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Book Review


Crews, Robert D. For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006). 463 pp, $29.95.

     The Russian tsarist state greatly benefited from the institutionalization of bureaucracy in its newfound Asian colonies. This was not a highly centralized effort, but was often constructed on an ad hoc basis so that the new governmental organs could accommodate the idiosyncrasies of local Islamic communities on the Central Asian steppe and in its oasis towns. Robert Crews' new monograph, titled For Prophet and Tsar, is a fine study which brings focus to the process of Russian imperialism and administration of the Muslim peoples of Central Eurasia. His work incorporates extensive research in archives in the Russian and Soviet capitals as well as frontier outposts like Orenburg and Kazan. Crews' active research methodology is well-reflected in the body of the work itself. The various Turkic populations speak largely via the author's inclusion of legal petitions to local Islamic and tsarist-controlled administrative bodies. These petitions were often complaints of a legal or ecclesiastical nature.

     Crews organizes the book into several chapters which outline the major changes in the relationship between Central Asians and their newfound central government. From the early eighteenth century and the time of Catherine the Great, Russian administrators professed tolerance of all the regime's subjects, loosely defined. This strategy, as the title of the first chapter suggests ("A Church for Islam"), was intended to make Muslim populations a corollary to Orthodox Christians. Overtures were made to make the Muslims part of the larger state body, separate but equal from their Orthodox brethren. The underlying strategy of this was to establish the legitimacy of the tsar alongside God, both for Orthodox and Muslim believers. This first chapter also describes in interesting detail the popular Russian understanding of Islamic beliefs of the time, which were often viewed as a kin of Orthodoxy, with its similar conceptions of sin, punishment, and the like. (75)

     The second chapter looks at the manipulation of the Islamic clergy members under Russian rule. One unintended outcome of this process was to further the status of individual Muslims in the empire as well as many regional and local clergy, provided that they could navigate successfully the tsarist legal system. Crews argues that this bureaucratic framework was also beneficial to the advancement of Islamic orthodoxy. (141) Chapter three examines another target of Russian imperial control: the family unit. In theory, the state was a pyramid of sorts, of which "the most basic building block" was the family. (143) The individual family was analogous to the children who were ultimately answerable to their tsarist patriarch. Russians in the nineteenth century gradually came to accept that Muslim populations had different moral beliefs than those of Christians (polygamy and the overall status of women being a particular point of perceived difference), but this became inconsequential so long as the family pledged its collective allegiance to the state. Crews further finds that women often utilized the new bureaucratic structures in matters involving adultery or property disputes. The system of appeal to local and regional authorities on disputes brought another key benefit to the tsarist regime by linking many individuals inextricably to the state's functions, making "Muslim subjects more dependent upon the regime than ever before." (189)

     The fourth chapter examines Russian encounters with nomadic populations. Nomadic Muslims presented unique challenges to the Russian state, given their recognizably unorthodox beliefs and practices, which were reflected in concepts like the Kazakh traditional practice of adat law. The Russian experience with the Kazakhs and other steppe peoples was reflective of those of other national states' experiences in "civilizing" nomads. (198) Tsarists strove to limit the mobility of nomads and encourage sedentary agriculture. Russians likewise saw the encouragement of orthodox Islam among nomads as a means of gaining firmer control. During the 1860s, Russia expanded its colonial possessions southward and set up an administrative region called Turkestan in the heart of Islamic Central Asia. "Civilizing Turkestan," the title of chapter five, discusses the tsarist incursion into a heavily-orthodox Islamic area in Transoxiana. The newly-arrived Russian government soon asserted itself there as an arbiter of religious disputes. (259) Turkestan became a model of Russian imperialism among Islamic communities by engaging the populace through its bureaucratic structures and encouraging individuals to issue complaints and appeals to higher legal authorities.

     Chapter six looks at the rise of reform movements among Muslim populations in Central Asia (including the Jadids) and the perceived threat of European variants of the Pan-Islamic movements. The tsarists largely succeeded at negotiating with the reformers up until the onset of serious problems in 1905 and were successful likewise at keeping international Islamic movements under wraps until the eve of the tsarist collapse. The Russians' success could in part be attributed to the encouragement of European-style education for Islamic clergy and the encouragement of more (not fewer) mosques being built. The Russian state faced increasing opposition from Islamic organizations following the turmoil of 1905-07.

This book is useful for teaching about imperialism in Central Asia, and the author does a fine job of incorporating a comparative and global approach to his discussion of Russian imperial tactics by making frequent comparisons to its European counterparts. There is also plenty of micro-level historical information and analysis to satisfy the more specialized regional scholar. Though Crews never mentions the term specifically, this study also addresses the complexities of cross-cultural interactions. The Russian/Muslim encounters are presented as a two-way street and the unintended consequences of their interactions are often highlighted.

     For Prophet and Tsar can be useful for college or university instructors also in preparing lectures or student assignments for courses on Russia, Central Asia, Islam, Colonialism/Imperialism, or World History. Individual chapters could work particularly well as student reading assignments for thematic courses in Islam (chapters one and two) or nomads (chapter four). Crews' book is accessible enough to make it readable for advanced undergraduates and still challenging enough for graduate seminar material. It is probably too ambitious for high school students, but assigning individual chapters for discussion would make it workable for the truly ambitious teacher. Lastly, this book is recommended for addressing a number of thematic topics that court a wide range of academic interests.

Scott C. Bailey
University of Hawaii at Manoa


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