I read Robert Crew’s “For Prophet and Tsar” because it was recommended by Razib. As a westerner, the histories of Russia and Islam are unfamiliar to me, that of Islam in the Russian empire even moreso. Unfortunately the book had more information about Russian Islam than I cared to know and was trying to push an optimistic narrative (for politically correct modern times) that I didn’t quite buy. The interesting thing about the Russian empire is that it was a Christian state with Muslim subjects for a much longer period than any other. Unfortunately, the book really only covers the period starting with Catherine the Great’s edict of toleration, several centuries after Muslim subjugation began and not really any earlier than the British & French experience (although with the loss of its Indian territories, I believe France went through an intermission without Muslims). Crews is setting out to argue against Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” by pointing out that a period of cooperation once existed, but Huntington was explicit that civilizational salience was a change from prior divisions by ideologies, nation-states, kingdoms & empires. Crews repeatedly takes care to suggest that Russian state authorities need to treat Muslim subjects well so that new Muslim territories would surrender to them, but the impression I tended to get was that Russian officials treated complaints from Muslim authorities (including ones they had put in power) with indifference at best and expressions of annoyance more often. Near the end he draws a parallel to modern cultivation by European governments of “moderate” Muslims, but imperialists had a different attitude about things. It is true that Slavophiles complaining about the existence of Muslims and demanding they all be converted to Orthodoxy didn’t get their way, but they often seemed to be taken more seriously than Muslims.

Going back to Razib again, he has noted that he once wondered which European nation (other than Albania) would be the first to get a Muslim minority, focusing on France before recalling that Russia has long had a larger Muslim population*. I was surprised to read in this book that by the early 20th century, the Russian empire actually had more Muslim subjects than the Ottoman empire! Granted, the Ottomans were greatly weakened by that time, but still they were long THE islamic polity in Christian eyes (with “Turk” being used as a synonym for “Muslim”). Russia had a long-running rivalry with the Ottomans, and often feared that its Muslim subjects would be more loyal to the Sultan than the Tsar. Its rather ironic then that Russia would come to have the better claim (in some sense) to represent Europe’s muslims. Another interesting bit on Muslim numbers is that Shi’ites were for some time at parity with Sunnis among Russia’s subjects, but by the 1860s the Sunnis achieved a 2:1 ratio.
*I can’t find the post now, which means I might just be misremembering things.

Mark Twain once wrote to apologize for writing such a long letter because he was too busy/lazy to write a short one. I’ve simply been too apathetic to get to writing this review after finishing the book, and am just dashing this off so I don’t have three checked out after I finish my current read. Consider yourself warned about the following rather disorganized notes.

Russia is a particularly unlikely exemplar of progressive religious tolerance (although I’m not sure if it ever completely expelled Jews from all controlled territory) since it explicitly upheld the ideals of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality” after the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless, islamic customs still struck even Russian despisers of liberalism as backward. Crews refers to the “supposedly debased treatment of women in islamic marriages”, but other than the difference of polygamy gives no comparative details of contemporary Orthodox marriages that would let one adjudicate how “supposedly” the relatively “debased” charge was. Again, since the book starts with the Enlightenment era (Catherine was inspired by the Habsburg emperor Joseph II) we don’t know when Russians began looking down on Islam rather than in fearful apprehension. The British & French were more comfortable with a liberal identity by the time they began ruling large Muslim populations, and so their rhetoric of liberating women within their colonies is contrasted with reactionary Russia (even if their actual practices are implied to have been similar). Anglo-Muslim courts took a reformist stance, citing “equity and good conscience”. The version of islam endorsed by the Russian state aspired to be more orthodox (small ‘o’) than Muslims themselves. This was under the influence of Professor Mirza Alexander Kazem-Bek (an Iranian convert from Shi’ite Islam to Christianity) who proclaimed that the standards of scholarship in the Muslim world were atrocious, and launched a movement of Russian scholars of Hanafi islamic legal texts to stop their heathen subjects from doing it wrong and “wake the curiosity of Asia”. Islam had never had the equivalent of the Catholic or Orthodox autonomous hierarchies, but the Russian empire didn’t truck with any yahoo just proclaiming themselves a religious authority and gathering followers, so it set about creating an analogous official Muslim authority structure it could deal with.

