Thanks to its role as capital of the Kazan Khanate in the 15th and 16th centuries, Kazan has one of the oldest and largest Muslim communities in Russia. Kazan boasts numerous great mosques both ancient and modern, including the Masjid Qolsharif, the most important and magnificent mosque in Russia. The Masjid Qolsharif also enjoys the honor of being the second largest mosque in both Russia and Europe overall outside of Turkey. It now serves as both a mosque and a museum, as well as a symbol of the Tatar people, descendents of the Mongols who once ruled the region. The Masjid Qolsharif is part of the Kazan Kremlin UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Islam probably first appeared in what is now Russia sometime in the 8th or 9th centuries AD, working its way up from the Middle East in the narrow corridor between the Black and Caspian Seas. It may have even been the majority religion among the sparse populations of West-Central Asia in the early Middle Ages. According to tradition, Islam was one of the religions considered by Vladimir the Great to become the official religion of the Rus, but was rejected in favor of Orthodox Christianity in the late 10th century. Russia became loosely split between the Christian regions of the north and west closer to Europe, and the Muslim regions of the south and east closer to the Middle East.
Throughout the 13th century Western Asia was conquered bit by bit into the Mongol Empire, and most of the region’s Muslim territories were absorbed into the Khanate of the Golden Horde. In subsequent years the Tatar khans adopted Islam as the state religion, and West Central Asia went from being a loose patchwork of small Muslim communities to a powerful, thriving Islamic state on the frontier of Christian Europe.
In the mid-1400s the Khanate of the Golden Horde broke up, leaving behind a number of smaller Tatar successor states. One of the most prominent and powerful of these was the Khanate of Kazan, named for the capital city of Kazan. Over the next century Kazan became one of the most important Muslim cities in Russia. Aside from being both a major center of Islamic religious and scholarly activity, it was also the closest large Muslim city to the population centers of the Rus, notably Novgorod.
In 1552, after three hundred years of Tatar-Muslim rule, Kazan was conquered by the armies of Russia under Ivan IV. As the story goes, Qolsharif, Kazan’s most prominent religious leader, rallied his students to defend the Kazan Kremlin and the city’s great mosque. Unfortunately he died in the attempt, and the mosque and most of the city were laid waste by the Russian army. Though it has been under Russian rule ever since, Kazan never widely adopted Orthodox Christianity, remaining instead the Czarist empire’s most important Muslim city. In 1996, after more than four centuries, the great mosque was finally rebuilt and named in honor of its most famous Muslim son. Despite being a newcomer, the Masjid Qolsharif is regarded today as Russia’s Islamic spiritual center.
The Masjid Qolsharif is one of Russia’s largest and most modern mosques, second in size only to the even newer Central Dome Mosque in Chechnya. Effectively nothing remains of the original 16th century structure, and the current mosque dates entirely from the 1996 reconstruction. Although the architecture borrows elements that are of traditional Russian and traditional Tatar-Islamic origin, the mosque is unmistakably modern, especially in the details.
That said, its spectacular setting within the medieval walls of the Kazan Kremlin help to evoke a much earlier time period. This is especially true when the Masjid Qolsharif is viewed from a distance, where the upper half of the mosque, the dome and its minarets peak out majestically over the walls. While the Masjid Qolsharif is a fully functioning mosque, with daily prayer services, as part of the Kazan Kremlin it is also a working museum, with exhibits on Islamic culture and history in Russia.
The Masjid Qolsharif is located towards the southern end of the Kazan Kremlin in the heart of Kazan, approximately 425 miles east of Moscow. It is run as part of the Kremlin sites, and is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims. As of this writing no other visitor information was available. Web: www.kul-sharif.com (official website)
Kazan’s Tatar district is home to many of the city’s, and Russia’s, most important and beautiful mosques. Among these are the Masjid Nurullah and the Masjid Acem. Russia’s largest mosque, and the largest mosque in Europe outside of Turkey, is the Grozny Central Dome Mosque in Chechnya.