This monumental work cannot be summarised in a couple of paragraphs. In it, I. K. Zagidullin, one of the best connoisseurs of the confessional institutions of the Muslims of the Volga Region under the last Rurikids and the Romanovs, has tried to assess the political, social, cultural and religious adaptation of Russia’s and Siberia’s mosques (to the exclusion of the Caucasus) to the changing demographic and legal conditions of the Russian Empire, from the sixteenth to the early twentieth century. Through the multiple evolutions of this key institution of the empire’s Muslim population, the author has cast light on the history of Russia’s policy towards Islam in general, on this policy’s influence over the architectural types of mosques, and on the transformation of social life within local Muslim communities (mahallas, in Russian documents prikhody or “parishes”).
After a substantial introduction on the primary and secondary sources on the question (pp. 10-41), the book is divided into three parts: the mosque as an institution in the political and legal space of the Russian Empire; its place in the ritual and religious life of local Muslim communities; the evolution of the architectural types under the influence of a changing legislation. The first chapter examines four moments or aspects of the institutional history of mosques in Russia and Siberia: a) their involution during a period of strong limitations from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century; b) the political as well as religious aspect of mosque rituals in imperial Russia; c) the social aspects of the organisation of collective prayer; d) the issues related to the setting up of worship places in the first decades of the twentieth century. The second part of the book deals at length with the typology of worship places: cathedral or jami‘ mosques; prayer houses (Rus. molitvennye doma); the mosque in the social life of local communities; the public meeting and collective prayer. The architectural evolution of Russia’s and Siberia’s mosques is evoked through the building types; the state intervention in the construction and restoration of mosques; the architectural characteristics of mosques in rural areas; Muslim worship places and city-building in the Russian Empire ― with a special subchapter on the construction of cathedral mosques in the empire’s two capitals, and the debates and polemics that were linked with them.
All along his work the author shows extremely sensitive to the variety of regional and local situations, which enriches the documentary dimension of his work. He notably demonstrates how the date of inclusion into the Russian state and the application of such or such part of imperial law directly impacted on the very destiny of local mosques, and on its variation in time. The major turning points identified by the author in the relations between the Russian state and Islam are: the restrictive authorisation given in 1744 to the construction of mosques in multi-confessional villages; the abolition of the Office for the Newly Baptised (Novokreshchenskaia Kontora) in 1764 and the interruption of state support to Orthodox missionary activity amongst Muslim populations; the 1773 Edict of religious toleration forbidding the Orthodox Church to intervene into the management of Muslim worship places in villages were Muslims were a minority; and last the recognition of a Muslim ‘clergy’ (Rus. dukhovenstvo) with the creation of the Mufti and in 1788 of the Orenburg Muhamedan Spiritual Assembly. However, for the Muslim populations of the Ural and of the Russian-Kazakh frontier, the general principles of the “enlightened despotism” showed more decisive. At the same time, the author also shows that the criteria elaborated for the construction of mosques during the long period of forced Christianisation remained in strength during the whole Tsarist period. However, as a result of the rapid demographic growth of the population, in many cases those criteria came to act as a mere regulator for the proportional growth of the amount of Islamic confessional institutions ― with a real restrictive effect for numerically small communities.
The author’s study of the evolution of the collective prayer ritual has driven him to several conclusions, notably on the evolution of the khutba practice (formal sermon including declaration of allegiance to the ruler and to the ruling dynasty) after the Russian annexation of a growing amount of Muslim-peopled land in the course of the nineteenth century, and conversely the increasing familiarity of believers with Russian law and regulations. A second series of considerations concerns the sharing of initiative between the administration and ‘parishioners’ (prikhozhane) in the organisation of Muslim confessional activity ― beginning with the accreditation of new mahallas. Two prominent actors, often forgotten by historians, have been returned their role in this permanent negotiation process: the Orenburg Muhamedan Spiritual Assembly, a key intermediary between the local communities and the regional or central power, and Russian specialists of Oriental studies, many of whom were combining research and teaching activity with a position in the central institutions of political power. From the viewpoint of the intervention of the state in construction activity and in the erection of mosques, the author distinguishes several periods: a relatively long era of indifference from the mid-eighteenth century to 1829, followed by a period characterised, from 1829 to 1862, by the dictation of a limited set of stylistic models inspired by wooden church architecture ― which largely contributed to the sometimes surprising homogenisation of architectural models over an enormous geographical space in European Russia and Siberia ―, after which came a period of freedom of initiative, during which the models elaborated in the previous decades continued however to exert a deep influence. The author casts light on the decisive weight of local geographical, economic, demographic and other conditions in the campaigns for the construction of new mosques, and reconstructs the respective roles played by a multiplicity of actors. A veil is also raised, though elusively, on the non-legal activity of prayer rooms and houses under direction of non-accredited imams, within a number of non-registered communities (in which some will be tempted to see a direct antecedent of the situation that developed in many places in the course of the Soviet period). In market towns and big cities both deeply marked by the strong presence of temporary dwellers from the campaigns, and by the deep impact of rural exodus, the mosque, at least till the early twentieth century, played a key role in socialisation and adaptation of migrants to their new communities. They provided their attendants with protection systems elaborated in the course of several decades, as well as a unique place of discussion of all-Russia’s or local current affairs. Whatever the demographic situation, the rituals organised in and around mosques also helped local communities to consolidate, and to assess their status and rights in a multi-confessional context.
These considerations suggest the extent of the contribution of this exceptional volume to our understanding of the history of relations between the Russian state and the Muslim populations of Muscovy and of the Romanov Empire, through the social and architectural history of the mosque institution in European Russia and Siberia. They also show the exceptionally productive material provided by a yet pioneering study of confessional practice, including collective prayers, for assessing the role of mosques in the public life of the Muslims of Russia from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. If one reserve may be formulated about these postulates and approaches, it would stem from the overrepresentation of Islam and of its institutions in the primary documentation for the history of the Muslims of the Volga-Ural Region and Siberia under Russian domination. Beyond the perfect relevance of most of the author’s observations, all based on an exceptionally deep knowledge of the available documentation, it remains to be asked whether this relative importance given to mosques in public life and socialisation may not be qualified in the future by the treatment of other public places and community institutions not directly linked with the region’s Islamic legacy, but of primary importance for the evolution of inter-confessional relations ― like for instance the still understudied universe of the markets and bazaars, to say nothing of a whole range of public meeting places. Significant appendixes provide transcriptions of the text of imperial laws and regulations on mosques from 1742 to 1896; of circulars decreed in 1905-7 by the Orenburg Muhamedan Spiritual Assembly for the regulation of religious and ritual life in mahallas; of the conditions of the concourse for the project of the cathedral mosque of Saint Petersburg (1907). They are completed by a table of statistics on the presence and distribution of ordinary and cathedral mosques for the year 1856 in the numerous governorates of the extremely wide okrug of the Orenburg ‘Mahomedan’ Spiritual Assembly.