Married or not Married? On the Obligatory Registration of Muslim Marriages in Nineteenth-Century Russia

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The registration and regulation of marriage was one aspect of the Russian empire's modernization policies in the nineteenth century. Efforts by Russian state authorities to establish better control over their subjects through the registration and regulation of marriages created new questions and problems for the Muslim community and its understanding of the legality of marriage. This article focuses on the complications created by modern governance policies in the marriage practices of Russia’s Muslims. Even though the state wanted the Muslim family to be stable so that it might serve as the foundation of an imperial order, new laws introduced by the state caused confusion and disagreement within the Muslim community about the validity of marriages and disrupted the stability of the Muslim family.


The registration and regulation of marriage was one aspect of the Russian empire's modernization policies in the nineteenth century. Efforts by Russian state authorities to establish better control over their subjects through the registration and regulation of marriages created new questions and problems for the Muslim community and its understanding of the legality of marriage. This article focuses on the complications created by modern governance policies in the marriage practices of Russia’s Muslims. Even though the state wanted the Muslim family to be stable so that it might serve as the foundation of an imperial order, new laws introduced by the state caused confusion and disagreement within the Muslim community about the validity of marriages and disrupted the stability of the Muslim family.

On April 17, 1909 Dīn wa Maʿīshāt, a Russian Muslim journal that reflected the views of traditionalist ulama,1 published a letter written by an ākhūnd  2 describing a serious problem in procedures regarding marriages of Muslim people. Ākhūnd Qībluf3 claimed that the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly (hereafter the OA) permitted a woman to marry for a second time without dissolving her first marriage. Since her first marriage had not been registered according to imperial regulations, the OA did not consider it to be valid, and did not regard its termination as a requirement for performing the second marriage. Ākhūnd Qībluf stated that many imams were befuddled since there is no distinction in Islamic law between marriages categorized as official and unofficial.

Qībluf asked the editors of the journal how a second marriage could be valid when the first marriage had not been terminated according to Islamic law. If a woman has children with her second husband without previously having had her first marriage terminated, to whom do the children belong? Logically, Qībluf sarcastically continued, there must be a legal basis (shar‘i sanad) for the OA’s decision, but the ulama were not aware of it. Qībluf ended by stating that he had sent a similar letter to Ma‘lūmāt (the official newspaper of the OA) a year earlier, but that his letter was not published and he did not receive a response.

The editors of the journal confirmed that an unofficial or an unregistered marriage is still valid according to Islamic law. Therefore, if a woman remarries without terminating her previous marriage, her children with her new husband are regarded as the children of the first husband. Although the editors had not seen the aforementioned OA order that invalidated an unofficial marriage and permitted a wife to re-marry, they acknowledged that many imams were confused about this issue. The editors added that their journal had received many letters with similar content. Therefore, they appealed to the OA to publish an explanation of this situation in the pages of Mālūmāt.4

The above-mentioned correspondence concerns an important problem that Muslims of the Russian Empire had to deal with in the nineteenth century. At the center of the problem we see an institution and a practice – the OA, and the obligatory registration of marriages in civil registers (metrical books). The Russian state established the OA in 1788 as an institution to supervise the religious life of Muslim subjects and as a court of appeal. The author of the letter and the editors of the journal recognized the OA as an Islamic institution (jamʿiyya islāmiyya) that was expected to uphold Islamic norms and regulations, not as an alien, Russian imperial institution. In 1836, the state assigned the registration of marriages, births, deaths and divorces to parish imams. As we will see, the registration of marriages in civil registries came to be perceived as a crucial part of Islamic law. However, the functioning of this state-established Islamic institution and the implementation of the law requiring the registration of marriages created important problems for the Muslim community.

The establishment of the OA, and the supervision of the functioning of Islamic law in the domain of family law were the Russian state’s efforts to better incorporate and control Russian Muslims. The inclusion of Islamic law in the imperial legal system conferred authority on Islamic law and made the state a crucial part of its functioning. Robert Crews interprets this process as the foundation of a confessional state in which the Russian state facilitated the governing of multi-confessional subjects through state-authorized religious institutions, while the subjects utilized tsarist courts and police for their own aims. In this confessional state “religion came to depend on the institutions of this state, just as the empire rested upon confessional foundations.”5 Similarly, Jane Burbank argues that the Russian empire set up an “imperial rights regime” in which rights belong to groups, not individual subjects, and are exercised through the state’s authorization.6 According to Burbank, this “system of ascribed rights provided imperial subjects with a legal framework of connection to the polity, empowered them to engage in basic social functions under the protection of the law, and enabled them to decide some matters of local but significant importance with the sanction of the state.”7 Crews and Burbank provide valuable insight into how the Russian state, with a very limited administrative infrastructure, exercised control over a large territory and over a multi-ethnic and multi-confessional population. Yet, it remains unclear how Muslims reacted to the new norms introduced by the imperial state, how they lived through the instances of crises when the system created confusion rather than solutions for its subjects.

I argue that Russian state intervention in Islamic law, which was supposed to strengthen and stabilize the Muslim family as a foundation of the imperial domestic order, in fact, caused serious confusion in the established legal practices of the community. Marriage was one of these social and legal institutions. The reframing of Muslim marriage through the framework of imperial law and adding new conditions to its validity brought disorder to marital practices. The state, which, after the conquest of the Kazan Khanate in the sixteenth century, limited the jurisdiction of Islamic law to personal status law, in the nineteenth century further reduced its jurisdiction in family and inheritance matters.8 When Muslim practices did not correspond to imperial law, the latter took precedence, as we will see with respect to marriage-age law. Sometimes Muslims accepted imperial law, sometimes they evaded or violated it, and sometimes they modified their traditional legal practices to accommodate the imperial law. In the process, I suggest, new legalities were created, and the perception of what is lawful and unlawful in the Muslim community began to change.

In addition to early twentieth-century Muslim periodicals and other Muslim sources that discuss problems related to marriage, in this essay I utilize approximately 250 Muslim petitions to the OA, dating from the 1830s to the 1910s, which contain complaints by Muslims, reports of religious and administrative officials, and other forms of legal-administrative correspondence. The petitions deal with underage marriages, marriages with apostate Kriashens (Bap­tized Tatars), and animists (iazychniki), second marriages with previously exiled and missing husbands, marriages with recruits, complaints by imams and peasants about failure to register marriage in metrical books, requests by Muslim lay people to register their marriages and the births of their children in metrical books, complaints by husbands about illegal marriages of their wives, and illegal cohabitation. The petitions and the imams’ reports to the OA were written in Turki and translated into Russian. By analyzing a large number of cases, I tried to identify the frequently occurring problems and to trace how people and ulama dealt with them. Problems relating to the validation of marriages caused by new state regulations continued to be a matter of concern for the Muslim community until the end of the imperial regime in 1917.

The Validity of Marriage According to Islamic Tradition and Russian Imperial Law

In response to an inquiry of the Department of Foreign Faiths dated 27 November 1871, the OA explained “the conditions under which a marriage becomes legal” as follows:

  1. Man and woman must be sufficiently physically mature to engage in sexual relations.

  2. The ceremony of ījāb-qabūl (offer and acceptance) must be performed. Ījāb-qabūl is the declaration that the man takes the woman as his wife and the woman accepts to be the wife of the man of her own free will. The declaration must be made in the presence of witnesses – at least two men. The witnesses should clearly hear the statements of the man and the woman. A proxy may perform ījāb-qabūl in the presence of witnesses. Any proxy, agent (wakīl)or guardian (walī) should be a male. If there is no agent or guardian, then the oldest relative in the family, or any third person selected by man or woman can be proxies.

  3. The agent and the guardian, or the marrying man and woman, should set the amount of dower (mahr) in the presence of witnesses. The dower becomes the property of the wife. If the dower is not set, the woman should receive a dower equivalent to that of a woman of her age from her father‘s side. The agent and the guardian must confirm that the man and woman are not related to each other within the prohibited degrees of kinship. They must also ascertain that the woman is not married to another man and that the man does not have four wives. If the woman had been previously married and divorced, then the agent and the guardian must verify that she has observed the obligatory waiting-period (ʿidda).

  4. The agent and the guardian guarantee that the above-mentioned requirements have been satisfied and that the man and woman are of compatible social and economic status (kafāʾa).

  5. The above-mentioned requirements are necessary for the fulfillment of the marriage contract (ʿaqd), which should be then completed with a special sermon (khutbah). Marriage (nikāḥ) must be performed by the imam.

