Mary jane maxwell, Pennsylvania State University



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Afanasii Nikitin:

An Orthodox Russian's Spiritual Voyage in the Dar al-Islam, 1468–1475

MARY JANE MAXWELL, Pennsylvania State University


Russian merchant Afanasii Nikitin offered the following advice to fellow Russian traders: "And so, my Christian brothers of Rus', those of you who want to go to the land of India must leave their faith in Rus' and invoke Muhammed before setting out to the land of Hindustan."1 Nikitin departed from Tver', Russia, in 1468 in hopes of trading furs in the north Caspian region. He traveled as part of a group of private Tver' merchants who regularly ventured along established trade routes.2 Near Astrakhan, however, his party unfortunately fell prey to a Tatar attack, and Nikitin lost all his goods. Shortly thereafter Nikitin made the decision to venture through Persia and then on to India in hopes of recouping his losses.3 On his return to Russia in 1475, Nikitin died near Smolensk before reaching home. Although nothing is known about Nikitin's life before his journey, Nikitin is remarkable because he kept an account of his expedition in a text subsequently titled Voyage Beyond Three Seas. This account occupies a unique place in Russian historical and literary studies because it was quite unusual for a Russian merchant to travel the distance Nikitin traveled and even more extraordinary for a merchant to document his journey. Furthermore, Nikitin recorded his personal thoughts and feelings, offering scholars a glimpse into heart and mind of a common medieval Russian.

While traveling and trading in India, Nikitin, a devout Orthodox Christian, passed himself off as a Muslim. Nikitin revealed in his account how he dressed like a Muslim, prayed with Muslims, and fasted during Muslim holy days. He gave himself a Muslim name. But did he convert to Islam? This article examines the personal experiences of Afanasii Nikitin as preserved in Voyage Beyond Three Seas and places the degree and meaning of his spiritual transformation into the wider discussion of conversion and Islamization along the vibrant fifteenth-century trade routes. Much of the recent focus on premodern conversion emphasizes the political, social, and economic incentives for mass conversion among entire societies. Such investigations tend to neglect individual accounts, which typically offer a personal and spiritual explanation for conversion. Nikitin's account of his adoption of Islamic practices, therefore, presents an opportunity to examine the spiritual considerations that influenced the process of conversion. It emphasizes the notion that everyday cultural interactions can provide historians with a more complete understanding of large-scale patterns and processes such as social conversion and cultural assimilation as a result of cross-cultural contact. While often reinforcing the multi-factored secular explanations that currently dominate the literature, an investigation of Nikitin's travel account is significant because it reveals that secular and spiritual motivations for assimilation and conversion coexisted.

Although very little scholarship in English exists concerning Nikitin,8 most Russians, on the other hand, are well-acquainted with their compatriot, Russia's own "Marco Polo," who reached India thirty years before the Portuguese Vasco da Gama. Since the discovery of his travel notes in 1817, Russian scholars have depicted him as a figure of state importance, a patriot, a God-fearing Christian, and a courageous and curious traveler whose name "went down side by side with the names of outstanding navigators and travelers of the era of great discoveries" such as Columbus and Magellan.9 Today an imposing statue of his swashbuckling figure looms along the banks of the Volga River in Tver', and his smiling face graces the bottle of the popular local beer Afanasii. His devotion to the Russian Orthodox faith throughout his travels remained unquestioned until the American scholar Gail Lenhoff proposed in 1979 that "Afanasii Nikitin did not keep the faith, but converted to Islam."10 Since that time, at least one Russian scholar, Ia. S. Lur'e, has rejected such an idea as "groundless," yet the idea remains intriguing considering the fact that at least two other Christians traveling at approximately the same time, Nicolò de' Conti and Ludovico de Varthema, perhaps might also have converted.11 Any argument, including this one, regarding whether Nikitin converted to Islam or maintained his Orthodox Christian faith involves a certain amount of assumption and speculation. Nonetheless, an investigation of his memoirs is all the more important because it sheds light on the questions of what constitutes religious conversion in the premodern era and how individuals' accounts help us understand this process.

