From a pragmatic point of view, this is the right strategy. If we take into account the problematic geography and geopolitics to which we belong, secularism is a political tool. Just as many other topics, the place of religion, or more precisely Islam, in the historical development of Azerbaijan, a country where religion and state are separate, and all freedoms of faith and belief are protected, has not yet been meticulously explored. Thoughts on the subject that do not go beyond the traditional secular discourse are also far from fundamental theoretical knowledge and methodological standards, and the conditions that ensure the secular tradition of Azerbaijan, an Islamic country, are either overlooked or misinterpreted.
It should be stressed that, of course, Soviet-era academic standards played an important role here. Even after our country gained independence, these standards continued to slow down the formation of production of local thought. As written and oral sources on social and religious relations in Azerbaijan are collected in Marxist literature, these ideas have also become relevant in the Western academia since the 1990s. We would do well to remember the fact that the post-colonial discourse reinforces this trend, as well as the claims about religion and society, Islam and secularism, emphasizing the Shia-Sunni differences. However, there has been no serious scientific or journalistic work on the existence of a secular society in Azerbaijan and on Islam lacking strong organic ties. The main argument is the activity of Mirza Fatali Akhundzadeh and the presence of the Russian Empire in the Caucasus since the early 19th century. In fact, the role of these two factors in understanding Azerbaijan’s secularism is secondary. The primary issue that has been overlooked is Islam itself and its role in the formation of society in Azerbaijan. This is why this article will discuss the structure, function and distinguishing features of Islam as a religion in Azerbaijan before and after the Russian Empire, as well as the circumstances behind this different development mechanism. In the end, the cultural aspect of people’s attitude to Islam in Azerbaijan will be considered.
Religion on the outskirts of an empire
It is impossible to understand the modern Republic of Azerbaijan in isolation from the historical processes that formed it and from its geographic location. We should explore and study the beginning of the transformation of Azerbaijan, which geographically also includes the lands south of the Araz, into an independent state as a political entity from the time of the khanates. This 250-year period covers first the beginning of the road to statehood, and then the emergence of modernism. In order to understand the dynamics of the formation of the society, the people, it is necessary to take into account the historical processes and geographical conditions that continued for centuries. The dynamic of the formation of the people in Azerbaijan, the outskirts of all the empires to which it belonged geographically, is directly related to these realities. It is impossible to understand the impact of religion, one of the elements that creates a society, on people outside the geographical context. As noted, the relevance of religion for political purposes in the historical lands north of the Araz begins with Shah Ismail, who adopted Shia Islam as the official religion. The Safavids were constantly warring with the Ottomans to establish their power on the northern and western borders. Here, both sides tried to spread the faiths they represented in the political context of the time. Interestingly, neither the Safavids nor the Ottomans were able to ensure the existence of a homogeneous faith in the north of Azerbaijan. This trend continued into the following centuries and played a crucial role in the shaping of the people’s unique understanding of religion. The semi-sedentary/semi-nomadic daily life of the population was one of the main circumstances for the endurance of their religious rituals and beliefs. More attention should be paid to the habits and living conditions that people have developed to be able to use limited resources together, rather than to the performing of religious rituals that keep people together in a relatively small geography.
For those struggling to survive in the complicated conditions of life on the outskirts, religion ceased to be a doctrine and became more of a cultural and social concept. Therefore, we should look at people continuously performing their religious rituals from the point of view of identity rather than religiosity. Although they belonged to different branches of Islam, it should not be forgotten that the common Muslim identity of the population made a significant impact on them in terms of avoiding the side effects of Ottoman-Safavid rivalry and preserving their traditions and customs. That is why it should be noted that the first major separation took place between religiosity and belief that shapes identity. The differences between sedentary and nomadic life are also factors that shape the people’s different notions of Islam. Undoubtedly, this tradition continued in the period of the khanates with the collapse of the Safavids. One of the biggest problems facing the Russian Empire in the Caucasus was the lack of a unified concept of Islam and the tradition of coexistence despite the differences in beliefs between Azerbaijanis. That is why various steps were taken, first of all, to create a Sunni-Shia discord, to form a Shia regiment of the Karabakh cavalry against the Ottomans, to push the Sunni population to gradually leave the lands of Azerbaijan. Noteworthy is the historical role of centuries-old customs and traditions in finding the common language again and preventing conflicts on religious grounds despite all the attempts to ignite the Sunni-Shia rivalry under the influence of political processes. Seeing that their plans to exploit sectarian differences had not had serious consequences, the Russian Empire decided to coordinate them and keep them under religious control by establishing the institution of Sheikh ul-Islam for Shia Muslims and the muftiate for Sunni Muslims. Thus, the state came up with a mechanism to control religion north of the Araz centuries later.
