Monthly Archives: September 2013

Catherine engineered a Russian 'confessional state' in which Islam and other religions were "tolerated."

Islam and the Russian “Confessional” State

In terms of the 18th century Russian tsarist empire, “confessionalization” referred to a rather fluctuating toleration of non-Orthodox (Christian) religions. Specifically, in For Prophet and Tsar, Crews identifies how this form of “tolerance” by tsarist officials engineered a conduit for imperial reach into the furthest extent of its empire and actually shaped Islam within its bounds (Crews 2). To the tsars of the Russian Empire, “confessionalization,” was an Enlightened, temporary means of instituting autocratic rule—grounded in religious affiliations as opposed to ethnic ties (8).

But, regarding Islam, tsars like Catherine the Great faced major obstacles from the very beginning. As historian Richard Bulliet found, Islam was “without the benefit, or burden, of an ecclesiastical structure or a centralized source of doctrinal authority” (11). How, then, could the empress integrate a non-hierarchical religious entity into an imperial system?

The tsarist officials reasoned that Christianity and Islam had enough components in common: Each was monotheistic, and Christian religious authorities loosely resembled various Muslim leaders (17). The subordination of Muslims to Orthodox Christians was not ambiguous (38); however, this technique prompted less violence than outright religious suppression. Additionally, the imperial state began to rule laypeople indirectly through the Muslim elite (and an engineered Islamic structure, i.e. the Orenburg Muftiate), yet every stratum of the Muslim population also used the imperial bureaucracy to suit their needs, as evidenced by numerous court documents (21).

Most importantly, tsarist officials used shari’a to their advantage by interweaving Islamic and imperial law. According to Crews, “[ruler and ruled] shared the conviction, emerging out of the 18th century, that the imperial order rested on religious authority, and that the tsar’s agents, along with every subject, had a stake in establishing a world pleasing to God” (21). Hence, if you failed to abide by imperial authority, you also failed to abide by God’s rules.

It must also be noted that tsarist officials viewed their conquests of predominantly Muslim areas through a lens of European Enlightenment that constituted a profound inferiority complex (40). And in a similar vein, tsarist officials predicated their understanding of Islam on their experiences with the Ottoman Empire (and thus did not understand the inherent heterogeneity of Islam from region to region) (12-33).

The Turkic nomads of the Central Asian steppe had a complex relationship with thriving settled civilizations.

Symbiosis: Everyday Life in Central Asia

A succinct distinction between nomadic culture and settled civilization in Central Asia prior to the Russian conquest does not seem to exist, as evidenced by both Scott Levi and Adrienne Edgar in both “Turks and Tajiks in Central Asian History,” and “Everyday Life Among the Turkmen Nomads.” In the beginning Levi acknowledges that the modern conception of “Central Asia” is defined by the five ex-Soviet nation states (Levi 15), but then he delves into the ultra-complex political and social history of the region—aptly described as “waves”—in which first the Persians (then Muslims, Chinese, Mongols, and even a fusion of all of the above) dominated the region. Levi stresses that pastoral nomads and settled farming peoples existed in a symbiotic state, perpetually in flux due to perhaps population pressures, climate change, disease, and displacement (Levi 16). Hence the distinction, or more accurately, the differences between pastoral nomads are probably cultural perceptions and not definite constructs.

For example, Edgar (with more descriptive imagery) delineates between how Europeans perceived nomads as “exotic” and “dangerous” (Edgar 38), whereas nomads—specifically Turkmen—are proud of their nomadic heritage, descending from the Oghuz tribes (Levi 23), and even look down upon sedentary farming peoples  (Edgar 39). In fact, “kinship and genealogy are not just sources of pride to the Turkmen; they are also vital sources of economic and political solidarity” (Edgar 40). After the Russian conquest, ethnic differences are easier to define, but that is not necessarily a positive result. According to Edgar, pastoral nomads in Turkmenistan were forced to settle; this often resulted in starvation (Edgar 43). However, as far as the division between pastoral nomads and sedentary civilization is concerned, two words come to mind that can be interchanged for each: trade and raid.