When did Islam came to Ukraine?

Arab commander Marwan ibn Muhammad
Muslims in the Caucasus
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О. Степанченко
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Is it not instructive to them, how many generations before them We destroyed, in whose settlements they walk? Surely in that are signs for people of understanding (Quran 20:128).

When did Islam begin to spread in Ukraine? This question had been a subject of debate for a long time. Sometimes the historians were short of access to primary sources, especially Arabic, in an effort to assess the situation. As for the Soviet Union's period, all the researches, related to the history of Islam, were always taboo.

For a long time, the historians had been supposing that Islam came to the Ukrainian land, after it’s becoming like the state religion of the Golden Horde in the beginning of the XIV century. This version was confirmed by both the medieval chronicles and the results of archeological excavations. The information about the earlier period was sketchy and did not show a complete picture. 

The Turkic state, Khazar Khanate, arisen in the VII century, became a huge cosmopolitan empire very quickly, and was occupying the territory from the Aral Sea to the Dnieper. According to the archaeological excavations, the main economic and political centers of the Khazars were at the basins of the rivers Don and Donets.

The expansionist policies of Khazaria’s rulers led to a clash with the growing power of the Arab Caliphate. A series of Arab-Khazar wars for the possession in Caucasus ended without result for both states. In 731 the Arab commander Marwan ibn Muhammad became a leader of the new military campaign against the Khazars.

After seen all the mistakes of previous military campaigns in proper perspective, Marwan succeeded in misleading the Khazars: he concluded a truce with them and assured that the war preparations of Arab forces were directed against the Alans. He included in his army not only the top Arab forces, but also the troops composed of Transcaucasia’s warriors. Marwan’s aim was neither destroying nor annihilation of the Khazar state, that was absolutely impossible for that moment, but he purposed the adoption of Islam by the Khazars.

All the preparations for the march had been done in 737. Marwan could collect 150 thousandth army. Arab historian al-Usfuri in his book "Tarikh" describes the beginning of the campaign by the following: "119 AD.  That year, Marwan ibn Muhammad undertook the long march from Arminius. He entered Alans’ Gate (Bab al-Lan), passed through the land of al-Lan, then entered the Khazars’ country, passed by Balanjar and Samandar and reached al-Bayda, the residence of khagan. But khagan escaped."

Marwan rushed to persuade the Khazars’ king, who moved along the Volga River to the North with a small detachment. The pursuit was going on for about 15-20 days. When the khagan found himself cornered, he capitulated. Under the terms of capitulation, he had to become Muslim. At the same time the Arab Caliphate forces reached "Slavic river" (probably, it is talked of the rivers Don and it’s tributary Seversky Donets, where the mixed Slavic-Turkic-Alanian population resided).

At this point the "fast road", as it was called by the Arab authors, had been completed. Marwan returned to the Arab Caliphate. In 744, he ascended the throne and became the last caliph of the Umayyad dynasty. Six years later, in 750, Marwan ibn Muhammad was overthrown and killed over the Shiites’ uprising.

After the withdrawal of Marwan’s troops from Khazaria, the khagan went back on his word quickly. He rejected Islam, and returned to the paganism. Subsequently, the Khazars’ rulers adopted Judaism as the religion of the ruling elite under the influence of wealthy Jewish merchants and their large community. However, the population began to adopt Islam well before those events.

The Arab historian al-Kufi in his "Book of conquests" describes one of the cases of conversion to Islam, which took place before Marwan’s campaign. During the siege of al-Bab town, a Khazarian man came to Arab military commander Maslama ibn 'Abd al-Malik, because of worrying about himself, his wife and his father. He said: "Oh, emir! I came to you, tempted by your religion. I want to convert to Islam in order to achieve from you a salary, so I could keep my children and myself, while I will point out the place where your soldiers will be able to penetrate into the town!". Maslama promised to give him what he wanted. And Khazarian warrior adopted Islam. "

At the VIII century the army of the Arab Caliphate included Khazar mercenaries – Ghulams, and the elite horse guard was composed of them. It is well known that in 767 the Ghulams took part in the siege of Amida. Afterwards, the Khazars began to play an increasingly important role at the court of the caliphs. In the IX century the Buga al-Kabir, Khazarian by origin, commanded the Arab army in a victorious battle against his fellow tribesmen (851y).

In Khazaria Islam became the religion of the majority of the population. It was stimulated by the active trade relations between the Arab Caliphate and the khanate. Archaeological excavations, conducted by E. Kravchenko in the basin of the Seversky Donets (Donetsk region), were revealed numerous Muslim graves dated back to the second half of the IX century. This fact confirms the theory that Khazaria was mostly Muslim country at that period.

Thus, 737, the year of the campaign of the Marwan’s army, is considered to be a starting point in the history of Islam in the lands of Ukraine. The appearance of bearers of Islamic civilization on the banks of the "Slavic river" is another one strong argument for this statement.

You can find the other materials about "The history of Islam in Ukraine" by clicking the following reference.

Alexander Stepanchenko specially for "Islam in Ukraine"

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