In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the role of the ulama in the Volga-Ural Muslim community did change because of the increased involvement of the Russian Empire government and its religious conversion policies. In the Islamic tradition, ulama refers to the protectors, transmitters, and interpreters of spiritual knowledge, including its doctrines and laws. As suggested by Khodarkovsky (1996), there was a new approach toward the conversion of the population into Christianity, which diminished the role of the ulama in general. The system, introduced by a Russian educator Nikolai Il’minskii, emphasized the role of schools, local language education, the creation of alphabets for populations who had non, offering reliable translations of the Bible, as well as saying prayers and conducting liturgy in native languages. Il’minskii’s system has shown to be very successful among the non-Christian population, although later challenged and eliminated by the new wave of Russian nationalism in the 1890s.
Thus, Islamic institutions and the Muslim population have experienced significant changes, especially after the establishment of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly in 1788 (Garipova, 2013). Since that time and throughout the nineteenth century, the local governments of Russia introduced various laws affecting the Volga-Muslim community. A significant part of those laws was intended to control specifically the life of Muslims in the country, thus changing the traditional religious practices through government-established laws. The state intentionally regulated the rules associated with ulama appointment, mosque construction, the functions and authority of religious scholars within the Muslim community, as well as the procedures concerning the performance of marriage and divine inheritance. As a result, the government gained greater power to intervene deeper into the affairs of the Muslim communities, breaking down the traditional communal relationships and influencing different practices, such as shari’a, in previously unseen ways. Besides, the state had the right to prompt officials to sanction the violations of the laws regulating religious issues.
The battle of two religions, Christianity and Islam, which were the foundations of spirituality, worldviews, and social relations, became tough between the Russian and Volga-Ural Muslim people, considering that the majority of Bashkir uprisings against the government were deeply religious. In the letter of Batyrsha Aliev addressed to Empress Elizaveta Petrovna, the author offers his philosophical reflections on the fundamental issues affecting the two populations. His work is closely intertwined with the history of social and religious consciousness and morality, as well as the chronicles of past relationships. The letter illustrates the nature of the opposition between Volga-Urals and Russians; even though the author was already under arrest at the time of the writing, he was highly honest and objective when addressing Elizaveta. Batyrsha wrote that the Russian servicemen committed endless oppression, torture, beatings, bribery, as well as murdered people, while the government is concerned with the religious freedom of Muslim communities that did nothing to deserve such an attitude (Huzhahmetov & Usmanov, 2018). This comment suggests that the colonial rulers performed justice only selectively, failing to recognize its shortcomings and the chaos caused by the oppression and ongoing corruption. Therefore, the Volga-Ural Muslim community was subjected to significant pressure from the Russian government, which diminished the role of the ulama within the religious tradition. The increased focus on Christian conversion and population control was highly limited to the Volga-Ural Muslims when it comes to practicing their religion.
Garipova, R. (2013). The transformation of the ulama and shari’a in the Volga-Ural Muslim community under Russian imperial rule. Web.
Huzhahmetov, A. O., & Usmanov, R. S. (2018). Issues of the Russian-Bashkir relations in Batyrsha Aliev’s letter to Empress Elizaveta Petrovna. Philology. Theory & Practice, 12(2), 263-266.
Khodarkovsky, M. (1996). “Not by word alone”: Missionary policies and religious conversion in early modern Russia. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 38(2), 267-293.