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Islam: The Russian Solution


Muslim leaders today like to boast that Islam arrived in Russia before Christianity. Muslims brought their religion to Russia from the Arabian peninsula in the first centuries after Muhammad, long before the arrival of Christianity among the pagans on the Eurasian steppe. By the end of the first millennium, when the pagan prince of Kievan Rus’ converted to Byzantine Christianity, there were substantial Muslim communities in the Caucasus region between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, in the Volga River valley, and in Central Asia, the Urals, and Siberia. The Mongol hordes adopted Islam during their long occupation of Russia between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, and many of their Tatar tribesmen remained there when the Golden Horde was pushed back to Mongolia.

As the Russian empire extended south and east by conquest, trade, and the collaboration of indigenous elites, its Muslim population steadily increased. The Muslims of the Crimea and the steppelands north of the Caucasus and the Caspian Sea were incorporated into the empire by Catherine the Great in the eighteenth century; the Caucasus itself was conquered in the early nineteenth century, although the Russians never really quelled the Muslim hill tribes of Daghestan and Chechnya; and beginning in the 1860s the Russian army pushed the empire’s frontier deep into the Kazakh steppe and Central Asia, subjugating rich and ancient centers of Islamic piety and scholarship in Tashkent, Kokand, Bukhara, and Samarkand. By the end of the nineteenth century there were more Muslims governed by the tsar than by the Ottoman sultan.

The encounter between Russia and the Muslim world has been perceived by most observers as a simple tale of imperial conquest and confrontation epitomized by Russia’s long and often brutal war with the Muslim rebels in Chechnya and Daghestan. (This is a conflict that goes back to the nineteenth century, when the Daghestani warlord Imam Shamil led the Muslim hill tribes of the northern Caucasus in a fierce campaign against the army of Tsar Nicholas I, who ruled between 1825 and 1855.) In this saga of resistance and suppression, Russia’s southern border represents a crucial front in the “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity; the recent war in Chechnya is a return to the “natural state of conflict” between these religious traditions after the collapse of the artificial peace imposed by the Soviet regime.

But as Robert Crews reminds us in his scholarly and timely book For Prophet and Tsar, the conflict in Chechnya and other parts of the northern Caucasus was in fact unusual in a history of peaceful coexistence and collaboration between Russia and the Muslim world before 1917. The reign of Catherine the Great, which began in 1762, marked the first major expansion of the Russian empire into the Caucasus region. The Russian armies conquered Muslim territories and suppressed resistance; but imperial officials also managed to win the allegiance of Muslim subjects by making Islam and its attendant hierarchies (with clerics and legal scholars at the top) a central institution of imperial rule. As a result of tsarist policies, Crews maintains, “Muslim men and women came to imagine the imperial state as a potential instrument of God’s will,” and engaged with it to renegotiate their own relationship with Islam as loyal subjects of the tsar.

The linkages between the imperial state and religious institutions have been overlooked by previous historians of the Russian empire (and other empires too) who have concentrated almost exclusively on secular affairs and on the rise of Russian nationalism as the key to understanding the unraveling of imperial rule. Yet as Crews maintains, the tsars from Catherine the Great to Nicholas II grounded their authority not in their support of ethnic or national groups, but in their defense of religious faiths (tsarist law obliged every subject to belong to a confessional group). Through its commitment to religious toleration the tsarist state was able to “govern with less violence, and with a greater degree of consensus, than historians have previously imagined.” There was no large-scale deportation or mass conversion of Muslims by the tsar’s officials, who were generally tolerant toward Islam. This attitude was a matter of imperial policy, which attempted to curry favor with Muslim populations in newly conquered territories and the near abroad, but it was also based on Islam’s monotheism, which in the official Russian view put it on a par with Christianity. Polytheistic pagans, however, like the Komi people of the Russian north, were forcibly converted to Christianity (a contrast Crews might have explored).

As Crews shows, tsarist Russia enjoyed relative stability in its Muslim territories compared to its main imperial rivals—the British and the French in Africa and Asia and the Habsburgs in the Balkans—who were less systematic and less skillful in their co-optation of native religious elites. The resistance of the Muslim tribes to Russian rule in Daghestan and Chechnya was the one big exception, though even there a large proportion of the Muslim population was opposed to the rebel bands, which were partly recruited from foreign Sufi brotherhoods that attacked the Russian administration. Otherwise there were no major uprisings, and only a few localized revolts, against tsarist rule in the half-century between the Russian conquest of Tashkent in 1865 and World War I. Western states struggling to gain the allegiance of their Muslim citizens may learn a lot from the example of the Russian empire in the nineteenth century.


