Tag Archives: russia

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).

Russian imperialism shaped Central Asian Islam in profound ways.

18th Century Colonial Russia and Islamic Feuds: Jadids v. Ulama

Muslims—specifically jadids and ulama—reacted to indirect imperial rule in different ways. The ulama first rejected Russian rule in the late 19th century, then they filled the power vacuum left by Russia’s policy of “ignoring Islam,” thereby functioning as agents of imperial power (Khalid 38-40). Simultaneously, a younger generation of Muslims–jadids–suffered from an existential religious crisis and subsequently denounced “traditional” Islam (41). While the reaction of the ulama seems predictable, the plight of the jadids seems much more fascinating. One sentence in Khalid’s analysis offered clues to the foundational philosophy of the reformists: “Enlightenment and education would solve all the problems of the community” (41).

Enlightenment. This refrain sounds familiar. Khalid refers to the “Europhilia” of the jadids, but I kept wondering if this reformist platform is a direct reaction to Russian imperial authority and its relation to the ulama. The Russian empire arguably suffered from Europhilia, and it seems possible that these Enlightened ideas infiltrated Central Asia’s Islamic society. Khalid noted that reformist Islam was a hallmark of modernist thinking in the 19th century (44), but I wonder if this broader redefinition of Islam correlates with colonialism around the globe.

Fitrat gives a satire-laden critique of the conservative ulama as he reconstructs a Socratic dialogue between a “European” and a “teacher.” To Fitrat, the teacher signifies the ulama, and the European symbolizes the endeavors of the jadids (244-245). Conversely, Cholpan extols the virtues of modernization through the teacher—a Russian teacher—who educates a young Turk “according to the needs of the times” (264-265). In each case, the “European” bestows knowledge.