She takes a deep breath and offers up a quick prayer not to be hit by a car on the bustling street. She then secures one last fold of her headscarf around her chin and hastily crosses Kronversky Prospect. Safely on the other side, she pushes open a massive wooden door and falls into another world…
Away from the hustle of the city, this other world is like a gem for local Muslims in St Petersburg. The St Petersburg Mosque is the main place in the city which helps Muslims preserve their connection with Islam, as well as understand, save, and exercise their religious identity. Here, thousands of Muslims are not only praying and celebrating their yearly occasions, but also learning how to read the Quran in Arabic. In this regard, the mosque acts as a place for spiritual education by organizing special Arabic lessons during the weekend.
On the Way to Islam
Firaya Rashitova is one of the activists among Tatar Muslims living in St Petersburg. Her and her colleagues are organizing various religious events that help other Muslims understand the Quran correctly. She herself grasped the words of Allah only due to the St Petersburg Mosque.
Born in Soviet Kazan, Firaya was unable to practice her faith in the traditional way in the former communist state. She also never learned to read the Quran in its original language: “During the atheist USSR times, my family hid the fact that we were practising Islam. Of course, we were keeping traditional Muslim fast and cooking special food, but we didn’t know how to pray properly, and we didn’t wear a headscarf”, Firaya remembers.
The only member of Firaya’s family, who was lucky enough to live in accordance with the traditions, was her great-grandmother. She stayed with her grandchildren only during important Muslim holidays. Before sunrise, the grandmother would pray on these days, which was something like a miracle for the young Firaya.
But little did Firaya know that she was foreordained to accomplish these same wonders. Despite living in the ‘Venice of the North’ since the seventies, Firaya only visited the St Petersburg Mosque for the first time in 1999. That year, Mufti Jafyar Ponchaev, a religious leader in St Petersburg, invited several teachers from Islamic countries to conduct Quran lessons in the mosque and to preach original, peaceful Islam. Firaya liked studying the course and, despite the years, still keeps in touch with some of her group mates. For instance the Muslim couple from Samara, who came searching for peace of mind in the mosque after the death of their son: “Only faith and return to their origins helped them to overcome sorrow. After those Quran courses they even built a small mosque in honour of their son”, Firaya remembers.
After a couple years of Arabic courses, Firaya learned to read the Quran without any mistakes. Then she started teaching the basics of Islam in order to help St Petersburg Muslims understand their identity and traditions. It turned out to be popular in ‘Muslim Russia’ to invite someone who knows the Quran well to family events to read surahs (chapters of the Quran) aloud. Usually after a surah reading, the preacher is invited to hold a kind of a lecture on how people should live by the rules of their religion.
At this point, Firaya suddenly closed her eyes and started to sing something very loudly and melodiously: “Don’t be afraid. Now I will read the main surah of the Quran to you, its heart, which is called ‘Believe in Allah’.”
Firaya is convinced that getting to know Islam during the courses at the Mosque revived a sense of purpose in her religion. Her new religious identity gave her harmony, everything fell into place. She started reading the Quran regularly, learned how to be patient, and realized the value of family and home — the main strength of her religion.
She also started observing other Muslim traditions, such as the sacrifice of honour for a new life. When her grandchildren were born, Firaya went to Tatarstan and killed a lamb on the altar at the bottom of the Hujalar Tavy mountain. “We spill lamb’s blood to prevent other bloodshed. I understand it is controversial, but we genuinely believe in it”, Firaya explains.
When the conversation turned to radical Islamists, the amiable Tatar woman’s face suddenly darkened. “ISIS and other radicals play hell with the Quran. They are playing on Muslims’ heartstrings. Those shahids easily end it all on behalf of the selfish terrorism industry, not Islam. Real Muslims should dedicate their life to sacred duties”, she said, thrumming on the table. Firaya added that false Islam leads to chaos and downfall, while real religion appeals to the better side of human nature. It explains the value of modesty and virtue, not empty-headed violence.
Back to the Mosque
Safely on the other side, the woman with the headscarf tightly tucked under her chin pushes open a massive wooden door and falls into another world…
Beyond these doors, a sober, middle-aged man is sitting opposite to the preaching hall. He is responsible for the fund-raising needs of Muslims living in Crimea, a world connected by the faith of Islam. “We are giving a hand to all Muslims of our country. We are trying to help Crimeans to save their mosques, so they can let our brothers and sisters continue their lives in a pure, Islamic way, and not to lose their identity”, explains an attendant of the Mosque’s secretariat. The secretariat is a small but wealthy-looking room, where two men offer blessings to families and visitors of the mosque. One of the men is praying for all Muslims entering this room, without asking for payment or any contributions.
Firaya, the devotees of the Mosque, organizers of Islamic events in St Petersburg, and all other Muslims who have dedicated their lives to Islam share a strong common belief: helping others. To help others is to save and preserve their religious identity, and to feel connected to Allah.
The article was previously published in Prospekt Magazine.