Recent scholarship on conversion to Islam emphasizes the importance of defining in detail the term "conversion" in order to provide a more precise account of when, where, how, and why various peoples at different times adopted this religion.12 Scholars have increasingly preferred the term "assimilation" or "social conversion" over the term "conversion."13 These more precise terms suggest a secular, gradual, and peaceful process of mutual adaptation, while the term "conversion" implies a dramatic and sudden change in a person's spiritual attitude and implies the forceful imposition of one culture upon another.14 Both of these notions, according to recent scholarship, represent an inaccurate portrayal of premodern conversion to Islam.15 Moreover, Richard Bulliet, a prominent historian of conversion to Islam in the medieval era, argues that any speculations about conversion garnered from individual accounts are inherently flawed because converts slant "their tale one way or another" or simply make it up.16 Likewise, Jerry Bentley warns of the problematic nature of travel accounts.17 In Old World Encounters, he uses Bulliet's term "social conversion to signify a process by which pre-modern peoples adopted or adapted foreign cultural traditions."18 Bentley argues that "conversion by assimilation" accounted for a large portion of the cross-cultural conversions in the premodern world.19 Thus much of the focus of the recent scholarship on widespread premodern conversion emphasizes the political, social, and economic incentives for conversion rather than the spiritual component, which is reflected only in individual accounts.

Even more recently, classicist and religious scholar Zeba Crook in Reconceptualising Conversion also reminds scholars that our psychological and emotional interpretation of conversion today was not the same as it was for Mediterranean ancients. What Crook's work demonstrates is that it is anachronistic to transport our modern interpretations and definitions across time and cultural boundaries. But Crook's work in the ancient world is not a call to abandon investigations on how or why individuals converted in the past, but rather to emphasize the need to understand conversion within its own contemporary cultural framework. His study on conversion reveals an important theoretical issue underlying all research on conversion: What accounts for human actions—the structures of society or the creative human will? Crook has persuasively demonstrated that nothing is gained from clinging to these binary opposites, and researchers should instead examine how human agency works in conjunction within the structures of society.20 This article answers Crook's call for more research on the topic of conversion by demonstrating how spiritual factors played an essential role in the process of conversion in the premodern era.21 It was inconceivable for an Orthodox Russian, Latin Christian, or Muslim not to maintain some sort of spiritual identity in the fifteenth century. Without considering the relevance of spiritual factors in the conversion process during the premodern era, or their relationship to secular factors, such as trade, then a significant portion of the process is overlooked, and conversion of an individual or an entire population loses its most fundamental meaning.

An examination of medieval individual accounts, such as Voyage Beyond Three Seas, can provide historians with a nuanced picture of conversion. While it is appropriate for historians to approach conversion to Islam in the premodern world as a global phenomenon involving large-scale populations, it is also important to appreciate the role of the individual in world history. In revealing the specific adaptations and adoptions to Islam, the experiences of Afanasii Nikitin impart a human face to the widespread process of conversion. His story both supports the existing arguments concerning wide-scale conversions and adds new elements, such as individual spiritual concerns with prayer habits, fears of apostasy, and desires for communal worship.

Determined to make the best of the situation following the loss of all his goods at the beginning of his voyage, Nikitin chose to travel onward in search of a way to recover his losses. Although he spent nearly two years traveling from market to market across Muslim Persia, he devoted only a few lines of Voyage to this segment of the trip. Living among the Muslim Persians, Nikitin must have fostered friendships with his Muslim counterparts in order to establish essential relationships. Muslim merchants operated in a sophisticated commercial culture founded upon trade partnerships.22 The Qur'an itself (2:282–283) addresses how merchants should conduct their financial matters. Although Nikitin does not say so in his account, this was most likely not his first encounter trading with Muslims, and a certain familiarity and respect for their traditions already existed. Hostilities did not exclusively define relations between Orthodox Muslims and Russians, contrary to Russian chronicle accounts. Frequently, religious tolerance, princely intermarriage, military cooperation, and, above all, mutually supportive trade relations characterized Rus'-Islam relations. Although the two faiths each proclaimed that either all Christians would eventually worship only Allah or all Muslims would one day accept the Trinity, official doctrine sometimes belied common daily practices.23 The medieval Rus' chroniclers understood that the less said about alliances between Christian states and their Muslim neighbors, the better. So despite the highly publicized wars and massacres between the Rus' and the Tatars, a modus vivendi existed for the most part as evidenced by "unofficial" individual accounts such as Afanasii Nikitin's Voyage. But nothing in his past prepared him for his first encounter with Hindus.

