern Russia for organizing pilgrimage. For this purpose, the potential of state, administrative, inventory, financial, international and human resources, nongovernmental, public and religious organizations is mobilized.

Why the organization of pilgrimage of Muslims is important for Russia, and especially for Dagestan, is an issue of a separate, specific and professional examination which take into account the pillars of Islam and the international experience of the organization of pilgrimage.