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The life of a “Russian Muslim”

The majority of population in Kyrgyzstan professes the Hanafite school of Sunni Islam. Alexander has been practicing Islam for 15 years and is raising his son according to Islamic traditions.

Русский Кыргызча 

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Author: Bermet Nasirova

*The published material is part of a series of articles by the analytical platform CABAR.asia, dedicated to informing the audience about religious diversity in the countries of Central Asia. The authors do not pursue the goal of propaganda of a particular religious denomination.

Alexander Mikhailov. Photo from personal archive

How recently have you converted to Islam? Why have you decided to change your religion?

I converted to Islam when I was 17 years old. I am preaching the Hanafi madhhab. I had no convincing reasons or problems in order to convert to Islam. My mother is a Christian, and my younger brother, like me, is a Muslim. My path to Islam began with my surroundings: among my friends, there were people of different nationalities, but all of them were Muslims.

My Tajik friend was sharing with me the pillars of Iman and Islam in Russian language. His stories were very fascinating, but I did not think seriously about the religion change, because everyone around me kept telling that I was a Christian and I should adhere to my religion. However, after a while I realized that I was ready to convert to Islam, and for that, I needed to voice “Kalimat Shakhada” – words of testimony, learn basic pillars, which would make me a Muslim. Later, I purchased a Muslim calendar, where each sheet contained quotations from the Quran. Everything that my friend was talking about was described in detail on this calendar and I have started to comprehend many things better than before. Therefore, I began to read some special literature, and eventually met with other Russian-speaking Muslims. While studying, I had difficulties in understanding particular pillars or sayings, but at the same time none of the imams ever refused to help me, always explained everything down to the smallest details.

What did you find in Islam that you did not find in other religions?

As a child, I saw my grandmother praying at icons in church and at home, and I believed that communication with God passes through paintings that depict the son of God. However, when I began to study the Quran, I realized that we had never seen Allah, but we know his sifats (attributes). All Muslims pray in the same direction, and with the help of prayer, we have a direct connection with God, we talk to him – and that is what attracted me.

How did your family and friends react to the change of your religion? Did anyone have negative or skeptical reaction?  

At first, it was hard. Neither my mother nor my relatives understood me. My family was very worried that I came under the someone’s infulence and that I would do something to myself. Now my mom is positive about Islam. She has noticed that I work as before, do not have any bad habits, responsibly perform my duties and do not enter into questionable organizations. All her worries disappeared. Over time, I became acquainted with all the currents of Islam. I know that the main foundation is “Kalimat Shahada”. Now we are constantly talking about Islam at home. I have a close relationship with my mother, and she has a positive attitude towards such conversations. I offered my mother to accept Islam, but she is not in a hurry yet. We celebrate main Muslim holidays. We began to buy halal products and do not consume pork at home.

Every time I get ready for the evening prayer, my mother asks me to pray for our entire family.

How has your life changed since conversion to Islam? How openly do you tell others about your religion?

Life has changed dramatically. I used to live one day to the next without thinking about many vital moments that I come across. Over time, I stopped maintaining relationship with my old friends, as my interests in life had changed. People no longer invite me to some noisy events, where they drink alcohol. So far, I have been working on myself, trying to develop good qualities in me. I believe that religion restrains and disciplines a person. I have also noticed that non-religious people are more susceptible to harmful influence and bad deeds.        

I try not to advertise the fact that I am a Muslim. I think Islam can be brought to the attention of people by our deeds and not by words. I do not hide my religious beliefs, if someone asks me about it. Since I often wear a skullcap, people immediately understand that I am a Muslim. In order to become who you want to be, you need to immerse yourself into it and study it. I have never fenced off from anyone: neither from the radicals, nor from the caliphates, and nor from other currents. My friends, with whom I go to mosque, even gave me a Muslim name – Sulayman.  Some neighbors call me by my Muslim name. People do not think that I am Russian, because I have Jewish, Caucasian and Polish blood as well. People often think that I am a Dargin by nationality. Earlier, when I went to the mosque, people often turned around and were surprised, because of what they felt like a “black sheep”. Nevertheless, over time, I stopped to notice such cases.

Alexander Mikhailov with friends in one of the oldest mosques in Medina, Saudi Arabia

Are there many people of Slavic nationality who converted to Islam among your surroundings?

I personally know only 10-15 people. We have WhatsApp group called “Russians in Islam”, among which there are Hanafis [1], Salafis [2], and the Tablighi Jamaat [3] (Editor’s note). We gather in the same mosque and make joint Duas [4] and Dhikrs [5] (Editor’s note). We always try to help each other with advice, support, solve financial issues, but we do not create a special place where we could meet, because we all have families, thus we do not see each other very often. Usually we meet at joint events or at Arabic language courses that are conducted within the framework of various projects. I have a very diverse social circle. There is no such thing that I speak only with Russians, I always communicate with people of different nationalities.

Most imams conduct their sermons in mosques in the Kyrgyz language, and in general, they are Kyrgyz speaking. How do you solve this barrier?

I have difficulty with understanding sermons properly. Sometimes my basic knowledge of Kyrgyz helps me to understand what is being said. Most often, if there is something incomprehensible, I always ask from near-seated. Sometimes imams themselves ask if everything is clear to me. If I have questions, they will flawlessly explain in a language I can understand. It would be nice if sermons were conducted in accessible language, at least in certain places. However, this again depends on the demand.

If we talk about misunderstanding, then I practically have not come across this. Mostly I have faced nationalism, but this does not apply to religion. People who are not particularly religious confronted me with conflicts of a nationalistic nature. I have no offense towards these people, since I believe that there are no bad nations. Even if I argue with someone, I never say anything that could touch nationalism. Especially on city holidays, when people under the influence of alcohol intend to hurt me, and want to start a conflict, I am completely calm about this.

Islam is one, and Muslims are different. In my opinion, there is a lack of human tolerance, and religious literacy. Personal conflicts sometimes occur in mosques, and they are most often accompanied by aggression. At such moments, there is not enough delicacy to put out the fire before it burns.

[1] “Salafiya – is a trend in Sunni Islam that unites Muslim religious leaders who called for a lifestyle orientation of the righteous ancestors.”

[2] “The Hanafi Madhab – is one of four law schools in Sunni Islam. The founder is Abu Hanifa and his students Muhammad al-Shaibani, Abu Yusuf and Zufar ibn al-Huzail. ”

[3] Tablighi Jamaat – is a religious movement whose main objective is connected to spiritual transformation in Islam through the work of participants at the level of the broad masses of people and conversion to Islam.

[4] “Du’a, in Islam – is a prayer, that is, an appeal to Allah”

[5] “Dhikr – is an Islamic spiritual practice consisting in repeatedly pronouncing a prayer formula containing the glorification of God. Dhikr takes place after the completion of namaz, during mavlid meetings, or at any convenient time.”

This article was prepared in the framework of the IWPR project “Stability in Central Asia through an open dialogue”.

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