Crews, an assistant professor of history at Stanford University, investigates relations between the Russian state and its Muslim subjects from the late eighteenth century through the early twentieth century, with a focus on exploiting the wealth of Russian documents available after 1991, including police reports, court records, Muslim petitions, and clerical writings.
Contrary to general opinion, Crews argues, the two have not always been in conflict. Instead, a cooperative relationship ruled during the height of Imperial Russia, and the empire's official policy was one of toleration. This policy even required imperial authorities to act as a defender of "orthodox" Islam and co-opt Muslim authorities into the imperial governing system. To "ground imperial authority in religion," governing councils for Muslim communities, such as the Orenberg Muhammad Ecclesiastical Assembly in Ufa, were established. These councils included leading muftis who promoted "orthodox" Islam, and the imperial government was quick to defend them against more radical forms of Islam that might challenge the status quo. As a result, "Muslims needed the tsarist state to live according to God's plan, as they understood it."
However, Crews' argument is shaky. His detailed examination of sources (at times too detailed, miring the reader in example after example) reveals strong ties between imperial authority and Muslim communities without proving that this relationship was mutual. If imperial reliance upon the mufti councils for governance is clear, the muftis and their communities appeared to be using the Russian state as a means for personal gain, rather than relying upon its authority. The reader is left questioning whether the imperial government co-opted Islam or Muslims co-opted the imperial government.
This imbalanced relationship is shown in Crews' chapters on Kazan and Turkistan. In both places, the relationship with imperial authorities became something for Muslim subjects to use when it benefited them and ignore when it did not. Misled by the lack of religious structure in nomadic Kazan, imperial officials first tried to co-opt the populace through reliance upon customary law, the adat. When Islam proved resilient, Russian authorities changed tack, attempting with little luck to recreate the mufti council system. In Turkistan, imperial efforts to co-opt the already existent bureaucratic institutions in the Muslim population were also less than successful; instead of drawing local leaders into imperial service, the mufti councils and other efforts increased corruption and, thus, the communities' distrust of Russian authorities.
Despite this weakness, Crews' book is in other ways ground-breaking. He is to be commended not only for his excellent historical detail but also for showing that the relationship between Russia and Islam is (and has been) more complex than the recent episodes of violence in the Caucasus suggest.