Islam’s relationship with Russian imperialism in the Caucasus is a topic of historical analysis that is most often focused on Shamil’s jihad and the considerable influence that this event had on both the peoples of the Caucasus and the Russian Empire in total. Scholarship on the Empire’s relationship with Islam in the area of the current Republic of Azerbaijan is rather sparse and in this sense, F. Mostashari’s work has contributed significantly to the body of work published about Azerbaijan under Imperial rule. On the Religious Frontier covers quite broadly the meandering trail of policy that the Russian Empire implemented to establish and maintain control of this crossroads of competition between Russia, Persia, and the Ottoman Empire. However, the role that indigenous Islamic institutions played in forming Russian policy is quite absent from the book. Rather, the formation of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia and of national identity—despite Imperial obstruction—is the area the book deals with in regard to evolving resistance to Imperial rule.
In tracing the history of local resistance and adaptation to Russian rule, F. Mostashari illustrates that early Imperial administrators were quite inept, in that they believed that local power structure would wither in the face of Imperial integration through a Russification programme of reforming society along Russian norms, e.g. language, property distribution, tax collection. She goes further on to tie together the Murid movement of the North Caucasus under Shamil and the peasant rebellions of the 1840s as anti-Russification cousins of sorts, which combined to throw Imperial rule into a tailspin. This analysis provides her explanation for the dramatic shift in policy in 1844; the chaos provoked the appointment of M. S. Vorontsov as Viceroy in the same year. However, the connections that are implied between the overtly Islamic Murid movement and the peasant rebellions in Transcaucasia are not fully fleshed out. In fact, the ways in which both resistance movements are portrayed by F. Mostashari to be defeated are quite different, with the Murids being slowly defeated by armed forces and the peasants defeated by implementing serfdom and returning the land previously confiscated by Imperial authorities to the beks. Furthermore, the landed elite were thrust into greater importance with the establishment of a locally staffed bureaucracy. In a way, this transitory period—after 1844 and before the oil boom in the 1870s—while portrayed as a time of de-Russification, actually brought the social division of the Empire to the area, including the establishment of a local Russian speaking intelligentsia that effectively Russified the area.
F. Mostashari continues her book with documenting the establishment of the intelligentsia, as a product of importing the Imperial bureaucratic system that provided the required education and of the oil boom providing the necessary money. Herein lies the strength of the book: The documentation of the social unrest caused by Russian rule, of the cosmopolitanism of Baku and Tiflis, and of how Russian-trained Muslims created an identity for themselves and their people. However, the Islamic nature of this newly created social identity is not established. It is made clear in the book that Russian policies discriminated expressly against Muslims in favour of Christian groups, and that this assisted in the coalescence of an identity, but of what kind? The distinction between different identities—mainly Azerbaijani or Islamic—is not made clear. Only after political liberalisation in 1905 and the emergence of popular journals like Mulla Nasreddin, is it clear that the intelligentsia was highly critical of ‘backwardness’ within Islam.
Unfortunately, the description of the emergence of the Azerbaijani intelligentsia undermines the thesis that Islam was the primary motivator of anti-Russian sentiment. This paradox could be due to the Russian prejudice against Muslims is this regard giving an Islamic designation to a group that was secularly inspired. F. Mostashari runs into this problem when she characterises the institutions of the local Muslim population as Islamic; similarly, the resistance to Russian rule in Azerbaijan is not portrayed as being led by religious figures, but is called Islamic. It is certain that Azerbaijani national identity is based on Azerbaijanis being Muslim. However, the Islamic nature of the national identity is not clear. Russian accounts of the true role of Islam among Azerbaijanis are suspect in light of Russian dismissive look at all the Turkic speaking Muslims. In addition, the influence on Azerbaijani identity from their linguistic cousins in Anatolia or their religious brethren in Persia is not addressed at all, despite their considerable influence on identity within Azerbaijan.
The scope of this book seems too large for the sources used in constructing it. The use of Imperial sources is key to illustrating the Russian perception of the situation in Azerbaijan, however the perspective of the local population is glossed over. Little mention is made of the leaders of the Islamic community within Azerbaijan, and in an area of considerable immigration that was post-1870s Azerbaijan; Islam is a term with a varied meaning. F. Mostashari’s premises based on the assumption that institutions created by Muslims are Islamic in nature undermine the work considerably. This viewpoint is seemingly a product of a reliance on Russian-authored sources that fail to provide encompassing accuracy. This critical flaw results in leaving a larger question unanswered: What was Islam’s role in Azerbaijani resistance?