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May Books 17) Islam in Azerbaijan

17) Islam in Azerbaijan, by Arif Yunusov

This may seem a somewhat obscure subject, but the author gave me a copy of this book when we met at a conference in July 2005 so I have finally got around to reading it.

Azerbaijan may be the only country in the world named after a religion; apparently it comes from an ancient form, "Atropatena", which originally means "the land of fire-worshippers", in reference to the large proportion of the population who followed the teachings of a local chap, the prophet Zoroaster. The Persians, under various dynasties, sustained his beliefs in the region for centuries, while to the north dissident Christians hung out and set up their own Monophysite church. All this was swept away by the armies of a new prophet from Arabia in the mid-7th century AD, though the old beliefs took centuries to die out. (The mysterious Khazars make an appearance here too.)

For the next thousand years, the story is one of variable relations between state and clergy, with occasional movements towards repression or radicalism respectively. The Russian conquest in 1801-1806 brought a new element into play: for the first time, Muslims in Azerbaijan were ruled by Christian overlords, just at the moment when 19th-century nationalism began to make Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism conceivable alternatives to rule from Moscow.

But when the Russian Empire did fall, the short-lived democratic Azerbaijan republic (established between 1918 and 1920) was brought down by an interesting coalition of the Red Army and local Islamists suspicious of the independent republic's secularist pretensions. Lenin was determined to crush the Orthodox church but was apparently much more relaxed about Islam. Things deteriorated (as they did everywhere in the Soviet Union) later in the 1920s, and the cycle of greater or lesser state repression, combined with state co-option of the religious bureaucracy, resumed.

There was a revival of popular interest in Islam under perestroika in the 1980s, which also of course came immediately after the Iranian revolution of 1979 (three quarters of Azeris live in Iran rather than in the ex-Soviet republic). Nationalists in Baku, especially at the time of the war with Armenia, were depicted in Yerevan and Moscow as Islamic extremists, but in fact religion had little to do with the conflict, or with the succession of chaotic changes of government in Baku culminating in the ascent to power of Heydar Aliev and later his son Ilham, the current president. (Iran's only formal intervention was a disastrous peace initiative in the middle of the war.)

Since then, the Azeri government has obsessively kept tabs on the official Islamic religious bureaucracy (to the extent of creating a competitor organisation to keep the older structure on its toes) and has consequently taken its eye off the ball of less formally organised groups. A few of these are indeed very sinister - the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 appear to have been coordinated through a cell in Baku. Mostly, however, the authorities are reaping the consequences of the notorious corruption of the state-supported clerical structures, and are intervening to suppress popular religious figures and movements because they are not sufficiently under control, rather than because of any sinister political agenda they may or may not have.

Anyway, an interesting book, which could perhaps have benefited from the attention of an Anglophone proof-reader - published in English, but by a German organisation, and in places it shows.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 22nd, 2007 02:26 am (UTC)
hmm ...
Dear sir,

If I may comment:

The origins of the name Atropatene are written in solid rock, and have nothing to do with religion. Rather, the name comes from one of the generals of Alexander the Great, the Persian Atropates, who was appointed satrap of this region.

Further, the reference to monophysites in the north is unclear. Neither Armenians nor Albanians who shared belief adhered to this school of thought. Rather, this is a politically incorrect term that was used to emphasize non-Chalcedonians as heretics. Today, the term is largely unused to refer to these northerners as it is politically incorrect.

Then, I see only one paragraph dealing with 700-1700 A.D. the age of some of the most fascinating Islamic dynasties as Shaddadids, Shirvanshahs and Sajids to name a few. Not even a mention of their names.

The review suggests a work marred with errors and a nationalistic agenda, as reference to the Karabakh war suggests. The suggestion of proofreading is not encouraging either. Such errors usually discredit the author and suggests haphazardness with which he or she completes his work or care he/she puts in.

I would much more like to see a discussion of some of the more prominent aspects of Islam in Azerbaijan under some classical dynasties.
May. 22nd, 2007 10:53 pm (UTC)
Re: hmm ...
This sort of response saddens me. Typical for your region, you criticise the book without even having read it. I suppose that Armenian works on the topic are written with no nationalistic agenda whatsoever?

As it happens Yunusov does go into some detail on the 7-1700 AD period. Please understand that I write these pieces as notes for myself on the points of the book I found most interesting, not as a statement of any historical research of my own, let alone as any endorsement of the views put forward in the book.

I would suggest that you get the book, read it yourself, and then correspond with the author rather than with me on any points of interest, instead of trying to score points for the national cause on the internet. I work on a lot of conflicts like yours, and quite frankly this sort of historical justificatory wanking bores me senseless. (Incidentally, you might also like to do a little research into the origins of Atropates' name.)
May. 23rd, 2007 08:25 am (UTC)
Re: hmm ...
> Typical for your region...
Please be careful with such generalizations.

> Incidentally, you might also like to do a
> little research into the origins of
> Atropates' name.

Compare this to your earlier statement:
> Azerbaijan may be the only country in the
> world named after a religion

There are lots of human names deriving from religion, however naming a country after a historical person doesn't mean that it is «named after a religion».
May. 24th, 2007 04:42 pm (UTC)
Re: hmm ...
Please be careful with such generalizations.

Oh, don't worry; I am verz careful with such generalisations.
May. 24th, 2007 05:04 pm (UTC)
Not really.
May. 23rd, 2007 06:21 pm (UTC)
Yes, I do think the racist comment on my "typical region" was uncalled for.

Sir, are you really sure you know
'what's my region'? :)

Neither was throwing this around by saying "I suppose that Armenian works on the topic are written with no nationalistic agenda whatsoever?" I don't think I said anything about Armenian or Azerbaijani literature, I thought we were discussion only this book.

And I do not understant:
"this sort of historical justificatory wanking bores me senseless."

If incorrect terminology and statement is made, I think it is only fair and respectable to the reader to note them, rather than brush it aside laying it out as boring "hooblah."

As for the Atropates reference, I am sorry I did not lay out and discuss etymology in detail for you, but the above comment covers everything.


May. 24th, 2007 04:43 pm (UTC)
I thought we were discussion only this book.

Tell you what, first you read the book, then we can discuss it. Otherwise I refuse to take your comments seriously.
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