12 April 2019
Altay Goyushov and Kanan Rovshanoglu
In recent years, Shiite religious groups have become important players in socio-political life in Azerbaijan. At the same time, political Shiism is becoming more relevant not only in Azerbaijan, but in the wider region and indeed the world. But both the Azerbaijani public and secular political cirles do not know how to evaluate the role of political Shiism due to a general lack of information. In our opinion, therefore, there is a need for a study of the rising influence of political Shiism in Azerbaijani politics. This article is an attempt to describe the development of political Shiism in post-Soviet Azerbaijan based on a chronology of the most important events. At the same time, the authors have attempted in several places to offer an analysis and evaluation of these developments based primarily on facts, but also on subjective impressions.
Azerbaijan is one of several countries with a majority Shiite Muslim population. While various figures are given for the ratio of Sunnis to Shiites, according to the Shiite leader of the Caucasus Muslim Board Allahshukur Pashazadeh, Shiites account for 65% of Azerbaijan’s Muslim population.[i] The leadership of Azerbaijan’s State Committee on Religious Associations (SCRA), however, says that the proportions of Shiites and Sunnis are 70-30 respectively.[ii] It should be noted that most of Azerbaijan’s 96% Muslim majority[iii] are secular and only nominally Muslim, i.e. they are Muslim only in terms of cultural affiliation. A large majority of those who call themselves Muslim neither perform the religious rituals required by sharia law, nor attend mosques regularly. The Muharram rituals, however, which are particularly important for Shiites, remained important for the local population both in the Soviet period and afterwards. Traditionally, in the country’s large cities and Shiite regions, weddings and other festive ceremonies are not held during the month of Muharram. On Ashura, people pour into mosques by the tens of thousands. Among the devoutly religious, however, i.e. among the Muslim population that regularly performs the primary religious rituals such as fasting and namaz (daily prayers), the ratio between Sunnis and Shiites is different and moving towards parity. It could even be argued that, if the figures above reflect the Sunni-Shiite ratio in the general population, among believing Muslims who regularly perform religious rituals, the numbers of Sunnis and Shiites are roughly equal. This can be observed in the number of religious people across the country who regularly attend mosques for Friday (Jumu’ah) prayers and prayers in congregation (jama’ah).
Virtually all Azerbaijani Shiites are followers of the Jafari madhhab (“school of thought”). While various versions of Shiism spread through the territory of the modern-day Azerbaijan Republic in the early years of the Shiite movement, the process by which Twelver (Ithna ‘Ashari-Imami) Shiism became the dominant belief system can be traced back to Shah Ismail Safavid’s rise to power in the 16th century. In the following centuries, Twelver Shiism became the official state ideology of most of the territory of modern-day Azerbaijan. In the 18th century, during the reign of Nadir Shah Afshar, the Jafari madhhab of Twelver Shiism became official.
Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, when Azerbaijan became a part of Russia, the religious clergy were displaced by a local, nationalist, secular intelligentsia, which formed under the influence of Europe, and the country began to develop along secular lines. As a result of this process, at the time of WWI and the Russian Revolution a secular democratic republic was created in Azerbaijan. The republic’s lifespan, however, was not long. In 1920 the Red Army occupied Azerbaijan and in 1922 as part of the Transcaucasian Soviet Socialist Federation it officially became one of the founders of the USSR.
During 70 years of official atheism under Soviet rule, the population’s religious knowledge was almost entirely lost. While even Muslim rituals such as namaz and fasting were not performed by the overwhelming majority of the population and remained only as exceptions, a Muslim identity was preserved and remained strong, as noted above, through religious rites such as Muharram traditions, Ashura, circumcision, funerals, and pilgrimages to local holy sites.[iv] The 1979 revolution in Iran influenced Azerbaijan, if only weakly. In 1983 there it was famously rumored that the Shia Imams had been seen in Baku. At the same time, the number of mosque attendees on Ashura rose sharply. This process, however, was not so significant as to cause serious problems for Azerbaijan’s secularism.
The conditions for religion’s serious return to public life could only have been created on the eve of the fall of the USSR and after Azerbaijan achieved independence. But even at that time, the leading ideology in Azerbaijan in opposition to the Soviet establishment was not political Islam, but rather secular Turkic nationalism. In addition, despite the fact that a large majority of the population of Azerbaijan belongs to Shiism’s Jafari madhhab or at least see themselves that way, Shiism was not the unequivocally dominant force in religion’s post-Soviet resurgence. In the battle for Azerbaijanis’ hearts and minds, both Turkey as well as Arabic Sunni Muslim movements were serious competition.
The Clerical Hierarchy of Jafari Shiism and Azerbaijan
The historical development of the Jafari Shia school of sharia law in its current form goes back 200 years. In the final years of the 18th century, under the leadership of the Shiite scholar Muhammad Baqir Behbahani from Iraq’s holy city of Karbala (d. 1791), the Usuli movement emerged victorious in an ideological battle with the Akhbari school of thought and, as a result, an institution known in Arabic as Marja al-Taqlid (“source of imitation”) gradually became the backbone of modern-day Jafari Shiism.[v] The term Marja al-Taqlid refers to senior Shiite clerics who write books (collections of guidelines regarding sharia law) explaining how to observe religious rules. Each Marja al-Taqlid must be a “source of imitation” for ordinary Shiite believers, who in turn accept the Marja al-Taqlid’s judgment in religious matters. Therefore every believer who prays and lives their lives in accordance with the religious views of a particular Marja al-Taqlid is known as his muqallid, or “imitator.” In other words, every ordinary Shiite believer is nominally a muqallid, and every muqallid must have a Marja al-Taqlid whom they imitate. As a rule, Marja al-Taqlids receive the title of Grand Ayatollah (Ayatullah al-Uzma).
The first person to receive the title of Marja al-Taqlid was Sheikh Muhammad Hasan al-Najafi (d. 1849) from the Iraqi city of Najaf, the classical capital of Shiite theology and considered one of the two main theological centers to this day.[vi] It should be noted that Marja al-Taqlids are also called mujtahids, or people with the right to have their own opinion, ijtihad, and to make independent judgments in issues of sharia law. The difference is that the institution of Marja al-Taqlids continued to develop from its origins 200 years ago, finally taking on its current form only after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Until then, the institution of mujtahids had existed historically in various forms and in some cases continues to do so.
In the Shiite hierarchy there are also the titles of Ayatollah and Grand Ayatollah (Ayatullah al-Uzma). These titles are given to people who have achieved advanced degrees in various fields of Shiite theology, e.g. Theology, Logic, Methods, Principles, etc. The difference is that, as a rule, Marja al-Taqlids are Grand Ayatollahs specifically in the field of Islamic jurisprudence, or fiqh. In addition, theologians who have made contributions to theology but have not yet officially received the title of Ayatollah, are addressed with the honorific Hujjat al-Islam. Finally, one of the institutions that took its completed form after the Iranian Revolution is the Wilayati Faqih system in which the Wali al-Faqih is considered the highest position in Shiism and is accepted by a large number of Shiites as their religious and political leader. At present, Iran’s supreme religious leader Grand Ayatollah Khamenei is a Marja al-Taqlid, i.e. he has his own muqallids, and as the Wali al-Faqih he claims to be the supreme religious and political leader of all Shiites. We say “claims” because among major Shiite Marja al-Taqlids, there are some, particularly followers of Grand Ayatollah Sistani or the late Lebanese Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah (d. 2010), who do not accept the institution of Wilayati Faqih, at least in the Iranian form. In other words, they and their muqallids do not recognize Ayatollah Khamenei as their supreme religious and political leader, or Wali al-Faqih. The issue is that in 1965-1978 while in exile in Najaf, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (d. 1989) developed and elaborated the current Iranian political system and the concept of Wilayati Faqih, and taught it to the Shiite clerics in Najaf. But at that time part of the Najaf ulema, including the then-leader of the hawza (a seminary for the training of the Shiite clergy) Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al Khoei (d. 1992), rejected Khomeini’s Wilayati Faqih theory. This disagreement, which at first was seen as a theoretical difference among the Shiite ulema, later deepened, causing a rift between opposing “wilayat” and “anti-wilayat” camps. This dispute, which was reflected among many muqallids, eventually arose in Azerbaijan as well. After Khomeini’s death Ayatollah Khamenei was elected as the Wali al-Faqih, and Ayatollah Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei’s son-in-law Ali Sistani took over as head of the Najaf hawza after his father-in-law’s death.