  6. Marriage can be performed in a mosque or in a private house.

  7. All marriages that fulfill the above-mentioned rules are valid (priznaiutsia zakonnymi). In a location in which there is no licensed imam, a marriage that is performed by a person who knows the rituals of religion well is valid, if all the requirements of marriage contract (ʿaqd) are fulfilled.9

A similar explanation of the requirements of marriage are given by a prominent ‘ālim of the Volga-Ural region, ʿĀlimjān Bārūdī, in his book ʿUqūd thalāth: nikāḥ, talāq, yamīn, published in 1897:

It [marriage] necessitates the consent of the two parties – wife and husband; the contract (ʿaqd) of the two parties or their guardian (walī); the presence of two witnesses who should hear the contract; and the dower. The woman should not be an unmarriageable relative of the man. The man should be a Muslim and the woman should be a monotheist (hātunnun ahl-i tawhīd bulmakī).10

These stipulations and conditions are based on classical Islamic law, according to which marriage is a “contract between a man and a woman with the specific purpose of legalizing sexual intercourse … having licit sexual intercourse is both the primary motivation, and the most important effect of the marriage contract.”11 For the contract to be valid, the consent of the parties is obligatory. The two witnesses ensure the required publicity of the marriage. By paying the dower (mahr), the man acquires exclusive sexual access to his wife, and the wife receives material compensation. Muslim marriage is not conditional on officiation by a priest, and any sane male adult can perform it.12 Thus, neither the OA’s response from 1871, nor Bārūdī’s booklet on the Islamic legal aspects of marriage did not include official registration as a requirement of Muslim marriage.

However, in addition to these Islamic stipulations, the Russian imperial state introduced a number of conditions for marriages to be considered official and legal, eventually creating the categories of “official” (rasmī) and “unofficial” (ġayr-i rasmī) marriages. A circular written by mufti ‘Abd al-Wāḥid Sulaimānuf from 1840 clarified the rules that imams were to follow when performing a marriage. As the title of the circular states, the rules were based on shari‘a as well as on Russian imperial law – (na osnovanii shariata i zakona). According to these rules, bride and groom must have reached the minimum marriage age according to Russian imperial law, eighteen and sixteen, respectively. The marriage was to be recorded in a civil registry book (metricheskaia kniga). It was to be performed by a licensed imam, i.e. an imam who had received a state certificate from the Orenburg Assembly and who had passed an examination in the religious sciences. The imam who performed the ceremony must be the imam of the bride’s parish. According to imperial law, if bride and groom had not reached the required marriage age, if their marriage was not registered in the registry books, or if an unofficial imam performed the ceremony, the marriage was illegal and unofficial.13 Children who were born of these “illegal” marriages were considered illegitimate.

The Tsarist regime followed the examples of other modernizing states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in its efforts to better know and control its subjects, hence the obligation to register marriages, along with other events in the lives of its subjects. Although in its response to the abovementioned 1871 inquiry of the Department of Foreign Faiths the OA did not list registration as a requirement for the legality of a Muslim marriage, in practice registration became the main source of validity of marriage. Nevertheless, many Muslim marriages remained unregistered for different reasons until the end of the imperial rule. This situation bothered imams, the OA and the state.

In order to make the case for the appropriateness of official registration in Islamic terms, in 1916 the OA opened the pages of its official journal, Ma‘lūmāt, to an ʿālim, M. Ḥusnī. Ḥusnī mentioned the Qur’anic injunction (Qur’an 2:282) about the careful registration of financial transactions. Marriage, he continued, is a transaction that concerns the protection of dignity, property, and progeny. Therefore, he suggested, “we should pay more attention to the official registration of acts of marriage and divorce (nikāḥ ve ṭalāq ishlarīnā rasmiyat jahatina artiġī īla ahamiyat bīrūrga tiyushdir)”.14 Ḥusnī argued that a shar‘i marriage would be protected by official registration. He urged the OA (Māhkama’ shar‘iyamiz) to send imams instructions for the proper registration of marriages. According to Ḥusnī, anyone who performed an unregistered marriage (khuṣūṣī ṣūratda ījāb-qabūl īla ʿaqd ītūchīlar) would be accountable according to both imperial law and Islamic law (niẓāman wa shar‘an masʿūldirlar).15 Ḥusnī concluded that the state laws were issued “in order to protect the property, personal and religious rights of the state’s subjects; therefore, the laws do not contradict the essence of shari‘a (qānūnlar maqṣad shar‘a da khilāf tūgildirlar).”16

Although the article reflected the opinion of one scholar, it was apparent that the OA supported the argument. The editors of Ma‘lūmāt, who were qadis at the OA,17 added a note to the article promising that in the near future the OA would issue official instructions concerning unregistered marriages. The editors conceded that an unregistered marriage was a common practice and was leading to serious problems in the Muslim community. Before discussing the reasons for people not to register their marriages and the adverse consequences of unregistered marriages, I will describe the civil registries and the registration of marriages.

Metrical Books and the Registration of Marriages

One of the most important novelties within the space of the Muslim parish (maḥalla) that affected Muslim communal life was the introduction of civil registry books (metricheskie knigi).18 The institution of Muslim parish registers reflected the hybrid nature of the imperial legal regime. In addition to the incorporation of several confessional legal systems, this hybrid legal regime employed local elites to implement administrative orders. This legal outsourcing – a label used by Dilara Usmanova – was not a choice but a necessity, as the Russian empire had few administrative personnel and resources to undertake the registration of its population over a large territory.19 The imperial administrators were well aware of the deficiencies of this outsourcing, which created a great tension between the universal intent and the particularistic implementation of the registration policies.20

Civil registries, a basic source for modern demographic analysis, appeared in the Russian empire at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In 1702, Peter the Great, who understood the importance of statistics, mandated their compilation, but civil registries began to be regularly compiled only decades later, and even then they were full of errors, omissions, and deceptions.21 As it was establishing a modern bureaucracy, the Russian state introduced this “crucial technological element of bureaucratic organizations”22 to the lowest level of administrative structures – the parish. The civil registries were first imposed on the Russian Orthodox population in the eighteenth century and gradually became obligatory for all religious groups. In the Jewish community, civil registries were introduced in 1826 and the government imposed the responsibility of record keeping on the state rabbis.23 For Muslims, it was only two years later, in 1828, that the state began to require licensed imams to keep the books.

At the beginning of a new year, the imams, like clergy of every confession, would receive blank bound volumes with individual entry numbers. The OA would send two empty civil registry books to every maḥalla with the help of provincial administrations. Parish imams had to provide information (in Tatar, if they did not know Russian)24 on births, marriages, divorces and deaths as they occurred throughout the year within their maḥalla and then submit one of the books to the local police office to be sent back to the OA. The second volume remained in the maḥalla mosque.25 The metrical books provided the Russian state with statistical data about its Muslim population, which was especially useful for taxation purposes and for keeping track of army conscripts. Moreover, the civil registries became an important part of resolving disputes within the community. Imams were authorized to prepare several documents using the information from the registries, and parishioners could use these documents in court. A woman could not remarry without obtaining a “divorce paper” (razvodnoi listok), i.e., a copy of her divorce entered in the civil registry. In inheritance cases litigants had to bring documentation of genealogy as well as a death record from their imams.

Muslim scholars and laypeople of the Volga-Ural region quickly embraced this state-initiated innovation. In fact, civil registries had an indigenous precedent in communal Muslim life in the Volga-Ural region. Imams had been keeping track of religious rites that they had performed in special notebooks or in the margins of their books. These notes were regarded by the ulama as valid documentation in shar‘i cases. A prominent religious scholar, qadi (in the 1890s) and later mufti (1922–1936) of the OA, Riḍa al-Dīn Fakhr al-Dīn, stated that the importance of the civil registries for Muslims was their relevance for matters that were defined and regulated according to shari‘a.26 In a circular from 1893, the OA concluded that

[b]ecause in cases of birth, marriage, divorce, bride price (qalym), inheritance, and the like, the civil registry book is both the truest proof and is required by shari‘a, Muslims, who behave indifferently toward these regulations are responsible before God for neglecting the rules of shari‘a and will be accountable before the court according to civil law.27

Metrical books provided a more reliable form of evidence than witness testimony. From an Islamic point of view, the benefits of the metrical books were obvious. In other Muslim states, the introduction of record keeping practices for certain communal affairs in the second half of the nineteenth and early twentieth century were accepted without much problem.28

For Muslim laypeople, the registration of births, marriages and deaths in metrical books became an Islamic obligation. For some Muslims, proper documentation of religious rites was not only vital for order, but also a constituent part of shari‘arules. In the sources, one often finds a statement that an imam entered information in civil registry books “according to shari‘a”. For example, when a woman complained that imam Nigmatvaliev had incorrectly performed the dissolution of her marriage, the latter reported in his letter to the OA that a peasant of his maḥalla, Bahauddin Yamaletdinov, had pronounced an irrevocable divorce (ṭalāq-bāʾin) to his wife in the presence of several witnesses and that he, the imam, registered this divorce in the civil registry book “on the basis of shari‘a”.29

