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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.”

Close relations with Islam were crucially important to Russian control of Central Asia during the last decades of the imperial regime. The nomads of the Kazakh steppe were basically pagan with a thin veneer of Islamic culture. Their migratory way of life kept them from constructing their own mosques and schools. From the time of Catherine the Great the Russians had supported the development of Islam among the Kazakh pastoralists in the belief that it would encourage them to adopt a more “civilized” existence. By building mosques and schools, it was assumed, the Kazakh tribes would become more settled, turning from nomadic pastoralism to farming and trades, which could be taxed by the state.

By the 1860s, however, Russian officials had begun to doubt the wisdom of relying on Islam as the only means of imperial leverage. The Kazakh ruling class, which collaborated in the Russian conquest of the region in return for a privileged position in the imperial administration, was not particularly religious, but it was proud of its Kazakh heritage. Wary of the role religion played in the anti-Russian movement in the northern Caucasus, where the Daghestani forces of Imam Shamil had only just been defeated, the Russians turned to secular customary law (adat) and the tribal elders who administered it to perform the functions that elsewhere they assigned to the sharia and the clerics in the mosques (a switch that was also made in the northern Caucasus).

In some ways, perhaps, as Crews suggests, this new emphasis on rule by tribal custom was an attempt to give the Kazakh nomads equal status with the Russian peasantry, which was also ruled by customary law following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861. But it was consistent with the imperial strategy of other colonial powers, such as the British in the Punjab or the French in North Africa, whose growing worries about the effectiveness of Islam as a force in opposition to Western “progress” and “civilization” also led them to look instead toward the secular customs of the tribes as an alternative to Islamic law.

Like the British and the French, however, the Russians found that custom was no match for religion as a means of imperial control, not even among the Kazakhs. Without reliable Muslim clerics or effective regulation of religious life, Crews argues, the Kazakh steppe became a breeding ground for itinerant mullahs, who always had the potential to stir unrest among the Muslim poor.

Further south, in Central Asia, where Russian troops arrived in 1865, there were stronger Islamic institutions with well-developed networks of mosques, madrasas, and clerical hierarchies, which, according to Crews, made it easier for the imperial administration to take root. There were few other levers of imperial control in this distant outpost of the Russian empire, where outside the urban centers tsarist officials were very thinly spread. In 1910, Crews tells us, the Ferghana region (in present-day Uzbekistan) had a population of almost two million inhabitants, administered by only fifty-eight Russian officials, two of whom were translators. Crews shows how in cities like Tashkent, Samarkand, and Bukhara the Russians interceded in religious disputes which had long divided these communities, exploiting struggles for the leadership of mosques, madrasas, endowments, and shrines to create new religious and political hierarchies dependent on the patronage of the imperial administration, as when military officials granted tax exemptions to favored clerics following the conquest of Tashkent in 1865. He concludes that “the deep interpenetration of Islamic controversies and tsarist administration account for the relative strength and durability of the imperial order in Central Asia.” There were occasional disturbances, protests over the spread of cholera, and one rebellion, the Andizhan uprising of 1898, when the Kirghiz clashed with Russian settlers; but as Crews points out, the leader of the uprising, Dukchi Ishan,

sought not only to rid the area of Russians but also to forge a society that submitted fully to the shari’a, sweeping aside what he saw as the corrupted religion of the established Sufis and scholars…. For the most part, Muslims became more engaged in their everyday lives in fighting one another than in struggling against the regime.

