BY PAVEL SHABLEY, Associate Professor, Kostanay Branch of Chelyabinsk State University

A Sufi under Arrest

In 1853, at the fortress of Kapal in what is today south-eastern Kazakhstan, the curtains came down on one Muhammad Sharif Mansurov. While traveling from Bukhara to Petropavlovsk, Mansurov was arrested on the charge of spreading a “false doctrine.”  Born in the Kazan province at the turn of the 19th century, Mansurov moved to Tashkent (then under the rule of the Khans of Kokand) in the 1840s, where he became a follower of a Bukharan Sufi master, Khalifa Muhammad Husayn. Having received the license to teach the Sufi path, Muhammad Sharif sought, on the one hand, to command authority among the Kazakhs by exploiting his distinguished Sufi affiliation, and on the other, to employ Russians’ defective knowledge about the Kazakh steppe to his own benefit.

Prior to his arrest, Mansurov had been on the radar of Russian authorities for years. He was known to be a Sufi and at that time Sufism aroused all sorts of fears. Unintelligible but ubiquitous, Sufism was said (and wrongly so) to have inspired Muslim resistance to the Russian onslaught in the Caucasus (1830-1859). In fact, it represented a system of belief scarcely comprehensible to the empire and an obscure web of relationships between masters and pupils. Then there was the Kazakh steppe which Russians regarded as the “periphery” of Islamic civilization and whose inhabitants as only superficially Islamized. Kazakhs ought to be safeguarded from Muslim fanaticism and, especially from Pan-Islamists like Sufis, as Tsarist officials would have it. In the eyes of nescient officials and pretentious Orientalists, the Kazakh steppe looked like a tabula rasa and Kazakhs a malleable object of acculturation.

Imperial Nescience

I became interested in the biography of Mansurov and the events that unfolded around his persona because they can explain a lot about what Russians knew, thought they knew, or simply did not know about Sufism in the Kazakh steppe. Potentially, the Mansurov affair can tell us something about how a Western colonial power went about managing a select aspect of Islamic culture, i.e. Sufism, and eventually muddled it on the issue of Pan-Islamism. Parallels to what is happening today around the world are breathtakingly too obvious to be drawn out here.

With the annexation of the Junion and Middle Hordes in the 1730s, the Tsarist empire not only significantly expanded its eastern boundaries, but it also faced major challenges when dealing with a region little known at the time. Lacking as they were specific knowledge about local communities, imperial officials assumed that Kazakhs were only imperfectly Islamized on account of their “nomadic character” and “cultural inferiority.” As a consequence, Russians failed to understand the degree to which Sufism among the Kazakhs was a pervasive socio-cultural phenomenon, and one which informed not only religious practices, but also aspects of communal affiliation. In addition, imperial authorities used Sufism as a residual category and deployed it to cobble together a number of disparate elements ranging from shamanism and the cult of ancestors to religious fanaticism and connections to alleged Pan-Islamic movements.

What I find extremely fascinating about the case of Mansurov is that it shows how the lack of specialized knowledge about Islam had major consequences that severely complicated the administration of the Kazakh steppe and contributed significantly to the criminalization of Sufis. Wishing to severe the ties between the Kazakh steppe with other Muslim-majority regions of the Russian Empire (the Middle Volga, Transoxiana and Khorezm), which ostensibly posed the greatest threat in terms of religious fanaticism, imperial authorities went at great length to marginalize Muslim savants and men of piety who did not fit the system. Recognizing in Sufi affiliations and devotional practices the seeds of potential anti-colonial sentiments, imperial officials fought against the circulation of itinerant mullahs from the southern regions of Central Asia in the Kazakh steppe and adopted policing measures against the training of Kazakhs in the Khanates of Bukhara and Khiva. The obsession with Sufi masters often led to the fabrication of files against otherwise respectable religious figures, which were based in fact on information panic and ludicrous hearsay.

The Mansurov affair is one such case. Russian authorities investigated his case for more than ten years and produced a paper-trail now assembled in 20 volumes. The Mansurov case represented one of the most famous trials for Pan-Islamism in the history of the Russian Empire. It gained so much resonance in the press of the time that the story was often featured in Orthodox missionary literature. By the time of his arrest, Mansurov was at the center of a network stretching across all of Central Asia, i.e., from Bukhara and Tashkent to the north of the Kazakh steppe (Kokshetau and Petropavlovsk) which included influential members of the Kazakh elite such as Chinggisid sultans. His devotional network facilitated his trading activities in fairs in Inner Russia, and helped him to afford the pilgrimage to Mecca three times.

