Staunton, September 3 – Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose communist regime severely restricted the ability of Muslims there to make the pilgrimage to Mecca required of most of the faithful, approximately 300,000 members of the Islamic community from Russia have made the haj, including some 23,000 this year alone.
Ilyas Umakhanov, deputy chairman of the Federation Council and the Russian government’s point man for haj affairs, tells Rossiiskaya gazeta that this number reflects the fact that so few Muslims from the USSR were able to go before 1991 (rg.ru/2017/08/31/ilias-umahanov-podavliaiushchee-bolshinstvo-musulman-zakonoposlushnye-liudi.html).
“In the Soviet period,” he says, “the majority of believers were deprived of the chance to make the haj: the number of pilgrims according to some accounts annually numbered approximately 20,” even though the total Muslim population of the USSR was “more than 50 million.”
(In fact, although Umakhanov doesn’t mention it, small groups of Soviet Muslims visited Mecca in the 1920s and then again after World War II. But for many years in between no one was allowed to go at all. And in many cases, those who were permitted to do so were subsequently identified as having close ties to the Soviet security agencies.)
With the end of “the iron curtain,” he says, ever more Muslims in Russia and other former Soviet republics demanded the chance to go. In 1990, approximately 1500 Muslims from throughout the USSR did so. Later the numbers grew almost exponentially: by the early 2000s, Muslims from Russia alone numbered more than 16,000 annually.
Until recently, the quota the Saudis assigned Russia – based on a calculation of one haji per year per 1,000 Muslims – was insufficient to meet demand, Umakhonov says, a situation exacerbated when Riyadh cut back the numbers during the reconstruction of facilities in the last several years and imposed new limits on those making repeat pilgrimages.
This year, the Russian Muslim leader says, “more than 23,000 Muslims from more than 70 regions of Russia” will make the haj. Once Moscow has the quota from the Saudis, it assigns quotas for each region. More than half of this year’s hajis will come from the North Caucasus republics of Daghestan and Chechnya alone.
The figure of 300,000 is remarkable because it means that more than one percent of Russia’s Muslims have made the required pilgrimage at some point over the last 25 years. And that in turn means that almost all Muslims in Russia have contact with a haji, a remarkable turnabout from Soviet times that opens them to influences in the broader Muslim world.