In the Caucasus, before Sovietization there had been local taqlid mujtahids. Shiite ulema dynasties such as the Badkubeyis, the Garabaghis, the Lankaranis, the Iravanis, the Nakhchivanis, the Shirvanis, the Salyanis, and the Gubavis existed then, and in some cases they created their own schools in Najaf, the Shiites’ traditional theological center. But the Soviet period disrupted the native mujtahid traditions of the Caucasus. Local mujtahids were either eliminated through repressions, or they fled to neighboring countries. In their place, on April 14, 1944 the Soviet government created an agency called the Transcaucasian Muslim Spiritual Board (TMSB).[vii] The head of the agency was a Shiite cleric with the title of Sheikh ul-Islam, while his first deputy was a Sunni cleric with the title Mufti. The TMSB, however, did not establish relations with Najaf, but instead sent some clerics to receive instruction in Sunni Uzbekistan: at the Mir Arab madrasa in Bukhara and at the Islamic Institute in Tashkent.[viii] This education, however, could not be enough to restore the institute of mujtahids in Azerbaijan. During the Soviet period, when knowledge of religious matters was rare and demand for it scarce, this did not cause any serious problems. In 1946, two years after the founding of the TMSB, 11 mosques operated officially in Azerbaijan.[ix] The number of officially operating mosques only rose to 17 by the second half of the 1980s,[x] and the number of believers following mujtahids was negligible.[xi]
In secular Azerbaijan, the demand for clerics was primarily to perform mourning rituals. This task was carried out mainly by people with no formal religious education, most of whom knew only a few surahs from the Quran, who were usually known as “cemetary mullahs” or “bozbash mullahs” (bozbash being a kind of soup provided to guests in funeral ceremonies in Azerbaijan). These mullahs received primitive religious instruction from village teachers who worked semi-secretly. The instruction consisted entirely of the texts and rituals required for a mourning ceremony. Seminal modern works on Shiite doctrine, including Khomeini’s Tawzih ul-Masail and Tahrir al-Wasilah, began to be used in religious instruction in Azerbaijan in 1988-1989.
At that time the situation began to change radically. As a result of the flow of religious knowledge into the country, the formation of a community of Shiite believers, and that community’s search for a mujtahid and a Marja al-Taqlid to imitate in accordance with the Jafari Sharia school, it became clear that the Sheikh ul-Islam and the TMSB has no spiritual authority according to Shiite sharia doctrine. Naturally, believers turned their gaze to traditional Marja al-Taqlid centers, Shiite hawzas in Najaf (Iraq) and Qom (Iran).
The First Steps Towards a Post-Soviet Reintegration with Shiite Sharia Law
Starting in the late 1980s, Azerbaijani Shiites began to become familiar with the institution of mujtahids and to choose Marja al-Taqlids for imitation. The death in 1989 of the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, Ruholla Khomeini, affected the process of choosing Marja al-Taqlids for Azerbaijan’s Shiites, who were taking their first steps toward relearning their religion. Ali Khamenei was chosen as the Wali al-Faqih. At that time, however, among Azerbaijani Shiites just mastering the foundations of their faith, Ali Khamenei’s rivals such as Ayatollah Mohammad-Reza Golpaygani (d. 1993. He was a serious contender to become Wali al-Faqih after the death of Ruhollah Khomeini. However, his candidacy was voted down by the Assembly of Experts) and the abovementioned head of the Najaf hawza Sayyid Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei, who had rejected the concept of Wilayati Faqih, had become more popular. It was said that Khamenei’s “scholarship is weak” or that he “hasn’t written any risalah (a summary of religious prescriptions in Islamic jurisprudence).” But the deaths of Khoei and Golpaygani in 1992 and 1993, respectively, reignited the competition to win over their muqallids (According to the rules of taqlid, Shiites must imitate, or follow, a living mujtahid. Therefore, when a mujtahid passes away, his followers may continue to follow the fatwas which are still relevant, but they must choose a new, living mujtahid to follow new fatwas as well). At that time, there was serious competition between the discourse of the Iranian religious establishment which upheld the concept of Wilayati Faqih, on the one hand, and the ulema who rejected this concept, specifically Grand Ayatollah Sadeq Rohani and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, on the other. It seems to us that it was the discomfort this competition produced among Azerbaijan’s young Shiites that was the source of the popularity of Marja al-Taqlids who were able to stake out a relatively neutral position in the confrontation, especially Mohammad Fazel Lankarani (d. 2007) and to a certain extent Jawad Tabrizi (d. 2006). The fact that they were close to the population of the Azerbaijan Republic in terms of their heritage and ethnic ties also certainly played a role. Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani’s book was until his death in 2007 the most popular guidebook to sharia law among Azerbaijani Shiites. Like many other well-known Ayatollahs of Iran, Ali Khamenei also shares ethnic ties with the people of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
The period following Fazel Lankarani’s death was characterized unequivocally by the rapid growth in Ali Khamenei’s popularity as a Marja al-Taqlid. In short order, he became one of the two most followed mujtahids in Azerbaijan. Even the chairman of the Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) Allahshukur Pashazadeh has said several times that he follows Sayyid Ali Khamenei.[xii] Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali Khamenei’s first official representative in Azerbaijan was Ayatollah Ahmad Sabiri Hamadani (d. 2017). He began traveling to Azerbaijan as early as the beginning of the 1990s.[xiii] It seems that his experience propagating the faith in a secular environment in Turkey helped him get the appointment of the Wali al-Faqih’s representative in Azerbaijan. During his time in Azerbaijan, several of his books were translated and published, including some that were edited by the Sheikh ul-Islam.[xiv] In 1994, Hamadani even participated in the laying of the foundation of a mosque in Nardaran (a village near Baku) along with the Sheikh ul-Islam and the then-mayor of Baku Rafail Allahverdiyev.[xv] Nevertheless, he was soon replaced as the Wali al-Faqih’s representative by Sayid Ali Akbar Ojagnejad, who is active in Azerbaijan to this day. Ojagnejad was the son-in-law of late Ayatollah Ali Meshkini. Ayatollah Meshkini was from the city of Meshkin near Ardabil and, as a supporter of the Iranian system of Wilayati Faqih, in 1983 he was elected the first chairman of the body with the authority to choose the spiritual leader, the Assembly of Experts (Majles-e Khobregân-e Rahbari), a position which he held until his death in 2007.
Having been a leader in the propagation of Iranian Shiism, for the entire duration of the 1990s Ojagnejad was considered to be a charismatic spiritual leader of Azerbaijan’s Shia community. He gained popularity with his sermons at Baku’s Old City Juma Mosque and began to preach at Huseyniyyeh of the Iranian embassy instead when the Azerbaijani government asked him to leave Juma Mosque. However, we presuppose that it is Ojagnejad’s close behind-the-scenes relations (including heavily rumored business activity) with some of Azerbaijani state officials which has allowed him, unlike Ayatollah Hamadani, to successfully carry on with his activities in Azerbaijan for so long.