Failure to register a marriage, as well as disregard for other state regulations concerning marriages, came to be seen as acts against shari‘a. In the archives of the OA, laypeople and imams frequently accuse other imams of committing these acts. In one such complaint an imam listed the acts that were against shari‘a. They included “performing marriages of people from another parish, not recording marriages in metrical books, performing the marriage of an underage couple and registering it one year later, allowing a soldier who was on leave to marry, and performing a marriage in which the amount of dower was not specified.”30

The third section (book) of a metrical book was devoted to the registry of marriages. Each page was divided into five columns. Imams had to fill in the required information under the corresponding columns: The first column was for the date of the marriage and the ages of the bride and the groom. After the date and ages, the imam entered the names of the groom’s and bride’s fathers and grandfathers – either the family name, or the name of the tribe/group (ṭā’ifa) to which they belonged. The third column included the names and signatures of the bride’s and groom’s agents, as well as the names of witnesses. In this column the parties could also list conditions to end the marriage (ta‘līq), if they wished. The fourth column included information on the dower (mahr). The imam had to record the full amount of the dower, the amount that was paid immediately and the amount that was deferred. He also had to write down the name of the person who would guarantee the payment of the deferred mahr. The last column included the name of the imam who performed the nikāḥ and the names of other licensed religious officials in the maḥalla who were present at the marriage ceremony (nikāḥ majlisi).31

Today, the OA archive includes thousands of metrical books from across the Russian empire. In addition to marriages, divorces, births, and deaths were recorded in these civil registries. However, the popular acceptance of registration and its perception as an Islamic practice did not mean that the Russian state succeeded in its goal to make the Muslim population more “legible”32 and thus better governed. Language always remained an important barrier, as most of the imams kept the books in Tatar and did not know Russian. In an effort to preserve their autonomy, Muslims resisted attempts by the Russian state to make bookkeeping in Russian obligatory. The manipulation of registries – omissions and forgeries – was a serious problem for tsarist officials. In 1870 Nikolai Andreevich Kryzhanovskii, the Orenburg Governor-General, noted that every year the OA received cases about forgeries in the metrical books and he proposed to keep Muslim civil registries in the Russian language and to transfer the task of registration of Muslims to imperial civil officials.33 For these reasons, until the end of the empire, the OA and the Russian officials attempted to streamline the civil registries. Moreover, as we will see below, the registration requirement caused serious problems for Muslims until the end of the Russian empire. Some couples could not register their marriages, which were valid according to Islamic law and tradition, for different reasons. Some women had to agree for a second marriage without registration because they could not terminate their first marriages according to Islamic tradition. Some couples disregarded registration and Islamic marriage because of complications associated with registration.

Marriage-Age Law and Underage Marriages

In 1836 the Russian state introduced an imperial law on the minimum marriage age for Muslims: sixteen for girls and eighteen for boys. In practice, some Muslim girls – and very rarely boys – married earlier than sixteen. Marriage was a communal affair, often arranged by parents or with parents taking an important role in finding spouses and negotiating the dower. A father would often marry off a daughter at a young age if he found a good candidate. If a family was poor, a daughter under the age of sixteen was given in marriage in order to reduce maintenance expenses. The OA archive contains numerous complaints about the marriages of underage girls.

Muslims found different ways to circumvent the law, when they wanted, and to conceal these marriages from the state. Sometimes, an imam would perform the marriage of an underage bride or groom, at his own risk. However, this might expose him to punishment for the violation of imperial law – warning, temporary suspension from his position, or the loss of the title of imam. For this reason, many imams refused to marry underage couples. To ensure that the bride and groom reached the marriageable age, imams would ask parents for a written document (vypiska iz metriki) indicating the birth date of the bride and groom. Sometimes, parents could not provide such a document, because the birth of a daughter had not been registered, for one reason or another. This was common in semi-nomadic regions of the southern Urals and Astrakhan province or in cases in which a family moved from one place to another, for example, from the Kazakh steppe to the Volga-Ural region. If an imam refused to perform a marriage, people might ask the person who performs the call to prayer (muazzin) of the parish, an imam of another parish, or an unlicensed imam to perform the marriage ceremony, thereby sanctioning the marriage, which otherwise would be considered illegal. Sometimes, an imam was bribed to marry an underage couple.

In all these cases, a marriage that was valid according to Islamic law and tradition was illegal according to imperial law, with the result that married underage couples, and anyone who performed these marriages, were vulnerable to denunciations from people who held a grudge against them. Denunciations, often caused by quarrels and animosity among parishioners, could lead to serious marital and communal problems. The archives of the OA contain many such denunciations. One was sent in 1882 by imam Abubekir Muhamedov in Astrakhan province, who accused another imam, Osman Ahmetov, of performing religious rituals [marriages, funerals, name-giving after the birth of a child] for Muslims of his [Muhamedov’s] parish and of performing an underage marriage. In his defense, Imam Ahmetov explained that during the marriage ceremony he asked about the bride’s age and her father and other guests confirmed that she was sixteen. The father could not provide the document certifying his daughter’s age because she was born in the steppe and her birth had not been registered. It is obvious that the father sought the help of an imam from another parish to marry his daughter. Because the girl’s age could not be proven, imam Ahmetov escaped punishment for marrying the underage girl, but was found guilty of performing the marriage of a person from another parish (an imam could perform religious rituals only in his own parish).34

Although marriages were supposed to be performed by a parish imam, who was responsible for registering all the information in the metrical book, petitions reveal that muazzins also performed marriages. In 1855, an imam refused to marry a couple but allowed the parish muazzin to perform the marriage. The father of the bride, Muhammadrahim Yakupov, complained to the local police that the muazzin who performed the marriage had not registered it in the metrical book because the girl was underage. The imam received an administrative punishment for his failure to report the violation, of which he had been aware.35 In another case, in 1894, muazzin Iziatulla Nazirov from Saratov province, who was accused of performing an underage marriage, pleaded that he had “made a mistake in the calculation of the groom’s age under the influence of his relatives, who insisted that he was physically mature and had reached the marriageable age”. The muazzin added that he knew that this “was against law, which he had never violated before”.36 He received a warning stating that if he continued to violate the law, he would be dismissed from his position.

The OA archive contains cases of Muslim marriages performed by unofficial ulama or even lay people. In 1883, two imams from the Orenburg province wrote to the OA that, although they had instructed their parishioners to obey imperial laws relating to marriage, burial, and other religious rituals, their parishioners ignored their instructions. Frequently, their parishioners sought the help of unlicensed imams or laypeople to perform underage marriages. The imams emphasized that there were instances in which people did not consider these unofficial marriages as binding commitments. When a couple who had married before attaining the official marriage age decided to get married officially, the bride or the groom might refuse to commit to an official nikāḥ.37

Sometimes, Muslims tried to remedy the situation after the death of the imam. Thus, a Muslim peasant who wanted to register and legalize his daughter’s marriage complained, after the parish imam had died, that “the parish imam performed his daughter’s marriage but did not register it”. An investigation revealed that this girl was only fourteen at the time of marriage.38

The discovery of underage married couples often led to the separation of husband and wife. Imam Fazlulla Rasulev from Orenburg province complained to the OA in 1856 about a couple in his parish who were cohabitating illegally. He demanded that they be separated. The provincial (zemskii) court determined that the marriage had been performed by an imam who claimed that he did not know that the bride was only fourteen years and nine months old; the family told him that she was seventeen. The OA annulled the marriage and ordered that the couple might marry when the bride reached the age of sixteen. The imam, who was found guilty, avoided punishment because of a general amnesty.39

One common way of circumventing the law was to perform a double ceremony. If a bride or groom had not reached the legally marriageable age established by the imperial statute of 1836, a family would arrange two marriage ceremonies. The first ceremony took place when the parents gave their daughter in marriage, without registering the ceremony. After the couple had attained the legal age of marriage, a second ceremony was arranged, and an imam performed nikāḥ and registered the marriage in the registry book. The ethnographers Bikbulatov and Fatykhova describe such a double marriage ­ceremony:

If a bride and groom are above the required age for marriage (sovershennoletiie) at the time of their wedding, an imam registers this ceremony in the book and “in its full form” the marriage is called nikāḥ. However, if an imam performs a marriage before the bride or groom reaches the required age, the ceremony is called ījāb-qabūl or aldīm-birdem [referring to the mutual consent of a couple to marry] and Muslims considered this legitimate. After ījāb-qabūl the family would organize a wedding, and the couple would start their marital life together. In order for the marriage to be legitimate according to imperial law, however, the ceremony had to be repeated when the bride reached the legal age, at which time it was registered in the civil registry book.40

