Tolerating Islam

Adeeb Khalid

  • For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia by Robert Crews
    Harvard, 463 pp, June 2006, ISBN 0 674 02164 9

In 1902, Mirza Siraj Rahim, the son of a wealthy merchant from Bukhara, set out on a grand tour that took him to all the major capitals of Europe. He travelled first to the Ottoman Empire, and spent twenty days in Istanbul. He was delighted to be in the capital of the only sovereign Muslim state of any consequence, and a sense of Muslim pride is palpable in his account. Having toured the sights, Mirza Siraj wanted to see the sultan, Abdülhamid II, in person. Abdülhamid was a recluse, who emerged from his palace only once a week, to say Friday prayers at an imperial mosque nearby. Attendance at the mosque was limited to high functionaries and a few carefully chosen guests.

Bukhara had been subjugated by Russia in the 1860s. Having absorbed some of its territory into the new province of Turkestan – roughly, present-day Uzbekistan and Tajikistan – the Russians established a protectorate over the rest, leaving the emir on his throne, but taking charge of external relations. So Mirza Siraj turned to the Russian Embassy, ‘the protector and supporter of us Bukharans throughout the world’, for help in obtaining admittance to the imperial mosque. He was received by the second secretary, who talked to him about the attitude of the Bukharans to their Russian overlords, and sent an official request to the Ottoman Foreign Ministry for a laissez-passer for Mirza Siraj. The following Friday Mirza Siraj was able to visit the mosque.

There was nothing unusual about this episode in the high age of empire, when the vast majority of the world’s Muslims lived under European colonial rule, for the most part peacefully. Indeed, they were more likely to wage war on behalf of European empires (as they did during the First World War) than against them. British consulates throughout the world offered similar ‘protection’ to the British Empire’s Muslim subjects, and France claimed to be a ‘puissance musulmane’ when it came to fighting the Ottoman Empire in 1915. Like all other colonised populations, Muslims adapted to the imposed new order, adopted it, appropriated it, and were profoundly shaped and reshaped by it. It is salutary today, when the crassest notions of conflict between civilisations dominate public debate, to remember that such conflict is neither inevitable nor historically the norm.

What is interesting about the story of Mirza Siraj is that it pertains to Russia, an empire usually dismissed as a ‘prison house of nations’ (the phrase was coined by Lenin and shared by his critics). Russia has a long history of interaction with Islam, and at the turn of the 20th century, its empire included a very large Muslim population. That history is all too often reduced to a simplistic narrative of brutal conquest followed by ham-fisted rule. The episodes we call to mind are the prolonged and bloody wars in the Caucasus in the 19th century, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the late 20th, and the current conflict in Chechnya.

This is beginning to change. The Russian Empire has made a comeback since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In Russia itself, the twin losses of superpower status and of the Soviet narrative have resulted in a new fondness for the country’s imperial past. The post-Soviet public holds up the tsarist empire as proof that Russia was a great power with a glorious history. Russians also look to the imperial past for lessons in how to deal with contemporary concerns, with ethnic diversity, for example, or regionalism or relations between religious communities. (Curiously, the tsarist empire is imagined as an empire without colonies; the Soviet critique of colonialism seems to have stuck to the extent of making them seem undesirable.) Scholars outside Russia have turned to the empire for different reasons. The Soviet Union collapsed just as multiculturalism had become a major academic preoccupation in the West, especially in the United States. Historians have explored the mechanisms that held the Russian Empire together, and by drawing on the vast amount of untapped material in Russia’s archives, have been able to reconfigure the country’s imperial past.

While there is no question that the Russian monarchy was deeply rooted in Orthodox Christianity, the Russian state dealt with the religious heterogeneity of its subjects in a variety of ways. In the late 18th century, inspired by Enlightenment ideas, Catherine the Great issued an edict of toleration for all ‘foreign’ faiths in the empire. Toleration was not the same as freedom of conscience of course but rather a means of ensuring order and harmony among unequals. All subjects of the empire were required to belong to an assigned confessional category and were bound by imperial law to obey the clergy of that faith.