Nikitin wrote that he kept his first Easter at Hormuz and from there headed to Hindustan.24 Apparently, he had met with some financial success in Persia, for he was able to pay one hundred rubles for passage to India for himself and a stallion. For centuries, merchants brought horses to Hormuz and delivered them across the Indian Ocean to the armies of various Indian states.25 Upon reaching Chaul (a harbor on the Malabar coast, east of Bombay), Nikitin was greeted by the Hindu inhabitants where he remarked, "everyone goes naked; the women go bareheaded and with breasts uncovered, their hair plaited into braid. Many women are with child, and they bear children every year, and have many children. The men and women are all black. Wherever I went I was followed by many people who wondered at me, a white man."26 For the rest of his account, Nikitin meticulously described Hindus and their novel customs and living habits in a disapproving tone, mainly because of their polytheistic religious practices. Throughout his journey he lodged in Hindu homesteads for Muslim merchants, where he reported that Hindu women cooked for and slept with their male guests. He wrote, "In India strangers put up at inns, and the food is cooked for them by women, who also make the guests' beds, and sleep with them. If you would like to sleep with one or another of them, it will cost two shetel, otherwise, only one shetel. These women are quite willing because they like white people."27 Compared to the familiarity of Persian culture, Indian culture continued to shock and amaze Nikitin throughout his journey.

When Nikitin first arrived in India, he remained in the company of familiar Muslim circles. He landed in the independent Bahmanid kingdom, which was founded in 1347 and lasted until 1527. The Muslim Bahmanid sultans frequently waged war on the Hindu state Vijayanagar, and the Bahmanid state is commonly perceived by modern historians as a continuation of the Islamization process begun by the succession of dynasties collectively known as the Delhi Sultanates (1206–1526).28 As the Delhi sultanates gradually lost their power during the fifteenth century, many independent states emerged, such as the Bahmanid kingdom. Nonetheless, like their predecessors, they struggled with the problem of maintaining an Islamic state in a predominantly Hindu culture. To compensate, they established aggressive and exclusive pro-Muslim policies. Semenov reports that although Muslims constituted only about 10 percent of the Bahmanid state population, they were given the best positions as civil administrators and army commanders, and they were the town gentry.29 Thus Nikitin, who already spoke Persian and was acquainted with Muslim trading practices, had the ability to blend into the Persian-speaking Muslim upper strata of Indian society. Nonetheless, unlike his experience in Persia, his Christian background became a cause for concern among the Muslim Indians.

In the Bahmanid city of Junnar, Nikitin encountered his first dilemma regarding conversion to Islam. According to Semenov, "the foreign Christian had a right to trade without being a citizen of the state for a year, and then he had to either leave the country or adopt Islam. But Nikitin had been in the Bahmanid state for only three months."30 The governor of the region, whom Nikitin refers to as Khan Asad, took away Nikitin's stallion "when he learned that I was a Russian and not a Muslim."31 Non-Muslims were not permitted to ride horses, and most likely Nikitin's ethnicity and religious orientation had been brought to the local governor's attention. Nikitin was called to his court. Asad told Nikitin:



