Land Beyond the River provides one of the most vivid pictures available of the complex relationship between religion and society in Central Asia. Whitlock, a BBC journalist who lived in Tashkent, which she used as a base to report on the region, offers a highly personalized history of Central Asia. Her vehicle is exploring the lives of two "witnesses" whose lives stretched through the decades of Soviet rule: Muhammadjan Hindustani, a cleric from Kokand who lived out his life in Dushanbe, and Sadr-e Zia, an intellectual from Bukhara. She uses their own words, the memories of their families, and accounts of more recent prominent figures whose activities were in some way touched by one or another of these men.
Whitlock is an excellent journalist who developed relationships of great trust with the people who turned over their family materials to her. In the case of Sadr-e Zia, a lot of the material Whitlock used was being edited for publication at the time her book went to press, but she is more vague about the written record that informs her discussion of Hindustani. This is not surprising, given that the Tajik cleric was forced to work and teach in semi-secrecy until nearly his very last days, in 1989 when Mikail Gorbachev's policies of glasnost' (openness) changed state attitudes toward religion.
Working in what must have been conditions of partial (or even near total) secrecy while living in Central Asia, Whitlock does not seem to have been given a full portrait of Hindustani, who actually played an even greater role in training many of today's clerics and setting the tone for current religious debates than Whitlock credits him. For this reason, the book is more a fascinating keyhole through which to view hitherto virtually unknown lives than a scholarly contribution.