Tag Archives: for prophet and tsar

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).

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For Prophet and Tsar: Russia’s Civilizing Mission in Central Asia

According to Crews, the “disastrous” conclusions of the Crimean War and the Polish rebellion increased Russia’s European inferiority complex (Crews 245). As a result, the empire expanded its territory, effectively encroaching on its geopolitical foes: Britain and China (245).  That’s the ostensibly “real” reason for Russian expansion into Central Asia, and I can stomach that notion a bit easier than any “civilizing mission.” Russia was in Central Asia for Russia. Period.

For one thing, I have never bought the legitimacy of a civilizing mission. Largely influenced by studying the British exercise of similar devices, I understand that these “missions” have ulterior motives. In this instance, Russians used Islamic intermediaries to institute orthodox, shari’a-based imperial law under the guise of eradicating irreligious activity (251-253).

Ironically, while trying to “civilize” Turkestan’s religious structure by introducing an electoral system, polarization between Muslims intensified (259). Additionally, imperial officials manipulated the legality of waqfs to justify acquiring land from their political opponents (270). Tsarist officials claimed that natives were backward in some way, but usually to preserve their own interests—i.e. when Abramov dismantled a committee of Islamic scholars because “given the current, relatively low mental condition of the Muslim population…its members would not be in a position to relate to those being examined impartially and would act in their own personal interests” (266).

In reality, the Russian empire seemingly adhered to its policy of “ignoring Islam.” Expanding under the notion of a “civilizing mission” was purely a façade for the British, the rest of Europe and Turkmen. According to Dostoevsky in “Geok-Tepe. What does Asia Mean to Us,” “This shame that Europe will consider us Asians has been hanging over us for almost two centuries now. But the shame has become particularly strong in us during the present nineteenth century and has almost reached the point of panic” (Dostoevsky 1369). Likewise, Gorchakov compared (and justified) Russia’s Asian “mission” with other European colonial campaigns: the United States in America, the French in Algeria, and English in India (Cracraft 410-411).

If “civilizing” includes impaling infants with lances then throwing them into a fire—as Bayani recounts—the imperial military civilized Yomuts quite well, especially women and children (Islamic 305). Hence a “civilizing mission” is a euphemism for the imperial control of native populations.