Islam in Azerbaijan

The overwhelming propensity of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim. This is one of the world religions, which was founded by the prophet Muhammad in 610 when he received the first revelation from God through Archangel Gabriel at the age of 40. He was receiving these revelations for the remainder of his life. He narrated the Divine commandments to his associates who remembered them by heart. All the divine revelations had poetic form and were gathered together in the Holy Qur’an the sacred book for all Muslims. The majority of the text in the Holy Qur’an is a dispute in form of dialog between Allah and opponents of the Prophet. Special attention is also given to the appeals of Allah with directions and instructions to the followers of Islam. There are five so called pillars of the faith: 1. Ash-shahada – A statement of the main formula of faith: “I attest that there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” 2. As-salah – Ritual prayer carried out five times a day. Muslim must clean themselves with a special ablution ritual is being carried out. 3. Az-zeket – Donation, which should be given by each Muslim according to his income. 4. As-saum – Fast in the month of Ramadan by the lunar calendar. 5. Al-hadj – Pilgrimage to Mecca, which should be carried out at least once in the lifetime of every Muslim.

Islam gives a clear concept of Allah, as for a Muslim Allah here is unlimited in time and space and omnipresent. Islamic tenets state: He created different intelligent essences as well as this world together with other worlds, He is not born and He does not bear, His form is beyond human comprehension, He is omniscient and omnipresent.

After Muhammad’s death his associates began company of conquest and spreading of Islam. At first Arabs under the command of Hudayfa Ibn al-Yamdu, invaded the south part of Azerbaijan in 637 CE. The ruler of Caucasian Albania at that time Javanshir was offering stiffer resistance than others, but upon his death the Albanian principality ceased existing. By 652 CE, the Arabs reached as far as Derbent in present Dagestan, Russia. Having conquered Azerbaijan Arabs started to spread Islam. All inhabitants of Azerbaijan adopted Islam except those in the upper part of Karabakh.

There were many insurrections which were neutralized by the Caliphate’s troops. The longest and extensive one was the people’s liberation movement (Khurramits) lead by Babek in the end of 8th through the beginning of the 9th centuries. However, the movement was smashed in 837, leading to Babek’s execution. However, it should be mentioned that these insurrections were not necessarily anti-Islamic, but were rather anti-Caliphate in their nature.

Sufism – the mystic movement of Islam has always been popular in Azerbaijan. Sufism is widely present in medieval poetry and the classical Azerbaijani musical genre – (mugammat). This mystic and meditative art has rich traditions in Azerbaijani culture.Another important aspect of the history of Islam in Azerbaijan is spread of Shia branch of Islam due to establishment and strengthening of Safavi Empire in the 16th century. As a legacy of “Shiitization” of Islam now most of Azerbaijan’s Muslims follow this branch of Islam making Azerbaijan one of the few countries in the world with Shia majority population. Shiism has shaped Azerbaijan’s culture, traditions and intellectual development making it distinguished from the other Muslim countries of the region in different ways.

There were several stages in Soviet policies towards Islam. As Swietechowski (2002) points out, at first, state did not go beyond the actions under the motto of an overall modernization that included the expropriation of waqfs (charitable foundations), shutting down Islamic civil courts and schools, banning public religious ceremonies, closing down some mosques, and instituting the obligatory unveiling of women .

The fight against Islam and other religions started in the late 1920s. The change of alphabet from Arabic to Latin and then to Cyrillic quickly eliminated the influence of clerics and Muslim intellectuals as well as of religious literature upon the masses. Newly adopted legislative acts banned and established severe punishments for many practices that were common among population at that time and were related , directly or indirectly, to religion and traditions. Mass closing down of mosques also started and continued during 1930s. Many clerics were accused of Islamism, arrested, exiled or executed.

It was a time of real threat to the fate of Islam in Azerbaijan. But, as usual, it found its way to survive until better days come. Sweitochowski mentions in this regard: “With its rites no longer observed in public, Islam became privatized, confined to the family, the most conservative institution in Azerbaijan. The Soviet period witnessed a revival of the tradition of (taqiyya) apostasy under a threat, in its historic homeland.”

This pressure was loosened during the World War II, when the Soviet government tried to mobilize all possible forces to unite its people in the face of foreign intervention and war.As a result, despite the ideology of militant atheism there were allowed official “independent” Muslim religious administrations: the Muslim Religious Board for the European USSR and Siberia centered in Ufa, Bashkir ASSR; the Muslim Religious Board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan Tashkent, Uzbekistan; the Muslim Religious Board for the North Caucasus in Buinaksk; later in Makhachkala, Daghestan; and the Muslim Religious Board for Transcaucasia in Baku, Azerbaijan. The strongest position and hidden leadership were granted to the Muslim Religious Board for Central Asia and Kazakhstan, situated in Tashkent and mainly headed by Uzbek nationals. Existence of the same institutional structures for the various local Islamic traditions can be evaluated as a process of homogenization. These boards did not oppose the Soviet rule, and even tried to find similarities between Communist ideology and Islamic values, such as equality, freedom of religion, security of honorable work, ownership of land by those who cultivate it and others that were put in practice after the Bolshevik Revolution.

The Transcaucasus Muslim elite operated under different from other Soviet Muslim republics conditions. Aside from its jurisdiction over mostly Azerbaijani Muslims in Armenia and Georgia, the Baku religious board was staffed by Azerbaijanis and served an Azerbaijani community, thus the administration could be characterized as an Azerbaijani national institution. Before the independence, the number of educated clerics was very low and all those educated were graduates of the Islam University in Tashkent or the Mir Arab College in Bukhara (Swietochowski 2002) . In fact, there were no highly educated Islamic scholars who studied in known Islamic educational centers abroad.

At present, approximately 99.2% of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim according to a 2009 Pew Research center report. The rest of the population adheres to other faiths or are non-religious, although they are not officially represented. Among the Muslim majority, religious observance varies and Muslim identity tends to be based more on culture and ethnicity rather than religion; however, many imams reported increased attendance at mosques during 2003. The Muslim population is approximately 85% Shia and 15% Sunni; differences traditionally have not been defined sharply. (Pew Research Center 2009) Most Shias are adherents of orthodox Ithna Ashari school – the largest branch of Shi’a Islam, adherents of which are commonly referred to as Twelvers, because of their belief in twelve divinely ordained leaders (Imams). The Sunni in Azerbaijan follow the Shafii and Hanafi schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

Post written by Dr. Fuad Aliyev, a Fulbright Scholar at The Johns Hopkins University SAIS