For Prophet and Tsar is an original and revelatory book. Clearly written and well researched, it sheds new light on the complex interplay between the imperial state and its Muslim subjects in a way that may illuminate contemporary debates about how to secure the allegiances of Muslim populations in modern Western states. Crews’s analysis of the imperial politics of religion presents a cogent and persuasive explanation of the Russian empire’s relative stability in its Muslim territories during the long nineteenth century. It is refreshing to see the question posed this way, not with a view to discovering the social forces that undermined the empire in the longer run, but with a view to understanding the sources of the empire’s durability. For what strikes one about the Russian empire is not that it collapsed, as all empires do, but rather that it managed to survive so long (and resurrect itself in the Soviet era) in such a vast and backward landmass as Eurasia, where the Russians were themselves no more than a large minority. The first national census of 1897 showed that Russians made up only 44 percent of the empire’s population, and that they were one of the slowest-growing ethnic groups. The Muslim population, with its high birth rate, was the fastest-growing ethnic group in the empire.

Crews is less convincing when he deals with these broader social changes, which destabilized the Russian empire in its final years. There is little in his book, for example, about the economic exploitation of the Muslim regions for raw materials, or about the large-scale immigration of Russian agricultural settlers, who took over pastoral lands, though both did much to fuel resentment of imperial rule among the Muslim poor, who found in radical Islam an organizing force and ideology of defiance and resistance against their colonial masters. Crews gives only cursory attention—almost as an afterthought in the book’s final pages—to the Muslim civil rights movement that joined in the revolutions of 1905 and 1917 to bring down the structures of imperial rule.


In its handling of Islam the Soviet empire was clumsily oppressive compared to its tsarist predecessor. Opposed to all religions, the Communists began in the 1920s to eradicate the Muslim judicial and educational institutions promoted by the tsar’s officials in the nineteenth century; to rid the Muslim clergy of their pious endowments (the waqf); and to undermine Islam through propaganda and the persecution of mosque communities. Before 1917, there were 26,000 functioning mosques with 45,000 mullahs in the Russian empire; but by 1963 there were about four hundred mosques and between two and three thousand Muslim clergy left within the Soviet Union, according to statistics presented by Shireen Hunter in Islam in Russia: The Politics of Identity and Security, a lucid study of the challenges confronting Russia at home and abroad in the Muslim world today.

Apart from closing mosques, the Soviet regime also pursued a policy of ethnic fragmentation by deporting Muslim populations (such as the transfer of the Chechens and Meskhetian Turks to Central Asia during World War II) and by including large minorities in Muslim republics and autonomous regions, such as the Tajik majorities of Bukhara and Samarkand who were included in Uzbekistan, or the Uzbeks who were left in Tajikstan and Kirgizstan.

In these conditions, where Muslim Soviet republics were too divided ethnically to develop national identities, Islam became an alternative identity for Muslims alienated by the Soviet system, and in time it became an ideology and a system for organizing resistance to Soviet rule. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a turning point in this respect, not just because the Afghan rebels became a symbol of Islamic strength and defiance for Muslims in the Soviet Union, but perhaps more crucially because the Mujahideen and their Pakistani and Saudi supporters established direct links with Soviet Muslims in Central Asia and elsewhere. As Hunter points out, many Soviet Muslims were exposed to the ideology and guerrilla tactics of the Mujahideen and other jihadists in the religious schools and military camps set up by the Muhammad Zia ul-Haq government of Pakistan on the Afghan-Pakistani frontier.

The Islamic revival that followed the collapse of the Soviet regime bore the imprint of these foreign extremists. In the northern Caucasus in particular, alongside the Sufi brotherhoods connected with mainstream Islam, there was a rapid growth of religious and jihadist movements demanding that sharia become the law of the land. The most influential of these movements has been inspired by the teachings of Muhammad Ibn Abdul Wahhab (Wahhabism), whose activists have been involved in many of the terrorist atrocities committed in the name of Chechen independence against Russian and Chechen citizens. (The Wolves of Islam: Russia and the Faces of Chechen Terror, by Paul Murphy,1 is a gruesome catalog of their criminal activities, their bombings, hostage-takings, kidnappings, and assassinations of thousands of innocent civilians since 1991. This is to be welcomed as a reminder that the Russian forces are not the only ones who have been guilty of atrocities in this brutal war.)

