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).