In 1907, mulla Iulamanov was accused of performing marriage ceremonies for two girls, Sakhiia and Bibinakiia, who had not reached the age of sixteen, the first in 1898 and the second in 1901. He also was accused of registering the marriages only in 1903, after performing official nikāḥ. During the investigation, the respective husbands and some of their relatives, who conceded that mulla Iulamanov had performed marriage ceremonies, in 1898 and 1901, respectively, claimed that they did not know when he registered these marriages. Mulla Iulamanov claimed that he performed both nikāḥs in 1903, not earlier, and that he had immediately registered them in the registry books. Sakhiia’s father acknowledged that although he had given his daughter in marriage in 1898, mulla Iulamanov performed the nikāḥ only in 1903. Her mother and a relative of Sakhiia’s confirmed his statement. The father and a relative of Bibinakiia’s confirmed that her wedding had taken place in 1901 but that her nikāḥ was performed only in 1903. The Ufa governorship officials who received the complaint asked the OA whether such a procedure was valid according to Islam and requested information from the civil registries about the birthdates of these girls. The OA stated that Islamic law requires a marriage ceremony (nikāḥ) before a couple may start living together. Therefore, the OA explained, by allowing the couples to live together before they had been officially married, mulla Iulamanov had violated both Islamic and imperial law.41

It is not clear from this case whether mulla Iulamanov performed the two ījāb-qabūl ceremonies in 1898 and 1901, respectively, although some evidence points in this direction. If we concede that mulla Iulamanov performed them in those years, it is clear that the girls’ relatives defended him before the Tsarist authorities so that the mulla would not be punished. It is also clear that the families and relatives sanctioned the ījāb-qabūl ceremony and allowed the young people to live together prior to the performance of their nikāḥs in 1903 and before the marriages were registered in the registry books. Ākhūnd Ataullah Bayazitov, a prominent scholar from St. Petersburg, explained the meaning of ījāb-qabūl for the Muslims of Volga-Ural region in a letter to the Department of Religious Affairs of Foreign Faiths, dated April 23, 1892. He wrote: “The term ījāb-qabūl as a legal term denotes consent to conclude a transaction in trade or in marriage. However, among the Tatars, the term refers to mutual agreement to cohabitation, without the official announcement and fulfillment of all the terms and obligations of a marriage contract.”42

Bikbulatov suggests that the practice of two separate marriage ceremonies was an attempt to reconcile Islamic tradition with Russian law by creating “the impression of obedience to law while preserving the tradition.”43 He argues that this practice was more widespread in the southern and southeastern parts of the Bashkir lands, where nomadism and its traditions were stronger and early marriage was more frequent. Even when the bride was sixteen years or older, people still observed both ceremonies – ījāb-qabūl and nikāḥ. Thus, for Muslims, ījāb-qabūl became more important than nikāḥ as a legitimate marriage ceremony. Nikāḥ was reduced to a mere formality and was only practiced to satisfy the new secular law. According to M. Baishev, “because the ceremony of ījāb-qabūl acquired greater importance and nikāḥ decreased in significance, a groom had the right to consummate the marriage after the performance of ījāb-qabūl when nikāḥ had not yet been performed”.44

The discrepancy between tradition and imperial law could not be resolved and the OA continued to instruct imams not to perform the marriage of an underage person. In March 1913 the OA issued a circular to all Muslim clerics under its jurisdiction. The circular stated that every year the spiritual administration received numerous petitions asking for permission to marry young people who had not reached the age of legal marriage. The OA consistently declined these petitions because of the Russian marriage law, but Muslims continued to submit them. The OA ordered parish imams not to initiate any more petitions relating to underage marriages because such marriages were against the law and caused unnecessary trouble and expenses. The OA also ordered them to explain this law to their parishioners.45

The 1917 revolution gave Muslim reformists, the Jadids, an opportunity to gain the upper hand in the administration of the OA. In an era of increased concern about improving women’s rights in family and society, the reformists incorporated the Russian imperial ruling about marriage age into their program. In this context, the OA official newspaper Mā‘lūmāt joined in the effort to convince Muslims that the marriage age law was consistent with shari‘a. A prominent reformist ʿālim, Muḥammad Najīb Tūntārī, published an article entitled, “[a]n opinion on the age of majority that is appropriate for marriage.” Tūntārī did not refute established Islamic notions that allow a person to marry either after the appearance of the physical signs of puberty or after attaining a specific age (usually nine for girls and twelve for boys). In an effort to defend the state-imposed marriage ages of sixteen for women and eighteen for men, Tūntārī argued that marriage falls in the legal category of mu‘āmalāt – com-mercial or civil transactions between people, not in the category of ‘ibādāt (worship) – obligatory religious rituals. The distinction is important because issues related to ‘ibādāt cannot be changed, whereas issues related to mu‘āmalāt are more flexible. Therefore, according to Tūntārī, the traditional definition of puberty should be used to determine if a Muslim is qualified to perform the ‘ibādāt obligatory religious rituals such as prayer and fasting. However, for marriage, physical maturity should be defined according to medical science and according to Islamic legal concepts of harm (ḍarar) and benefit (maṣlaḥa):

The physicians reached a consensus (ijmā‘)that marrying earlier than [sixteen, for women, and eighteen, for men] is harmful. Moreover, it is statistically proven that those who marry earlier will harm themselves and their progeny. Since the danger of marrying earlier than the abovementioned ages is certain, the opinion of the physicians on this issue should determine the lawful age according to shari‘a.46 

In this manner Tūntārī tried to harmonize shari‘a and a Russian-state-initiated regulation, which became a part of the Muslim reformist agenda. The OA could not defend the established Islamic practice and had to implement state law. Local ʿālims tried to balance the interests of their community and state law by performing two marriage ceremonies, a risky effort that led to problems in the community. As economic, social and political conditions changed in the Soviet period, however, underage marriage ceased to be an issue among Volga-Ural Muslims.

Marriages between Muslims and Apostates or Animists

Another set of unregistered and illegal marriages included those between ­Muslims and apostate Christians (baptized Tatars or Kriashens) and between Muslims and animists (iazychniki). While Islamic law clearly allows Muslim men to marry Christian women, Russian law “entirely” prohibited “Russian subjects of Orthodox and Roman Catholic confessions to marry non-Christians.”47 Therefore, marriages between Muslims and Kriashens and between Muslims and animists could only be unofficial.

Kriashens were descendants of Muslim Volga Tatars who had converted from Islam to Eastern Orthodox Christianity between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. However, many Kriashens were not assimilated into the Russian Orthodox community, and the state or the Church did not develop a Kriashen liturgical and clerical religious tradition. The efforts of dedicated missionaries, such as Nikolai Il’minskii, who understood the importance of native languages to Christianization and assimilation, were too little and too late. Many Kriashens remained within the cultural sphere of Volga-Ural Muslims who, especially in the nineteenth century, developed a common strategy for the re-Islamization of Kriashen groups.48 Thus a significant portion, if not the majority, of Kriashens were Muslims “in content” and Orthodox Christians “in form”. According to the imperial rights regime, however, they were Orthodox and their lives and legal status were regulated by Russian Orthodox rules and regulations. Be that as it may, apostate Kriashens had been living according to Islamic law for generations and thus occupied a legal no-man’s land.

Apostate Kriashens occupied “a strange and nebulous legal space somewhere between Christianity and Islam.”49 In their numerous petitions to state institutions, apostate Kriashens claimed that they had been practicing Islam for generations, as had their fathers and grandfathers, and that there were imams in their communities who performed religious rites for them, albeit secretly and unofficially. Imams could not perform official marriage ceremonies for apostates and could not register their marriages and children in Muslim metrical books.50 Hence, marriages between Muslims and apostates were illegal in the eyes of the imperial state. These marriages were referred to as “illegal cohabitations” (nezakonnye sozhitel’stva),51 and the children of such marriages were registered as “illegitimate”. This situation led to grave problems for apostate Kriashens, and for Muslims too.52

The OA received many petitions relating to Kirashen marriages but was unable to take any action to remedy the problem. Whereas Islamic law permitted a Muslim man to marry a Christian woman, Russian law did not. Moreover, many couples were in fact Muslims, even though one or both of them was registered as a Christian. Until the Law of Religious Toleration was promulgated on April 17, 1905, the OA had to turn a blind eye to this dire situation. Licensed and unlicensed imams took a risk by marrying these people, handling legal disputes, and keeping track of marriages and divorces according to shari‘a, for, without state recognition, these transactions were invalid. Frequently, problems arose that could not be handled locally. Fellow villagers would sometimes report the clandestine activities of an imam to the Orenburg Assembly or to local Russian authorities, and an imam would be subject to different sorts of punishment.53 An imam who was not courageous enough to perform such a marriage might ask the OA for guidance about how to handle requests from people about marriages that were legitimate according to shari‘a but illegal according to imperial law.54 Villagers who could not convince an imam to sanction their “unofficial” practices wrote to the OA asking it to resolve the problem.55 They appealed to the mercy of Russian ministries and the government, emphasizing that they had lived according to shari‘a “for hundreds of years,” that all of their ancestors had professed Islam, and that they demanded to be recognized as Muslims.56

