A conversation with Agnes Kefeli on Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy
What inspired you to begin this project, and how did this inspiration transform or continue during your project?
I have long had an interest in the history of minorities. Family and scholarly reasons led me to the study of the Turkic world and, in particular, Muslim minorities in Russia. While I was still a graduate student at the Sorbonne and at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes in Paris, I had the privilege to study with Helene Carrere d’Encausse, Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay, and Alexander Benningsen, internationally renowned specialists of Islam in the USSR. Thanks to them, I chose to work on the Turkic-speaking Tatars of the middle Volga, descendants of the Turkic Bolghars and the Golden Horde. Under Russian rule since the sixteenth century, they have had the longest history of resistance to assimilation and co-existence with an alien culture among the Muslim peoples of the Soviet Union.
Benningsen encouraged me to examine their history, which had been unjustly marginalized by the scholarly communities of Russian and Islamic studies. Learning of my interest in cultural and religious history, he suggested that I work on the jadids, the modernist Tatar intellectuals of the end of the nineteenth century, who, in his words, established a Muslim educational system for men and women which had no parallel in India, Egypt, or Algeria until after their decolonization. But while I was looking at the Tatar modernists’ school programs and newspapers, I accidentally found the diaries of several Russian missionaries who lived in Christian and Islamic Tatar villages before the rise of the jadid movement. These missionaries were greatly concerned about the spread of Islamic literacy among the Christian Tatars, whose ancestors had been baptized in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, and the non-Tatar Christian and animist peoples of the middle Volga of Turkic and Finno-Ugric origin (Chuvash, Maris, Udmurts, and Mordvins). Even Russians sent their children to Tatar madrasas if there were no church schools in their vicinity.
The missionaries’ observations, although biased, led me to look at earlier religiously conceived forms of literacy and identity markers. Modernist Tatars and Russian missionaries often ridiculed popular religious literature (including tales of the prophets, eschatological tracts, and Sufi poetry) for its magical components. Likewise, Western historians, including my own mentors, largely ignored these “vulgar” works. Most scholars in the Eurasian and Central Asian field (except for a few--Devin DeWeese, Allen Frank, Ron Sela, Paolo Sartori, and Michael Kemper) emphasized jadidism. Relying primarily on printed Tatar jadid newspapers and writings, Russian archival police reports, and memoirs of jadid activists, most historians depict the jadids as progressive heroes fighting against ignorant, obscurantist ulama who failed to adapt to Russian rule. They tend to describe traditional Muslim education as stagnant, strictly theological, and exclusively male. In fact, traditional Islamic education helped to Islamize animist, Christian Finno-Ugric and Turkic peoples, and even some Russians. It also empowered women to become vectors of Islamic learning within and outside their village boundaries. These new converts to Islam established clandestine mosques and schools in officially Christian Orthodox multi-ethnic villages despite Russian laws that forbade apostasy from Christianity or conversion from any religion of the Empire to Islam.
In the formulation and development of my topic, I was initially influenced by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie who rejected the model that opposed elite culture to popular cultures, and did not view religious knowledge as the monopoly of the clergy or literate class. Later, when I came to the United States and defended my dissertation with Stephen Batalden at Arizona State University, I read and met scholars who molded my views on religion, identity, conversion, and gender. Among them were Richard Eaton, Devin DeWeese, Michael Lambek, and Adeeb Khalid for whom conversion was a complex phenomenon that could take centuries to complete, and who took “popular” knowledge of Islam seriously, showing how it shapes communities and communal action. Cemal Kafadar’s work on the Ottoman empire also revealed to me that frontiers are not fixed or nationally driven, and that identity and religious markers are conditioned by a relational conception of the world. Finally, in the United States I was exposed to gender studies which opened my eyes on women and their active role in shaping new communities of faith. My own research proved that women’s access to knowledge was not a modernist novelty.
What types of fieldwork and research did you pull from in your work?
