Book Review: Robert D. Crews' For Prophet and Tsar

July 28, 2008
Robert D. Crews’ For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Harvard University Press, 2006) is one of the more interesting and thought-provoking works to emerge from the growing list of studies that have been produced over the past two decades with regard to the Muslim communities of late imperial Russia. Following on the heels of the work of Danil’ D. Azamatov (in particular, his masterly Orenburgskoe Magometanskoe dukhovnoe sobranie v kontse XVIII-XIX vv.), Crews’ study is an examination of the role of “official” Islam in the Russian Empire, and of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly in particular.

There is much to like about this book. It is well-written and very provocative. In my opinion, the book’s principal strength lies in its depiction of the undertakings and objectives of tsarist officials. Whereas much of the historiography prior to Crews viewed Catherine the Great’s creation of the Orenburg Assembly through the prism of Enlightenment and tolerance, Crews perceptively zeroes in on the strategy behind toleration: control.
In so doing, Crews moves this work beyond simply a study of Islam in Russia to interrogate Enlightenment thinking more generally. Despite various shortcomings (described below), For Prophet and Tsar constitutes an important contribution to scholarship relating to the efforts of the tsarist state to administer a vast and diverse population. Indeed, Crew’s conceptualization of Russia as a “multi-confessional empire” is itself a significant contribution to ongoing efforts among historians of the Russian Empire to better articulate the nature of imperial Russia.
That being said, even with respect to Crews’ treatment of the state—which is the book’s main strength—there are some problematic aspects to this work. While the dissertation from which this book was adapted was mainly a history of the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly, For Prophet and Tsar tackles the much more ambitious project of discussing relations between the state and Islam in all of Russia. This is a much more complicated task, particularly since there was not just one Muslim spiritual assembly in Russia, but four. Indeed, each of these four assemblies was governed by its own rules and traditions, and each of them shared distinct sets of relations with both state officials and their own local Muslim populations.
Moreover, other regions of the empire were effectively without any formal spiritual assembly jurisdiction, and were administered in much different ways. Yet for Crews, the “Muslims” discussed in For Prophet and Tsar appear to be mainly the Muslims of the Volga-Ural region, whose experiences have been generalized to cover all of Russia. While there are certainly many similarities with respect to the various arrangements under which the diverse Muslim communities of Russia were governed, there were also many important differences, none of which are well described in this book.
Just as Crews often generalizes the experiences of Volga Muslims to those of Muslims throughout the empire, he also generalizes with respect to time. Indeed, there is little sense of overall historical change in this book, with each chapter jumping from one era to the next and back again. In particular, the importance of the Great Reforms to the administration of non-Muslim communities is ignored altogether. Instead, the Nikolaevan period appears to have been taken as a model to be beamed across the expanse of the nineteenth century until the Revolution of 1905.
While Crews’ discussion of the tsarist state is insightful and, in some ways, even path-breaking, his discussion of Muslim populations in Russia is considerably more problematic. This is particularly the case with regard to Crews’ depiction of the attitudes of Muslims towards the state.
Crews’ argument is that, for Muslims, “religion came to depend on the institutions of the state” (10). Using the state to advance “true religion” (21), Muslims “solicited the intervention of courts and police to correct behavior that they judged to be contrary to the Sharia.” (95). “Threats to Islam,” argues Crews, “came more frequently from within the community” than from the state (96). The documents that Crews draws upon in making this argument are petitions written by Muslims to various authorities in the civil administration. The problem with For Prophet and Tsar is that Crews reads these petitions literally, rather than as discourses employed by Muslims for use in communications with tsarist officials.
Speaking to power, Muslims adopted the multi-confessional discourses used by the state while petitioning state officials. In a “multi-confessional” system of administration where the state held pretensions to both defining and upholding “Muslim Law” (including a state-based monopoly over the use of Sharia courts), it is not surprising that Muslims would likewise employ “Islamic” discourses when presenting their cases to state officials. In Russia, Muslims were obliged to have cases pertaining to marriage, divorce, and the division of property decided by the Sharia-based rulings of the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly. Why, then, would Muslims not emphasize the merits of their cases in Islamic terms when petitioning state officials?
But the fact that Muslims emphasized Islamic discourses in making their cases to tsarist officials hardly means that Muslims viewed the state as an Islamic authority or a defender of their religion. Rather, it means that Muslims—particularly those in the Volga-Ural region, who had been living under multi-confessional administration since the late eighteenth century—had learned to speak the multi-confessional language of tsarist officials when making their case to government offices. Indeed, this kind of vocabulary was a staple of Muslim administration in the Russian Empire, where such Islamo-administrative discourses originated with the state, not with its Muslim subjects.
In making his case, Crews also ignores crucial aspects of the historiography of Muslims in Russia, particularly episodes that call into question his rather benign view of Muslim-state relations. Over the course of two decades (1878-1897) at the end of the nineteenth century, Muslims in hundreds of villages across the Volga region—the very region upon which most of the research of For Prophet and Tsar is based—protested repeatedly, in the name of "Islam," against a number of newly implemented tsarist regulations. These protests took the form of petition campaigns, which likewise employed “Islamic” discourses, and were occasionally accompanied by violent public protests. For years, rumors repeatedly circulated across the region alleging that Muslims would be forcibly converted to Orthodox Christianity.
At the very least, it would seem that these events—which constitute a major component of the regional historiography of the Volga region--would complicate Crews’ view that Muslims saw tsarist officials as "agents" of Islam (165), and would merit some attention. It would also have been nice to see at least some mention of some of the major works of regional historiography pertaining to Muslim communities in the empire, which appear to have been largely ignored in this study--perhaps a consequence of Crews' efforts to immunize himself from the "nationalist dictates that color the writing of history in the [Volga-Ural] region" (449).
It also needs to be noted that the "Islam" about which Crews writes in For Prophet and Tsar is basically that of official institutions (in particular the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly), which represented the Islam of the state. There was, however, an enormous and diverse Islamic civilization in Russia beyond the confines of the state which Crews hardly touches upon. While the Orenburg Assembly and other institutions of official Islam can, without question, constitute an excellent subject of research, Crews is mistaken in equating (even if only by omision) official Islam with Islam in the empire more generally. Although Crews does make the occasional acknowledgement of the existence of Islam beyond the scope of state institutions, most of the many generalizations he makes in For Prophet and Tsar about Muslims, the state, and "Islam" in Russia are directed primarily towards a discussion of official Islam, and not Islamic civilization in the empire more generally.
This is a 'big' book, which in many ways is a good thing--it goes beyond the particulars of events and endeavors to comment upon the nature of tsarist administration more broadly. Such efforts are bound to result in various omissions, simplifications, and generalizations. At issue in For Prophet and Tsar is not the mere presence of omissions, simplifications, and generalizations, but rather their scale and relative importance to the subject matter at hand. While this book has many fine qualities, and Crews' 'big' approach often works with respect to his treatment of the state's intentions, it founders with regard to Crews' handling of the relationship between the state, Muslim communities, and Islam.
All in all, For Prophet and Tsar is a book I would nevertheless recommend to people interested in an introduction to Islam in Russia and Muslim administration. Indeed, it's one of the most interesting and intelligently-written books to come out on Russian imperial history in recent years. For those of us concerned with the question of how Muslims viewed the state, however, the book has some important flaws. I would therefore recommend For Prophet and Tsar with the strongly emphasized caveat that it be read critically and in conjunction with other studies on the region.


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