"I will give you back your stallion and pay you a thousand pieces of gold, if only you will accept our Muslim faith. But if you should not adopt our Muslim faith, I shall keep the stallion and exact a ransom of a thousand pieces of gold from you." And he gave me four days—till Our Redeemer's Day, during the Fast of the Holy Mother of God. And the Lord had mercy upon me on His holy day, He kept not His mercy from me, miserable sinner, and left me not to perish at Junnar among the godless. Khoja Muhammad of Khorassan arrived on the eve of our Redeemer's Day, and I humbly begged him to plead for me. And he rode to the Khan in town, and persuaded him not to convert me to his faith; he also took back my stallion. Such was the wonder wrought by the Lord on Our Redeemer's Day. And so, my Christian brothers of Rus', those of you who want to go to the land of India must leave their faith in Rus' and invoke Muhammad before setting out for the land of Hindustan.32

Nikitin's incident with Asad illustrates that conversion to Islam in fifteenth-century India was often a choice between financial gain or ruin. He credits his rescue not only to God, but to a Muslim named Khoja Muhammad, a Khorassani with whom he probably had already established a business relationship either in Persia or upon arriving in India. Despite Asad's change of heart, Nikitin's warning to his Orthodox brothers reveals that he believed that only Muslim merchants could survive in India.

Nikitin followed up his warning with yet another reason to maintain a Muslim identity: the jizya that all non-Muslims must pay. He complained that "All toll-free goods are for the Muslim land only.... But we [Russians] shall not be allowed to take our goods free of toll. And the toll is high and, moreover, there are many pirates at sea. And all the pirates are pagans, not Christians or Muslims; they worship stone idols, and are ignorant of Christ."33 Nikitin realized that Russian merchants would need to return from the west Indian coast across the Arabian Sea from either Hormuz or Basra—both controlled by Muslims. There, they would be required to pay the jizya. Indian ships, too, swarmed the ports of Aden and Hormuz, but as dhimmis, they paid the additional tax.34 Faced with overt pressure from political authorities to convert, the financial incentives offered by adopting Islam, and the pragmatic necessity of relying only on Muslim merchants in conducting day-to-day trade, Nikitin at this point superficially converted to Islam.

Following his encounter with Asad, Nikitin maintained an outward Muslim appearance. In medieval India, clothing carried an immense symbolic message. "If an individual changed his clothing, he automatically changed his social identity," states Indian Ocean scholar K.N. Chaudhuri.35 Without the security of a Christian community, Nikitin had no option but to adopt local attire as well as local food and housing, which also indicated religion and social status. But this transformation carried meanings and consequences that ultimately went beyond the superficial. In this manner, Nikitin reflected on an individual scale what Bentley described as social conversion on a mass scale—"conversion by assimilation": "Those who adjusted [Christians living in the Holy Land after the First Crusade in 1099] did so by learning the local languages, taking local spouses, observing local diets, and at least tolerating if not adopting local faiths. In short, they underwent a process of conversion by assimilation to the standards of a different cultural tradition."36 Moreover, Nikitin now assumed a Muslim name, Khoja Yusuf Khorassani, signifying that he was a well-to-do Persian.37 Thus, while in India, Nikitin pragmatically deemed that it was necessary to present himself as a non-Indian Muslim in order to avoid harassment by local authorities as well as to place himself in the highest stratum of Indian society.

As Nikitin left Junnar he wrote that "we" (presumably he was traveling with other merchants, perhaps Khoja Muhammad) proceeded west across the Deccan plain toward Bidar, and along the way he noted that "all the Indian princes" (the ruling Muslim authorities in the region) "come of Khorassan, and so do all the boyars," as compared to the people of Hindustan, who "go on foot and walk fast, and are all naked and barefoot."38 Throughout Voyage, Nikitin emphasized the political, military, and economic superiority of the Muslims in phrases such as "Such is the strength of the Muslim Sultan of India; the Muslim strength still holds good," as contrasted with the poverty and cultural otherness of the Hindus.39 He clearly distinguished the sharp differences between Islam and Hinduism, and he did not hide his preference.