Written and oral Islam
Another issue that requires research on the influence and presence of Islam in Azerbaijan is directly related to the tradition of its spreading. In this context, we observe different trends north and south of the Araz. In contrast to the predominance of the written tradition in the historical lands of Azerbaijan south of the Araz, it is the oral Islamic tradition that became more prominent in the north. The role of written and verbal communication should be considered differently, as the durability and impact of any thought, idea, word depend on the mechanism of its dissemination. The main difference between writing, which is based on structure and methodology, and improvisation-based oral communication is the consistence and standards of references in maintaining the permanence of thought. Given that the consistence and standards date back to the beginning of Islam, and before that to the methodology of ancient Greek philosophy, their preservation in the written text has always been considered essential. The existence of Islam in the southern part of Azerbaijan, where the central cities of the empires to which it belonged were situated, has to do with the written tradition. This history, which began with Nasireddin Tusi, spans several hundred years. This tradition continued in the following centuries, as the Safavids turned from a dervish order into a political movement. Therefore, with the establishment of the state, they moved away from Sufi rituals to doctrinal Shiism based on writing and dogmas. Although the Safavids continued to establish themselves in Shirvan, north of the Araz, throughout the 16th century, the expansion of religious authority here took a long time. In the following centuries, the intellectual tradition of the outskirts, far from the center’s eyes, weakened, and the existence of Islam was limited to the performance of daily religious rituals. However, it should be noted that even before the Safavids, the written Islamic tradition in the north of Azerbaijan was not exactly rich. The number of works written about Islam after the 15th century philosopher and mystic Seyid Yahya Bakuvi is also very limited. Still, it is noteworthy that the dervish, Sufi tradition preserved the continuity of Islam in a verbal form. That is why people’s ideas about religion and belief are based on such concepts as the connection between the Creator and His servant, and purity of the heart. The continuation of this tradition can be seen in the attitude of people to religion and God today. Because the idea of ”May I be a sacrifice to God, my heart is pure” is a general manifestation of a centuries-old concept of Islam.
Another issue that needs to be considered in the historical context of the existence of Islam in Azerbaijan is the activities of its institutions and the thoroughness of religious education. The activities of religious organizations in Azerbaijan as part of the Islamic civilization continued in the traditional form for centuries. There is ample written material on countless mosques and waqfs (religious foundations), regardless of sectarian differences. Given the close ties of religion with state in Islam, the scope and influence of religious organizations are not to be ignored. Numerous waqfs belonging to religious organizations were also an indication of the state’s continuing satisfaction with this cooperation. The above-mentioned geographical conditions and the reality of the outskirts also played a crucial role in this issue. Nevertheless, it should be noted that the fundamental teaching of Islam in northern Azerbaijan declined with the establishment of the Safavid state. After Shah Ismail declared Shia Islam the official religion of the state, he invited a Shia cleric from Jabal Amel (southern Lebanon) to his capital, Tabriz. Shah Ismail had to make this choice because he knew that the Qizilbashism, being a Sufi dervish order, would not be enough to ensure the sustainability of the state’s religious doctrine. This tradition lasted until the rule of Shah Abbas, and the Shia line of the twelve imams was written and systematized in the Safavid state by the ulama of Arab descent. Towards the end of the 17th century, under the leadership of Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi (“Allamah” Majlesi), the Persianization of Shia Islam in the Safavid state and the weakening and abolition of other faiths, first of all Sunni Islam, were complete. First Tabriz, then Isfahan became not only the capital but also the main center of the ulama. Major madrassas and religious foundations were being established in these cities. Although some attention was paid to religious organizations in Ganja and Iravan during the reign of Shah Abbas, these should be regarded as minor exceptions. Thus, the transition of religious education entirely to the south of the accelerated the concentration of ulama there. With the concentration of the ulama in the south, the function of the clergy north of the Araz was limited to the teaching of more basic religious knowledge. Typical for the time period, along with higher religious education, secular sciences were taught only in cities such as Tabriz, Qazvin, Isfahan, Najaf. As many of the graduates did not return, the production of ideas and the dissemination of knowledge in the north were severely weakened. Instead, the role of local clerics and mullahs was limited to domestic family issues within in the community. This tradition continued in the northern lands during the khanate period.
