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AZERBAIJAN. Northern or Caucasian Azerbaijan is situated on the western shore of the Caspian Sea. Conquered by the Russian Empire early in the nineteenth century, it remained under Russian rule until the collapse of that empire in 1918. The first Republic of Azerbaijan existed from 28 May 1918 until 28 April 1920, when it was reconquered by the Red Army. The country remained under Soviet rule as the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic until declaring its independence on 3o August 1991.


At the time of the Russian conquest, the population of Azerbaijan was approximately 8o percent Shi i and 20 percent Sunni Muslim; the latter lived mainly in the north near Daghestan. The Azerbaijani Turks were thus the only Turks to be mainly Shi`i, a result of direct Iranian rule since the founding of the Safavid dynasty under Shah Isma’il-1 (r. 1501-1525). The Russians conquered the independent khanates in Caucasia in two wars with Iran, ending in the Treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkmanchai (1828). Direct military rule was in force until the early 1840s.

With the establishment of Russian imperial rule, the power of the Muslim ulema (Ar., `ulama’) began to diminish sharply. Russian imperial law supplanted the mix of religious (shari `ah) and customary (`adat) law, and religious properties (awqaf; sg., waqf) were seized. Thus the legal and administrative functions of the `ulama’ were taken over by tsarist administrators, and their economic power was undercut.

The key tsarist policy that destroyed the ulema was the creation in the 1840s of Sunni and Shi’i ecclesiastical boards. These were meant to bring the Muslim “church” and its believers under state control as the Holy Synod had done with the Russian Orthodox Church. Each board consisted of a state-appointed president (called mufti for the Sunni, and shaykh al-Islam for the Shi’l), its supporting administration,and a judicial administration for each province-Stifling, Erevan, Elizavetpol (Ganje), and Baku. The apparatus was under the control of the Russian imperial ministry of internal affairs and the personal authority of the viceroy of Transcaucasia. The mullahs in each province were under the legal jurisdiction of the civil authorities.

Regulations established parameters within which mullahs and qadis could act but also granted them rank in the government system and a range of privileges. Before a cleric could occupy any post, he was required to pledge loyalty to the tsar. He was to “fulfill unswervingly the laws and instructions of the government,” and to inspire in his coreligionists “steadfast loyalty and devotion to the sovereign Emperor” and “obedience to authorities.”

State regulations concerning religious properties fundamentally altered the Islamic legal definition of waqf, to include any properties or capital used by religious institutions or the religious classes. All “religious properties” could be sold by public auction, and disputes concerning them were decided according to the civil law established for state administration.

The relationship between the religious establishment and the modernizing secular elite was complex. By the early twentieth century, when the national movement was in flower, the Islamic establishment was greatly weakened after a century of Russian rule. In the face of Russian pressure, sectarian peace prevailed among the Shi’i and Sunni of the Russian Empire. At the All-Russian Muslim Congresses of 1905-19o6, the Sunni ulema in the Russian Empire, in an unprecedented move, accepted Shiism as a fifth madhhab or legal school, the Ja’fari. Furthermore, a reform movement within Islam (Jadidism) divided the religious classes along “traditionalist” (Qadimist) and “reformist” (Jadidist) lines, and therefore did not constitute a single monolithic body. Finally, secular elites, though anticlerical, never rejected Islam. Even a 1907 school reform program designed by a committee of secular intellectuals called for native Azerbaijani Turkish students to be taught, in their native Turkish dialect, a mixed program of language, literature, religious studies, and various secular subjects; Russian would be taught and used as the language of instruction for other subjects. A mullah, presumably a reformer, would oversee the program.

After the fall of the Russian Empire, when the first Republic of Azerbaijan was declared, secular and religious forces had achieved a modus vivendi in a primarily secular framework. The republic’s constitution guaranteed religious freedom but separated religion from the state. Christian churches continued to operate. The Bolshevik conquest of Azerbaijan and the creation of a soviet socialist republic there subjected Azerbaijan to the anti-religious campaigns of the Communist regime.

The anti-religious campaigns of the 1920s were brutal. Along with clergymen of all other denominations, Muslim ulema in Azerbaijan were beaten, arrested, deported to Siberia, or shot. Mosques and other religious institutions were closed; some were destroyed and their materials used for public buildings, school dormitories, or factories.

