The centrepiece of Christine Hunner-Kreisel’s dissertation is made of more than fifty interviews that she took with teachers and students at the Theological Faculty of Baku State University, at the Baku Imam-Hatip School and at the Islamic University as well as at two mosques of Baku. In addition to analysing the ways how Islam is being taught, the author has investigated personal accounts of what Islam means to a young person, and especially how ‘conversion’ to belief in Islam relates to the process of becoming an adult. All this stands against the background of the specific religious situation in Azerbaijan with its strong secular tradition and a mixed Shiite-Sunni population, and with Azerbaijani as well as foreign teachers active at the Muslim institutions.
The author follows the widespread (but not uncontested) opinion that due to the loss of religious knowledge and practice during the Soviet period, in the early 1990s the majority of the young people did not know whether they were Sunni or Shiite, and affiliation to Islam was reduced to an ‘emotional’ level (49). For understanding the return of many Azerbaijanis to Islam after 1991, she employs the concept of ‘invisible religion’, coined by the German sociologist of religion Thomas Luckmann. ‘Invisible religion’ means a ‘dissipation’ of formalised, official religion into mere religiosity (‘Verflüchtigung der Religion ins Religiöse,’ 87): The lack of an official model enables the autonomous individual to pick and chose from whatever a certain religion offers, to construct her or his ‘private system of last meanings’ (89). This also means that religion is very much ‘secularised’, left to the individual (142f). Such an individualised religion can be observed, for example, among Muslim migrants in France, where it serves to produce meaning in a situation of insecurity and search for identity (74). Chr. Hunner-Kreisel applies it to post-Soviet Azerbaijan, where the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Qarabakh war and the refugee problem, the general economic transition and the endemic corruption have produced similar crises of identity among the young. (It remains unclear, however, whether in Chr. Hunner-Kreisel’s mind the ‘dissipation’ of Islam occurred in the Soviet period, as a consequence of the Soviet policy against Islam and the Soviet way of administering Islam, or whether it happened after 1991, in spite of a renewed attempt at Islamic institutionalizing by the state).
At any event, ‘patchwork religiosity’ is very widespread in Azerbaijan (141), and every interviewee has his or her tailor-made interpretation of Islam. Many Soviet-educated teachers regard themselves as Muslims but do not adhere to Islamic religious practice or dress codes (or even reject them openly); for them, Islam is culture (120 ff.). For others, among them young women, it is exactly the outward side of Islam, dress and ritual that makes a difference. And for Turkish teaching personnel, Islam is a component of nationalism and ‘modernity’ which they believe they bring to the Azerbaijani Turks, their brothers-in-race. Of central interest is the question of conversion. The author finds evidence for a conversion of many Azerbaijani Muslims from their ‘invisible’, individualised Islams to an Islamic ‘orthodoxy’. This process, however, seems to go hand in hand with another conversion, namely that from Shiite Islam to Sunni Islam. Chr. Hunner-Kreisel is careful to avoid sweeping statements, but it becomes clear from her examples that both processes are gaining ground. The conversion of people with a Shiite family background to Sunni Islam seems to take place by a detour. Instead of openly attacking Shiite belief (which would provoke the students’ opposition, 123), Turkish/Sunni teachers try to avoid all topics of conflict, and claim that the Islam that they teach is beyond all differences of madhhabs (i.e., schools of Islamic law, thus taking for granted that Shiite Islam, or the Ja‘fariyya, is just a fifth madhhab): What they teach is, so they claim, an undiluted, ‘real’ or ‘rational’ Islam (127), as logical to understand as mathematics. In result, female students from Shiite families discover greater respect for the prophet Muhammad, and lose their love for ‘Ali and the ‘illogical’ belief in the Shiite Imams. This reduction of Islam to the prophetic period (with the Qur’an and Hadith as the single sources) produces what Chr. Hunner-Kreisel calls a ‘Meta-Islam’ (131) that pretends to be common to all Muslims, but that in fact eliminates the Shiite tradition. For the students this can lead to conflicts with their parents who, seemingly, do have a clear Shiite identity but did not know that they gave their offspring to Sunni teachers when they sent them to the Ilahiyat Faculty. Interestingly, many students converted to ‘Meta-Islam’ begin to regard their previous Shiite Islam as ‘fanaticism’ (133; 152). Obviously, it is exactly the emotional side of Shiite Islam (pilgrimages to holy sites, Ashura celebrations, etc.) which, after having survived the anti-religious policies of the USSR, is now losing ground to ‘intellectual’ Islam.
But what about the emergence of a new ‘visible’ religion: Do young people give up their agency of designing their own Islam, and do they begin to accept an official model of ‘orthodoxy’? The book is not very clear on this issue, also because the question of how Shiite authorities and teachers try to ‘officialise’ (or ‘visualise’? domesticate? rationalise?) the Shiite Islam of their youth is not covered by the book. Yet while Chr. Hunner-Kreisel warns that a strengthening of the ‘official’ religions might lead to more tension in society, she also shows that the ‘officialisation’ of Islam is a fairly ambiguous process. This can be seen from the author’s research among the people who most ardently and ostensibly adopted an Islamic way of life, the Muslim girls and young women at the Sunni Lezgi and the Shiite Friday mosques. The young women do not merely follow an official orthodoxy. Instead, they set up a youth subculture (with its own symbols, modes of interaction, norms, values, and goals, and patterns of behaviour, 233). This subculture provides its members with the feeling of superiority, vis-à-vis society at large but certainly also with regard to elders and authorities who adhere to the same brand of Islam. (On the two mosque communities, see now also: Sofie Bedford, “‘Wahhabis’, Democrats, and Everything in between: The Development of Islamic Activism in Post-Soviet Azerbaijan,” in Moshe Gammer, ed., Ethno-Nationalism and the State in the Caucasus: Post-Soviet Disorder, London: Routledge, 2008: 194-211.) Here, the mosque becomes an alternative world for a closely connected group, a surrogate for parental home, school, or workplace (238). What can be observed is therefore no clear unilinear development but a continuous flux of divergent interpretations for various purposes. Chr. Hunner-Kreisel wrote her book in the discipline of pedagogy, and accordingly she put much emphasis on theory and methodology (e.g., with regard to her questionnaires and the use of student essays and group discussions), which leaves her little room for exploring in full depth the Islamic literature in Azerbaijani and Russian languages; and from among her Western literature one misses Svante Cornell’s works on political Islam in Azerbaijan. These limitations notwithstanding, the book provides interesting and important insights into the current development of Islam in the South Caucasus.