Saturday, July 24, 2021

Imperial Russia’s Regulation of Haj Grew Out of Concerns about Epidemics

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 17 – For the second year in a row, Muslims from Russia and elsewhere around the world have not been able to make the haj to Mecca; but few know that while European powers like Russia promoted the haj in past centuries, they also were among the most active in restricting it because of fears of epidemics.

            In a review of Eileen Kane’s 2015 volume, Russian Hajj: Empire and Muslim Pilgrimage to Mecca (Cornell, 2015) that has now been published in Russian, Andrey Melnikov, editor of NG-Religii tells the story of how concerns about health led to the creation of structures that first regulated and then in Soviet times shut down the haj from Russia.

            After a cholera outbreak in Arabia in 1865, St. Petersburg moved to restrict hajis from Russia; but it did not move fast enough to prevent what appears to be the spread of that disease into the Russian Empire that cost the lives of 250,000 subjects (

            The restrictions the Imperial government put in place were designed to prevent the spread of disease, Kane says, arguing that suggests the tsarist regime did so only because of fears of pan-Islamism or inbred Islamophobia are wrong. Those attitudes played a role, of course, but concern about disease mattered more.

            By the early 20th century, there were more Muslims in Orthodox Russia than in the Muslim Ottoman Empire, Kane says, with 20 million in the Russian Empire and only 14 million in the Ottoman. Consequently, the Russian government felt compelled to support the haj lest it anger its residents and create security problems for itself.

            The tsarist authorities believed that by supporting the haj, they could make money from hajis from other countries transiting the empire to reach Mecca and win sympathy and support from Muslims within Russia and abroad. Despite that goal, a variety of official missteps limited their success, Kane points out.

            What is interesting, she continues, is that “Soviet power valued in Mecca precisely what the tsarist regime feared: it conceived Mecca to be a center of conspiratorial political agitation and anti-colonial activism.” When that did not turn out to be the case, the Bolsheviks dropped this approach and ended any possibility for the haj until the end of Soviet times.

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