For Prophet & Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia

Robert D. Crews, For Prophet & Tsar:  Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 2006).

@ Amazon.com for $14.13 (480 pages)

In today’s political climate, much emphasis is put on the tense relationship between Christian and Islamic states.  Events such as those on September 11, 2001, spurred research into the history of a “clash of civilizations” between Islam and Christianity.  Robert Crews’s For Prophet and Tsar challenges this paradigm, which implies that the relationship between the two world religions is one of confrontation and one in which toleration is not possible.  In this book, Crews focuses on the Orthodox Christian Russian Empire and its interactions with the nearly twenty million Muslims within its borders.  Perhaps surprisingly for anyone not well versed in Russian history, his book reveals a story not of incessant contention, but instead of imperial toleration.

The opening of governmental archives after the fall of the Soviet Union granted scholars like Crews access to a wide range of new resources on Russia’s past, such as church records, imperial documents, petitions, and police records.  The past that is revealed by these sources, Crews argues, is not one plagued by ideological difference and ceaseless violence such has oftentimes been portrayed.  Instead, the sources reveal an imperial Russia that, beginning in the second half of the eighteenth century, had an official policy of toleration against all non-Christians living within its domain.  While official Russian attitudes toward Muslims began to shift under Peter the Great, it was Catherine II who ushered in imperial reform with her policy of toleration.  Crews points out that this toleration of non-Christian peoples was somewhat affected by the ideas of the French Enlightenment, but it was the teaching of German camerilists that had the most influence on the Russian empress.  Camerilst theory emphasized what Christianity and Islam (as well as Judaism) had in common instead of highlighting the religions’ doctrinal differences.  However, Crews is quick to show that the motivation behind Catherine’s toleration was not exactly a philosophical respect for religious difference.  Instead, Catherine understood that toleration of the multiple religions in Russia’s vast territory could be used as an instrument of the state to bring order to the empire.

In an attempt to both compete with the Ottoman Empire for the loyalty of Muslims living on the border and to institutionalize toleration and become “the House of Islam”, the Orenburg Assembly was founded in 1788.  A single mufti, or Islamic scholar, presided over the Orenburg Assembly, which was to act as the mediator between the imperial capital in St. Petersburg and the local Muslim leaders in the eastern provinces.  St. Petersburg and the Orenburg Assembly attempted to create the structured hierarchy of the Orthodox Church in the Muslim provinces by building more mosques and encouraging the formation of a Muslim clergy.  Despite the fact that such a clergy had not existed in Islamic culture, a body of government licensed Islamic holy men emerged to lead local parishes.

Through these licenses and appointments, the Orenburg Assembly and the tsarist government were able to penetrate into the lives of locals living in the furthest corners of the empire.  Yet, Crews asserts that the tsarist presence in Islamic culture was not completely the result of coercion.  A system of appellate courts also accompanied the introduction of Islamic clerics.  Crews claims that, according to the petitions and court records, a majority of the laity welcomed the avenue to challenge the decisions of local holy men, and thus the chance to help interpret Shari’a law.  The people would also use the courts and the Orenburg Assembly to settle disagreements within the family such as divorce cases or disputed inheritances.  Islamic clerics would often call on the Assembly to help resolve differences in ways of praying.  Crews’s point in providing such examples is clear: the tsarist presence in Islamic communities was not completely forced, nor was the relationship between government and subject completely one-sided; the government was granted peaceful entrance into its Muslim subjects’ daily lives and the Muslim community gained an outside mediator to reconcile local problems.

It is important to note, as Crews does, that imperial toleration of Muslims did not translate into full equality.  Members of the Orthodox clergy still enjoyed certain privileges that their Muslim counterparts did not.  Official toleration also did not extend to all of the varied branches of Islam.  In an effort to make governability more efficient, the imperial state only supported what its own experts (usually European) in the Orenburg Assembly codified and defined as orthodox Islam.  This standardized view of Islam and the central role of the Orenburg Assembly were important factors in imperial Russia’s rule over its Muslim subjects because while Muslims ran the Assembly and led local Muslim communities, both the appellate courts and the Assembly itself relied on the state to enforce their decisions.  Seen in this light, toleration did not bestow privileges or rights onto people, but instead was a way of policing diverse populations.

Overall, the purpose of Crews’s work is to show that, while there was violence and tension in the Christian-Muslim relations of imperial Russia, the intricate policies of toleration were much more widespread than is traditionally believed, and furthermore, official toleration was a necessity for the empire’s longevity.  Crews tells this story in a clear fashion that allows readers who are not historians of Russia to fully understand the material.  He also ends each chapter with a succinct summary, making sure that readers take away the most important points of the topic.

Criticism of For Prophet and Tsar is limited.  While Crews uses a variety of sources in many different languages, the majority of the source material comes from the imperial government.  Therefore, readers may ask if it is possible to take the information within the documents at face value or whether more material from the local towns and villages should also be utilized as a way to gain a broader perspective.  This criticism aside, Robert Crews’s book is well written and an important contribution to Russian history by showing how religious toleration was used as a tool of the tsarist state to establish social order throughout the empire.

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