Although the northern lands of Azerbaijan have not been attractive to the ulama due to historical circumstances and the subsequent consequences of that are the subject of several other articles, some issues still need to be addressed. The first of these is the religious privilege of the ulama. This is because a religious scholar, who is considered to be an interpreter of the Qur’an and the words of the Prophet, is also considered to be the main decision-maker in the implementation of the Sharia. It takes many years for a scholar to reach this level, and this is possible only in madrassas where religious education is systematic and deep. In Azerbaijan, where these conditions were not met, the role of religious knowledge served more practical purposes. In addition to the privileges enjoyed by the ulama, we should look at their role in the dissemination and teaching of Islamic science. As we have mentioned, in the north, religious education was more primitive, so there was no special activity on the part of the ulama to maintain its status. The lack of depth and diversity in the teaching of religion in maktabs and small madrassas was also due to the lack of interest of the ulama in this field. It should also be noted that after the annexation of Azerbaijani lands by the Russian Empire, many religious figures moved to Iran. Thus, because of the lack of any serious scholarly solidarity and institutional tradition of religious doctrine, the function of Islam in Azerbaijan was purely cultural—hence no serious resistance to the civil, legal, and educational reforms introduced in the following decades.
For comparison, we can look at Central Asia after it became part of the Russian Empire. Interestingly, the ulama of the Bukhara and Samarkand madrassas, which played the role of religious centers for centuries, was instrumental in preserving the immutability of the traditional standards of society. For this reason, the Jadids, the enlightenment movement of that time, could not gain a foothold in the society in the face of the authority of the ulama and even their scientific knowledge. However, there was no serious pressure or fatwa put on either Mirza Fatali Akhundzadeh or other intellectuals in the following periods in Azerbaijan. Although his activities in Iran made Akhundzadeh a target for the ulama, this was not the case for others. Even after that, Akhundzadeh had to cooperate with other Iranian modernists facing the power of the Iranian ulama and became one of the founders of Iranian nationalism. In Azerbaijan, the claims and attacks of local clerics did not go beyond the everyday level. It is no coincidence that there is no written work, no serious scientific discourse offered by religious figures of the time on the basis of religious knowledge to oppose the views and activities of the representatives of the enlightenment movement. The primitive accusations of “impiety” and “ungodliness” served only to protect the privileges of the local mullahs. Despite all this, the modernist tendencies of the time were also being adopted among the clergy. This includes many progressive examples, such as the first translation of the Qur’an into our language and enlightened clerics supporting the new school model.
Religion has undergone a unique development in Azerbaijan, a country belonging to the Islamic civilization. During this process, which spanned several centuries, it played the role of a cultural element that shaped a greater identity for people. Even today, religious rituals have a cultural significance for people. The secular tradition of Azerbaijan, as a country where religion occupies the least significant place in people’s lives compared to the other countries of the geography to which it belongs, requires more systematic and extensive research. The aspects discussed in this article—the geographical conditions, the political processes taking place on the outskirts, the weakness of the written Islamic tradition, and the lack of higher religious education—are relevant topics for future research. The fact that Azerbaijan, an Islamic country, has its own concept of Islam distinguishes our country even more. Therefore, religious radicalism, regardless of one’s beliefs, is condemned by people first and foremost. In our society, which adopted rather the cultural aspect of Islam, the doctrinal Islam that some have been seeking to import after the country gained independence will never be more popular than the traditional “May I be a sacrifice to God, my heart is pure.” On the other hand, it is wrong to claim that secularism is a result of Akhundzadeh’s works, theater and opera, the national press, in short, modernism. The impact of all this on society is directly related to historical, political and social processes and should be studied on the basis of academic standards.
Translated from Topchubashov Center