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  • Military-Civil Administration and Islam in the North Caucasus, 1858–83
  • Timothy K. Blauvelt (bio)

As the Caucasus War of the 19th century drew to a close, a large population of Muslim mountaineers in the North Caucasus came under the authority of the Russian Empire. Many of these peoples had been resisting Russian rule for decades, and they had now somehow to be brought into the framework of the empire and made into peaceful subjects. Since Islam and the Islamic legal tradition played central roles in sustaining resistance to the empire during the war, tsarist officials had also to decide on an approach to dealing with the religion and its jurisprudence and with Muslim spiritual elites in the region. The tsarist government itself was not of a single mind about how best to approach Islam in the North Caucasus. Some elements of the government favored a continuation of the policy begun in the Volga basin and in the Urals in the 18th century of creating an official Muslim hierarchy for all Muslim territories of the empire. But other officials feared that an institutionalized Islamic system in the North Caucasus would be dangerous for Russian control, especially in the wake of Shamil's success in constructing state structures based on Islamic law and using them as a basis for resistance to Russian rule over such a long period. Therefore in the North Caucasus, after extensive deliberation and internal debate, the Russian government ultimately did not allow the extension of an official Islamic hierarchical organization. Instead, it started to give preference to a policy of supporting so-called "customary" law, or adat, over "Muhammadan law," or Sharia, and of co-opting and strengthening secular leaders over the previously existing Islamic spiritual elite. [End Page 221]

The resulting approach of indirect, local, secular control and self-government, with oversight by Russian military officers, came to be referred to as the system of military-civil administration (voenno-narodnoe upravlenie), under the authority of the Caucasus Mountain Administration, which was later renamed the Caucasus Military-Civil Administration (Kavkazskoe voenno-narodnoe upravlenie). This military-civil administration was distinct from the system of civil administration (grazhdanskoe upravlenie) that was implemented in more settled parts of the region, such as the bigger towns and cities of the North Caucasus and most of the Transcaucasus, and it had the ultimate aim of eventually bringing the areas currently under military administration into a unified civil administration. One main goal of this military-civil administration was to create a unified and centralized administrative organization in the conquered territories. Another goal was to weaken the authority of the Muslim spiritual leaders of the village communities and to create a secular administration that had authority among Muslims while fulfilling the decisions of the central authorities. The long-term intention was to "civilize" the mountaineers and reduce their "fanaticism" and aggressiveness, thus making them passive and peaceful citizens of the empire. In so doing, tsarist officials hoped to restrict the spread of hostile forms of Islam and to supplant Sharia, which they saw as a serious threat to Russian control in the Caucasus.

Thus local tsarist officials in the Caucasus Mountain Administration in the North Caucasus approached the problem of Islam with a clear conception that the best way to bring the Muslim mountaineers into line with Russian governance and law was to rule indirectly and to restrict the role of the clergy by supporting secular elites and traditional, non-Islamic law. This approach contradicted the earlier imperial policy of creating officially supported hierarchies for the Muslim clergy. Local officials were able to prevent the extension of such hierarchies to their areas of responsibility in the North Caucasus; paradoxically, however, and due in part to their paranoia about Islam, in the end they adopted in practice a very different mode of intervention in, and interaction with, the Muslim community.

This article examines how the Caucasus Mountain Administration approached Islam and the role of religion and religious elites in consolidating imperial control, from the start of the institutionalization of military-civil administration in 1858 until the Chancellery of the Viceroy was dissolved in 1883. It examines the interaction of the Russian military administrators and Islam...


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pp. 221-255
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