Currently in Azerbaijan the second most popular Marja al-Taqlid after Khamenei (but opposed to him on the issue of Wilayati Faqih) is Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani. Originally from the Sistan province in southeastern Iran, for a long time Sistani has been living in Iraq where he is recognized as the leader of the Najaf school and rejects the Wilayati Faqih system, as did his late father-in-law Abu al-Qasim al-Khoei. We assume that representatives of Ali Sistani in Azerbaijan (Javad Shahristani and Muhammad Mosuli), where he has many muqallids, were unable to expand a headquarters in the country due to an understanding between Baku and Tehran. His representatives’ attempts to establish themselves in Azerbaijan were accompanied by scandals[xvi] and they complained of obstacles put in their way, which ultimately led his last representative Muhammad Mosuli to choose the Russian capital, Moscow, where a large number of Azerbaijani Shiites were concentrated, as his regional headquarters.[xvii] Along with Grand Ayatollahs Sayyid Ali Khamenei and Sayyid Ali Sistani, although with fewer muqallids, other popular Marja al-Taqlids include Nasir Makarim Shirazi, Ayatollah Vahid Khorasani, and several others.
It should be noted that the primary indicator of the relationship between muqallids and their Marja al-Taqlids is the khums tax. According to Shia Jafari legal thought, muqallids must pay a khums tax to their mujtahid or his local representative. In Jafari thought, khums (“one fifth” in Arabic) is one of the main taxes. After providing for their and their families’ needs, a Muslim must give one fifth of the sum of the amount remaining from all goods and money earned over the course of the year (including their salary) to their Marja al-Taqlid’s chancellery or his local representative. While in the first years of independence the khums taxes collected in Azerbaijan remained in the country with the permission of the Marja al-Taqlid (Ali Sistani, for example, issued a fatwa to that effect), since the second half of the 2000s the khums taxes began to be sent to the Marja al-Taqlid. It can be argued, however, that since the tradition of khums taxes is new to Azerbaijan, it has not yet achieved wide acceptance, although the number of believers who send this religious tax to their mujtahids is growing as religious knowledge continues to spread. According to sharia judgments, half of the khums tax is used to support houses of worship, religious education institutions, and students. The other half is distributed among the needy, including poor sayyids (i.e. descendants of the prophet), for whom accepting alms is forbidden (haram).
The First Faith-Based Political Organizations in the Post-Soviet Period
The liberalization of the Soviet system under Gorbachev’s perestroika (“restructuring”) affected Azerbaijan as well. As the Karabakh conflict escalated, the population became more politically active. As the growth of religious knowledge and the distribution of religious publications in primitive samizdat (“self-published”) editions accelerated, political Islam also took its first steps in Azerbaijan. The first generation of local Islamic activists began to form. Although these activists had no formal religious educations, they became famous and influential political actors. At this time, the Repentance Society (Tövbə Cəmiyyəti), founded in April 1989, became the first popular, informal Shiite organization in Azerbaijan. The creation and development of this organization is generally still shrouded in mystery. The fact that people who had been in prison for various crimes took an active part in the creation of the organization only serves to deepen the mystery. In any case, in short order this organization, with its headquarters at the Imam Huseyn Mosque in the district of Baku known as Sovetski, began to grow in popularity. The leader of the organization was Haji Abdul Abdulov.
The leading informal organization to come out of the political activity resulting from the Karabakh conflict was the Azerbaijani Popular Front (APF). While the Popular Front was dominated by secular Turkic nationalists, political groups of religious activists formed among its members, too. One example is the Council of Free Believers. The strengthening of the APF’s ethnic nationalist faction, however, eventually caused a large number of Shiite activists to leave the organization. Religious activists began to publish the newspaper Allahu Akbar in the summer of 1990. Haji Alikram Aliyev (d. 2011) and Haji Hajiagha Nuri, active members of the APF, left the organization in January 1990 and in September 1991, along with Haji Vagif Gasimov (d. 2001), founded the Azerbaijani Islamic Party (AIP). Haji Alikram Aliyev, a native of the village of Nardaran, was elected party chairman. One year later, in 1992, the Islamic party was officially registered. In a short time, the party was able to create over 70 local organizations, encompassing virtually every region of the country. The AIP also published two newspapers, The World of Islam and The Voice of Islam (a third, Pulse, began publication in the 2000s as an unofficial organ of the party).
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, some Islamists, dissatisfied with the APF’s Turkic nationalist stance, began to move closer to Ayaz Mutallibov, Soviet Azerbaijan’s last communist leader and the first president of independent Azerbaijan. There was a regional factor at play as well, since the Islamists, largely from Baku, saw Mutallibov, a native of Shamakhi, as “one of their own.” Haji Abdul, leader of the abovementioned Repentance Society, became an active proponent of Mutallibov and, with his help, was elected to the Supreme Council, Soviet Azerbaijan’s last parliament. Although Haji Abdul continued to support Mutallibov for some time after the latter lost power, later their relations soured. At present both Mutallibov and Haji Abdul have said they would like to see the First Vice-President, Mehriban Aliyeva, as president, due to the regional factor, i.e. as an alternative to the dominance of Azerbaijani politicians from Nakhchivan and Armenia.[xviii] In the fall of 2018, Mehriban Aliyeva took part in the opening of the Imam Huseyn Mosque following reconstruction at which Haji Abdul presented her with a Quran.[xix]
The priority Haji Abdul has given to the regional factor over his Shiite faith showed itself during another event which occured in the 1990s. After Heydar Aliyev came to power, Iranian groups linked to Khamenei opened a madrasa at Imam Huseyn Mosque at a time when Haji Abdul was in prison (he was arrested by the previous APF government). When Haji Abdul was released, however, he immediately expelled the Iranians from the mosque. In the early 1990s, Haji Abdul also regularly attacked the head of the TMSB, Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh, calling him a “KGB colonel.” Overall, the new Islamists were critical of Allahshukur Pashazadeh, and insistently repeated that the TMSB had been created by the Soviet government to keep religion under control. There was competition between the TMSB and informal religious groups to control the Islamic discourse. Their relations were not entirely unambiguous, though. Eventually there came a time when the informal religious groups and Allahshukur Pashazadeh recognized their common interests and joined forces. This was made possible by the latter’s sensitivity to political intrigues, his dexterity, his ability to take a compromising or harshly uncompromising position depending on the circumstances, and his ability to make decisions and take steps with resolution. As in the famous phrase, Pashazadeh is not a constant friend but a person with constant interests, or in more popular language, he is a political figure who can hold several watermelons in one hand. It is precisely thanks to this skill that he has been able to this day to emerge victorious and unscathed from most confrontations and quarrels. It must be stressed, however, that although Pashazadeh is a master of backroom politics and political intrigue, as a result of his incomplete education his appearances and speeches have caused him numerous problems among believers and the general public, and have sometimes turned him into an object of ridicule.[xx]
In the Soviet period, the virtually unknown Allahshukur Pashazadeh emerged in January 1990 as one of the loudest voices protesting the Soviet military intervention which resulted in a massacre, attracting the public’s attention especially for his participation in the funerals of those who had been killed, for which he gained a reputation. In November of the same year, the TMSB began publishing Islam, its first newspaper. Pashazadeh began to openly involve himself in politics. In Allahshukur Pashazadeh’s biography it is noted that along with his secondary education in a Soviet school, as a child he received informal religious instruction from local clerics. Later in 1968-1970, he studied at the Mir Arab madrasa in Bukhara in Uzbekistan, and in 1971-1975 he continued his education at the Theology Department of the Imam al-Bukhari Islamic Institute in Tashkent. In 1978 he was appointed an akhund at the Taza Pir Mosque and the deputy chairman of the TMSB, and from 1980 to this day, for almost forty years, he has directed the semi- official regional religious central governing body.[xxi]
In the early 1990s, Khamenei’s supporters left the Repentance Society and founded another respected informal Shiite organization, the Old City Mosque Community. The Old City Mosque Community was founded in 1992, taking its name from the Old City Mosque where they had their headquarters, and which in the Soviet period had been used as a carpet museum. This community was also able to take control of a number of other small mosques in Baku’s Old City. As the primary hub for Khamenei’s muqallids, the Old City Mosque played an active, leading, central role in Shiite religious thought from the 1990s to 2004. The organization’s de facto leader was Haji Azar Ramizoghlu,[xxii] who now lives in emigration in Europe. The community grew rapidly thanks to the abovementioned Iranian cleric Ojagnejad, who regularly gave sermons there. In the late 1990s, the Azerbaijani government was able to obstruct Ojagnejad’s sermons. Soon, however, Ojagnejad was replaced as preacher by the charismatic local Shiite leader, Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoghlu, who had gone to study in Iran in the first years of independence. Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoghlu studied philosophy at the International University in Qazvin in Iran. In addition, organizations such as the Islamic Unity Society, created by members of the Juma Mosque congregation, and the Center for the Defense of Religious Faith and Freedom of Conscience (known as DEVAMM) were on the front lines in the 1990s and 2000s defending the rights of believers, especially fighting against the ban on taking passport and ID photos in head covering.