From 1800 to the revolution, many of the non-Russian Christian and animist minorities of the Middle Volga began to embrace Islam in successive waves of mass “apostasies” to use the Russian legal term. Entire Christian villages--villages that had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries--sent petitions to the tsar asking him to recognize them as Muslim. Close analysis of the apostasy movement and its petitions, trade routes, kinship, and Sufi networks helped me to demonstrate how apostates (mostly peasants and itinerant workers) used Russian and Islamic literacy as tools of communal resistance and expansion.
My scholarly interest has always resided in cultural history and education, but instead of doing a top-down type of institutional history based on Russian governmental archives, I chose to investigate the sources of popular religious knowledge and its impact on local communities. For this reason, I chose not to rely exclusively on Russian governmental archives, but turned to indigenous sources. I investigated Sufi-inspired tales of the prophets, epics, popular didactic works that molded adults’ early childhood and imagination, shrine catalogs, genealogies, Muslim women’s diaries and notebooks, biographical dictionaries, and grave stones, along with Russian missionary diaries, archival documents of the Ministry of Education, trials, ecclesiastical and police reports. My goal was to reconstruct the imaginary world of peasants who rarely made history, especially because they did not constitute the ethnic majority, or because in their own communities, famous intellectuals and theologians took the first stage. I read the literature they loved to chant or discuss (munajat, tales of prophets, didactic manuals, and epics) and visited their sacred trees and graves.
The study of village genealogies and close analysis of testimonies in the archives helped me unlock the persistent image of fixed rural communities, prevalent in Russian and Tatar nationalist discourses. It showed that despite state restrictions--you could be sent to Siberia or lose custody of your children for simply asking to be recognized officially Muslim--people made important choices that could change their personal and communal life forever. Although the events I describe occurred well before the revolution of 1917, fieldwork gave me a sense of the geography, ecology, kinship networks, distances between villages, major trade centers, and sacred places. It also helped me realize that those who chose not to apostatize, but stayed in the bosom of the Eastern Orthodox Church, were not superficially Christianized but had a deep sense of their religious identity, despite nationalist Muslim Tatar claims that baptism was forced upon them and had altered their spiritual development. Those Christian Tatars, who proudly call themselves Kriashen (“baptized”), also had their martyrs, sacred places, and miraculous stories to distinguish themselves from Russians, Muslim Tatars, and apostates (that is those who had left their community to become officially Muslim).
Fieldwork also made me realize that the past is always present. Despite the effects of the Bolshevik revolution, apostate villages—though officially Muslim Tatar today—still bear the mark of their tragic history: neighboring Tatar villagers might occasionally call them “Kriashen” disparagingly when disputes arise about the land or local resources. Most important, despite Stalin’s anti-religious policies, earlier trends of Islamization and Christianization continued during the Soviet period, through marriage, consolidation of fields and villages, and exclusion of those who did not belong. It is worth noting that until the 1950s, marriages took place within former pre-revolutionary Islamized “baptized” network.
How do you see your work in relation to the literature on religion in Central Russia?
My book builds on the works of Paul Werth and Robert Geraci who have worked on the Volga-Kama region. But instead of relying primarily on Russian clerical and police documents, my work also uses Tatar-language documents, building on the accomplishments of Devin Deweese, Allen Frank, and Michael Kemper who were the first to investigate earlier pre-modernist expressions of communal identities through local cosmological myths, hagiographies or prominent Tatar theologians’ treatises. My main contribution to the field of Eurasian studies lies in my focus upon Sufi-inspired tales of the prophets, epics, and popular didactic works, which have so far excited little interest among historians of Eurasia despite their importance in molding Tatars’ imaginal. My work did more than illuminate the non-Russian peasants’ manipulation of their colonizers’ legal system, or deconstruct the Russian perception of their non-Russian subjects. It sought to reconstruct ways non-Russian peasants read Sufi literature and used their knowledge to delineate new religious communities and expand their realm of power. When confronted by Russian missionaries, baptized Tatars who leaned toward Islam were obligated to explain and defend their faith. They drew their metaphoric arguments from past mystical literature which provided models of action in an environment hostile to the expansion of Islam and from the experience of previous Turkic encounters with paganism, shamanism, and various Christianities. Sufi inspired books offered hopes of redemption for all and promises of miraculous empowerment for both genders. Aware of their influence, Eastern-Orthodox missionaries of Russian and Kriashen origin found parallel eschatological myths in their own tradition to substitute for the powerful Muslim tales of divine empowerment. As a result, many baptized villages, not entirely immune to Islamic influence, but ambivalent about their relationship with their Tatar neighbors who viewed them as traitors, used the ancient stories of Christian martyrs of Roman, Greek, Turkic origins to construct their lives and solidify their own communal differences.