The marriages of apostates according to Islamic law or marriages between Muslims and apostates were widely practiced even if they were not recognized by the law. Couples lived in this ambiguous situation until there was a complaint about their marriages. In one case from 1895, Muslim peasant Bagauddin Saitov sought the help of the OA when the local police separated him from his wife of twelve years and the mother of his children following complaints by fellow villagers. In 1882 Saitov had been married by an unofficial imam to Anna Ivanova (Asmasafa Saifullina). He emphasized that he was married according to Islamic tradition to a Muslim woman who had been an apostate from Russian Orthodoxy. Saitov added that “all the Tatars of the village of Kyrgyndy were apostates and had been living and getting married according to Muslim tradition at least for the last twenty to twenty-five years. The local and regional administrative institutions were aware of this situation (izvesten vsemu nachal‘stvu) but never took an action against it.” Why, Saitov asked, had he been singled out and divorced from his wife?57 The response of the OA was usually as follows: Russian Imperial law “strictly forbids Muslim clerics from getting involved in the affairs of people who were registered as Christians” (magometanskomu dukhovenstvu strozhaishe zapreshcheno vmeshivat’sia v dela lits prinadlezhashchikh khristianstvu).”58

Unofficial marriages between Muslim men and animist women were more complicated. Muslims of the Volga-Ural region lived in close proximity to animist communities (Votiaks [Udmurts], Cheremis [Maris], Chuvash) and intermingling was inevitable. The OA and the ulama manifested some flexibility regarding marriages between Muslim men and animist women, despite the fact that classical Islamic law does not allow such unions. Some parish imams allowed such marriages, others did not. Many unofficial marriages between Muslims and animist took place, and the married couples asked state officials to legalize their marriages.

In 1881, a Bashkir peasant wrote a petition to the Ufa administration. He had married a Cheremis woman and they had three children. However, neither the local imam nor the OA recognized their marriage as legal, on the grounds that Islamic law prohibits marriage between Muslim men and animist women. The Bashkir peasant wrote that if the governor and the Ministry of Interior did not legalize his marriage, he would seek “the most merciful opinion of the Tsar (vsemilostivshee vozzreneie Gosudaria Imperatora).”59 The case was brought to the attention of the Department of Religious Affairs of Foreign Faiths. The Department stated that, in similar cases, local government officials had prevented such marriages, referring to an 1854 order of the Tsar (vysochaishchee povelenie) on taking necessary measures to prevent the conversion of animists to Islam.60 Although this order did not explicitly prohibit marriage between Muslims and animists, government officials were wary of the possibility that animists who married Muslims would subsequently convert to Islam. Nevertheless, the Department advised the Ministry of Internal Affairs to make an exception and to legalize the marriage of the Bashkir peasant, on the grounds that he was already in a marital relationship and had three children.61 When the Ministry asked the OA for its opinion, the OA responded that there are no explicit Islamic laws forbidding marriage between Muslims and animists (po otsutstviiu v magometanskikh zakonakh vospreshcheniia vstupat’ v brak magometan s iazychnikami), and recommended the legalization of the marriage of the petitioner.62

The case became more interesting when the famous Orthodox Christian missionary, Nikolai Il’minskii, became involved. Referring to one of the most widely-used sources on Islamic law, Mukhtaṣar al-Wiqāyah, Il’minskii stated that Islamic law does not allow Muslim men to marry animists and warned the Ministry that Muslim clerics were taking advantage of the Russian administrators’ lack of knowledge about Islamic law. He had looked at several civil records relating to marriage between Muslim men and animist women and had noticed that in all cases animist women had accepted Islam before the imam performed and registered the marriage. Il’minskii claimed that the Tatar elite was clandestinely engaged in a campaign of Islamic proselytization in the Ufa region and that marriage was one of the means to this end.63

Despite Il’minskii’s warnings, however, the subsequent correspondence between the Department and the Ministry of Internal Affairs shows that the issue was resolved in favor of the Bashkir peasant. Apparently, there were no explicit rules to ban such unions and the Muslim authorities did not prohibit them. Without announcing a general permission, the Ministry of Internal Affairs instructed local administrators not to punish Muslim men who married animist women and to allow Muslim clerics to register these marriages on the spot.

This case sheds light on the position of the OA regarding Islamic and Russian imperial laws. The ulama and the OA were aware of the classical Islamic prohibition of marriages between Muslims and animists. As Il’minskii suspected, and as Agnés Kefeli has described,64 Muslims regarded marriage between Muslims and animists as a means of proselytization. However, the practice could not be presented and defended as such. The Russian state, which did not allow proselytization, did not have a rule banning marriages between Muslims and animists. In 1887, after the case of the Bashkir peasant had been resolved, the OA distributed a circular to all imams and khaṭībs, granting them authority to perform and register marriages between Muslims and animists.65

This circular attracted the attention of the Minister of Internal Affairs, Count Tolstoi, who was apprehensive about Muslim proselytization. In a letter to the Department of Religious Affairs of Foreign Faiths, and later in another letter to the OA, he explained that the OA circular permitting Muslim-animist marriage was based on a single case from 1881. Count Tolstoi emphasized that Islamic law explicitly prohibits marriages between Muslims and animists and that such marriages also violate Imperial law. He demanded that the OA promulgate another circular and inform Muslim clerics that they could not perform such marriages.66

The OA was obliged to comply with the order of the Minister of Internal Affairs, to the chagrin of Muslim-animist couples who had married after the order of the Count Tolstoi. In 1900 a couple approached imam Sharafetdinov in the city of Kazan to help them register their marriage and children. The couple, who had married according to Islamic law in 1890, had two children, but neither their marriage nor the birth of their children had been recorded in the metrical books. The OA informed the imam that the rules had been changed and that “upon the orders of the Minister of Internal Affairs and according to the circular of the Spiritual Assembly from 14 January 1889 marriages between Muslims and animists are prohibited.”67

It was only with the famous October Manifesto of 1905, which expanded the scope of religious liberty in Russia by proclaiming “freedom of conscience”, that the Russian state lifted the restrictions concerning religious conversion and legalized the status of apostates as Muslims.68 The decree on religious toleration was followed by a flood of petitions from Kriashens and animists to be officially registered as Muslims, to register their communities as Muslim parishes, to have an officially licensed imam, and to register their births, deaths and marriages in Muslim metrical books. This decree allowed imams to officiate at the marriages of former apostates and to register their children in civil registries as Muslims.69

Increased Mobility and Unregistered Marriages

Another important reason for unregistered marriages was the increasing mobility of people in the modernizing Russian empire in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Exile, seasonal or permanent jobs in mines or factories in faraway towns, or conscription in the army created problems for Muslim women who wanted to dissolve a first marriage and to register and thus legalize a second marriage; and for Muslim men who petitioned the OA claiming that their wives had left them or that imams had performed a second marriage to their wives “illegally”, without dissolving a current (first) marriage.

A certain Muhkammetshin, a Muslim seasonal worker at the salt mines of Iletsk, in Orenburg province, married a Muslim widow, Fahima in 1889 and later lived together with her in his village, Amirkhanovo. The couple had two children. After six years of marriage, Mukhammetshin became seriously ill, Fahima left Mukhammetshin and their children, and married a man named Imankulov in her own village, Muliukovo. Mukhammetshin asked the OA to return his wife and prosecute the imam who had “performed her marriage to another man illegally, without her being divorced.” The OA reached out to the regional police department at Buzuluk to investigate the case. During the investigation the wife claimed that, despite her pleas, her husband had not sought to register their marriage. The mulla of their village, Yakubov, verbally confirmed that they were married; subsequently, when she sought a divorce, Yakubov told her that she was divorced. The mulla of Muliukovo who registered Fahima’s marriage to Imankulov in the metrical book also claimed that Yakubov had affirmed that Fahima was divorced. Yakubov denied all these claims, and Fahima declared herself to be “the victim of metrical books and of the quarrels between the two imams.” As the evidence was contradictory, the police department could not provide conclusive results to the OA. Therefore, the OA appointed an ākhūnd to resolve the issue. The ākhūnd spoke with several witnesses and reached the conclusion that Fahima and Mukhammetshin had not been married officially when they were in Iletsk. Upon their return to Mukhammetshin’s village, Amirkhanovo, their marriage was not recorded in the metrical book. The ākhūnd learned from one of the witnesses that Mukha­metshin had granted a divorce to Fahima on the condition that she not seek maintenance (nafaqa) during the obligatory waiting period before re-marrying. Since the mulla of Muliukovo had registered Fahima’s marriage to Imankulov in the metrical book, the ākhūnd concluded that Fahima’s first marriage was not valid and that she was the legal wife of Imankulov.70  

Fahima was not the only “victim of metrical books” – as she referred to herself. Many seasonal workers who left their villages could not follow the rule that required the registration of marriage by the imam of the bride’s village. Muslim workers might not even find an imam to officiate their marriages in a mine settlement. Iletsk was a small camp near a salt mine and Fahima and Mukhametshin had no possibility of registering their marriage. Although Fahima insisted on registration when they returned to their village, her husband ignored her request. During her husband’s illness, she decided to re-marry and tried to get permission for a divorce. After allegedly obtaining a divorce from her husband, as confirmed by the imam of his village, she was married to another man and had her new marriage registered. Although there are contradictory testimonies relating to her divorce, one thing was certain – her first marriage had not been registered. The ākhūnd who investigated the case based his decision on the fact that her first marriage had not been registered.

