Robert Crews explains “how Russia became a Muslim power—and how the government made Islam a pillar of imperial society, transforming Muslims into active participants in the daily operation of the autocracy and the local construction and maintenance of the empire” (p. 3). This book makes a powerful argument which runs counter to the still widespread assumption that Russia, embroiled in so many conflicts with the Ottoman Empire and Iran, regarded itself as the natural enemy of Islam, and that this was also reflected in Russia’s policy towards her “own” Muslims. What Crews is telling us is that the Tsar, who of course regarded himself as the patron of Orthodoxy in the first place, also tried to make use of Islam to control and discipline the Muslim populations of the empire. This was mainly achieved by the creation of a Muslim Muftiate (Crews chooses to translate Dukhovnoe Sobranie as “Ecclesiastical Assembly”) in 1788—a kind of Islamic “church” with a fixed hierarchy subordinate to the guberniia administration and the central government. Islamic scholars and mullahs needed a license from this institution, and thus had themselves transformed into an Islamic “clergy”. Licensed mullahs, as well as all kinds of lay people, filed huge amounts of complaints and petitions not only to the Muftiate, but also to the Russian administration on all levels. The possibility for Muslim litigants to appeal to a Russian court, to the governor-general, and even to the Tsar himself blurred the boundaries between “customary”/Islamic law and state law (151).
The first three chapters (“A Church for Islam”, “The State in the Mosque”, and “An Imperial Family”, pp. 31-191) discuss the creation of that Ecclesiastical Assembly in Ufa and the relationship between the new “clergy” and the Russian administration in the Volga-Urals. Crews describes this relationship as an interdependency: “Religion came to depend on the institutions of the state, just as the empire rested upon confessional foundations” (10). The author provides ample information on the deliberations of Tsarist administrators and ministers on how to deal with Islam. The most precious parts of the book, however, deal with “everyday controversies” within the Muslim communities into which the administration was drawn. Using accounts, petitions, complaints, and other materials from archives in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Orenburg, Kazan, Ufa, and Tashkent, the author discusses issues where “shari‘a” seemed to clash with imperial law (e.g. with regard to burial procedures, 67-71), or where Muslims disagreed over religious norms and practices among themselves. These case studies include individual lawsuits on marriage, divorce, and inheritance, but also struggles over the appointment of mullahs or conflicts occurring when part of a village population split from the community and founded a new mosque. Other cases deal with disputes over land use and the revenues from waqf endowments and Sufi shrines. There is ample evidence of mullahs denouncing each other and trying to draw the tsarist authorities on their side. Crews makes clear how fragile the position of the mullah was, not only with respect to the authorities and the Muftiate, who had the power to remove him from office or punish him, but also with regard to the Muslim “laypeople” who could send complaints and accusations to the authorities. The Islamic “clergymen” obtained no state salary and were therefore completely dependent on the charity of their communities, which were often dominated by powerful notables who pursued their own agendas. It is therefore no wonder that mullahs and muftis repeatedly petitioned the authorities for an official recognition of their status of Muslim clergy as a special “estate”, with appropriate immunities and privileges.
In addition to the cases mentioned above, Crews pays particular attention to moral issues, including accusations of impiety and adultery, complaints about illicit Sufi gatherings and folk feasts attended by both sexes, as well as complaints about the use of alcohol and hidden or open prostitution (cf. also 283 ff., 329 ff.). Crews comes to the conclusion that both the administration and the Islamic “clergy” found a common language on “sin”, and depicted the state law as well as the shari‘a as the guarantor of chastity and morality. The Tsarist police assumed “that Islamic law would guarantee domestic order and harmony among Muslims, much as canon law regulated the Christian family” (145). Crews’ case studies on marriage and divorce are of special interest because they offer ample material on the situation of women in their respective Muslim communities. According to the author, “Russian authorities backed rights for women in Muslim marriages, but in so doing they claimed to be following the textual tradition of Islam itself, not ‘liberating’ women from it” (147). The resolution of these cases rested much on negotiation and personal discretion of the mullahs and the administrators involved, and often worked to the benefit of women. However, Crews detects a general turn towards “anticlericalism” among Russian officials around 1850, when tsarist officials began to rely less on mullahs and muftis as experts and intermediaries and more on the advice of non-Muslim specialists. A prominent example is the Orientalist Professor Alexander Kazem-Bek of St. Petersburg University, a convert to Christianity. Crews shows how this scholar tended to put the classical legal tradition of Hanafi law books (some of which he had edited himself) higher than deliberations of mullahs and Muslim litigants. This is, of course, a wonderful example of “Orientalism”: Philologists regard themselves as the true specialists of Islamic tradition, and they have their interpretations enforced by the colonial state. In several cases discussed by the author, Kazem-Bek’s “advice to the government” worked to the detriment of Muslim women involved in the respective law suits, but it remains unclear whether this was a general tendency.