My work also shows that before the rise of modernism, the Islamization of a portion of the baptized community was the product of economic expansion among the Tatars of Kazan province (in particular of the development of textile and leather industry at the end of the eighteenth century). It was also the product of intensified economic and spiritual contacts with the rest of the Islamic world, Central Asia and India, through the expansion of Naqshbandi Sufis of the Mujaddidi lineage, and the result of intensified women’s activity in the transmission of sacred knowledge. Until I came into the field, the role of women in the spread of Islamic knowledge in Central Russia had never been done before.
How do you see people using your book?
On a personal level, my book seeks to understand the alien, especially the alien among us, the proximate other, and how religion and education affect people in their everyday lives. It also tries to understand how we become the people we think we are by looking at the genealogy of identity formation. On a scholarly level, my work recognizes the plurality of local Islam and Christianity and engages many of the questions--popular knowledge, the role of women in religion, the nature of mystical thought and practice, religion and conflict, religion and borderlands, and the relationship between religion and modernity—that interest scholars in Religious Studies, Anthropology, Literary Studies, Education, Sociology of Religion, Gender Studies, Slavic Studies, and Eurasian, Central Asian, and Islamic History. My hope is that I will end the marginalization of the Volga region in Islamic studies and in the global history of Muslim-Christian interaction. I also hope that religious categories will not be taken as granted anymore. There is a history behind religious belonging that needs to be constantly revisited to understand its fluidity, and to avoid devastating conflicts based on simplistic constructions of the self.
What is your next project?
I am currently interested in the revival of Islam in the Volga region, and the re-appropriation of the ancient texts that fashioned my apostates’ communal and national identities in the nineteenth century, by modern-day Tatars. I am working on a new book tentatively called, Literary Approaches to Ecological and Ethnic Apocalypse in Muslim Eurasia, that explores the neglected voices of Muslim intellectuals who try to develop new utopias based on religion and ecology.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the secular and religious elites of the Russian Federation have contended with the legacy of the Marxist-Leninist experiment, which sought to transform nature (often in ecologically damaging ways) for the putative benefit of the united international proletariat. The nuclear disasters of Kyshtym in Southern Urals in 1957 and Chernobyl in 1986 revealed the dangers of the Soviet dream of achieving technological supremacy over nature. I am currently exploring the works of Tatar intellectuals, novelists, pedagogues, and imams, who want Tatars to reconnect with their past and their land. These authors argue that if Tatars continue digging oil and participate in their colonizers’ plutonium economy, they will forget the eco-stories that once forged and consolidated their faith. Such reasoning is no different from the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico who also blame the bomb for undermining their sense of self. Tatars as well view the modern transformation of their native landscape as a colonizing enterprise.
One of their responses is to reintroduce Tatar youth to the eschatological dimension of Islam, previously rejected by the communist regime, by repairing access to prophetic authority through the reprinting and reworking of older cosmological/eschatological myths. The emphasis is on the mythical and thaumaturgical instead of rationality and modernist symbolism. For these writers, the miraculous as source of ultimate authority could once again mark boundaries between Muslim Tatars and non-Muslim Russians, and most of all convince nominal Muslim Tatars, atheists, and Kriashens to join their “true Muslim” brethren. This new reality is not that different from the time I studied in my book. There too religious boundaries were in constant change and there too, religious education and popular knowledge of religion served as ways to form new identities.