New opportunities opened up for religious organizations when Azerbaijan gained independence in 1991, the APF came to power in 1992, and in that same year the first law on religious freedom was passed. The main thing, however, was that at that time the newly formed religious organizations began to carry out their first serious political campaigns. The contradictions between the secular nationalist APF, oriented towards Turkey, and the Shiite organizations began to show more clearly. With the APF’s rise to power, the abovementioned confrontation based on regional identity began to be overtaken by an ideological opposition between the Shiites, oriented towards Iran and sharia law, and the secular nationalists, oriented towards Turkey. The religious ideological opposition in the protests and the campaigns in support of Palestine carried out by the Islamic Party, the Old City Juma Mosque Community, and organizations from the regions such as the Azeri-Islamic Society in Shaki. It should be noted that at the time the leader of the TMSB, Sheikh ul-Islam Pashazadeh, who viewed the APF with suspicion, gave his support to the protests, either directly or indirectly, despite his conflicts with the informal Islamic organizations.
Heydar Aliyev’s Rise to Power and a Changing Situation
The APF was removed from power in 1993 in a coup d’etat and a former major general in the KGB and one-time Soviet leader of Azerbaijan, Heydar Aliyev, came to power, seriously altering the situation in Azerbaijan. Virtually all of the abovementioned organizations faced pressure from the new government. As a result of changes made to the election law on September 2, 1995, the Islamic Party’s registration was revoked. In 1996, the party chairman, Alikram Aliyev, and his deputy, Haji Hajiagha Nuri, were arrested on charges of espionage for Iran.
During the rule of the APF, Allahshukur Pashazadeh, who protested against their ethnic Turkic nationalist policies, almost openly gave support to other Shiite religious organizations, but when Heydar Aliyev came to power Pashazadeh began to take positions close to the official ones as in the Soviet period. In later times Pashazadeh’s relations with the government remained unharmed despite problems with various state agencies, occasional serious confrontations, and once he even threatened to move headquarter of the Caucasus Muslim Board (CMB) (changed name of TMSB after independence) from Baku to Tbilisi. One thing is clear: Pashazadeh was able to establish immunity for himself, and to obtain serious privileges and material concessions from the Aliyev government. As a result of Aliyev’s harsh policies, the burst of political activity from independent Shiite organizations of the early 1990s was scaled back significantly. The Shiite organizations primarily used human rights issues, especially the hijab issue, to mobilize. The leading organizations, without a doubt, were those mentioned above created by the Old City Juma Mosque Community and its activists.
Here it should be noted that, the scaling back of the political activities of Shiites supporting Khamenei due to administrative pressure and arrests had other causes as well. First of all, the removal of the Popular Front from power was a success for political Shiism and Khamenei’s supporters. After the fall of the Soviet Union, they had considered secular Turkic nationalism oriented towards Turkey as their main rival. Aliyev established better relations with Iran relatively and rejected the Popular Front’s openly confrontational position. Azerbaijani authorities allowed Iranian television began to broadcast regularly in Azerbaijan as well. Aliyev even considered allowing Iranian oil companies to participate in major multilateral international contracts to explore Azerbaijani oil fields.[xxiii] In June 1993 abovementioned leaders of the Islamic Party were among the first people Heydar Aliyev met with in the early days of his return to power, organizing a special reception for them.[xxiv] At that time, i.e. on the eve of his return to power and in the first days following it, Aliyev established good relations with most of the forces opposed to the APF, but a few years later most of them were subjected to persecution by the authorities as it happened with the leaders of Islamic Party. By the way, he pardoned Haji Abdul, who had been imprisoned by the APF government, even though H. Aliyev had harshly criticized and even insulted him in one of his previous speeches.[xxv] .
However, Heydar Aliyev had not settled on a geopolitics oriented towards Iran. He simply rejected the open confrontation of the Popular Front period. In addition, while Heydar Aliyev allowed the religious influences coming from Iran to continue within certain limits, he also created opportunities for Salafism and Sunni tariqas (i.e. schools of Sufi Islam) connected with Turkey to compete with the Iranians. As a result, in the second half of the 1990s Salafism became the fastest growing religious movement in the country. Only the Khamenei-supporting Shiite organizations’ return to open opposition to the government in the early 2000s restored the reputation they had lost in the early part of Aliyev’s rule.
It should be noted, however, that at the time in question Shiite organizations close to the government were carrying out so-called anti-missionary activities aimed in particular at Evangelical Christians and Salafis. On the one hand, the government was using the Salafis against Shiite thought which was beyond its control, while on the other hand it created an anti-Salafi discourse using the Shiite organizations which it did control. At this time, those state-controlled Shiite organizations were lobbying to add a “Foundations of Religion” class to the curriculum of secular state schools, arguing that it was “to protect children from outside influences” and “to support traditional religion or religions.” At various times, the plan was actually adopted either as a pilot program, as an elective, or in some other form. The abovementioned Old City Juma Mosque Community and its organization DEVAMM, however, took part in the defense of human rights, including those of Evangelical Christian churches. The Juma Community also rejected attempts by official Shiite organizations to involve them in the anti-Salafi campaign.
The Return of Shiites to Active Politics
From the beginning of the 2000s, Shiite communities began to return to direct oppositional political activities. In this context, although the 2002 Nardaran protests are considered the first serious factor, in fact, the main rationale behind those protests was social problems. On June 3, 2002, when the police wanted to arrest protesters in Nardaran, clashes broke out with the local community.[xxvi] One town resident was killed during the incidents.[xxvii] The protests continued in Nardaran for almost a year and after negotiations with the participation of Sheikh-ul-Islam, the residents removed the tents and stopped the protests. This town, which mainly engaged in exporting flowers (carnations) to Russia during Soviet times, was economically one of the most socially prosperous places in Azerbaijan. However, serious problems in the gas supply since the late 1990s, the rise of gas prices, and the loss of the monopolistic position of carnations in the flower market have led to a serious economic crisis in Nardaran. Nevertheless, the mobilizing power of religion and religious slogans in the organized protests in Nardaran against social problems was also undeniable. The abovementioned leaders of the Islamic Party, who were arrested on charges of espionage for Iran, were residents of this town. Moreover, in contrast to other regions of Azerbaijan, including the big neighborhood town Mashtaga, the most popular Marja al-Taqlid among Nardaran residents was Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, the religious leader of Iran.
As mentioned above, Ayatollah Ahmad Sabiri Hamadani, who then served as the representative of Khamenei to Azerbaijan, participated in laying the foundation of Nardaran mosque in 1994. However, it should be emphasized that the Islamic Party leadership never had a dominant position in the first Nardaran protests since they were simply equal members, among many others, of the Council of Elders. We think that Haji Alikram Aliyev, the Islamic Party chairman, was arrested with the purpose of demonstrating that the Nardaran protests were of a radical religious nature rather than because of his leading role in the 2002 Nardaran protests. The government attempts to carry out this intentional act even led to a number of strange events. For example, in the joint statement of the law enforcement agencies, the Nardaran people were charged with radical Wahhabism. Nevertheless, while the protesters chanted religious slogans that are traditional for Nardaran, theirs were not religious, but social demands. The attempts of the Islamic Party leadership to make religious demands the priority of the protests did not succeed much.
