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For Prophet and Tsar
By Dr. Rizwana Rahim
Chicago, IL

In Russia, not only does the history repeat itself but it also seems to echo -- maybe, different history in different regions.
In Chechnya and northern Caucasus, there seems no end to the conflict between Muslims and Russians. However, a different situation exists in the Volga-Ural region, another area of Muslim Republics, where attempts are often made for co-operation between Muslims and Russian government: independence in the Muslim Republics’ internal affairs in exchange for co-operation with Russians. This has been the trend (if not always and always successfully) for centuries, certainly since the reign of Catherine the Great (1762-1796). This has been detailed in a recent book based on just-released records from the area. “For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia” by Robert D. Crews (463 pages, May 2006, Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674021649).
Islam has been present in what is now Russia since the mid-7th century (657-659 AD), after the Arab conquest of Derbent in Dagestan, a Muslim Russian Republic on the western shores of the Caspian Sea. This was within 25 years of Prophet Mohammad’s death. Derbent has the oldest mosque in Europe, and in its cemetery are the graves of some of Prophet Mohammad’s ‘sahebis’. From there, after further conquests, it spread westward to its neighbor, Chechnya, and along the northern Caucasus. North Caucasus is one of the two areas of largest Muslim concentrations, with Muslim majority in several southern Republics of Russia. Despite the troubled history Islam has had in Russia, it has survived the repression over the centuries.
Tolstoy’s ‘Hadji Murat’, a novella not nearly as widely read as his other novels, must still echo through not just Chechnya but throughout Russia today. Nearly 100 years ago, Tolstoy told the story of how the eponymous Chechen fighter, who had fiercely engaged the Russian military for long, came to surrender himself to Russia because of his conflict with his own commander, and how culturally and behaviorally different was he (in the 1850s) compared to then-Tsar, Nicholas I. Here, this history of conflict still continues.
In the Volga-Ural region, another area of a few more Russian Muslim Republics, Islam came later, mostly through trade, commerce and other peaceful exchanges with Central Asian Muslims. Muslims of this region (as elsewhere in Russia) have not, however, forgotten the horrible destruction in 1572 of Kazan (now capital of Tatarstan, and long a center of Muslim civilization and culture) by Ivan the Terrible or the repression that followed for some 200 years. That was before Catherine the Great made conciliatory gestures toward Muslims, stopped the destruction of their mosques and established the first Muslim institution in Ufa (now, Capital another Muslim Russian Republic, Bashkorostan in the Volga region), in return for Muslim co-operation. Nor have the Russians forgotten the Mongol Golden Horde reign of the 13th century of most of the present-day Russia and the Muslim-Tatar influence. Berke Khan, a grandson of Genghis, was the first Mongol of rank to adopt Islam, which became the official religion in early 14th century during the reign of Uzbeg Khan (1312-1341). Despite all this, Volga-Ural Muslims have a history different from that of northern Caucasus, and prefer their own ways of trade: loyalty to Russia in exchange for independence in their local/regional/ religious affairs.
Apart from Muslim republics in Northern Caucasus and Volga-Ural region, Muslims are also present in large numbers in Moscow and St. Petersburg (2-3 million of the total). Today in Russia, after the independence of several Muslim republics when the Soviet Union was dissolved, those who declare themselves Muslims account for about 5% of the total population (150 million). After about 70 years of communist rule, a period in which religious activities were discouraged, a third of Russians declare no religious affiliation, and this fraction may well include people with Muslim ancestry. Significant Muslim concentrations are present in 89 territories within Russia, some in remote areas like Kamchatka Peninsula. For a broader historical discussion of Muslims in Russia, I refer the readers to a series of my three articles (‘Islam in Russia’) in Pakistan Link [8 & 22 July, 2005 ;, and
15 September, 2005 ].
Crews, a history professor at Stanford and a Russian expert, gets into the historiography of Muslims in Russia and the fluctuations in their relationship with the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union and the present-day Russia. Instead of the inevitable ‘clash of civilization’ theory advanced by so many others, he shows how Russians tried to acquire Muslim support, loyalty and co-operation in the name of Allah and the Prophet, while they provided them necessary protection, as they went about expanding their Empire. He sketches an elaborate picture of a deep multi-faceted relationship between the Muslims and the Russians, based on the provincial archives (including police and court records, Muslim petitions, and clerical writings, not accessible before 1991) of Kazan and Ufa, both important centers of Russian Islam in the Volga region.
He returns to the accommodative policies of Catherine the Great, and how she regarded Islam as a pillar, along with Russian (Christian) Orthodoxy. He compares this with attempts in the modern Russia to re-establish and reconstruct the State-religious ties, not just with Orthodoxy to the exclusion of Islam but with both, in some balance. He recalls how, soon after capturing Tashkent, a Russian general developed a compact with the Central Asian Muslim religious scholars guaranteeing to uphold their religious tradition, authority and institutions in exchange of their support and loyalty. The Tsarists not only supported the Muslim scholars and elite but helped them fight to uphold the Sharia law and fighting what they thought was heresy. Russians of course helped their favorite scholars, and even adjudicated and mediated internal conflicts and grievances, not leaving entirely in the hands of Islamic judges.
Crews believes that an understanding between the modern Russian nationalism and Russian Muslims is not such an impossibility, despite the vociferous anti-Muslim sentiments among the neo-nationalist Russians today. In Russia today, there are many high-ranking political figures of Muslim-Tartar background who seem to be leaning toward a Eurasian or ‘Slavic-Turkic’ union (i.e., most of the former Soviet Union) to resist the Western Anglo-Saxon capitalistic (read: US-UK) policies.
In his briefing to Radio Free Europe office Washington, DC, Paul Goble (a Russia expert from University of Tallinn, Estonia, a former Soviet republic) predicted that Russia will have a Muslim majority “within our life-time.” He based this on the following ethnographic statistics: (i) Since 1989, there has been a 40% increase in Muslim population in Russia (25 million, self-declared), with 2.5 to 3.5 million living in Moscow alone, more than in any European city, (ii) Russia had about 300 mosques in 1991, and now more than 8,000, (iii) military experts predict that in the next 4-5 years, Muslim conscripts in Russian military would account for 40%, and (iv) the 70% or so ethnic Russians who now have anti-Muslim feelings wouldn’t be able to dampen the Muslim rise; instead, it might radicalize more Muslims not radicalized now.
Crews thinks that turning the Chechen war into a ‘war of civilizations’ would further alienate Muslims who now live quietly in 89 different regions of Russia, some in deep Slavic heartland. This, Russia cannot afford at this time, but the debate continues as things develop. History echoes loud.


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