- Encountering Islam in the Early Modern World*
In the city of Dehli or Shahjahanabad there are plenty of cannon, but the people are weak and timid. However they say that the inhabitants of the greater part of India are warlike and courageous; there are two peoples who resemble the nomad Turkmenians—the Sikhs and the Maharratas, who are very warlike. They resemble one another very much, being tall, dark-skinned and strongly built. A considerable part of them are of Mohammedan confession, rougher in their manners than the Indians.—Filip Efremov, ca. 17861
When Filip Efremov recorded his extensive travel experiences throughout the Muslim world at the end of the eighteenth century, his descriptions of the people he encountered would have been familiar to many Western writers recording their experiences in India [End Page 195] or Central Asia. Efremov represented the Enlightened West, observing the customs of Muslims with an “Orientalist” eye—noting their “weak and timid” demeanor, not to mention their “rough manners.”2 Two notes here might have struck another foreign observer as remarkable. First, the non-Muslim Indians are admirable, at least as a slight improvement in comparison to the Muslims. Second, the Muslims of India resembled the nomadic Turkmen, a group more familiar to the Russians. The implication, of course, was that Russia’s ability to control “its” Muslims could translate into the ability to control India’s Muslims, thus extending Russia’s borders quite far to the south.
Islam had an uneven relationship with Russian authorities throughout the early modern era. Undeniably, the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453 created a literal crisis of conscience. As a result, following 1453, Russian Orthodox Church rhetoric consistently portrayed Islam as an unquestioned evil and Muslims as moral dangers. This depiction justified the conquest of the Khanate of Kazan’ in 1552. Under the influence of Metropolitan Makarii of Moscow, Tsar Ivan IV’s war against the khanate was portrayed as a religious struggle of the Church Militant. Makarii promised Ivan’s army God’s blessing for their holy work, because the Tatars of Kazan’ had “shamed the word of God” and “desecrated” the faith. For the Muslims’ impiety, Makarii’s predicted the “furious wrath of God,” which would bring victory for the army, fulfilling their new role as holy defenders of Orthodoxy.3 After the victory, a new icon, Blessed Is the Host of the Heavenly Tsar, was painted in commemoration of the victory; it was displayed in the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral. The image confirmed the earlier rhetoric: Archangel Michael led Ivan IV and the Muscovite army back from Kazan’, while numerous angels brought martyrs’ crowns to those fallen in battle.4 In Moscow, therefore, the polemical attack on Islam had become a visible reality. [End Page 196]
Efremov’s observations seem to fit neatly within this tradition of Muscovite condemnation of Muslims. Indeed, by the nineteenth century, Efremov’s depiction of the Muslim south would be an accepted part of an emergent “Russian Orientalism.”5 However, opinions that would become dominant narrative tropes in the nineteenth century only reflected short-term gains in Russia’s geopolitical position vis-à-vis Islam in the late eighteenth century, as recent victories against Ottoman Turkey and Safavid Iran led to an expansion into the Caucasus. Until these recent victories, Russia’s success over its more powerful Muslim neighbors had been largely inconceivable, with the minor victories of Kazan’ and Astrakhan the only true exceptions. In the early seventeenth century, Moscow dispatched several embassies to Iran to appease Shah Abbas I, carrying promises of improving the treatment of Muslim merchants inside Russia.6 Muscovite Russia’s attempt to placate its stronger Muslim neighbors remained the tone of diplomatic exchanges for most of the next two centuries. At the same time, the historic opposition between Orthodoxy and Islam limited Russian depictions of the Muslim empires as inferior cultures. As a result, Russian travelers to the Muslim south were in an uncomfortable position as the representatives of a weak state incapable of matching the military or economic strength of its more powerful neighbors.
Efremov represents an eighteenth-century transition in Russian attitudes toward an Orientalist...