Academic journal article Kritika

Speaking Sharia to the State: Muslim Protesters, Tsarist Officials, and the Islamic Discourses of Late Imperial Russia

Academic journal article Kritika

Speaking Sharia to the State: Muslim Protesters, Tsarist Officials, and the Islamic Discourses of Late Imperial Russia

Article excerpt

In the final decades of the 19th century, a crisis broke out in the relations between government officials and Muslim communities in the province of Kazan. A cultural borderland located within a centralizing imperial heartland, Kazan represented one of the oldest and most important sites of Muslim--state interaction in the Russian Empire. (1) From the late 1870s onward, however, Muslim--state relations in the region deteriorated sharply in the face of state efforts to assert more direct control over the administration of the region's Muslim populations. Muslim opposition to these initiatives, taking the form of demonstrations and mass petition campaigns, would occur on an almost yearly basis throughout the final three decades of the century.

How did Muslims in late imperial Russia view the tsarist state and its institutions? For decades during the Cold War, scholars discussing the relations between the tsarist state and non-Russian communities in the empire emphasized the theme of conflict, stressing the importance of identity and "national resilience" in the face of "Russian" rule. (2) More recently, however, this conflict-oriented view of Muslim--state relations in the empire has come under increasing pressure from scholars, mainly working with tsarist state archival sources, who instead have stressed the importance of state institutions (3) and their engagement by Muslims in the empire. (4)

Perhaps the most forceful critique of older conflict-oriented scholarly narratives has come from Robert D. Crews. (5) Crews argues that Muslims "looked to the state" to protect their interests, particularly with respect to matters pertaining to faith. (6) Instead of viewing tsarist officials as enemies, writes Crews, Muslims saw them as "agents of a shari'a to be realized in its entirety," and as allies of Muslims seeking to protect the cause of "true religion." (7) Muslims meanwhile viewed threats to Islam as emanating less from state authorities than from "within the community in the form of neighbors who did not attend communal prayers alongside other villagers or townspeople." In the view of Muslims, Crews writes, "religion" not only found accommodation among tsarist officials but in fact "came to depend upon the institutions of state." (8)

This article looks beyond these narratives of rejection and embrace in an investigation of a series of protests taking place within Muslim communities in the Volga region in the late 19th century. (9) I argue that, while Muslims did not reject tsarist institutions to the degree outlined in many older studies, (10) neither did Muslim subjects of Russia commonly view tsarist officials as defenders of the Islamic faith. (11) Indeed, in the second half of the 19th century, Muslim--state relations in the region were becoming increasingly complex, with Muslims looking to strengthen the role of some institutions of state authority while resisting others. Even in Kazan, one of the most administratively integrated regions of the empire, Muslims were becoming increasingly alienated from tsarist authorities in the region, including both civil and spiritual officials. (12)

Beginning with a discussion of Islamic spiritual (dukhovnoe) administration in Russia, this article examines a series of protests, petition campaigns, and mass rumors circulating in and around the province of Kazan in the final decades of the 19th century, as well as the response of local officials to these events. I pay special attention to the language of Muslim--state communications, especially with regard to what I describe as the use of "Islamic discourses"--that is, the invocation of terminology drawn from Islamic civilization. (13) How, I ask, did a series of conflicts pertaining mainly to administration come to be articulated--by tsarist officials and Muslim protesters alike---in terms of faith? (14)

Islamic Administration in Late Imperial Russia

Kazan Muslims, like other non-Russian populations of the empire, were governed through a system of spiritual administration that was religious in form but largely administrative in content. …

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