Efforts to purge religious and national elements from Azerbaijani culture lasted throughout the 1920s and 1930s. From 1926, a concerted effort to displace existing literature with “proletarian literature” gathered momentum. In the following years, native novels, poetry, music, and the visual arts were vilified and replaced by socialist realist works. Education was a crucial target for ant-ireligious campaigns: teachers were accused of “spreading religious (and/or nationalist) propaganda,” removed from their jobs, and sometimes arrested or exiled; textbooks were replaced; their authors were often removed from their posts, and some were exiled.

The German invasion of Russia in June 1941 led Stalin’s regime to grant numerous cultural concessions to the various peoples of the USSR. Among these was the reestablishment of Muslim ecclesiastical boards on the imperial model. These represented some loosening of the official policy on religion but kept institutions under state control. Training was only possible in Bukhara (lower level seven-year madrasahs) and in Tashkent (upper level, four-year madrasahs).

In the postwar decades anti-religious efforts, more often called “scientific atheist” education, addressed the popular notion that religious practices and beliefs were part of the national heritage. Atheist propaganda stressed the separation of religious and national traditions, arguing the harmful nature of the former and the positive nature of the latter-as long as it remained at the level of folkdancing and handicrafts.

The regime’s policies had limited success. The urban population at least had little idea of Islam by the 1970s. The ancient celebration of the beginning of spring, Novruz, was widely thought to be an Islamic holiday. Few people knew the difference between Sunni and Sill’! Islam. Many openly expressed the belief that the official mullahs were “KGBers.” Much surviving religious practice descended to the level of superstition. In rural areas, pilgrimages to tombs continued and occasional “holy men” or “holy women” were said to have miraculous healing powers. Still, the word “Muslim” continued to be associated with decency and morality. It became a group marker to indicate those who shared certain moral and social values, as opposed to outsiders like Russians who, though traditionally Christian, were believed to have lost their morality under communism. Even members of the Azerbaijan Communist Party routinely practiced religious rituals in connection with circumcision, marriage and burial.

Azerbaijanis, like the Soviet Central Asians, experienced a demographic resurgence since the 1960s and for the first time since the start of industrialization in the 1880s they are again a majority in their republic and its capital Baku. The head of the ecclesiastical board (which has not been abolished by the new republic), Shaykh al-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade, came to prominence for speaking out against Russian repression of the national movement in 1990. He subsequently played a lesser political role, though he cultivated relations with Iran and Saudi Arabia. He participated in the presidential inauguration of Azerbaijan Popular Front leader Abulfez Elchibey in June 1992. Elchibey included kissing the Qur’an in the ceremony. One year later, in a coup of June 1993, former communists returned to power. Pashazade appeared also at the swearing-in ceremony of Heydar Aliyev, former Communist Party first secretary, as president.

Religious parties are virtually unknown in Azerbaijan and religion plays no role in political mobilization. Elchibey’s government had pledged itself to religious freedom and other civil liberties, and the separation of church from state. In the first months of Aliyev’s rule, despite repressions of political rivals and critics, Aliyev made no changes in laws regarding religion.


Altstadt, Audrey L. “The Forgotten Factor: Shi’i Mullahs of Pre-War Baku.” In Passe Turco-Tatar, Present Sovietique, edited by Gilles Veinstein et al. Louvain and Paris, 1986. Provides more detail on Russian imperial ecclesiastical boards and the economic position of mullahs.

Altstadt, Audrey L., Azerbaijani Turks: Power and Identity under Russian Rule. Stanford, Calif., 1992. History of Azerbaijan from the Russian conquest to 1991; includes detail on religion and religious policies.

Atkin, Muriel. Russia and Iran, 1780-1828. Minneapolis, 198o. Includes coverage of the religious repressions that accompanied Russian conquest.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and Chantal Lemercier-Quelquejay. Islam in the Soviet Union. Translated by Geoffrey E. Wheeler and Hubert Evans. London, 1964. Historical overview covering tsarist and Soviet times.

Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union. London, 1985. Includes some information on pilgrimage places in Azerbaijan.

Khadzhibeili, Dzheikhun [Jeyhun Hajibeyli]. Antiislamskaia Propaganda i ee Metody v Azerbaidzhane. Munich, 1957. The only comprehensive treatment of antireligious propaganda in Azerbaijan.


Azhar Niaz Article's Source: http://islamicus.org/azerbaijan/

  • writerPosted On: October 12, 2012
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