by Gulnaz Sibgatullina, University of Amsterdam

As Europe continues to grapple with the visibility of its Muslim communities, the prevailing tactics of imagining and comprehending the Muslim Other has changed over the last two decades. If in the 1990s and early 2000s, an array of public figures – in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Russia – engaged in conceptualising a form of Islam that is compatible with liberal values, the post-9/11 discourses that offset securitisation of European Muslim communities concentrate on challenging the very premise that Islam requires any kind of “domestication”. In such discourses that deconstruct the “clash-of-civilisations” narrative, Islam is presented as a religion native to the continent. Today many academic and public institutions work hard to complexify the history of Muslim-Christian relations in Europe beyond the memories of war and oppression. New exhibitions, studies and popular media content bring attention to the previously unknown or forgotten instances of mutual influence between Muslim and Christian art, scholarship, and everyday life in pre-modern and modern periods.

In re-telling the story of interfaith connections in Europe, an exceptionally compelling role is occupied by the figure of a Christian convert to Islam. This figure is always mysterious and captivating not only because his reasons for conversion remain often hidden, poorly understood or hardly relatable. A convert stands out also because of his fluid in-between position, inherent two-sidedness. On the one hand, through his upbringing, the convert is deeply embedded in the Christian worldview and tradition; on the other, through an act of conversion, he has adopted a Muslim lifestyle and norms. Popular perceptions of these two poles – being Christian and being Muslim – are never static. In revealing complex images associated with distinct Muslim-Christian histories and sensitivities, conversion narratives offer particularly invaluable insights.

Unlike accounts of the relationship between Islam and Christianity in Catholic and Protestant Europe, Russian history does not offer many convenient examples of such liminal personalities. First complete Qur’an translations into Russian were produced by secular elites with largely poor knowledge of Islam. Hardly any names come to mind of Orthodox Christian captives who embraced Islam amidst incessant wars that the Russian empire led with Ottoman Turkey and Persia. Even numerous encounters and extensive contacts between Muslims and Orientalist scholars, writers, and artists did not produce a Russian Nasreddine Dinet or Muhammad Asad. The question is: why? Were there simply no cases of conversion from Orthodox Christianity to Islam? Or are these instances carefully forgotten and marginalised?

Clearly, it is difficult to give a satisfying answer to these questions without conducting a comprehensive and inevitably multidisciplinary study. However, a quick glance backwards at historical details widely known from Russian history may shed some light. However incomplete and debatable these facts may be, curiously enough, they repeatedly resurface and begin to circulate in grass-root articulations of various identities in Russia of today. This continuous attentiveness to real, imagined, or potential conversions suggests that a Christian-becomes-Muslim phenomenon has always embodied a kind of transgression that, on the one hand, sharpens the boundaries between religious communities, yet, on the other, simultaneously blurs the demarcation lines and challenges established dichotomies.

Myths, alternative histories, and speculations

The story of a potential conversion to Islam lies in the very heart of Russian Orthodoxy. As the popular legend goes, Vladimir, a ruler of Kievan Rus’ – whose enormous statue has been recently erected in the centre of Moscow – was hesitant about which religion he should choose. Arguably, Vladimir rejected Islam, fearing that the ban on the consumption of pork and alcohol would not be welcomed by his people. The legend, thus, weaves the Islamic thread into the very beginning of Russian history, still feeding into an array of persistent social anxieties and desires related to the Muslim neighbour. In the present day imagination of a Russian citizen who still battles to piece together the past and imbue religion with new meanings, the story of Vladimir’s opting for religion inspires numerous accounts of alternativehistories (‘what if Vladimir did  end up choosing Islam’) and creates fertile soil for speculations (‘Vladimir did embrace Islam’). Remarkably, the 1990s that brought a religious euphoria but also laid bare Russia’s drinking problems witnessed many Russians converting to Islam partially out of protest against the normalised excessive alcohol consumption.

Although it is a fact that in the pre- and early modern period, many pagan settlements in Eurasia embraced Islam, reports from this time on specifically Orthodox Christian converts are incredibly scarce. Some sources mention a certain Zosima (Izosima), an Orthodox monk who embraced Islam in the 13th century and served in the city of Yaroslavl as a tax collector for the Mongols. Another lead is much further in time, the 1649 Council Сode, that prescribes a death penalty to a Muslim who “by means of violence or deception will force a Russian person to his Busurman faith, and, according to his Busurman faith, will circumcise [the Russian].” Reading the excerpt, one cannot help but ponder: did the prescription aim chiefly to prevent apostasy among baptised Muslims (then why there is an explicit mentioning of circumcision)? Or was da’wa more successful among Russian Orthodox Christians than we tend to believe? This research alley is inviting; especially if we recognise that little exploration has been done on possible effects that Russian Christendom experienced when confronted with Greek Orthodox sources that responded to the growing number of converts to Islam under Ottoman rule in the 16th century. As Tijana Krstić has argued in her extraordinarily in-depth study, precisely the production and circulation of numerous narratives about conversion to Islam in the Ottoman empire contributed to the articulation of several religious orthodoxies, including Orthodox Christian and Sunni Islam.