Only once did Nikitin attempt to forge commercial relations with Hindus.40 When he arrived at the capital of the Bahmanid state, Bidar, he sold his stallion and tried his luck trading with the Hindus: "And I stayed at Bidar until Lent. There I came to know many Hindus and told them that I was a Christian and not a Muslim, and that my name was Afanasii, or Khoja Yusuf in the Muslim tongue. They did not hide from me while eating, trading, praying, or doing something else; nor did they conceal their wives."41 In accordance with their religious traditions, Muslims and Hindus did not eat together. Muslims were forbidden to eat or obtain meat from kafirs (infidels), and Hindus also refrained from sharing food with non-Sanskritic people.42 Apparently the Hindus at first took Nikitin at face value—he was passing himself off as a Muslim as indicated by his dress, name, stallion, and the language he spoke. But by revealing himself as a Christian, he was able to enter their world with greater ease. This action demonstrates that Nikitin was not opposed to changing his religious identity if it suited his economic needs. Gail Lenhoff notes that "the Hindus held an annual trade fair at Parvattum. It was probably in order to attend this fair that Nikitin shed his Muslim identity and joined the Hindus."43 Nikitin traveled to "Parvat, their Jerusalem, or Mecca in the Muslim tongue" where he witnessed Hindus worshiping their idols.44 Hindu shrines and the great walled temple centers such as Parvat often served as protected commercial centers associated with pilgrims. Nikitin's comments on their dietary restrictions, nakedness, funeral rites, use of dung as fuel to bake their bread, and habit of referring to the ox as "father" and cow as "mother" seem to imply that he was uncomfortable moving in their polytheistic world. After a few months with the Hindus, he returned to Bidar "a fortnight before Ulu Bayram, the great Muslim feast."45 From this point on Nikitin remained in Muslim company for the duration of his travels, and his spiritual transformation became a central theme for the remainder of his account.

Although he had been able to mark time according to the Russian Orthodox calendar thus far, Nikitin now claimed that it was impossible to keep the Christian feasts, and he increasingly uses Muslim holy days to keep track of time. For instance, upon arriving at the market fair in Alland, held at the tomb of a Muslim sheik, he remarked that "Spring came with the Feast of the Intercession of the Holy Mother of God; it is in spring, a fortnight after Intercession, that an eight-day feast is kept to honor the memory of Sheik Ala-uddin."46 After Alland, Nikitin began to mark the Orthodox feast and holy days by their correlation to the Muslim religious calendar. He wrote:

From Parvat I came to Bidar a fortnight before Ulu Bayram, the great Muslim feast. And I know not when Easter Sunday, the great day of the Resurrection of Christ, occurs, so I try to guess by signs [stars]: with the Christians, Easter comes nine or ten days before the Muslim Bayram.... And I have forgotten all that I knew of the Christian faith and all the Christian feasts; I know not when Easter occurs, or Christmas, or Wednesday or Friday. And surrounded by other faiths, I pray to God that he may protect me.... And I am going back to Rus' thinking that my faith is dead, for I have fasted with the Muslims.47

Prior to this outburst, Nikitin did know the major Orthodox feast days and, apparently, he became entangled in his own subterfuge. He had already said that he kept Easter in Hormuz and that he left Chaul the seventh week of Easter. Moreover, Nikitin knew the winter in Junnar "set in on Trinity Sunday," a moveable feast, that Khan Asad had given him four days "till Our Redeemer's Day during the Fast of the Holy Mother of God" (a moveable fast) to convert, and that the fair in Alland coincided with the "Intercession of the Holy Mother of God," which begins on October 1.48 He also claimed that he sold his horse in Bidar on Christmas Day. Surely he knew the difference between Wednesday and Friday—all Muslims were required to attend the Friday congregational service (salat al-jum'a) as part of the five pillars of Islam. Moreover, he noted the days of the week in which Hindus fast —Sundays and Mondays. What this passage reveals instead was that Nikitin was not keeping the Orthodox holy days, but was now worshiping alongside Muslims.

Nikitin admitted that he fasted with the Muslims during the month of March, in other words, he kept Ramadan, the holy month of fasting commemorating when the Qur'an was revealed to Muhammad. If he was in Bidar in 1472, as Semenov calculates, Ramadan (the ninth month in the Muslim lunar calendar) began on February 11 and lasted for a month. Moreover, Nikitin stated that in the following year, 1473:




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