In the late 1980s, Islam had the second largest number of believers in the Soviet Union, with between 45 and 50 million people identifying themselves as Muslims. But the Soviet Union had only about 500 working Islamic mosques, a fraction of the mosques in prerevolutionary Russia, and Soviet law forbade Islamic religious activity outside working mosques and Islamic schools. All working mosques, religious schools, and Islamic publications were supervised by four "spiritual directorates" established by Soviet authorities to provide governmental control. The Spiritual Directorate for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, the Spiritual Directorate for the European Soviet Union and Siberia, and the Spiritual Directorate for the Northern Caucasus and Dagestan oversaw the religious life of Sunni Muslims. The Spiritual Directorate for Transcaucasia dealt with both Sunni and Shia Muslims. The overwhelming majority of the Muslims were Sunnis; only about 10 percent, most of whom lived in the Azerbaydzhan Republic, were Shias.
Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula in 610 when Muhammad (later known as the Prophet), a merchant in the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first in a series of revelations granted him by God through the angel Gabriel. Muhammad's denunciation of the polytheism of his fellow Meccans earned him the bitter enmity of the leaders of Mecca, whose economy was based largely on the thriving business generated by pilgrimages to the pagan Kaabah shrine. In 622 Muhammad and a group of followers were invited to the town of Yathrib, which came to be known as Medina (meaning the city) because it was the center of Muhammad's activities. The move to Medina, called the hijra (hegira), marks the beginning of Islam as a force in history; it also marks the first year of the Muslim calendar. Subsequently, the Prophet converted the people of the Arabian Peninsula to Islam and consolidated both spiritual and temporal leadership of all Arabia in his person.
After Muhammad's death in 632, his followers compiled those of his words regarded as coming directly from God as the Quran, the holy scripture of Islam; others of his sayings and teachings and precedents of his personal behavior, recalled by those who had known him during his lifetime, became the hadith. Together they form the sunna, a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of orthodox Muslims. Muhammad's followers spread Islam to various parts of the world. Some oasis-dwelling people of Central Asia were first converted to Islam in the seventh century. The Tatars of the Golden Horde, who converted to Islam in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, spread Islam throughout Central Asia. Most of the Kirgiz and Kazakh tribes of Central Asia, however, converted to Islam in the nineteenth century while they were under Russian rule. In the Caucasus region, Islam was introduced in the eighth century, but not until the seventeenth century was it firmly established there.
Islam means submission (to God), and one who submits is a Muslim. The shahada (testimony or creed) states the central belief of Islam: "There is no god but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his Prophet." Muhammad is considered the "seal of the prophets"; his revelation completes for all time the biblical revelations received by Jews and Christians.
The duties of Muslims form the five pillars of the faith. They are the recitation of the creed (shahada), daily prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca. Believers pray while facing toward Mecca in a prescribed manner each day at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. When possible, men pray in congregation at a mosque under a prayer leader; on Fridays they are obliged to do so. Women generally pray at home but may also attend public worship at a mosque, where they are segregated from the men. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hour.
Since the early days of Islam, religious authorities have imposed a tax (zakat) on personal property proportionate to one's wealth; this is distributed, along with free-will gifts, to the mosques and to the needy. The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting (sawm) during daylight hours for all but the sick, the weak, children, and others for whom fasting would be an unusual burden. Finally, all Muslims at least once in their lifetime should, if possible, make the hajj, or pilgrimage, to the holy city of Mecca to participate in special rites held there during the twelfth month of the calendar.
Ideally every Muslim is expected to practice all five pillars of the faith, but Islam accepts what is possible under the circumstances. This acceptance is particularly significant for Soviet Muslims, who can thus function both as Soviet citizens and as members of an Islamic community. Soviet Muslims, however, have had difficulty adhering to certain Islamic practices. For example, fasting during the month of Ramadan was infrequently observed because of the demands of meeting agricultural and factory work quotas. In the late 1980s, permission to make the hajj was given only to about twenty Soviet Muslims annually. A commonly observed practice, however, was circumcision of young Muslim boys at around the age os seven. Regardless of the degree of their adherence to all Islamic precepts, most Soviet citizens born to Muslim parents consider themselves Muslims.
A Muslim is in direct relationship with God; Islam has neither intermediaries nor clergy. Those who lead prayers, preach sermons, and interpret the law do so by virtue of their superior knowledge and scholarship rather than by virtue of special powers or prerogatives conferred by ordination.
The differences between Sunnis and Shias were originally political. After Muhammad's death, the leaders of the Muslim community chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law, as caliph (from the Arabic word khalifa; literally, successor). Some persons favored Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his favorite daughter, but Ali and his supporters (the Shiat Ali, or Party of Ali) eventually recognized the community's choice. Ali became the fourth caliph in 656. A great schism resulted, splitting Islam between the Sunnis, who supported an elected caliph, and the Shias, who supported Ali's line as well as a hereditary caliph who served as spiritual and political leader. Over the centuries, the Sunnis have come to be identified as the more orthodox of the two branches.
The differences between the Sunni and Shia interpretations rapidly took on theological and metaphysical overtones. The Sunnis retained the doctrine of leadership by consensus, although Arabs and members of the Quraysh, Muhammad's tribe, predominated in the early years. Meanwhile, the Shia doctrine of rule by divine right became more and more firmly established, and disagreements over which of several pretenders had the truer claim to the mystical power of Ali precipitated further schisms. Some Shia groups developed doctrines of divine leadership far removed from the strict monotheism of early Islam, including belief in hidden but divinely chosen leaders and in spiritual powers that equaled or surpassed those of the Prophet himself.
Muslims in the Soviet Union are a disparate and varied group. Although most of them reside in Central Asia, they can be found on the western borders of the Soviet Union as well as in Siberia and near the border with China. Ethnically they include Turkic people like the Azerbaydzhanis, Uzbeks, Tatars, and Uygurs; Iranian people like the Tadzhiks, Ossetians, Kurds, and Baluchi; Caucasian people like the Avars, Lezgins, and Tabasarans; and several other smaller groups.
Soviet Muslims also differ linguistically and culturally from each other. Among them, they speak about fifteen Turkic languages, ten Iranian languages, and thirty Caucasian languages. Hence, communication between different Muslim groups has been difficult. Although in 1989 Russian often served as a lingua franca among some educated Muslims, the number of Muslims fluent in Russian was low. Culturally, some Muslim groups had highly developed urban traditions, whereas others were recently nomadic. Some lived in industrialized environments; others resided in isolated mountainous regions. In sum, Muslims were not a homogeneous group with a common national identity and heritage, although they shared the same religion and the same country.
In the late 1980s, unofficial Muslim congregations, meeting in tea houses and private homes with their own mullahs, greatly outnumbered those in the officially sanctioned mosques. The mullahs in unofficial Islam were either self-taught or were informally trained by other mullahs. In the late 1980s, unofficial Islam appeared to split into fundamentalist congregations and groups that emphasized Sufism.