Many cases in the OA archive refer to men who left their wives for temporary work and then vanished, leaving the women powerless to get a divorce. Their husbands might have been exiled to Siberia, might have left their homes and wives for work in another place, or might have been in the army and unable to support their wives. The problem is similar to that of the agunah in the Jewish community. The term refers to an “anchored” woman, that is, someone bound in marriage to a husband with whom she no longer lives but who, for whatever reason, has not formally “released” her from the marital union.”71 Similarly, Muslim women in the Russian empire suffered from being “anchored” to missing husbands. These women were left in a legal limbo according to both Russian imperial and Islamic law. When they had to seek a new spouse because they could not sustain themselves and their families, they had no choice but to marry without registration.

Referring to absentee husbands and women who wanted to re-marry in nineteenth-century Egypt, Kenneth Cuno points out that the Hanafi law school, which was the prevalent school of law in the Volga-Ural region, “did not permit women who were abandoned or whose husbands went missing to seek an annulment.”72 However, this strict legal point of view was not always followed, especially when the number of absentee husbands increased in the nineteenth and early twentieth century due to wars, famine and other reasons. As a solution, Egyptian judges would accept the testimony of women who claimed that they heard that their husbands had either died or given them a divorce.73

In the Volga-Ural region the problem of absentee husbands became a serious issue in the nineteenth century. Women who could not obtain a divorce from their absentee husbands sought help from local ulama, from the OA and from Russian state institutions. Several rulings of the Ministry of Interior suggested that the wives of men exiled to Siberia should be granted a divorce. In 1836 the Ministry of Internal Affairs informed the OA that married Muslim women are entitled to a divorce from their absentee husbands five years after his disappearance.74 However, the OA did not allow women to obtain an automatic divorce according to these laws, and women whose husbands disappeared could not get a divorce without the OA assessing their petitions and investigating their situation. In order to get a divorce a woman had to find a way to send a petition to the OA, as the local imam would not grant her a divorce. For illiterate and poor abandoned women, it was not always possible to write a petition and pay for a stamp (gerbovaia marka) to send it to the OA. For these reasons, many women who had no news about their husbands and no financial support married for the second time without registration or even lived with a man without marriage.

The case of Bibi Fatiha from Kazan province highlights the confusion that this issue caused among the ulama of the Volga-Ural region. In 1864 Musa Khasanov and Bibi Fatiha married, and two years later Musa Khasanov went away to work at a factory. In 1868 he sent a letter to his brother about granting a divorce to his wife. In 1869, Bibi Fatiha asked the imam to perform her marriage ceremony with another person, but the imam refused to take her husband’s letter as evidence of divorce. Later, other imams confirmed the authenticity of the letter, and one imam married her in the presence of witnesses, but did not register the ceremony in the metrical book. The imam who refused to perform Bibi Fatiha’s marriage complained to the OA, and the OA asked the local police department to investigate the case. The police ascertained that the husband had disappeared, that a letter from Khasanov did in fact grant a divorce to Bibi Fatiha, and that an imam had performed the marriage in the presence of witnesses, according to Islamic law. However, the police could not verify the authenticity of Khasanov’s letter. Later the OA reassigned the case to an ākhūnd, who confirmed the authenticity of Khasanov’s letter and the validity of Bibi Fatiha’s second marriage. It took almost fifteen years to resolve the case.75

Universal conscription after 1874 and the subsequent wars created new reasons for unregistered marriages. According to Russian law, men on active duty could not marry during a temporary leave. However, soldiers sometimes did marry when they visited their villages, in violation of imperial law. In 1905, during the Russo-Japanese war, imam Davlatshah Bilalov from the village of Shamyakovo urged the OA to take action against the increasing number of soldiers who married while visiting their villages on temporary leave. He gave several examples of such marriages from nearby villages. Imam Bilalov underlined the fact that people understood that it was forbidden for a soldier to marry while on leave, hence they did not register these marriages. These people were married either by an imam from another village or maḥalla, or by an ordinary person.76 

In 1892 the Department of Civil and Religious Affairs of the State Council, together with the Ober- Procurator of the Holy Synod, Minister of Justice and Minister of Internal Affairs discussed the rights of exiles and their spouses to terminate their marriages. The joint commission then decided to lift some restrictions, allowed exiles to petition for divorce, decreased the waiting period for wives of exiles to two years, and suggested the application of these decisions to people of other faiths. The commission sent an inquiry to the OA asking its opinion on the issue. In 1893 the OA replied that in Islamic law, a wife was entitled to a judicial divorce in several special cases, such as a husband’s impotence, loss of sanity, failure to provide for his wife and an incurable disease. In the opinion of the OA, these cases could be “unified under one general rule – an extraordinary hard and helpless situation of a woman”; this was the situation with wives of exiled husbands too; therefore, if a wife did not follow her husband to Siberia, she was entitled to request a divorce.77

Despite the OA approval of the imperial law and its validity for the Muslim population, it seems that the issue was not settled in the Muslim community. Three years later the OA tried to find an acceptable formulation in Islamic law with the help of ulama of the Volga-Ural region. In 1896 qadi Riḍā al-Dīn Fakhr al-Dīn sent inquiries to prominent ākhūnds and imams asking their opinion about obligatory stipulations in the marriage contract (ʿaqd) that would give the right of divorce under certain conditions to women whose husbands had disappeared or been exiled. Sixty-three imams and ākhūnds from different regions sent in their ideas on the issue, but there was no consensus.78 Despite the absence of consensus, after 1896, the OA permitted many women to divorce within a two-year period, on the basis of imperial law.79 The OA defended the position that a woman might obtain a divorce if she could prove extreme hardship as a result of her husband’s absence or prove that her husband had in fact granted her a divorce or died.80

Consequences of Unregistered Marriages

In 1916, M. Ḥusnī described the negative consequences of unofficial marriages in the official journal of the OA, Mālūmāt, as follows:

In the case of an unofficial marriage, the wife cannot legally sue for her dower (mahr), and she cannot ask for maintenance if her husband abandons her or disappears. The wife either cannot get a divorce or, even if she does, she cannot prove it, as neither the marriage nor the divorce were registered. Thus she must agree to another unofficial marriage. Since marriages are not recorded, the required time to remarry between the marriages cannot be monitored, and the paternity of a child who is born to the woman after she has separated from her first husband cannot be ascertained. Children who are born in unofficial marriages do not have legal rights of inheritance, and the spouses are not entitled to each other’s inheritance in case of death. Some women have several unofficial marriages and eventually become prostitutes. Since these unofficial marriages do not require the parties to fulfill the legal requirements of marriage, some men prefer such marriages in order to sexually exploit women.81

Ḥusnī underlined the legal and the moral problems caused by unregistered marriages. Illegality affected not only individuals, but also the whole community, as illicit cohabitations forced some women into prostitution and allowed others to be exploited by men who did not intend to commit to official marriages.

Imperial officials developed a new terminology for such marriages. A marriage without nikāḥ was characterized as an “illegal” marriage, and a couple who lived together in this way was said to be cohabiting illegally (nezakonnoe sozhitel’stvo). In many cases parents accepted the marital status of a couple after a ījāb-qabūl ceremony, although the larger community was not always aware of it. Moreover, some men and women may have preferred to live together without the approval of their parents. A union of this type, called grazhdanskii brak or civil marriage, became a matter of serious concern to the Muslim community.