Haji Jabrayil Alizadeh (d. 2013), a Nardarani elder, was among those arrested in 2002.[xxviii] He was a well-known figure of the national liberation movement and the Azerbaijani Popular Front. He was appointed as head of Sabunchu district executive authority during the Elchibey government. During the opening of the abovementioned Nardaran Mosque in 1994, along with the Aliyev government and the Iranian authorities, Alizadeh actively participated in this process.
We think that due to the inadequate social policy of the government, as well as controversial presidential elections in 2003, a direct religious element in the Nardaran protests began to get stronger again. In the 2003 election, the Nardaran voters demonstrated strong political support to Isa Gambar, who was the main candidate of the secular opposition. Old City Juma Community and the Replenishment (İkmal) Youth Union, led by the independent religious figure Haji Shahin Hasanli since 1998, also gave open political support to secular opposition candidates Isa Gambar and Etibar Mammadov, respectively, in the 2003 presidential election.[xxix] At the same time, the Islamic Party, under the leadership of its de facto leader Haji Muzaffar Jabrayilzadeh who had a great influence on believers due to his religious knowledge, supported the candidacy of Isa Gambar.
After Ilham Aliyev Came to Power
As a result of the announcement of Ilham Aliyev’s victory, there were mass protests against the election results, and the government subsequently arrested many people. Among them was the Old City Juma Mosque activists, including Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoghlu, as well as Karbalayi Natig from the Nardaran elders. Shortly after Haji Ilgar was released, in the summer of 2004, the Old City Juma Mosque was taken from the community. However, in the next decade, Haji Ilgar further strengthened his relationship with the secular opposition and was represented in the leading structures of its many different organizations. Over the next few years, he became the most well-known figure of the Shiite community.
In post-2003 Nardaran, social demands become secondary in local protests while religious-political demands succeeded to gain popularity in this town, which had been beyond the government’s control for a long time. Haji Hajiagha Nuri, one of the leading figures of the Islamic Party during this period who was arrested on espionage charges for a while in 1996, gained media attention as the most active figure in various protests in Nardaran. But in one of such protests, the intervention of Sheikh-ul-Islam Pashazadeh and negotiations with Haji Hajiagha Nuri resulted in the neutralization of the latter. As a result, although one part of the town supported the candidate of the united secular opposition in the 2005 parliamentary elections, Haji Hajiagha Nuri and his supporters did not join the process and, instead, they supported Nuri’s own candidacy. This created an impression of the first serious disintegration of the seemingly monolithic Nardaran community. After this election, religious-political opinions became more influential in Nardaran, and in the subsequent periods of mass Ashura ceremonies, religious and political discourse have gained unequivocal dominance.
Haji Shahin Hasanli, former head of the abovementioned Replenishment Youth Union, became the juma (Friday) imam of Mashadi Dadash mosque, located in the center of Baku, in 2007, and soon succeeded in transforming the community into the country’s largest Shiite community. In 2012, following the appointment of Elshad Iskandarov, who had close relations with the Juma community, to the SCRA, Haji Shahin began to move closer to the government. Iskandarov, who had previously been associated with religion, was appointed to the state’s main religious organization at a time of tense relations between the government and the religious, especially the Shiite, community. Although Iskandarov remained in that position for only two years, he did a number of serious things during this period. In particular, he was able to establish ties between the government and the Shiite communities of which most leaders were arrested and members were dissatisfied with the government. In his first step as chairman, Iskandarov successfully attempted to normalize the government relations with loyal or, at least, non-political clergy, and he quickly achieved serious results. He managed to win the loyalty of a large portion of the clergy which was unwilling to express open political statements. Thus, the religious community, which was seemed to be unanimous and oppositional, was divided into two communities. The government created an opening for clerics such as Haji Shahin, who would not harshly criticize its policies.
On May 2, 2014, when Iskandarov was unexpectedly dismissed, the process had already largely ended, the modus vivendi between the government and Haji Shahin continued, and their cooperation expanded. Haji Shahin was appointed the official representative of Sheikh-ul-Islam Pashazadeh to the Nasimi district of Baku, where he began to regularly participate in SCRA events, and he was even invited to events where the president and his family were present. The government also used Haji Shahin to bolster its position at critical times. For example, in the 2015 Nardaran events, it became especially apparent.[xxx]
The New Generation Shiite Leaders and the Post-Arab Revolution Era
One of the tumultuous performances of political Shiism in the country took place in 2006. In Sənət newspaper, the claim that writer Rafig Taghi allegedly insulted the Prophet of Islam in his article, Europe and Us, caused a serious protest among the local Shiite community. Even protesters from Nardaran threatened Taghi at their conference at the International Press Center.[xxxi] Following this, the news of a fatwa sentencing Taghi to death, issued by Grand Ayatollah Fazil Lankarani, who was living in Qom, Iran, was widely circulated in Azerbaijan and caused a serious stir. The government, however, arrested Taghi and the editor of the newspaper to deter protests. In parallel, the government also began to apply some restrictions on local religious groups. The government forbade using loudspeakers for the azan (i.e. the call to prayer) in Baku and other parts of the country in May, 2007.[xxxii] Then, in August, 19 Quran courses were closed on the grounds of re-registration. It should be noted that, a few years later, in November, 2011, Rafig Taghi was stabbed by an unknown person and died a few days later in the hospital. Although his murderer has not been found, the statement of Ayatollah Mohammad Javad Lankarani,[xxxiii] the son of Grand Ayatollah Fazel Lankarani who died in 2007 just after this incident, supporting the murder, led to the public accusation of the believers in Taghi’s murder. Nevertheless, it should be noted that popular Shiite cleric Haji Shahin condemned Mohammad Javad Lankarani for the latter’s statement justifying the murder.[xxxiv]
In January 2007, the government claimed to have uncovered a 16-member armed group of devout Shiites. All members of this group, which is generally known as Səidin dəstəsi (Said’s Group), named after its leader Said Dadashbayli, were sentenced to different periods of imprisonment.[xxxv] Later in 2009, the demolition of a mosque in Neft Dashları, a settlement near Baku, as well as the Our Prophet Mohammed Mosque in the center of Baku intensified the tension in the religious environment. In particular, the court’s decision on the demolition of the Fatimeyi Zahra Mosque and the protest in front of the Baku City Executive Authority (BCEA) were rather intensive.[xxxvi] Under the 1996 decree of the head of the BCEA, 30 hectares of land were allocated for the construction of Fatimeyi Zahra Mosque in Yeni Gunashli settlement. Hajibala Abutalibov, the head of the Executive Authority, however, annulled the order in late 2002, claiming that the allocated land had been left unused for a long time. At the end of lengthy trials, in 2010, the local Economic Court ruled that Fatimeyi Zahra Mosque would be demolished. This decision also gave rise to protests by believers. At that time, Grand Ayatollah Nasir Makarim Shirazi’s statement on condemning the demolition of mosques in Azerbaijan was widely circulated. The Iranian media reported that Grand Ayatollah Makarim Shirazi had warned the Azeri government that if the mosques were to be destroyed, he would give a fatwa of resistance and declare the killed people martyrs.[xxxvii]
In this situation, the CMB Chairman Pashazadeh appealed to the President and urged him to stop the execution of the court decision on the demolition of Fatimeyi Zahra Mosque and to transfer the building to the CMB’s disposal. President Ilham Aliyev instructed that Fatimeyi Zahra Mosque, the demolition of which was suspended although it had been ordered by the court, be handed over to the CMB.[xxxviii] During this process, Haji Abgul Suleymanov,[xxxix] the founder of less well-known organizations such as the Board of Jafaris and the Spiritual Values Public Union, emerged as a leader.[xl]
Since 2010, protests by new Shiite groups have occurred as a result of the ban on religious head coverings (hijabs) at schools, issued by a decision of the Ministry of Education. In November 2010, the government made a decision that restricted head coverings at schools.[xli] On December 10, believers held a protest against this decision in front of the Ministry of Education.[xlii] The main organizer of these protests was the abovementioned Haji Abgul Suleymanov and the members of his organization, the Board of Jafaris. It was during this period that the Islamic Party, under the leadership of its new chairman, Haji Movsum Samadov, became active after a long period of stagnation. Movsum Samadov, who is a physician and was educated in Iran, was elected the new head of the party in 2007. Also, in December 2010, during Ashura, a conflict causing a huge uproar broke out between the local population and the police in the village of Bananyar, Nakhchivan. One of the villagers burned himself as a protest against the police intervention.[xliii]
About a month after the first hijab protest, there were massive arrests across the country. On January 8, the chairman of the Islamic Party Movsum Samadov and his deputy Vagif Abdullayev (who was sentenced to 11 years in prison by the court in October of that year and died from blood cancer in a hospital on July 12, 2012) as well as Elchin Hasanov, Mirhuseyn Kazimov and a few others were detained.[xliv] It should be noted that arrest of the Islamic Party leadership was largely related to a speech by Samadov, who spoke on January 2, 2011, at the General Assembly of the party rather than the hijab protest. In that speech, the chairman of AIP strongly criticized president Aliyev. The arrests continued in the following days, and activists of the Islamic Party and independent Shiite theologians were arrested in several regions of the country, including Baku.