Exploring the File

The material included in the 20-volume file pertaining to Mansurov can be divided into two major groups according to their language of composition, though such groups are far from homogenous. The first one is in Russian and it includes reports crafted by imperial administrators and police authorities for purposes of criminal investigation as well as a cascade of petitions penned by Kazakh intermediaries. Among the plethora of individuals contributing to the investigation, two names in particular stand out for their importance. The first was V.K. Ivashkevich, an exiled Pole, who had a profound experience of the Kazakh steppe with outstanding knowledge of the Kazakh language. He served as Assessor of the Border Commission of the Siberian Kirghiz and in this capacity he adjudicated disputes among Kazakhs, made a census of the population of the Middle Horde, and often settled major inter-clan conflicts. Prone to cutting many corners in the Mansurov’s case, Ivashkevich advocated for soft punitive measures against Mansurov and his followers. The second major personality involved in the Mansurov affair was the famous Chokan Valikhanov. A Chinggisid by descent and the Adjutant of the Governor-General of Western Siberia G.H. Gasford, he took an active involvement in the case merely for instrumental purposes. Indeed, Valikhanov had made himself a name as a true authority on things Kazakh and over matters regarding Islam. The Mansurov case afforded him a convenient opportunity to prove his loyalty to the empire. By depicting Mansurov as an example of religious fanaticism, he created the image of a Sufi leader who, in the eyes of imperial officials little familiar with Islam, looked extremely dangerous to the state.

The View from Below

The Mansurov file includes a significant number of petitions crafted by other Kazakh intermediaries and officials who levied other accusations against Mansurov. Such accusations too revolved around a specific set of ideas that aroused suspicion among Russian investigators: one was Mansurov’s connection with Central Asian Sufi masters; the other was the abuse of power vis-á-vis the Orenburg Mohammedan Spiritual Assembly. Read together, such petitions show how easy it was for locals to discredit someone foreign to the Kazakh steppe like Mansurov by exploiting the empire’s lack of specific knowledge.

The second group of sources includes material in Arabic, Persian and Turki. More specifically, it contains correspondence with major representatives of the Muslim establishment in Russian Central Asia. Such body of sources includes also intelligence gathered on other Sufi leaders who competed against Muhammad Sharif Mansurov for authority. Such Sufi leaders belonged to a Yasavi spiritual lineage as well as a devotional community that was prominent in the Amu-Darya basin and in the southern fringes of the Kazakh steppe, while Mansurov was closely associated with the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya-Husayniyya network mostly influential in Transoxiana and Khorezm.

In addition, my source base includes a fine-grained description of Mansurov's manuscript library and correspondence between his acolytes with several prominent religious figures belonging to the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi network. This material is extremely important for gaining a deeper sense of the curriculum that was used by itinerant Sufis teachers. At the same time, this textual aggregate is key to appreciate the scope of the devotional network within which Mansurov commanded authority with Bukhara serving as a constant supplier of manpower to be stationed in the north and north-east of the Kazakh steppe.

Finally, Mansurov’s file includes a significant body of records pointing to the weakness of the empire in regulating the global traffic of Muslim pilgrims. Claiming different identities (Bukharan, Kazakh, and Tatar), Mansurov was able to circumvent imperial regulations and exploit the Hajj routes for purposes of commerce. It is important to reflect on this aspect of Mansurov’s biography, for it complicates the current view that by overseeing pilgrimage to the holy sites of Islam in the Hijaz, the Russian empire effectively gained the loyalty of its Muslim subjects. In fact, Mansurov's attempt to open a convent for pilgrims in Petropavlovsk did not have anything to do with aspects of loyalty or sovereignty. It was merely another instrument for him to benefit from his connections and gain economic advantage.

Our story began at the fortress of Kapal in the southern corner of the Kazakh steppe. It ended in Siberia, Mansurov’s place of exile. Deprived of all his rights, on April 4, 1859 Mansurov was sentenced to punishment by flogging and to exile to a “remote place.” While he had lived a life of multiple identities, upon his arrest tsarist authorities gave him the status of vagabond (brodiaga), and marked his right hand to this effect. Ironically, the empire made him an itinerant Sufi (dervish) until the end of his life.

A Document in Translation

To the 1st Branch of the Central Administration of Western Siberia.


The inscription above the drawing on the right hand includes the names of the saints: Elisha and Elijah, [which] says that the hajii (“wandering”) Muhammad-Sharif visited the Holy Shrine of Jerusalem and prayed at the foot of the throne of the Almighty for the benefit of Alexander I and Nicholas I, the most august [rulers] in the year 1268 of the Hijra. The sign on the left hand depicts a tree entwined with a snake. It is not among the emblematic insignia of the Mohammedan religion. According to our law, any image of any animal, especially a snake, is intolerable not only [if shown] in Mohammedan temples, but also in private houses: and, therefore, this tree is nothing more than an image of fantasy, despite the crescent moon at its top, which is an emblem of our faith.

Translated by Gabbasov, 03.07.1854

Historical Archive of the Omsk Region, f. 3, op. 3, d. 3644, ll. 145-6