Unofficial marriages led to serious abuses. Usually women were adversely affected. Since these marriages were not officially recognized, they could not be legally terminated if a problem arose. In case of separation, women were not entitled to their shar‘i divorce rights. A woman who had been married unofficially could not terminate her first marriage. Therefore, legally, she had no choice but to agree to another unofficial marriage if she wanted to re-marry. In many cases, a second marriage was forcefully terminated upon the order of the OA, in response to complaints against the couple.82 In one case from 1895, the imam sent in a complaint against a couple who had been living together without an official marriage. The woman could not obtain a divorce certificate from her absentee husband and her new husband did not care about registering the marriage, as he considered “shari‘a to be abrogated (shariat uzhe unichtozhen)”. The OA investigated the case and ordered the police to separate the couple. Russian police and administrative officials implemented the separation order. Touched by the sight of the weeping and wailing woman, who did not have anywhere to go after having been removed from her “illegal” husband’s house, one of the Russian officials confronted the imam about his act and insulted him. The chancellery of the Ufa governorship later informed the OA that the Russian official who had offended the imam was prosecuted and sentenced to a fifteen-day incarceration. Although the Ufa governorship acknowledged the wrongdoing of one of its officials as well as the authority of the OA to regulate family affairs of Muslims, the Russian official reporting to the OA mentioned the dire situation of the women in similar situations and the need to find relief for them.83


In the nineteenth century, Russian state policies to modernize and better control society included the supervision and regulation of the marriages of all imperial subjects. The registration of marriages in metrical books and the establishment of a minimum age of marriage presented important challenges for Muslims in the Volga-Ural region. Previously, Muslims had handled marriage and divorce according to local Islamic traditions, but the new requirements for the registration of marriages, and the implementation of laws establishing a minimum age of marriage, exposed communal and private matters to state intervention. The validity of marriage increasingly depended on registration in metrical books, and the enforcement of the minimum age of marriage forced Muslims to design new practices to circumvent the law. These transformations made it increasingly difficult for Muslims in the Volga-Ural region to regulate social norms and morality according to Islamic values, and they strained relationships between imams and their congregations, between and among the imams of one or more parishes, and even within a Muslim family. Although the imperial state wanted the Muslim family to be stable so that it might serve as the foundation of an imperial order, the new laws introduced by state officials for the Muslim community caused confusion and disagreement about the validity of marriages and disrupted the stability of the Muslim family and society.

1 On traditionalist ulama and their thought as reflected in the journal Dīn wa Maʿīshāt, see Rozaliya Garipova, “The Protectors of Religion and Community: Traditionalist Muslim Scholars of the Volga-Ural Region at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century,” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 59 (2016), 126–65. 

2Ākhūnd is the title of a religious scholar who is an expert in Islamic legal matters. On the transformation of the ākhūnds’ status and significance, see Rozaliya Garipova, “Did the Ākhūnds Disappear? Islamic Legal Experts and the Breakdown of the Traditional Islamic Legal Order in the Russian Empire,” The Yearbook of Islamic and Middle Eastern Law (forthcoming, 2016); Nathan Spannaus, “The Decline of the Ākhūnd and the Transformation of Islamic Law under the Russian Empire,” Islamic Law and Society, 20:3 (2013), 202–41.

3 I use Arabic transliteration for Muslim names and quotations in the Tatar language written in Arabic script and Cyrillic transliteration for Muslim names written in Russian. 

4 “Nikāḥ ġayr-i rasmī nikāḥ shar‘i mi tūgel mi?,” Dīn wa Maʿīshāt 15 (1909), 226–27.

5 Robert Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 10.

6 Jane Burbank, “An Imperial Rights Regime: Law and Citizenship in the Russian Empire,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 7:3 (2006),403.

7 Burbank, “An Imperial Rights Regime,” 401–02.

8 Thus, for example, the state introduced restrictions on marital age, defining it as sixteen and eighteen for women and men, respectively. Cases pertaining to child custody were to be dealt with by Russian courts. The state also invited Muslim lay people to apply to Russian courts when parties in inheritance disputes disagreed with the decision of their local imam. Dmitrii Iu. Arapov, Islam v Rossiiskoi imperii (zakonodatel’nye akty, opisaniia, statistika) (Moscow: Akademkniga, 2001), 121–22. Similarly, in disputes relating to dower and maintenance during ʿidda (the waiting-period a woman must observe after divorce or the death of her spouse, during which she may not marry another man), Muslims were required to apply to secular courts. TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 282, journal entry from February 17, 1907.

9 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 7594.

10 Mullā ʿĀlimjān Bārūdī, ʿUqūd thalāth: nikāḥ, talāq, yamīn. Māʿarif Islāmiyaden (juzʾ thāmin) dir (Kazan, Chirkof vārisleri Matbaasi, 1897).

11 Tucker, Women, Family and Gender, 41.

12 Hammudah Abd al-Ati, The Family Structure in Islam, 60–61.

13Sbornik tsirkuliarov i inykh rukovodiashchikh rasporiazhenii po okrugu Orenburgskogo magometanskogo dukhovnogo sobraniia 1836–1903 (Kazan: Iman, 2004), 15–18.

14 M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 3 (1916), 14.

15 M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 3 (1916), 12–14.

16 M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 4 (1916), 11–12.

17 Ramil Minnullin, “Ma‘lūmāt” jurnalïnïn bibliografik kürsätkeche (Kazan: Iman Näshriyatï, 1992), 9.

18 On civil registry books, see Rozaliya Garipova, “Vedenie aktov grazhdanskogo sostoianiia – metricheskie knigi Volgo-ural’skikh musul’man,” in Musul’manskie dukhovnye litsa v sotsial’nom i dukhovnom razvitii tatarskogo naroda (XVIII – nachalo XX vv.) (Kazan: Institut istorii Sh. Mardzhani AN RT, 2014), 14–34; El’mira Salakhova “Tatarstan milli arhiv fondïnda möselman metrika yazmalarï,” Ekho vekov, vol. 1 (2007); Valentina V. Chernovskaia “Metricheskie tetradi (deftery) Yaroslavskoi sobornoi mecheti kak istochnik k izucheniia mahalli (1897–1917)” in Il’dus Zagidullin et al. (eds.), Istochniki suschestvovaniia islamskikh institutov v Rossiiskoi imperii (Kazan: Institut istorii, 2009); Dilara Usmanova “Mekhanizm realizatsii norm musul’manskogo prava v rossiiskoi imperii: k voprosu o metrikatsii musul’manskogo naseleniia Volgo-Ural’skogo regiona v 19 – pervoi chetverti 20 veka” in Islam i pravo v Rossii: materialy nauchno-prakticheskogo seminara, Irina L. Babich (ed.) (Moscow: Izdatel’stvo rossiiskogo universiteta druzhby narodov (RUDN), 2004).

19 Dilara Usmanova, “Musul’manskie metricheskie knigi v Rossiiskoi imperii: mezhdu zakonom, gosudarstvom i obshchinoi (vtoraia polovina XIX – pervaia chetvert’ XX vv),” Ab Imperio, 2 (2015), 107.

20 Paul Werth, “In the State’s Embrace? Civil Acts in an Imperial Order,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 7:3 (2006),437.

21 ChaeRan Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia (Hanover, NH: Brandeis University Press, 2002), 50.

22 Annelise Rise (ed.), Documents (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006), 9.

23 Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce, 50.

24 Most of the imams did not know Russian and kept civil registries in Tatar.

25Svod zakonov,vol. 9, articles 905–91, 117–18.

26 Riḍa al-Dīn Fakhr al-Dīn included this information in his open letter from 1925 about the importance of the archives of the Orenburg Assembly. He reminded the new Soviet statesmen of the national and religious importance of the documents, including the civil registries, for the future of the Tatar and Bashkir nations. Riḍa al-Dīn Fakhr al-Dīn, “Ufa şähärendä gubernskii ispolnitel’niy komitetka saylangan kotlugh tatar egetlärenä häm, ghomumän, bügen esh bashïnda toruchï iptäshlärgä achïk mäktüb,” in E.N. Khayrullin (ed.), Rizaeddin Fakhreddinev: Bolgar wä Kazan törekläre (Kazan: Tatarstan kitap näshriyatï, 1993), 244–57.

27Sbornik tsirkuliarov, 79.

28 Brinkley Morris Messick, ‪The Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society‬ (‪Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996),‬ 204; Kenneth Cuno, “Disobedient Wives and Neglectful Husbands,” in Family, Gender, and Law in a Globalizing Middle East and South Asia, ed. Kenneth Cuno (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2009), 8.

29 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 252, Journal entry of August 28, 1900.

30 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 4826.

31 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 12, Metricheskaia kniga 1897 goda.

32 I borrowed the term “making legible” from James Scott to describe the Russian state policy concerning the registration of marriages and other events. The registration of those social events is a good example of the modern state’s attempts to “make society legible, to arrange the population in ways that simplified the classic state functions of taxation, conscription …”. James Scott, Seeing Like a State (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), 2.

33 RGIA, F. 821, op. 8, d. 611, ll. 42 ob. – 44 ob. See also Usmanova, “Metricheskie knigi”.

34 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 10665.

35 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 3716.

36 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 13801.

37 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 10739.

38 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 10668.

39 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 3888.

40 N.V. Bikbulatov and F.F. Fatykhova, Semeinyi byt bashkir 19–20 vekov (Moscow: Nauka, 1991), 29.

41 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 282, journal entry no. 395 and 396 from January 22, 1907.