In May 2011, another hijab protest was held in Baku, which was mainly organized by Haji Taleh Baghirov, less well-known figure and the head of the unofficial Shiite community in the neighborhood of Baku called Papanin. He was arrested for organizing this protest and remained in prison for a year and a half. Haji Abgul Suleymanov was sentenced to 11 years in prison for these events. Despite these arrests, however, on October 5, 2012, a third hijab protest of approximately two hundred people was organized in front of the Ministry of Education with the demand of eliminating hijab ban at schools.[xlv]
Although in December, 2011, President Ilham Aliyev stated[xlvi] that there was no hijab ban in the country, attempts to apply the ban on wearing head coverings were occasionally observed in various educational institutions. In this regard, the government states that according to the “Model Charter of the Schools,” approved by the Decree No 5 of the Cabinet of Ministers dated January 13, 2011, the uniform of students at schools is determined by their respective school charter.[xlvii]
Haji Taleh Baghirov, who was arrested after the second hijab protest, was released a while later but was arrested for the second time on March 31, 2013.[xlviii] He remained in jail until July 2015. He established the Muslim Unity Movement while in prison.[xlix] A few months after his release, on November 26, he was arrested again on charges of attempting a coup after a police operation that resulted in the deaths of several armed people in Nardaran.[l]
The 2015 Nardaran Events
Mass arrests of Shiite religious activists in Azerbaijan also occurred after the 2015 Nardaran events. On November 5, Muslim Unity activists gathered in front of the police station to demand freedom for Elchin Gasimov, the Deputy Chairman of the Muslim Unity Movement; police, in response, arrested some of the protesters. Generally speaking, Taleh Baghirov’s outspoken speeches, regional visits, his speech at Ashura ceremonies of that year, and his increasing popularity seriously disturbed the government and the government’s severe punishment for these developments was expected.
Another interesting event took place during this period. The well-known Iranian religious figure Grand Ayatollah Nuri Hamadani (he should not be confused with the abovementioned Ayatollah Ahmad Sabiri Hamadani) visited Baku[li] at a time when the Azeri government’s relations with the West were tense due to its repressions of the secular opposition, civil society, and the media while some high-ranking US officials’ visits to Azerbaijan were obstructed.[lii] During the visit, Nuri Hamadani met with Shiite religious figures in Azerbaijan, including government critics. The Azerbaijani government’s propaganda machine launched a campaign to discredit young Shiite clerics such as Haji Taleh, who were critical of the Azerbaijani government, with footage of them kissing Ayatollah Hamadani’s hand as a sign of respect.[liii]
On November 26, the Interior Ministry and the State Security Service conducted a joint operation in Nardaran, where Taleh Baghirov was temporarily settled, which resulted in six deaths, including two police officers. Baghirov and 16 others were arrested as a result of this operation. Following this incident, Muslim Unity activists were persecuted both in Baku (mainly in Nardaran) and the regions. During this period, the political revival of Shiism[liv] occurred not only in Baku, but also in the regions,[lv] where, as a result, arrests were also carried out.[lvi] At various times, there were Ashura and Tasua (the night before Ashura) marches in Jalilabad, Lankaran, and Ganja; an informal organization called the Spiritual Council was founded in the southern region, and such developments disturbed the central government.
During those years in Azerbaijan, many Shiite clerics were imprisoned and the figures are constantly changing as prisoners are released. In general, hundreds of Shiite believers and religious figures were imprisoned during this period. Among them there are prominent Shiite religious figures from the regions, such as Sardar Babayev, Zulfugar Mikayilzadeh, Faramaz Abbasov, Elman Aghayev and others. The arrests did not pass by the CMB staff. An employee of the organization, Shiite theologian Elshan Mustafayev, was charged with treason in December 2014 and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
Of course, the activation that took place after 2010 has been attributed to the Arab Spring’s influence in the region and Iran’s attempts to use the Shiite community in Azerbaijan as a tool for its own political ambitions. It can be said that the Shiite movement in particular experienced a period of strengthening in those years. It showed itself in the crowded Tasua and Ashura rituals as well as in the rapid popularization of Arbain pilgrimage. Local observers consider the 2015 Ashura rituals as the most widely attended Muharram event in Azerbaijan since the 1930s. Undoubtedly, this gathering and popularity were also affected by ISIS’s defeat in Iraq at that time, and the growing influence and activeness of Iran in world affairs. But the repressions the Azerbaijani government carried out against the secular opposition and civil society also undeniably influenced these processes.
Finally, we can assume that the 2015 Ashura procession could have had an effect on the government’s decision to carry out an armed operation in Nardaran. Although the government took many steps to restrict religious freedoms after that Ashura, its effect lasted only a year. The 2017 Ashura was more crowded and this fact was even noted by Khamenei at his meeting with President Ilham Aliyev.[lvii] In the same year, the processes around Haji Javad Mosque in the area of Baku called Sovetski showed that the government’s restrictive policies implemented after 2015 did not render results expected by the authorities. The government was forced to take at least cosmetic measures to control the religious discourse and ensure the loyalty of religious people.
The last tensions on “religious grounds” were the events that started on July 3, 2018, which were later dubbed the “Ganja events.” On July 3, Yunus Safarov, a Russian citizen of Azeri origin, born in 1983, shot Elmar Valiyev, the head of Ganja City Executive Authority (GCEA), and his bodyguard Gasim Ashbazov in front of the GCEA administrative building. Safarov was arrested. Several days later, photos of a beaten and tortured Safarov were shared on the internet, followed by calls on social media to protest in Ganja. In a joint statement, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and the State Security Service stated on July 6 that the violent attack committed by Yunus Safarov was a planned terrorist act. The statement added that Safarov lived in Qom, Iran for 8 months in 2016 during which time he was involved in military training in the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic together with Rasim Asadov, an Azerbaijani citizen.[lviii]
On July, 10, at about 8 p.m., approximately 150-200 people tried to gather in front of the administrative building of the Ganja City Executive Authority. Ilgar Balakishiyev, a police colonel and deputy chief of the Ganja City Police Department, and Samad Abbasov, a police lieutenant-colonel and deputy chief of the Nizami District Police Department, were stabbed to death at the scene. Immediately after the incident, the official information circulated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs stated that the protest was committed by a group of 150-200 radical religious people.[lix] The official spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry condemned the incident and claimed that the allegations of “Iran’s trace” were “psychological warfare launched by Iran’s enemies.”[lx]
A joint statement by law enforcement agencies on January 4, 2019 states that 59 people were detained in the criminal case, and one person was wanted.[lxi] Four criminal cases against 36 individuals were sent to the Ganja Court of Grave Crimes for consideration and investigations of the other people are underway. After the events in Ganja, law enforcement officials announced that six armed people had been killed and neutralized.[lxii] It should be noted that the fact that the Azerbaijani judicial system, including the law enforcement agencies, does not uphold the principle of the supremacy of law, has been expressed by both the local and the international community. In such circumstances, the position of Azerbaijani law enforcement agencies and the courts, in connection with the events in Ganja, is naturally met with suspicion and it seems impossible to determine the real truth.
