Aleksandr Kobzev has produced a detailed study of Islamic institutions in Simbirsk province during the late imperial era, from about 1866, the time of a large scale “apostasy” movement among Baptised Tatars, until around 1906, when the relaxation of laws concerning religious affiliation led to a wave of conversions among both Baptised Tatars and Chuvashes in the province. He bases his study upon a seemingly exhaustive study of Russian archival sources, primarily, if not entirely, from the Ul’ianovsk oblast’ archive in the city of Simbirsk. As such, the work provides a comprehensive study of Islamic institutions in a single period during the imperial Russian state from the perspective of official correspondence originating from both within the Muslim communities themselves, and the various administrative bodies that were concerned with Muslims in the former Simbirsk guberniia. While there exist some similar works based on archival sources and focusing on specific provinces, including studies of Nizhny Novgorod and Samara provinces, none approach the comprehensiveness of Kobzev’s monograph.
The author divides his work into three major sections. The first deals with the major institutions of the Muslim community that came under the authority of the provincial authorities, namely mahallas, mosques, madrasas and maktabs, and the personnel that staffed them. The second section addresses the “apostasy” of Baptised Tatars that occurred in the 1860s, and again following the 1905 Revolution. The third section addresses the Islamisation of Chuvashes in the province, especially after 1905. A substantial portion of the work addresses issues of Islamisation and Christianisation of Chuvashes and the apostasy of Baptised Tatars. The latter group, while numerically small, drew substantial attention on the past of the authorities. The author provides a solid discussion on the main incidents of mass apostasy, state reactions, and the religious life of these Tatars as crypto-Muslims and later as “converts.”
The author’s exhaustive examination of a single province’s Russian archival sources is certainly a very important contribution to our understanding of Islamic life in later Imperial Russia. In this regard a detailed examination of Russian archival sources is an essential element. It will certainly prove a useful roadmap for scholars seeking to examine other provinces, and will provide a helpful basis for comparison. That being said, in fairness it should be added that important aspects of Muslim religious life are also rarely discussed in the Islamic manuscript and even printed sources, particularly issues of apostasy, Christianisation, and particularly the Islamisation of Chuvashes and Finno-Ugrians in the region. The author deserves praise for identifying and addressing these issues, including rumours among Muslims of forced baptism, and their conceptions of the Orthodox faith. He also appears to have independently reached similar conclusions as scholars who have examined the manuscript sources regarding Islamic education as the fundamental basis for a unified Muslim identity.
At the same time, the work is perhaps not sufficiently critical regarding official archival sources, since they tend to reflect official concerns, and Muslim replies to these concerns, and typically a whole range of issues that concerned Muslims, and related opinions, and that are amply discussed in Turkic manuscript sources, simply do not appear to have been transmitted in the official sources. These include cultural issues, but above all, biographical information on the ‘ulama, which appears to be largely absent from the Russian archival sources. The first section of the book, examining Muslim culture and institutions per se, is competently done insofar as the archival sources permit, and Islamic manuscript sources for Simbirsk province per se may not even be available. However, the author’s generalisations on the Muslim community as a whole based on this case study are vitiated by the exclusion of manuscript sources, which are known to exist for neighbouring provinces, and which serve as an essential check on the archival sources.