But how were Muslims to be tolerated and governed? The Islamic tradition didn’t have a religious hierarchy resembling that of a church, and no single individual was qualified to pass final judgment on questions of belief or practice. In Islam authority lies not with church councils and the like, but with individuals who derive legitimacy from their learning, piety, lineage and reputation among their peers. This gives Islam an anarchic quality: the authoritative opinions (fatwa) of one expert or one group can be countered with the equally authoritative opinions of another; a set of devotional practices adhered to by one group can be denounced by another.

This made it difficult, though not impossible, to use Islam as an instrument of rule. Muslim rulers had worked out ways of keeping those who had religious authority reconciled to state power. Catherine tried something much more audacious (and modern). She established a ‘spiritual assembly’, an institution that was both a church and a bureaucratic organ: in effect, a Muslim counterpart to the Holy Synod, the body created by Peter the Great earlier in the century to subordinate the Russian Orthodox Church to the state. In the 20th century, many states, Muslim and non-Muslim, tried to institutionalise Islam in this manner – Turkey has a Directorate of Religious Affairs, France a Council of the Muslim Faith – but the Russian attempt was the first.

Headed by a state-appointed mufti, the assembly was responsible for licensing imams and overseeing the operations of mosques. Based in the frontier town of Orenburg, its jurisdiction was limited to the empire’s oldest Muslim communities, the Tatars and Bashkirs of the Volga-Urals region – today the Russian Federation’s republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. The Russian Empire sought legitimacy in the eyes of its Muslim subjects by claiming to be the upholder of Islamic values and the protector of Islam. The Muslim scholars, the ulama, affiliated with the assembly came to see the imperial state as a protector, and even the enforcer of their version of orthodoxy, an orthodoxy formed through the confluence of the interests of the ulama, the state and Russian Orientalists. For ordinary Tatars and Bashkirs, the state, its courts, its bureaucracy and its police provided new arenas in which to settle disputes, including disputes over matters of faith. All this is a far cry from the myth of unbroken hostility between Russia and Islam.

Robert Crews makes many of these points in his new book on Russia’s management of its Muslim subjects from the reign of Catherine the Great until 1917. Unfortunately, to make up for the sins of past generations, Crews overcompensates. ‘The tsarist state,’ he writes, ‘lay at the heart of Islam for most communities of the empire.’ Even in distant Turkestan, ‘the tsarist regime functioned . . . as an arbiter of religious disputes.’ Taken to this extreme, the argument is absurd. The bulk of the book’s evidence comes from the archives of the Orenburg Assembly, and covers the middle decades of the 19th century, but Crews insists on speaking more broadly of a single ‘Islam policy’ that applied more or less across the board to all Muslims in the Russian Empire throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the process, he bulldozes any subtlety, nuance or historical complexity that might stand in his way. There is a great deal of evidence that he does not utilise, and the evidence that he does present is often equivocal, incapable of bearing the burden he places on it.

Russia had gathered its Muslims over the course of several centuries, and different Muslim societies had been incorporated into the Russian state in radically different circumstances, and on very different conditions. As a result, they had vastly different legal statuses. The Volga-Urals region, which had been under Russian rule since the middle of the 16th century, was knitted into the administrative fabric of the empire, its population integrated into imperial categories of rank and status, regardless of religion. By the 19th century, Tatar nobles enjoyed all the rights of the Russian nobility, and prosperous merchants occupied a key position in Russia’s trade with Central Asia. The expansion of the late 18th and early 19th centuries brought many more Muslims into the empire. The annexation of the Crimea in 1783 was followed by a mass exodus of the population to the Ottoman Empire, but the aristocrats who stayed behind were absorbed into the Russian nobility.

