During the second half of the 19th century the Russian Empire was a multi-confessional polity that was home to fourteen million Muslims. The imperial state sponsored a regime of legal pluralism that sanctioned a number of bodies of law including sharia. The institutional arrangements allowing for the application of sharia in the Empire were various. In areas where Muslims lived under the jurisdiction of ‘local elected councils’ (Rus. zemstvo), Islamic law was administered by Spiritual Administrations and muftiates. Sharia courts did not exist there and legal affairs underwent a process of bureaucratization and standardization. Such was the situation in the Volga-Ural regions and Siberia, Crimea, Bashkiria, and Transcaucasia. In other Muslim-majority areas conquered in the 1860s, we observe a different form of governance at play. In the North-Caucasus and Central Asia, the Muslim population could take legal action directly to qadis presiding over ‘native courts’ (narodnye sudy) that also fulfilled notary duties. In contrast to the Spiritual Administrations, native courts enjoyed a considerable degree of autonomy in dispensing justice. In these regions, the harmonization of sharia with imperial statutory laws was never accomplished.
Although it has long been noted that, in the Russian Empire, Muslims inhabited a space of differentiated jurisprudence, little has been done to clarify what was the law that contemporaries called ‘sharia,’ to appreciate the legal diversity existing within the Islamic juridical field itself, or to examine these differences comparatively. First of all, the scope of sharia’s application reflected important administrative and jurisdictional variations in the Empire. Under the authority of the Spiritual Administrations, sharia was reduced to issues of personal status law, while in other regions it included misdemeanors falling into the category of criminal law. Second, at the level of procedures differences were even greater. In the Volga-Ural regions and Siberia, for example, the muftiate sometimes conferred on fatwas the status of legal precedents. In Central Asia, by contrast, fatwas retained their traditional attributes of non-binding legal opinions that parties to a dispute acquired from scholars of their own choice. Third, juristic differences between the Shafiʿi and the Hanafi schools of law and the Shiite doctrine added more layers of complexity.
Muslims’ legal consciousness also changed as the Empire subsumed sharia and rearranged legal orders. While Muslims accessed the legal services of the Spiritual Administrations, they were equally full-fledged subjects of the Russian state, and were required to bring their cases to zemstvo and jury trials, at least after Alexander II’s judiciary reforms. We are, therefore, uncertain about how Muslims conceived of their legal entitlements in those areas where they were more exposed to imperial legal practices. It may well be that the strategies that Muslims applied to defend their rights were informed less by sharia than Russian civil law and the experiences that they had with imperial courts.
In Central Asia and the Caucasus too juristic notions and legal imaginations changed dramatically as colonial subjects increasingly subscribed to the ethical notions that were current in imperial bureaucratese; Muslims’ understanding of sharia may thus have changed under the impact of Russian imperial rule. In addition to our interest in how the imperial experience stimulated changes in Muslims’ relations to past legal practices, we are broadly interested in how the Russian Empire’s legal pluralism brought about new alliances among Muslims jurists and brought about new patterns of circulation of Islamic legal knowledge. These alliances, which were forged within a context of imperial rule, provide the framework for our collaborative investigation of Islamic law across the vast and diverse territories of the Russian Empire.
The ‘Sharia in the Russian Empire’ network is an interdisciplinary research group. The network aims to encourage research on sharia and legal diversity across the Russian Empire by creating a space where scholars can discuss new research, primary texts, theory and ideas with others who have experience or interest in Islamic and imperial legal history. The network is based in Vienna and it will host a series of workshops in different academic venues such as the Austrian Academy of Sciences, the University of Pennsylvania, the American University of Central Asia, and the Nazarbayev University. It encourages specific publications in the form of journals’ theme-issues and collected volumes.
1) Workshop, December, 12 2014
2) International Symposium November, 2-4 2015
Institute of Iranian Studies, Vienna
Participants: Ulfat Abdurasulov, Bakhtiyar Babajanov, Vladimir Bobrovnikov, Allen J. Frank, Rozaliya Garipova, James Pickett, Danielle Ross, Paolo Sartori, Pavel Shabley, Nathan Spannaus