Imperial Officials Searching for a Muslim Leader
With the appointment of the viceroy of the Caucasus, Prince M. S. Vorontsov (1844-1853), the “Muslim question” returned to the agenda. Finding a solution that was acceptable to government officials and Muslims was assigned to N. V. Khanykov, an official of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a specialist on Eastern studies and ethnographer. In 1848 he started collecting data on the number of Muslim clerics; information on governance of such clergy in contiguous Muslim states; details on the means of their material support and on the methods of legalizing the existence of Sharia courts. In April 1849 Khanykov prepared a “Draft Statute on the Muslim Clergy of the Teachings of Ali” and a detailed “memorandum.” In it the author sets out not only the history of government measures regarding Muslims in the Transcaucasian Krai but also his vision of how this issue should be organized. Displaying deep knowledge if Islam and the Caucasus, Khanykov emphasized the importance of pursuing a firm and simultaneously flexible government policy. In forming well-defined and clear ideas about the government’s objectives, he proposed at the same time that the measures taken be adapted to local conditions so as not to repel the Muslim populace and especially the clergy from the authorities. While preserving a certain dependency on the tsarist administration, the plan proposed by Khanykov for organizing the religious life of Transcaucasian Shia Muslims contained an appreciable degree of internal autonomy, and provided for official recognition of freedom to practice the Muslim religion within the empire. The draft was considered by the Caucasus viceroy’s Council and sent for approval to the Caucasus Committee, then forwarded to the ministers of internal affairs and justice. While on the whole they approved the proposed text, there were critical comments regarding key issues related to Sharia court administration and the relation and subordination of the actions of Muslim clerics to the central civil authorities. It was proposed that the draft be amended and translated so that members of the Transcaucasian Shia clergy could familiarize themselves with it. The ongoing hostilities in the North Caucasus, however, again postponed a resolution of the question of creating Transcaucasian Muslim religious boards. Local civil and military officials confined themselves to general laws that were applied to Muslim subjects in the empire, to official directives and various guides on specific subjects, prepared for members of the top-level Muslim clergy of the Transcaucasian Krai.
Among them, for example, was the “Directive to the Chief Mujtahid of Tiflis Sheikh Ali,” issued by the viceroy of the Caucasus, M. S. Vorontsov.
There is a question about the date of the document. In Catalog 1 for Collection 288, the file is dated 1867. The same year is specified on page 1 of the file itself in Arabic numerals. However, judging by other indicators in it, an error has crept into it. First, the directive was signed by Prince M. S. Vorontsov, who held the position of viceroy of the Caucasus from 1844 to 1854. Although the signature in the Russian version is illegible, it shows the title “governor-general of Novorossiisk Krai and viceroy of Bessarabia,” which he received in 1823. Meanwhile in the Azerbaidzhani Turkic text in Arabic script Vorontsov’s surname is spelled out quite clearly. Second, it was intended for the Mujtahid of Tiflis, Aga Sheikh Ali, who was in charge of the Transcaucasian Shia Muslim clergy from 1850 to 1861 (No. 27). Moreover, the interim explanatory text shows the date both according to the Hijri calendar – 1261 – and the Gregorian – 1845. Therefore the directive should be assumed to have been prepared during the period between 1845 and 1853.