Crews begins his study during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–1796), when “cameralist” ideas of religious toleration were applied by the empress to her new Muslim subjects in the Crimea and the Caspian littoral as a means of reinforcing state authority. The cameralists, a group of German Enlightenment thinkers, argued that public order and morality could be strengthened by the regulation of tolerated confessional groups (though they made it clear, as did Catherine, that heretics, atheists, and freethinkers were undeserving of such protection). Essentially Catherine saw religious toleration as an instrument of imperial control and expansion: it would ease relations between Muslims and Russian settlers and officials in the restless frontier zones of the empire and win over Muslim intermediaries in neighboring states. But studies of the “Turkish creed” by European scholars had also convinced her that Islam was not very different from Christianity in its basic beliefs and commandments, its sacred places devoted to prayer, and its religious laws and hierarchies, all of which the tsarist state could use to add divine authority to the more conventional sanctions of imperial rule.

Catherine established a centralized ecclesiastical hierarchy for the empire’s Muslims in an effort to incorporate previously independent mullahs and mosques into a church-like system subordinate to the imperial bureaucracy in St. Petersburg. In 1788 she appointed a Muhammadan Ecclesiastical Assembly in Ufa (later moved to Orenburg) which combined features of the Russian Orthodox Church, such as standardized organization by parishes, and those of the Ottoman religious system (including an elaborate hierarchy of religious titles). Led by the Sunni cleric and legal scholar Mukhamed-zhan Khusainov, the assembly licensed Muslim clergy, gave interpretations of Islamic doctrine and sharia law, received appeals from the laity against decisions by their mosques, and supervised the growing network of Muslim schools.

Until Khusainov’s death, in 1824, the assembly was dogged by allegations of venality, and, as Crews reveals, it had relatively weak influence on the “mosque communities”—the Muslim settlements that were granted permission both by the assembly and by provincial officials to build mosques. But in the reign of Nicholas I the assembly’s powers were enlarged and reinforced by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which looked to it as an instrument of imperial administration. The assembly issued fatwas urging Muslims to support the tsar. It made all mullahs swear an oath of allegiance to the imperial family and conduct prayers for them from the pulpits of their mosques. It also translated imperial laws into Islamic doctrine: military service, hygienic practices, industry, and higher education were all interpreted as religious duties, defined by citations from the Koran and made compulsory by fatwas issued by the assembly.

In a landmark decision of 1834, which highlighted its primary allegiance to imperial authority, the assembly issued a fatwa ordering Muslims to comply with a controversial law directing them both to wait three days before burying their dead and to record such deaths with the police, even though the new law was in flagrant contravention of the Islamic tradition of burial on the same day a person dies. There had been cases of people being buried overhastily, before they were dead, to avoid the wrath of God.

In the assembly the Russian empire found an agency to moderate Islamic influence and bring it into line with its own demands of state and moral norms. Licensed muftis, or interpreters of religious law, and mullahs counteracted extremists and jihadists, who called on Muslims to take up arms against the Russian empire or flee from it as a “House of War” or a “House of Unbelief.” They helped the state to root out Muslim schismatics and Sufi mystics and extremists who threatened to unsettle the mosque communities and stir rebellion against the imperial authorities.

As Crews shows, the state handled the Muslim clergy with considerable skill. It supported the building of mosques and the opening of madrasas, some of which became important centers of Islamic learning in the Muslim world. It gradually improved the position of Muslim clerics to put them on a par with the Orthodox clergy. But it also gave a voice to the lay communities and encouraged anticlericalism to keep Islam weak and divided.

In perhaps the best chapter of the book, a richly detailed investigation of the state’s attempts, beginning in Catherine’s reign, to bring sharia law on the family closer to the norms of secular and Orthodox canon law, Crews shows how the tsar’s officials intervened in family disputes and supported the appeals of Muslim women in particular to reconfigure the traditional interpretation of Islamic justice in line with their own conception of domestic and imperial order. Objecting to Muslim practices of polygamy, bride abduction, and forced marriage, imperial officials sought the cooperation of Muslim scholars who had been trained in the moderate Hanafi legal school to validate their rulings in support of Muslim women’s rights to divorce, property, and physical safety with references to Islamic textual authorities. As a result, Muslim laypeople locked in doctrinal disputes with conservative local clerics found an unlikely ally in the imperial Russian state.

With their increasing interventions in the interpretation of Islamic law during the first half of the nineteenth century, imperial officials developed their own sources of expert knowledge about Islam; they did not have to rely on Muslim scholars and intermediaries. As the new European science of Oriental studies took off in Russian universities (a subject on which Crews might have said more), the state found it easier to restructure Muslim jurisprudence in line with its legal system by imposing binding precedents formulated by Christian scholars of Islam. Mirza Alexander Kazem-Bek, a Muslim convert to Christianity and a legal scholar at Kazan University, southeast of Moscow, perhaps the most important Russian center of Oriental studies in the nineteenth century, had a crucial part in interpreting Islamic law for the imperial bureaucracy. Following his transfer to St. Petersburg University in 1849, he worked behind the scenes at the Ministry of Internal Affairs, reviewing cases sent to the capital on appeal, and he clarified Islamic legal texts, which were full of inconsistencies, on various matters of civil law. By the 1860s, Kazem-Bek had become Russia’s indisputable authority on Islamic law, and his opinion, as Crews suggests, was usually “decisive in limiting lay initiation and bolstering [state-backed] Islamic authority.”

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