The Relationship Between Secular Opposition and Political Shiism
As we discussed, in the last 30 years, there have been different political coalitions between political Shiism and the secular opposition against the government. For example, the founders of the future Islamic Party were active in the APF in the late 1980s, the Old City Juma Community approached the Musavat party in the 2000s, and recently, Haji Taleh and his supporters supported the Popular Front Party and the National Council.
In all these alliances, although Shiite political groups were a junior partner, i.e. they did not play a leading role unlike the secular opposition, these groups more clearly presented their programs and goals. Of course, Azerbaijan remains largely a secular society, and this reality has kept the political Shiite groups from expressing their ultimate goals, namely sharia law, at least in the near future. For example, Haji Taleh specifically noted in some of his interviews that he had to accept the secular reality of Azerbaijan.[lxiii] However, their ultimate goal of establishing the sharia governance is a matter of conscience (belief), and the Shiite political groups in Azerbaijan have at least indirectly expressed this at different times. In turn, although the secular opposition intended to use the power of believers in these coalitions for its own purposes, it did not have as well thought-out a position as political Shiite groups in these processes. To some extent the reason behind this is the lack of knowledge among the secular opposition about religion and its political affiliation. However, the strong conviction of the secular opposition that the secular foundations of Azerbaijani society are unshakable has also played a major role in their acceptance of religious political groups as allies.
Nevertheless, during this period, some popular members of the secular opposition showed an increasing interest in Islam or they were inclined to use religious rhetoric for the sake of populism. Especially, in the context of the West’s support for the current government, average Azerbaijani national-democratic politicians, who had serious defects in acquiring modern social-political knowledge and liberal-democratic values, began to mix their social conservatism to their political views, which, in their case, triggered the rise of anti-Western sentiment, the development of conspiracy thinking, and their populist attacks on universal values associated with the West; as a result, this kind of politicians started to see the role of Islam as a shield in the protection of “national-moral identity.”[lxiv]
Shiite Religious Education Within Azerbaijan
While formal religious education was officially banned in Soviet times, official Soviet religious educational institutions in Central Asia were preparing a limited number of Soviet Muslim spiritual cadres. The second and the more “mass religious education” were provided in private homes.[lxv] For example, in the southern regions of Azerbaijan, religious figures such as Sheikh Gudrat (d. 1960) had many students in Soviet times.[lxvi] Since the end of the 1980s, there have been some initiatives for establishing formal religious education in Azerbaijan. The Baku Islamic University as well as its branches, the Faculty of Theology at the Baku State University, and the local madrasas, began to prepare theologians. Many of these clerics are deployed at the local mosques as imams (akhunds) and deputy imams (deputy akhunds).
Officially, the first Islamic educational institution established in Azerbaijan during the Soviet era was the Baku Islamic Madrasa founded in 1989.[lxvii] In 1989, by the decision of the Council of Religious Affairs under the USSR Council of Ministers, the Baku Islamic Madrasa was established under the TMSB. In January 1991, the Madrassah became the Baku Islamic Institute. Sheikh ul-Islam Pashazadeh appointed Haji Ahmad Abbasov (d. 2015), son of his teacher Sheikh Gudrat, as rector. At the end of 1992, this institute was turned into a university and Haji Sabir Hasanli was appointed its rector. The university has been officially registered since 1997. In 2009, the Ministry of Education issued a five-year license to the university. In September 2018, the establishment of the Azerbaijani Institute of Theology (AIT) was initiated and admission to Baku Islamic University (BIU) was suspended.[lxviii] Students accepted in 2018 have been placed in other universities, including the newly established AIT. However, in order to continue higher education courses, BIU will continue its activities the students accepted in 2017 graduate. Famous Shiite clerics, such as Haji Ahliman Rustamov and Haji Fuad Nurulla are BIU graduates. Haji Sabir Hasanli, the BIU rector, also serves as a deputy to Sheikh ul-Islam Pashazadeh. In the 1990s, he became popular thanks to his confrontations with Pashazadeh. But since then the conflict has faded. It should be noted that Haji Sabir, a rather charismatic person, was considered more popular than the Sheikh ul-Islam among the secular population of Azerbaijan in the 1990s and hosted religious programs on television.
Another cleric who was a prominent figure in the area of official Islamic education was the prominent religious figure from the Masalli region of Azerbaijan Haji Miraziz Seyidzadeh (d. 2014); he worked as the head of CMB Education and then the Fatwa Department as well as the head of the Sumgayit branch of Baku Islamic University. Seyidzadeh also served as akhund of the Astara and Masalli juma mosques.[lxix] His candidacy from Masalli for the 2005 parliamentary elections was not registered by the local Constituency Election Commission (ConEC). Although he resigned from his position of the CMB, the ConEC refused Seyidzadeh’s candidacy on the grounds that he was a cleric. Seyidzadeh appealed to the European Court of Human Rights and his appeal was partially upheld by the court decision.[lxx]
At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, the majority of Shiite activists in Azerbaijan were religious educators without religious education. For example, along with representatives of the older generation, such as Haji Alikram Aliyev and Hajiagha Nuri, the previous leadership of the Islamic Party, and Haji Abdul Abdulov, the chairman of the Repentance Society, there are prominent religious figures such as Haji Shahin Hasanli, who received traditional religious educations either from local specialists or by themselves. Nevertheless, currently the most active and influential part of the Shiite clergy in Azerbaijan is clerics who are educated in countries such as Iran, Syria, and Iraq. Haji Ilgar Ibrahimoghlu, Haji Abgul Suleymanov, Movsum Samadov, Sardar Baghirov and Taleh Baghirov are among these clerics. However, there is no Azerbaijani citizen who has reached the level of Marja al-Taqlid.
According to official statistics, the number of Azerbaijani citizens studying religion abroad is more than 3,000. Only a few of them studied on a state scholarship. It is also reported that most of these students studied in Iran.[lxxi] It should be emphasized that the number of Azerbaijanis going to Iran for short-term religious training has exceeded the number of Azeri long-term students. It is almost impossible to determine the exact number of the former because this process has been irregularly carried out for decades.
Since the second half of the 1990s, religious propaganda by foreign nationals has been restricted in Azerbaijan. The 2015 changes to the Law on Religious Freedom also restricted[lxxii] people who were educated abroad from conducting religious ceremonies in Azerbaijan. However, because these restrictions created a problem in staffing mosques, in April 2017, the Parliament amended the law to relax these restrictions.[lxxiii] According to the amendment, Azerbaijani citizens who have received religious education abroad may be allowed to conduct religious rituals and ceremonies by agreeing with the Caucasus Muslim Board and the relevant executive authority, in this case, the SCRA.[lxxiv]
Since the late 1980s, political Shiism has passed through different stages and played a significant role in the political life of Azerbaijan. Even though atheist policies were pursued in the Soviet era, the Muslim population was able to maintain its religious identity in various forms and methods. After independence, however, Azerbaijanis came into contact with some of new forms of their traditional religions which had been transformed abroad, and a new, totally untraditional religious situation began to form in the country.
The open and populist religious-political activities of people who did not have formal religious education and gathered in informal organizations in the early stages, i.e. in the late 1980s and early 1990s, faced serious restrictions after Heydar Aliyev’s coming to power, which resulted in a relative slowdown of political Shiism. During this period, the activity of political Shiism was mainly concentrated on the demand for human rights and freedoms in the context of freedom of conscience. However, since the early 2000s, political Shiism again openly engaged in oppositional political activities and the rapprochement process between political Shiism and the secular opposition had begun to take place. From the second half of the 2000s, a serious weakening of the secular opposition created favorable conditions for the further strengthening of Shiite political thought; as a result, political and religious demands were more clearly and openly voiced, and this process was accompanied by the emergence of the new generation of Shiite political leaders.