Nowadays the echt example of islam derives from Saudi fundamentalists, but at this time period the Ottomans were dominant and “Wahabbi” was a term Muslims flung at each other to accuse them of deviancy, a “false religion”. They often included such accusations of opponents when enlisting the help of Tsarist authorities, even if the accuser was himself was a Sufi cultist telling his followers to reject state authority, writing to authorities who’d had enough bad experience with Sufi cultist rebels (that one could have just been stupid and/or crazy). The distrust of various politically inflected (or just overly enthusiastic) varieties of islam led Russian authorities to favor the customary tribal law over Shariah in less civilized territories added after Catherine’s passing. The distrust grew to the point that it became preferable to appoint relatively unlearned moneyed Muslims rather than scholars to the Orenburg Muhammad Ecclesiastical Assembly which oversaw state-permitted islamic authorities (although the primary criterion going back to Catherine was always usefulness to the Russian state). Some islamophobes even deplored the previous practice of bringing in Islamic state authorities to civilize their more savage new subjects, denying that they were appropriately categorized as Muslims (rather than pagans putting on airs) and thus should have been targets for conversion to Orthodoxy. Muslim subjects often complained to tsarist authorities about Orthodox missionaries belittling their religion and attempting to poach their members, but Russian authorities really only seemed to care if Muslims tried to convert anybody (sometimes including those who left Islam). At any rate, modernity doomed the Russian stance against the encroaching homogenization of (arguably) islamic peoples, and they failed to entrench pre-islamic customs in Kazakhstan and the northern Caucasus just as the British did in Punjab and the French in Kabyle.

Much of the (boring) historical detail of the book recounts marital/family disputes which the Russian state either intervened in or was dragged into. Interestingly, Muslim women were actually granted more rights with regard to matters such as divoce than Orthodox women. The frequency of Muslim divorce was exceeded only by Jews. Muslims were allowed to marry with Protestants, although Protestants were forbidden to marry pagans while the Orthodox & Catholics could only marry Christians. One thing the Russians didn’t like about traditional Kazakh marriage customs was that it was based on violence & coercion rather than the consent of the woman. Forms of bridal kidnapping still persist in some Muslim areas today, although at times it resembles just a glorified version of eloping. At any rate, the Russian state was involved in such matters in part because it saw the family as a microcosm of tsarist authority (shades of Robert Filmer) and believed imposing its vision of law was necessary to avoid having disordered subjects.

In America there’s now a “whiteness studies” program that talks about “How [european ethnic group] became white”, when in fact racial categorization has merely changed in its salience. The proposition that they were not considered white by bigots can be easily contradicted by reading something like Lothrop Stoddard’s “The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy“. Ambassador Nikolai Charykov is not going to be as well known to Americans, but he saw pan-Islamism as a Zionist plot backed by Germany & Japan against Russia, Britain & France. Why he thought Turkish dominance was aligned with Jewish socialism & anarchism is beyond me, but if Pakistanis can argue their local Taliban are all uncircumcised HinJews working for the C.I.A, then why not? At any rate, he recommended that other Christian states ward off the “yellow peril” by enlisting “the assistance of its white, though Muslim colleagues”. Yet there are liberal westerners today who think Muslim should count as a racial category. The notorious “Black Hundreds” (perhaps analogous to our 2nd Ku Klux Klan) is also recorded as recruiting Muslims in the Kazan province in 1905. I was confused with the association of Islam with Japan. Rival clerics jockeying for Russian state support are recorded as accusing their opponents of praying for the victory of the Japanese as “fellow Muslims”. I was under the impression that Islam was even more marginal in Japan than China, and that the official religion of Japan was Shinto mixed with some Buddhism and maybe Confucianism. Maybe these people didn’t know much about the Japanese other than that they didn’t care for Christian missionaries.

A final odd note that I can’t fit into any paragraph or conclusion is that some of the Muslim territories incorporated into the empire to be uplifted by Russian civilization were so backward that manuscript production persisted alongside printing well into the twentieth century.

Advertisements