Reviews

Baku and its Environs, Wiesbaden: Reichert (Kaukasienstudien / Caucasian Studies: 11), 2009, 366 p., bibliography, index, ill.

In spite of the relative openness of post-Soviet Azerbaijan’s socio-political landscape, the dynamics of the country’s religious life as well as fundamental features of a cultural complex which could be called “Azerbaijani Islam” remains largely unclear for both Western and Russian scholarship. It is this gap that R. Sattarov’s dissertation aims at covering. This fact vastly explains its systemic approach which strives at giving an all-encompassing and dynamic picture of the confessional structure and political orientations of South Caucasian Muslims. Having formulated the aims of the research and outlined theoretical perspectives, R. Sattarov dwells on his sources, interestingly pointing out the importance of the Soviet era treatises by local “scholars of religion and atheism” which he deems worthy of attention as providing at least a mass of raw material for the study of Azerbaijani Muslim life in the twentieth century.

The book, structured in an encyclopaedic way, falls into six chapters. The introduction presents an overall review of the evolution of Islamic institutions in mediaeval and early modern Azerbaijan, coming from its early Islamicization through the centuries of domination by independent dynasties and regional conquerors till the hegemony of the Safavids. A sketch of the status of religion in Turkic khanates serves as prolegomena to a detailed account of the impact of Russian colonial rule on the spiritual life of Caspian lands. The Muslim religious institutions shaped by the tsars’ policy are observed all through the decades of intense reformist movement which presumably played a decisive role in the constitution of contemporary Azerbaijani identity and its characteristic “diversity without unity.” After considering Islam as the ideology of a range of proto-parties of Eastern Transcaucasia on the eve of the fall of the Russian Empire, R. Sattarov goes to a thorough examination of fundamental shifts in the positions of the Islamic establishment beginning under the “Musavvatist” Democratic Republic (1918-20) and culminating in the Azerbaijani SSR: Here, the periodisation runs through early Soviet years (1920-1927/8), Stalinism (1928-53), Khrushchev’s era (1953-64), and “stagnation” (1964-85). Special attention is paid to Islam as a political and social force in late-Soviet/early independent Azerbaijan. The beginnings of a certain revival are traced up to Perestroika and the strengthening of the population’s confessional conscience linked with the bloody events of Black January 1990. Conceptions and misconceptions of the role of Islam against the background of the Qarabagh conflict take a special place in the author’s narration. The presidential terms of the first Azerbaijani heads of state Ayaz Mutällibov and Äbulfäz Älçibey are submitted to meticulous analysis under the aspects of the two men’s views on religion and its instrumentation on the internal arena and as a factor in foreign policy: In both fields, a dichotomy between the two main vectors (Turkish and Iranian) is underlined, but at the same time there is indeed a legitimate mention of early Azerbaijani leadership’s attitude towards other Muslim countries.

The same paradigm is eventually applied to the overview of interaction of Islam, state, and society under Heydär Äliyev (1993-2003). It is followed by a pertinent exposition of legal regulation of Islam in Azerbaijan and the controversy over its influence on state symbols and legislation. Legislative documents, among which constitutional provisions on religion and the Law “On the Freedom of Religion” are treated exhaustively, as well as the jurisdiction of religious associations and other related entities, with the functions of state and non-state agencies highlighted (viz., the Department of Religious Affairs). R. Sattarov can be credited with a highly pertinent and clear discussion of the structure and functioning of the Administration of the Caucasus Muslims (QMI) which assumes control over all Muslim associations in the country. Not contenting himself with a useful but routine investigation into practical aspects of its diplomatic activities (including mediation at regional and international levels), the missions of transmitting Islamic knowledge by the means of education and supervising the pilgrimage to the shrines of Arabia and Iraq, the certification of mullahs R. Sattarov traces the financial streams of the QMI and studies the emergence of a kind of personality cult spontaneously formed around its veteran chief, Sheikh al-Islam Allahşükür Paşazadä, shedding light on his career, interests, and political faces. Highly interesting is the story of the struggle for spheres of influence between the QMI and the State Committee for the Work with Religious Associations (ADDK), ending in the former’s formal defeat and re-registration within the latter as a subaltern unit alongside with the Departments for the Work with Associations and of Law and Registration, and the Section of Religious Expertise. Equally precious is the presentation of the views of the Azerbaijani élite concerning the ADDK.

Islam in party politics is treated apart. After a skipping treatment of religious motivation in secular parties’ ideology (the Popular Front, the Social-Democratic Party, the Müsavvat, etc.), the main accent is put on groupings openly proclaiming their confessional orientation. Paradigmatic here is the Iranian-inspired Azerbaijan Islamic Party (AIP) with its turbulent history of official ban and repression and the Nardaran events in 2002. Marginal groups (e.g., the Islamic Party of Progress and the Tövbä Society) receive more passing treatment. In a tentative classification of “organised” Islam in Azerbaijan, the author turns to case studies taken almost exclusively from the experience of religion-related NGOs in the Apsheron Peninsula (both those controlled by the QMI and those independent). The most celebrated are those constituted around mosques, such as Imam Hüseyn, Içäri Şähär Cuma, Haci Cavad, Mäşädi Dadaş, Ähli-Beyt Hüseyniyyäsi. The panorama of minor Shiite groupings (e.g., the Islam-Ittihad Society, the Birlik Organisation, the Ikmal Youth Union, and the Benevolent Foundation “Täbliğ”) is set in a comparative perspective with similar Sunni networks, both officially sanctioned (the community of the Äbu Bäkr Cuma Mosque and the more controversial one of the Şähidler Mosque, among others) and ethnically tainted (Tat and Lezgi). Unofficial Sunni Islam is basically associated with neo-brotherhoods conceived as the product of Turkish penetration helped by the much advertised alliance between Ankara and Baku, even though their protagonists are often viewed as personae non gratae in Turkey. The rise of a local Islamic sect, the Millätä Ibrahim, is closely followed from the beginning of Aläsgär Musayev’s mission in 1987 and the strengthening of his following through symbolic “migrations” (minor in 1995, major in 1999), up to his first official appeal of the community to the public in 2003, and to the gradual decline of the sect caused after Musayev’s imprisonment. Among nonreligious actors in the field of involved Islamic studies, the attention of the reader is in particular drawn to the Irşad Center, the Centre of Religious Research and the Centre for the Meeting of Religions.

The principal point omitted from the scope of this elaborate study is rural and generally provincial Islam in the “Country of Fires,” the contours of which remain very vague in comparison with the deep and fundamental presentation of relevant developments in the capital.

Timur Koraev, Moscow State University
CER: II-4.2.B-346