42 RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 629, ll. 59ob–60.

43 Bikbulatov and Fatykhova, Semeinyi byt bashkir, 29.

44 M. Baishev, “Derevnia Zianchurina Orskogo uezda Orenburgskoi gubernii,” Izvestiia orenburgskogo otdela rossiiskogo geografickeskogo obshchestva, 7 (1895), cited in N.V. Bikbulatov and F.F. Fatykhova, Semeinyi byt bashkir 19–20 vekov (Moscow: Nauka, 1991), 29–30.

45 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 11, d. 101.

46 Muḥammad Najīb Tūntārī, “Izdiwājā yaraqlī būlūb jitarday bulūgh ḥaqīnda bir mulā­kḫaẓā,” Ma‘lūmāt 8–9 (July 1917), 4–5.

47 Article 85 of vol. 10, part 1 of Svod Zakonov Rossiiskoi Imperii, reproduced in Ia. A. Kantorovich, Zakony o vere i veroterpimost‘ (St. Petersburg, 1899), 74–75.

48 Agnés N. Kefeli, Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2014).

49 Paul Werth, “The Limits of Religious Ascription: Baptized Tatars and the Revision of ‘Apostasy,’ 1840s-1905,” Russian Review 59:4 (2000), 493–511, at 502.

50 Werth, “The Limits of Religious Ascription,” 502–03. Petitions sent by apostates to the OA after the 1905 Manifesto on Religious Freedom reveal that there were licensed and unlicensed mullas among apostates, and that these mullas performed religious rites for them.

51 RGIA, F. 821, op. 8, d. 631.

52 Petitions of apostates: TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 211, journal entry from October 16, 1895; d. 272, Journal entry from March 2, 1904; d. 276, journal entry from July 4, 1905; d. 277, journal entry from August 3, 1905 and July 11, 1905; d. 278, journal entry from August 17, 1905, September 9, 1905, and September 15, 1905; d. 279, journal entry from October 10, 1905, and December 7, 1905; d. 280, journal entry from January 10, 1906, January 16, 1906; d. 282, journal entry from January 10, 1907.

53 For example, see NART, F. 2, op. 3, d. 2638, journal entry from December 20, 1901.

54 For example, see TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 272. Report of imam Gabidullin from January 25, 1904, no. 26, journal entry from March 2, 1904, N. 1026.

55 For example, TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 277, journal entry from July 11, 1905.

56 For example, TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 277, journal entry from July 11, 1905; TsGIA RB F. 295, op. 2, d. 275, journal entry from May 7, 1905, no. 2242; RGIA F. 821, op. 8, d. 631.

57 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 14055.

58 See, for example, TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 272, Journal entry from March 2, no. 1026.

59 RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 629, ll. 1- 1 ob.

60 RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 629, ll. 1–2 17 May 1880.

61 RGIA, ibid.

62 RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 629, l. 7.

63 RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 629, ll. 9–12 ob.

64 Kefeli, Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia, 55, 122–23, 143–47.

65 RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 629, l. 41.

66 RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 629, l. 44.

67 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 2, d. 252, journal entry from August 12, no. 4998.

68 See Paul Werth, The Tsar’s Foreign Faiths: Toleration and the Fate of Religious Freedom in Imperial Russia (Oxford University Press, 2014).

69 RGIA, F. 821, op. 138, d. 141. Departament dukhovnykh del inostrannykh ispovedanii, 17 April 1907, ll. 1–14.

70 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 14240.

71 Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia, 230–32.

72 Kenneth Cuno, “Women with Missing Husbands: Marriage in Nineteenth Century Egypt,” in Objectivity and Subjectivity in the Historiography of Egypt: In Honor of Nelly Hanna, ed. Nasser Ahmed Ibrahim (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 2012), 156–70.

73 Başak Tuğ found a similar practice in the Anatolian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. However, a judicial practice (‘amal) had developed some time earlier in the Hanafi school that offered relief to women with long-absent or missing husbands. Hanafi judges would accept the testimony of these women that they had heard by word of mouth that their husbands had either died or divorced them. These women were permitted to re-marry, after completing their waiting periods, on the basis of such hearsay evidence. Başak Tuğ, “Politics of Honor: The Institutional and Social Frontiers of ‘Illicit’ Sex in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Ottoman Anatolia” (PhD dissertation, New York University, 2009), 352–58.

74 Arapov, Islam v Rossiiskoi imperii, 116.

75 TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 7264.

76 TsGIA R. 295, op. 2, d. 280, Journal entry from 17 April, 1906.

77 RGIA, Fond 821, op. 10, d. 655, ll. 20–40.

78 Riḍā al-dīn Fakhr al-Dīn, Muṭāla‘a: Idāra’ Islāmīya’ Irīnbūrgiya ūzarīna ʿālimlarimiz ṭarafindan nikāḥ khuṣūṣunda yāzilmish afkārlarinin khulāṣasi jamʿ īdilmish risāladir (Kazan: Tipografiia Dombrosvskogo, 1897).

79 See for example: TsGIA RB F. 295, op. 4, d. 21218; F. 295, op. 5, d. 6750.

80 See as an example: RGIA, F. 821, op. 10, d. 655.

81 M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 4 (1916), 11–12.

82 See TsGIA RB F. 295, op. 3, d. 13914; TsGIA RB F. 295, op. 3, d. 14055.

83 TsGIA RB F. 295, op. 3, d. 13914, ll. 32–33.

  • 5

     Robert Crews, For Prophet and Tsar: Islam and Empire in Russia and Central Asia (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 10.

  • 6

     Jane Burbank, “An Imperial Rights Regime: Law and Citizenship in the Russian Empire,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 7:3 (2006),403.

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  • 7

     Burbank, “An Imperial Rights Regime,” 401–02.

  • 9

     TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 7594.

  • 11

     Tucker, Women, Family and Gender, 41.

  • 12

     Hammudah Abd al-Ati, The Family Structure in Islam, 60–61.

  • 14

     M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 3 (1916), 14.

  • 15

     M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 3 (1916), 12–14.

  • 16

     M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 4 (1916), 11–12.

  • 17

     Ramil Minnullin, “Ma‘lūmāt” jurnalïnïn bibliografik kürsätkeche (Kazan: Iman Näshriyatï, 1992), 9.

  • 19

     Dilara Usmanova, “Musul’manskie metricheskie knigi v Rossiiskoi imperii: mezhdu zakonom, gosudarstvom i obshchinoi (vtoraia polovina XIX – pervaia chetvert’ XX vv),” Ab Imperio, 2 (2015), 107.

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  • 20

     Paul Werth, “In the State’s Embrace? Civil Acts in an Imperial Order,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History, 7:3 (2006),437.

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  • 22

     Annelise Rise (ed.), Documents (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2006), 9.

  • 23

     Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce, 50.

  • 30

     TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 4826.

  • 35

     TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 3716.

  • 39

     TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 3888.

  • 43

     Bikbulatov and Fatykhova, Semeinyi byt bashkir, 29.

  • 44

     M. Baishev, “Derevnia Zianchurina Orskogo uezda Orenburgskoi gubernii,” Izvestiia orenburgskogo otdela rossiiskogo geografickeskogo obshchestva, 7 (1895), cited in N.V. Bikbulatov and F.F. Fatykhova, Semeinyi byt bashkir 19–20 vekov (Moscow: Nauka, 1991), 29–30.

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  • 48

     Agnés N. Kefeli, Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia: Conversion, Apostasy, and Literacy (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2014).

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  • 49

     Paul Werth, “The Limits of Religious Ascription: Baptized Tatars and the Revision of ‘Apostasy,’ 1840s-1905,” Russian Review 59:4 (2000), 493–511, at 502.

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  • 50

     Werth, “The Limits of Religious Ascription,” 502–03. Petitions sent by apostates to the OA after the 1905 Manifesto on Religious Freedom reveal that there were licensed and unlicensed mullas among apostates, and that these mullas performed religious rites for them.

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  • 64

     Kefeli, Becoming Muslim in Imperial Russia, 55, 122–23, 143–47.

  • 71

     Freeze, Jewish Marriage and Divorce in Imperial Russia, 230–32.

  • 72

     Kenneth Cuno, “Women with Missing Husbands: Marriage in Nineteenth Century Egypt,” in Objectivity and Subjectivity in the Historiography of Egypt: In Honor of Nelly Hanna, ed. Nasser Ahmed Ibrahim (Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 2012), 156–70.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • 74

     Arapov, Islam v Rossiiskoi imperii, 116.

  • 75

     TsGIA RB, F. 295, op. 3, d. 7264.

  • 81

     M. Ḥusnī, “ʿAqd wa nikāḥ,” Ma‘lūmāt, 4 (1916), 11–12.

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