While these cases dealt with Muslim communities in the European part of Russia, Crews’s book is also welcome for its comparative excursions into Central Asia. Chapter 4 (“Nomads into Muslims”, 192-240) deals with the Russian religious policy in the Steppe region. While the Kazakhs were kept outside of the purview of the Orenburg Ecclesiastical Assembly, the administration initially supported activities of Tatar mullahs in the steppe, believing that an Islamic influence would lead the nomads towards “civilisation”. On Russian incentive and with Tatar support, the khans of the Inner Horde began to build mosques and Islamic schools. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, the Russians decided to curb the Islamic influence among the Kazakhs by limiting the number of mullahs and by the “administrative” closing of mosques. Crews expounds the arguments of the Kazakh bureaucrat and ethnographer Chokan Valikhanov against the support of Islamic law among the nomads; Valikhanov believed that the Kazakhs had never been “real” Muslims, and he opted for a return to customary law as administered by the Kazakh elders. This reflected a growing conviction among officials that Catherine ii’s policy had been a mistake, and that instead of promoting Islam in the steppe one should have done more to convert the Kazakhs to Christianity, and to Russify them. The Islamicisation process continued, however, and Kazakh mullahs repeatedly—but in vain—petitioned the opening of their own Ecclesiastical Administration. According to Crews, it was in the Steppe regions where the Russian state remained weakest, because here the administration was least entangled with the affairs of Islam, and Muslims could not utilise its power on behalf of religion (20).
Crews moves on to Turkistan in chapter 5 (241-292). After the conquest of that region in the 1860s and 70s, the Russian administration’s official policy was “to ignore Islam” in Transoxiana. Consequently, the Tsarist engagement with Islamic institutions in Central Asia was less systematic than elsewhere. Again, the documentation shows that laypeople and clerics alike were embroiling the Russian authorities in the mediation of communal and familial conflicts. The Russian laissez-faire attitude towards Islamic legal disputes prevented the Muslim elite from seriously opposing the new rulers, and it served as a pretext for the Russians, as the author states, “to defer the many promises of the civilising mission” (292). In spite of all this, Crews sees also in this region a “deep interpenetration of Islamic controversies and Tsarist administration” which, in the end, accounts for the “relative strength and durability of the imperial order in Central Asia” (260).
The last chapter (“Heretics, Citizens, Revolutionaries”, 293-349) is devoted to developments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It discusses, among other things, the struggle of baptised Tatars for permission to return to Islam, the missionary work of the Kazan Orthodox seminary, the Vaisov movement, and the Russian officials’ growing weariness of the toleration of Islam (in face of the perceived danger of “Pan-Islam” and wars against the Ottomans). Nevertheless, the toleration of Islam “remained a source of strength for the state” (300).
While Crews’ argument for the interdependency of Islam and Russian state administration is very compelling, one might argue that his thesis is to a certain degree predetermined by his regional and generic choice of sources. There are other regions of the Russian empire, such as the Crimea or the Northwest Caucasus, where huge parts of the Muslim population found Tsarist rule intolerable, and chose to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire. Similarly, Crews makes only limited reference to Dagestan and Chechnya, where an anti-Russian jihad was going on during much of the nineteenth century (cf. 17; 72-76). The implications of war and hijra for the Muslims of Inner Russia have not been studied yet, but one may assume that the brutal Russian war in the North Caucasus, much like today, was not very conducive to creating mutual trust.
Also, the sources used have certain limitations. There can be no doubt that Muslims, when filing petitions to the Russian administration in the Russian language (often with the help of interpreters), tried to manipulate the outcome of their individual cases by appealing to perceived religious and moral commonalities; and the same holds true for the imperial administration, which was interested in discipline and order and therefore alluded to Islamic concepts when dealing with Muslims. The picture that emerges from Crews’ work is therefore one of intensive contact and increasing integration. However, if we take into consideration other genres of historical literature, for example Tatar poetry or local Muslim chronicles, we find that the imperial state is very often conspicuously absent from their narratives, and that Muslims tried to avoid recourse to state authorities. This also holds true for the discourse (in Arabic language) on theology and Islamic law in which many Tatar mullahs were involved; the reader of these works gets the impression that the ‘ulama often ignored the fact that they lived in a Christian state, and that they imagined themselves in a parallel, truly Islamic world, which had more in common with eighth-century Baghdad than with modern Russia. Also, Crews rightly points out that many mullahs did not strive for an official license but avoided surveillance by working “illegally” (cf. 88 ff.; 100 ff.; 105). For these reasons, I would advise some caution against the generality of the statement that “Muslim men and women came to imagine the imperial state as a potential instrument of God’s will” (20; cf. 358, where the author states that Muslims continued to regard the regime as a “guardian of divine law”).
Crews has made formidable use of the research literature in Russian, English, French, German, and has also used Turkish and Tatar books. These works, however, are mainly quoted for the individual factual information that they provide; the reader thus misses a general discussion of the state of the art which would have helped to situate Crews’ achievements in the larger context. This omission, as well as the absence of a bibliography, is probably due to the exigencies of the book market. These remarks notwithstanding, Crews’ book is a very valuable and well-written contribution to the field.