The Shahidists are perhaps the most extreme of the recent groups of jihadists to emerge in the northern Caucasus. Embracing martyrdom as a means of struggle against Russia, its members were involved in the Dubrovka theater siege in Moscow in October 2002, when at least 164 men, women, children, and terrorists were killed. The Shahidists have also been involved in dozens of suicide bombings in Chechnya and North Ossetia, killing hundreds of people. To account for the growing influence of these extremist groups, Hunter points to the chronic problems of unemployment in the northern Caucasus and to the institutional weakness of mainstream Islam after sixty years of persecution by the Soviet regime, which left Russia vulnerable to the mass influx of foreign Islamic missionaries and Islamic teachers from countries where extremism had taken root. As Hunter demonstrates, there were close links between the Taliban in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and the Chechen extremists, a claim long made by the Russian government but never adequately accepted by the West, where there was widespread sympathy for the Chechen fighters until September 11.

The international war against Islamic terror has strengthened Russia’s hand in its own struggle to secure its southern Muslim territories, where it has been vulnerable to the influence of Islamic extremists from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. There are signs that the Chechen situation is beginning to be stabilized. The rebel movement has begun to splinter and move into the adjacent territories of Ingushetia and Daghestan since the deaths both of Aslan Maskhadov, the main rebel leader, in March 2005, and the warlord Shamil Basaev, who was responsible for many of the worst atrocities by the Chechen terrorists, including the hostage-taking at a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan in September 2004. Increasingly, the Chechen rebels are not Chechens ethnically at all but Islamic extremists from abroad.

Most of the Chechen population regards them as foreign invaders using their land as a battleground. The Chechens are exhausted by the war and will accept any peace that allows them to rebuild their shattered communities. The parliamentary elections of November 2005, however imperfect they may have been, have given the new pro-Russian government an opportunity to isolate the extremists and win popular support by reconstructing the country. But part of that endeavor must involve the construction of a genuinely democratic electoral system and the international monitoring of human rights, which have been abused by the often brutal methods of the Russian-backed authorities—methods that have been exposed by journalists and human rights organizations. That Anna Politkovskaya, one of the most fearless journalists to have reported on Russian abuses in Chechnya, was murdered on October 7 has created a sense of foreboding about further inquiries into the situation in Chechnya. The Kremlin should not fear democracy: according to polls conducted by the Sociological Center of the Chechen State University in the last three years, only one in five of the Chechen population supports Chechen independence from Russia.

Whatever happens in the Chechen conflict, Russia will increasingly become a Muslim country: the rapidly declining Russian birth rate, which is now at about only 1.5 births per 100 women for ethnic Russians, compared with nearly 5 per 100 women for Muslim ethnic groups, will see to that. The Russian government will need to find a better means of winning the allegiance of its Muslim citizens than waging war against them. It needs to build a genuinely secular state with equal freedom of religion for all faiths. This will mean decoupling the state from Russian Orthodoxy, which was given a privileged position by the 1997 law “On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations.” The law recognized “the special contribution of Orthodoxy to the history of Russia and to the establishment and development of Russia’s spirituality and culture,” in spite of the constitution of 1993, which defined the Russian Federation as a secular state without an official religion. Orthodox leaders have vocally supported the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, and at times have had an inflammatory effect by referring to it as a religious war between Orthodoxy and Islam.2 There is no place for such rhetoric if Russia is to work out a new relationship with its Muslim population. Islam must be fully accepted as an important part of Russia’s cultural identity, and like its tsarist predecessor, the state must look for better ways to integrate its Muslim citizens and encourage moderation among them.

  1. 1

    Potomac Books, 2006.

  2. 2

    On the relations between Orthodoxy and Islam since 1991, see Religion and Identity in Modern Russia: The Revival of Orthodoxy and Islam, edited by Juliet Johnson, Marietta T. Stepaniants, and Benjamin Forest (Ashgate, 2005).

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