Ğabdulla Tuqay was born in the family of the hereditary village mullah of Quşlawıç, Kazan Governorate, Russian Empire (current Tatarstan, Russia) near the modern town of Arsk. His father, Möxämmätğärif Möxämmätğälim ulı Tuqayıv, had been a village mandative mullah since 1864. In 1885 his wife died, leaving him a son and a daughter, and Möxämmätğärif married second wife, Mämdüdä, daughter of Öçile village mullah Zinnätulla Zäynepbäşir ulı. On 29 August O.S. Möxämmätğärif died when Ğabdulla was 5 months old. Soon Ğabdulla's grandfather also died and Mämdüdä was forced to return to her father and then to get married to the mullah of the village of Sasna. Little Ğabdulla lived for some time with an old woman in his native village, before his new stepfather agreed to take Tuqay into his family. Tuqay's relatively happy childhood did not last long: on O.S. 18 January 1890 Ğabdulla's mother Mämdüdä also died, and Tuqay was removed to his poor grandfather Zinnätulla. Lacking enough food even for his own children, his grandfather sent Ğabdulla to Kazan with a coachman. There the coachman took Tuqay to a market-place, Peçän Bazaar, hoping to find someone willing to adopt the child. A tanner named Möxämmätwäli and his wife Ğäzizä from the Yaña-Bistä area of Kazan decided to take care of him. While living in Kazan, Tuqay was taken ill with walleye. When 1892, when both of Ğabdulla's adoptive parents became sick they had to send him back to his grandfather. This time, Ğabdulla's grandfather sent the child for further adoption to the village of Qırlay, where Ğabdulla stayed with the family of a peasant Säğdi. During his stay with this family, Ğabdulla was sent to the local madrassah (religious school), for the first time in his life, where, in his own words, his enlightenment began.
In the fall of 1895, the Ğosmanovs, Tatar merchants living in Uralsk, decided to adopt their distant relatives, because their own children had died. Ğäliäsğar Ğosmanov and his wife Ğäzizä, Ğabdulla's aunt, asked a peasant from Quşlawıç to bring them Ğabdulla. The peasant took ten-year-old Tuqay away from Säğdi, threatening him with Russian papers and the village constable. Living in Uralsk, Ğabdulla attended to Motíğía madrassah. Simultaneously, in 1896, he started to attend a Russian school. There, for the first time in his life, he became acquainted with the world of Russian literature and started to write poetry. In 1899 the anniversary of Alexander Pushkin was widely celebrated in Uralsk, an event which inspired Tuqay's interest in Russian poetry, especially works by Pushkin.
Ğosmanov tried to interest Ğabdulla in his work, but Tuqay stayed indifferent to the merchant's lot, preferring to develop his education. On 30 July 1900 Ğäliäsğar Ğosmanov died of "stomach diseases", so Tuqay moved into the madrassah itself, living first in common room, and two years later in a khujra, an individual cell. In the madrassah Tuqay proved himself a diligent shakird, completing in ten years a program intended for fifteen. However, he continued to live in poverty.
By 1902, Ğabdulla, age 16, had changed his nature. He lost interest in studying the Qur'an, and showed criticism to all that was taught in madrassah. He didn't shave his hair, he drank beer and even smoked. At the same time, he became more interested in poetry.