Nevertheless, as social networks cut through the government’s information blockade in the 2010s and a new generation entered into socio-political life, it became clear that despite the rapid development of the religious-political front, the secular front of the youth and intellectuals still maintains its superiority. In the process of the Arab revolutions, when a new stage in the activities of political Shiism began thanks to the support of neighboring Iran, the secular front still led the political process. This convinced Shiite leaders such as Haji Taleh that they need to pursue their political ambitions not independently, but by continuing their cooperation with the secular opposition.
However, the government repression since 2013 has weakened the secular opposition and civil society, creating a favorable environment for political Shiism to become the leading factor of protest thought for the first time. The crowded Ashura and Arbain rituals of recent years have further strengthened the prospects of political Shiism. Yet, the fact that the secular opposition and civil society in Azerbaijan have not failed under the most difficult conditions and the failure of the repressions to completely destroy the spirit of protest show that the prospects of political Shiism to replace the secular opposition and the civil society as a leading voice of protest in Azerbaijan can hardly be realized in the near future.
[i]https://report.az/en/religion/allahshukur-pashazadeh-about-35-of-population-of-azerbaijan-sunnis-65-shiites/ [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[ii]https://report.az/din/komite-sedri-azerbaycanda-muselmanlarin-70-faizi-sie-30-faizi-ehli-sunnedir/ [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[iii]http://bakunews.az/28412-azerbaycan-ehalisinin-96-faizi-muselmandir.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[v] Daftary, Farhad, Şii İslam Tarihi, translated by Ahtmet Fethi, Alfa yayınları, 2016, p. 117
[vi] Keneş, Bülent, İran Siyaesetinin İç Yüzü, Timaş Yayınları, 2013, p. 38
[vii]http://qafqazislam.com/index.php?lang=az§ionid=100&id=161 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[viii]http://qafqazinfo.az/news/detail/ve-tarix-burada-qirilir-seyxulislamlar-haqqinda-69208 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[ix] Azərbaycan Respublikası Prezidenti yanında Siyası Partiyalar və İctimai Hərəkatlar Dövlət Arxivi, fond 1, siyahı 238, sənəd 397
[xi] For example, in his memoirs, the post-Soviet chairman of the Islamic Party, Haji Alikram Aliyev, notes that, “in 1974, he became familiar with the name of Imam Khomeini (PBUH) and of his struggle through a Yemeni student studying in Baku. After the victory of the Islamic Revolution he began to imitate (i.e. follow) Imam Khomeini.” At that time, radio frequencies from Ardabil in Iran could be picked up in the villages surrounding Baku and in the southern regions of Azerbaijan. Apart from news, religious talks could also be heard on those frequencies. (“Azərbaycan: Müstəqil İslam və Dövlət” Avropa üzrə Hesabat N°191 – March 25, 2008 http://azkurs.org/pdfview/azerbaycan-musteqil-islam-ve-dovlet.html ) [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xiv]See: Həmədani Əhməd Sabiri, İslamda Cəfəri məzhəbi və İmam Cəfər Sadiqin buyruqları. Red. Allahşükür Paşazadə və Əbülfəz Rəhimov. Bakı, 1991
[xviii] https://www.meydan.tv/ru/article/mehriban-xanimin-prezident-secilmesine-destek-ucun-xalqa-muraciet-edeceyem/ ; http://www.pia.az/Haci_Ebdul%20_%E2%80%9CMehriban_Eliyeva_-180933-xeber.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xix] http://qafqazinfo.az/news/detail/axund-haci-ebdul-birinci-xanima-qurani-kerim-hediyye-etdi-fotolar-233442 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxi] The Transcaucasian Muslim Spiritual Board changed its name in the post soviet period to the Caucasus Muslim Board.
[xxii] https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/191-azerbaijan-independent-islam-and-the-state.pdf [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxiv] https://dq.mia.gov.az/upload/7.pdf?fbclid=IwAR1gSlEmzyPtquhhsmEHRc9o35t-vJleyBQW6rCJYZA98K_widG-VPVMym8[Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dRdreAJJBqY [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxvi]https://azertag.az/xeber/NARDARAN_HADISALARI-976825 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxviii]http://www.turan.az/ext/news/2003/6/subsc/politics/az/20768.htm [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxxi]https://www.amerikaninsesi.org/a/a-56-aze-raiqtagfit-88603847/701855.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxxiii] https://www.amerikaninsesi.org/a/rann-dini-xadimi-yazc-rafiq-tann-qtlini-alqlayb–134610358/725379.html?fbclid=IwAR3kFX8VhzRiPw1XQqhx3ZV4dqeE53Bko1sHiRBwir1lebKCOWVVMfB0cTo [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxxiv] http://musavat.com/news/islam-kuce-qetlini-teqdir-ede-bilmez-seyx-cavad-lenkeraninin-muracietine-munasibet_113332.html?fbclid=IwAR08-Yy_dNk-sR–H6Ci5u_H8UC4unQm5Rl4_og5AfRLRWQ7uLbI3M_dEzo [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxxv]http://musavat.com/news/seidin-destesi-nin-hebsinden-6-il-kecdi_146243.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxxvi]http://deyerler.org/36536-zhgjjr-mjjscid-sgkglsjj-traktorun-qaredsdnda.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xxxvii]https://www.gunaz.tv/az/xeberler/arxiv/dini-komite-mekarim-sirazinin-fitvasini-pisleyib-36300 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xliii] https://www.bbc.com/azeri/news/story/2010/01/printable/100107_nax.shtml [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xliv]https://www.bbc.com/azeri/news/story/2011/01/printable/110108_azeri_islamic.shtml [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xlv]https://www.bbc.com/azeri/azerbaijan/2012/10/121009_hijab_arrests_official [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xlvii]http://minval.info/bakida-orta-m-kt-bd-hicab-qalmaqali/65411 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xlviii]https://www.bbc.com/azeri/azerbaijan/2015/07/150731_taleh_bagirzade_free [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[xlix]http://www.faktxeber.com/azrbaycanda-mslman-birliyi-hrkat-yaradld-_h454703.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lii] https://www.meydan.tv/en/article/aliyev-met-with-special-envoy-of-us-state-department/?ref=article-related-artciles [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[liii] http://qafqazinfo.az/news/detail/hebs-olunan-radikal-dindarlar-kime-biet-edir-video-128280 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[liv]https://www.islamtimes.org/az/news/92956/az%C9%99rbaycanin-taninmi%C5%9F-ruhanil%C9%99ri-toplanti-ke%C3%A7irdi [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lv]http://deyerler.org/73673-gencede-tasua-merasimi-genis-qeyd-edildi.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lix] https://www.amerikaninsesi.org/a/siyaset/4477835.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lx] https://ann.az/az/iran-hkumetinden-gence-hadiseleri-ile-bali-aciqlama/ [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lxi] https://report.az/hadise/bas-prokurorluq-gence-hadiseleri-ile-bagli-cinayet-isi-uzre-istintaq/ [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lxii] https://d9mc3ts4czbpr.cloudfront.net/az/site/news/30678/ [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lxiii]https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=3&v=ETb6BLvvNs8 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lxv]http://cenubxeberleri.com/1254-masallinin-ruhani-dunyasi.html [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lxvii]http://qafqazislam.com/index.php?lang=az§ionid=109 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lxviii]http://www.trt.net.tr/azerbaycan/turk-dunyasi/2018/09/27/baki-islam-universiteti-baglanir-1057805 [Accessed on April 11, 2019]
[lxxii] http://olke.az/news/detail/deputat-qum-seherinde-tehsil-alan-iran-mustehidini-pisleye-bilmez-41561[Accessed on April 11, 2019]