15th century Russians admired IslamWritten by Victor A. Pogadaev
In the second half of the 15th century, merchants, travellers and ambassadors of Russia began publishing their impressions on Islam.
Merchant Afanasy Nikitin was probably the first Russian to visit India (30 years before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama), Persia, Ethiopia and Arabia in the 15th century. His book, The Adventures Through the Three Seas, depicted the life of Muslims while wondering whether Christians should appraise other religions.
He told how Khan Junnar in India was trying to persuade him to embrace Islam, promising the reward of a thousand gold coins, and how he fasted with Muslims though he had always worried whether it was contradictory to his own religion.
Another merchant, Fedot Kotov, in his book, Adventures in Persia (1623), described in detail some Islamic celebrations, but also wrote the book not because he wanted to glorify Islam. The first who talked about Islam with great respect was the poet Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816), who spent his childhood in the Islamic region, namely Kazan city.
The nostalgia is reflected in the line of his poem: "Even the smoke is nice and sweet when it is the smoke of the homeland." It is similar to a Malay proverb, hujan emas di negeri orang, hujan batu di negeri sendiri, baik juga di negeri sendiri.
Other poets touched on elements of similarity between Christians and Muslims. Among the most prominent was the novel in verses Pigeon's Nest by Pavel Katenin (1792-1853), in which he praised highly the birth of Islam and stated that the spread of religion among the Arabs was good for the people.
Great interest in Islam was also shown by Griboedov (1795-1829), Vyazemsky (1792-1878) and Muravyev (1794-1866). Islamic culture inspired the genius poet Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), who admitted in one of his poems: "I take pleasure in the beauty of the Quran..."
He revealed his personal interaction with Muslims in Southern Russia in the poems The Bakhchisarai's Fountain and The Caucasian Prisoner. In a poem, Tacit, he depicted the blood revenge of Chechens and traditional elements of their culture linked with Islamic elements.
The highlight of Pushkin's creativity inspired by Islam is the poem The Reflections of the Quran (1824). Especially interesting for Pushkin were the philosophy and moral aspects of the sacred Scripture. Once, he admitted that "a lot of moral principles are displayed in the Quran in a very convincing and poetic style".
Pushkin argues with Voltaire, "not the blood of defenseless people is demanded by the Heaven, but love and trust". A famous writer, Dostoevsky (1821-1881), used to write that Pushkin had a unique ability to understand the true essence of Eastern civilisation.
With reference to the Reflections of the Quran in particular, Dostoevsky then exclaimed: "Do not we see here a Muslim, a true spirit of the Quran and a sword, majesty and power of a strong faith?" Two years later, Pushkin wrote poetry, Prorok (Prophet), depicting the birth of a poet.
"Allah gave him eyes to see everything but he was not a poet. Allah gave him the ears to listen to everything but he was still not a poet. Allah replaced his heart but he was still a dead body in the desert. Allah gave him the ability to understand Allah and only after that he became a poet."
Muslim life was depicted by the writers Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (1797-1837) and Polezhaev (1805-1838) (Ammalat-Bek, Harem, Sultan, etc). Shadow of Eastern Islamic world with its fascinating beauty became the source of inspiration for the poet Lermontov (1814-1841). The problem of human destiny and the destiny of the creation of His Almighty was raised by the author Alexei Tolstoy (1882-1945) in Crimea Notes.
The character of an oriental beauty was created by Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-1877) in his Turkish Lady, while writer Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) described Islamic architecture as "full of flowers". In the article Al Mamun, he talked about a Baghdad ruler (813-833) with admiration.
Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev (1853-1900) had a very high opinion of the role of Prophet Muhammad and Islam in the development of world civilisation, saying "Islam will surely grow and spread more because the 'spiritual milk' of Al-Quran is needed by mankind".
The writer Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), who studied the Islamic tradition and the Prophet Muhammad, also greatly esteemed the Quran and Islamic culture in general, and even corresponded with Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905). The main hero of his novel, Haji Murat (published in Malay by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 2001, second printing 2007), shows many characteristics of Muslims from the Caucasus Mountains.
The author, who is from Russia, is a former lecturer at Universiti Malaya
Published in: New Straits Times, Saturday, 12 September 2020