Fighting, Fearing and Fantasising about the Muslim Other

The age of Enlightenment changed Christian-Muslim relations in many aspects. In particular, with the intensification of contacts between the colonisers and the colonised, new modes of imagining the Muslim Other proliferated. In Russia, as elsewhere in Europe, writers engaged in what Edward Said called “[restructuring] the Orient by their art and [making] its colors, light and people visible through their images, rhythms and motifs”, often without actually seeing – literally or metaphorically – whom they described. Rich material for scholarly analysis and critique, these romantic images of the Orient produced, for instance, by the nation’s towering literary figures can also satisfy longings for historical roots. Were Lord Byron, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Alexander Pushkin crypto-Muslims who could not openly speak of their faith but hinted at it through their work? However improbable such assertions may seem, attempts to reclaim the legacy of literary fathers promise significant advantages. And a few are ready to take the risk. Goethe, for instance, is repeatedly counted among the first German Muslims who arguably rejected an Enlightenment overemphasis on rationality. Alleged Muslimness of Russian Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov is equally a reoccurring topic, though the writers have been, so far, given less agency than their German counterpart: Pushkin’s fascination with Islam is attributed to women and Lermontov’s – to his ancestry. As the Russian language gradually becomes the Islamic lingua franca in the post-Soviet space, latent Muslimness of Russian classics may receive further attention. And as it goes, the more cryptic is a writer’s position on Islam, the better: think of Lev Tolstoi’s ambiguous notes on superiority of Islam that fuelled numerous interpretations of Muslim’s role in shaping the Russian civilisation and the very nature of Russianness.

Similar to how recent converts often distance themselves from existing communities of those born-as-Muslims, the Islam of Pushkin and Tolstoi is clearly idealised and stripped of undesired “ethnic” elements. Their Muslim Orient intrigues and fascinates, but also offers a refuge, power to oppose speedily progressing modernisation and industrialisation of European societies. Such a “positive” depiction of Islam describes this religion a holder of values and traditions that are long forgotten in the morally corrupt West. Yet, alongside with desires to return to the safe past exist also fears of being forced to cross the border – following an unwanted marriage or unfortunate captivity – into the lands from which there is no return.

The figure of Ioann Russkii (John the Russian, 1690—1730) has been recently revived and reintroduced into the pantheon of Russian saints. A recruit in Peter the Great’s army, Ioann rose to sainthood because he was captured during the Pruth River Campaign (1710—1713) and sold to slavery to a Turkish master; according to a hagiography, Ioann was forced to convert, but he kept his Christian faith despite repeated humiliations and beatings. Although too little information is known, using the story of an unsuccessful conversion attempt to glorify the Orthodox Christian prisoners of war who perished at the hands of the “Turks” and “Asians” may have been a common practice not only in Greek and Bulgarian but also Russian Orthodox Church. Probably, for a good reason that Fyodor Dostoevskii  in The Brothers Karamazov somewhat mockingly refers to such a custom: “Grigory had gone in the morning to make purchases, and had heard from the shopkeeper Lukyanov the story of a Russian soldier which had appeared in the newspaper of that day. This soldier had been taken prisoner in some remote part of Asia, and was threatened with an immediate agonising death if he did not renounce Christianity and follow Islam. He refused to deny his faith, and was tortured, flayed alive, and died, praising and glorifying Christ. Grigory had related the story at table. [Fyodor Pavlovitch, sipping his brandy and listening to the story], observed that they ought to make a saint of a soldier like that, and to take his skin to some monastery. ‘That would make the people flock, and bring the money in’”. A remnant of an old tradition or invention of a new one, but a rejection of conversion does serve as the ground for present-day attempts to canonise soldiers-seen-as-martyrs from more recent wars – in Afghanistan and Chechnya.

Parts of the Whole

The task of a scholar who will ever undertake writing the history of conversion to Islam in Russia is daunting. It is likely that numerous restrictive laws that prohibited Christian verootstupnichestvo (lit. ‘abandonment of faith’) prevented those who have embraced Islam from leaving compromising traces; or such artefacts have been carefully disguised by the converts themselves or authorities. Yet, the task can also be extremely rewarding, for it promises to reveal the incredible fluidity between communal affiliations, showing unexpected possibilities for negotiating different identities, as it was the case in Agnes Kefeli’s work on conversion among Krashens. In undertaking such a study, we may also need to challenge the very idea that the Muslim has always been perceived as the Other. Although Islam and the Muslim Orient, undoubtedly, have often been instrumental in building oppositions and defining “us” through “them”, a few voices also challenged this dichotomy. After all, in Slavophiles and Eurasianists’ eyes, Protestant Christians were sometimes more distant than “our” Muslims; while some Muslim leaders, such as Ismail Gasprinskii, argued that Islam advocated fundamentally the same values as Orthodox Christianity.