Conquests at the turn of the 19th century brought Russia into the Caucasus. While Russian armies conquered the Transcaucasian principalities (including present-day Azerbaijan) with relative ease, the peoples of the mountains consumed Russian energies for the whole of the first half of the century. Their final subjugation came only with the capture of their military and spiritual leader, Shamil, in 1859, and the region remained under military administration until the end of the old regime. Turkestan, conquered between 1864 and 1889, in the context of imperial competition with Britain, was ruled more distantly still. The Russians found its heat and dust utterly alien, and patterned their rule on the model of the French in Algeria and the British in India.

In the Crimea and the Caucasus, the empire created spiritual assemblies modelled on the assembly in Orenburg. In Turkestan, however, Islamic practice remained beyond the control of the state; traditional patterns of learning continued and even flourished. The ulama accommodated themselves to the new political realities, but they were never brought under the bureaucratic control of a spiritual assembly.

By the time the Russians conquered Turkestan, the notion of tolerance had come under attack. Along with tolerance, the Enlightenment had brought the concept of fanaticism to Russia, and Russian administrators in Turkestan deemed Islam to be inherently ‘fanatical’: the question was how to curb or contain the phenomenon. Konstantin von Kaufman, the first governor-general of the province, forbade both Orthodox missionaries and functionaries of the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly to enter his domain, on the grounds that both had the potential of ‘igniting’ fanaticism. The goal instead was ignorirovanie, a disregard of Islam on the part of the state that, Kaufman thought, would lead to its withering. Kaufman died in 1882, and some of his successors advocated greater regulation of Islam, but Turkestan’s remoteness, physical and philosophical, and a general lack of resources ensured that Russian rule sat lightly until the old regime expired.

Did Muslims really see the Russian state as a legitimate arbiter of disputes and an enforcer of Islamic orthodoxy? It was one thing for the state to attempt to create a ‘church’ for Islam; quite another for that attempt to succeed. Most of Crews’s evidence for the success of the venture comes from imperial documents. But the real evidence about what Muslims thought of the assembly has to come from Muslim sources. Such evidence exists, but is to be found in dusty old books in Muslim languages in Arabic script, and I’m not sure that Crews has the skills required to use it. Historians who have done serious work on the Muslim sources report that religious practice and learning remained largely beyond the control of the state. Muslims could be peaceful and loyal subjects of the empire, ready to use its institutions and influence, as Mirza Siraj did, but without seeing religious significance in any of it.

Indeed, in Islamic terms, the Orenburg Assembly’s authority was always suspect. The first muftis were scholars, although not of the first rank, but in the middle of the 19th century, the government began to appoint nobles educated in Russia to the post. Why would an imam who had studied with prestigious scholars in Bukhara feel compelled to heed the opinions of a mufti appointed by the state? Many ulama had doubts about the authority and legitimacy of the assembly and dealt with its bureaucracy only to the extent that they needed to get paperwork done. The assembly did not in any case claim jurisdiction over Muslim education or the intricate web of Sufi practices that defined religion for most of the empire’s Muslims.

Yet for all that, the assembly became an important feature of Muslim public life in the Volga-Urals region. At the turn of the 20th century, some even sought to turn it into an elective body, and thus make it a platform for the articulation of Tatar and Muslim interests within the empire. The assembly survived into the Soviet period, but then everything changed drastically. The Soviets, as we know, were suspicious of all religion, and during the 1920s and 1930s anti-religious activists and ‘militant atheists’, most of them Muslim, destroyed mosques, madrasas and shrines, or took them over for ‘socially useful’ purposes; Islamic scholars, denounced as enemies of the people and of Reason itself, were sent to labour camps or executed. In 1930, the mufti Rizaetdin Fakhretdin pleaded with an official in the Kremlin that ‘the Tatar clergy was at the point of being expunged from the face of the earth.’ In the end, it was a close-run thing. Islam survived, but it was profoundly marked by the experience. What also survived was the Russian imperial method of dealing with ‘foreign’ cults: Stalin even established a ‘spiritual administration’ in Central Asia. Today, ‘spiritual administrations’ directly descended from the one created by Catherine in Orenburg in 1788 continue to provide the state with the means of managing, containing and supervising Islam. How well they succeed is open to question, but they are a tangible legacy of Russia’s imperial past.