Kazan’s First Mosque is named after the prominent imam and educator Shigabutdin Mardzhani. The history behind its construction and development is an excellent example of the unity of historical traditions and modernity.
The first stone mosques appeared in the Old Tatar Sloboda at the end of the 18th century after Empress Catherine the Great, who visited Kazan in 1767, gave permission for their construction. The creator of this particular monument of Tatar spiritual culture was presumably the St. Petersburg architect Vasily Kaftyrev, whose designs were used to build many structures in Kazan. Kaftyrev also drafted the first master plan for the city.
Today the mosque blends harmoniously with its surrounding ensemble, but two and a half centuries ago, its almost 30-meter tall minaret towered proudly above the surrounding buildings. Orthodox activists appealed to Catherine, complaining that the Muslims were building their minarets too high. According to legend, she responded cleverly: “I have given them a place on earth, and they are free to rise into heaven at their own discretion.”
The mosque received its first name from the Yunusuovs, the wealthy merchant family that donated the money to build the mosque and subsequently oversaw its caretaking. Other merchant families invested in the construction of the mosque as well, including the Galikeevs, Kazakovs, Gizetullins, and Valishins, although only the Yunusovs consistently and systematically helped to develop the mosque and open its madrassa.
Later, the mosque was named after the prominent Tatar educator Shigabutdin Mardzhani, the author of some of the first works on the history of Tatars. Mardzhani came to Kazan at the invitation of the merchant Ibragim Yunusov, who set out to recruit the best instructors to teach and serve at the madrassa.
Mardzhani studied in Bukhara and then moved to Samarkand. The merchant Yunusov specifically sent people there to bring the scholar back to Kazan. The young Mardzhani was first appointed an imam-khatib, whose responsibility was to lead common prayers, preach a sermon on Friday, and work with parishioners. In March 1850, Mardzhani became an imam-mudarris and began teaching at the madrassa of Mosque No. 1.
The mosque is associated with Mardzhani’s name due to his work in overseeing the revival of the mosque. Thanks to Mardzhani, and in opposition to Yunusov, a new madrassa was built next to the mosque in place of the dilapidated, old building. The scholar enlisted the support of other patrons, and in spite of the building burning down several times, Mardzhani ensured that a new educational building made of white stone was finally erected.
Mardzhani oversaw not just the renovation to mosque’s building, but to the madrassa’s approach to learning as a whole, blending the traditional curriculum with secular subjects such as geometry, history, and astronomy. Mardzhani tried to transform the consciousness of Muslims in the spirit of modernity.
Mardzhani was one of the first to recognize the need for Tatars to study the Russian language. When a school was established in Kazan to train Russian language teachers for Tatar schools, Mardzhani spoke at the opening ceremony, extending a bold welcome. He then began to preach. “We are convinced,” he later wrote, “that studying the Russian language will not harm us. But we will certainly be harmed if we also ignore our own native language.”
Mardzhani Mosque was the only mosque that functioned during the Soviet era. Over time, it became a place that foreign delegations from Muslim countries would visit. Currently, Mardzhani Mosque is not only a religious, but also a cultural and educational, center. It publishes specialized literature and holds conferences and forums. The mosque is planning to create a business center for Muslims, where young entrepreneurs can get help and find investors for their projects.