The Republic of Azerbaijan lies at the shore of the Caspian Sea in the eastern part of the Transcaucasia Mountain area. It is bound by Dagestan to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the southwest, the Islamic Republic of Iran and Turkey to the south, and the Caspian Sea. Azerbaijan includes an administratively independent state, the exclave of Nakhchivan.
Area and Population
Its total area is about 86,600 km2, its capital is Baku, and its population as of 2017 estimate is 9,823,667.
The ethnic composition of the population is: 85% Azerbaijanis and 2.2% Lezgians. There are also other ethnic groups such as Avars and Persians. Other communities of non-Azerbaijani origin include Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians, Polish, Assyrians, and others.
Around 93% of the population are Muslims, and the rest are Armenian Christians, Orthodox, and a small population of Hare Krishna members of Indian origin.
The official language is Azerbaijani. The residents of Baku speak the Azerbaijani Language which is a Turkic language. It is spoken by approximately 89% of the population as a mother tongue. Russian is spoken by 3% of the population and Armenian by 2%. There are other languages spoken by 6% of the population. The currency is the Manat.
Geographically, the territory of Azerbaijan is drastically diverse as high mountain ranges tower over flatlands. The latitude of these elevations varies from 28 to 4480 meters above sea level.
The mountainous country is formed from an elevation which is considered an extension to the Armenian eastward. This elevation is towered by high mountains – the Caucasus Mountain Range from the northeast, Armenia Mountains from the west, and the Azerbaijani-Iranian Mountains from the south. The Caucasus Mountains shield the country from the cold wind coming from the north. Rivers spread throughout the extensive flatlands at the country›s center forming arable valleys and areas.
The formation of climate in Azerbaijan is influenced particularly by cold arctic air masses. The Greater Caucasus protects the country from direct influences of cold air masses coming from the north. Azerbaijan›s diverse landscape affects the ways air masses enter the country; thus 9 out of 11 existing climate zones are present in Azerbaijan, ranging from the absolute maximum temperature, the dry grassland, subtropical, temperate, and the absolute minimum temperature.
Before the entrance of Islam, Azerbaijan was under the Sasanian rule. Until 1830, the territories of the current state of Azerbaijan were part of the Iranian empire until the latter was eventually forced to cede it to the Russian Empire in the course of the 19th century, after its army was dealt defeat in two consecutive wars. As such, Moscow seized more territories and annexed them to its empire. From the late 18th century on, Imperial Russia switched to a more aggressive geo-political stance towards its two neighbors and rivals to the south, namely Iran and the Ottoman Empire which were on their way to disappearance and suffering from collapse. The Russians exploited this case terribly and engaged in seas of blood to seize territories from these two dwindling empires and could achieve their goal. Though in 1918, the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (ADR) declared its independence, Azerbaijan remained part of the Soviet Empire until its collapse in 1990. Soon the Azerbaijanis embraced the opportunity and formed their independent state as of 1991, becoming the first Islamic country as the overwhelming majority was Muslims in the democratic and secular country.
Form of Government
The structural formation of Azerbaijan›s political system was completed by the adoption of the new Constitution on 12 November 1995. The government of Azerbaijan is based on the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Parliamentary elections are held every five years, on the first Sunday of November. The Constitutional Court supervises and verifies the outcome of the elections. The legislative power is held by the unicameral National Assembly.
The executive power is held by the president, who is elected for a five-year term by direct elections, and the prime minister. The president is authorized to form the Cabinet, a collective executive body, accountable to both the president and the National Assembly. The Cabinet of Azerbaijan consists primarily of the prime minister, his deputies, and ministers. The judicial power is vested in the Constitutional Court, Supreme Court, and the Economic Court. The president nominates the judges in these courts.
For long years, Azerbaijan focused on one economic sector only – petroleum and petroleum extracting industries such as chemical and petrochemical industries. Then other important sectors started to appear such as heavy industry (vehicles, industrial supplies, mechanical equipment, and metallic wares). Azerbaijan is also famous for food products that depend on the rich agricultural harvests in the country. The main cities are the center of these industries.
Azerbaijan’s major mineral wealth is in core iron (40-70%) and the reserve exceeds 300 million ton, copper, aluminum, lead, cobalt, sulfur, barite, molybdenum, pure Kaolinite, sea salt and rock salt (halite).
More than 51% of the population work in the agricultural sector which is the primary source of living of the Azerbaijanis and the pillar of the country’s economy. This sector witnessed great development in using advanced modern scientific technics and irrigation means especially after opening two water channels at Kura River to water barren lands.
The City of Baku: The city of Baku – the capital of Azerbaijan – is ornamented by the foothills on which it was built. One of the three famous capitals of the Caucasus region, Baku is the linking point between Europe and Asia. It has a lively winter climate which is fresh and sunny in December making it a celebrated destination for Christmas and New Year vacations.
The City of Shaki: The most attractive and beautiful rural area in Azerbaijan, the city of Shaki is surrounded by mountains from all directions. It is an ancient city that lies at the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains with the snow peaks of the Alps in the background.
The City of Ganja: Ganja is Azerbaijan’s second largest city. According to sources, it was named Ganja (a derivation from Persian and Arabic word “ganj” -“treasure”), because it was believed that there was a treasure hidden under one of the three hills around the area. It owns a rich cultural, natural, and historical heritage that goes to year 494 B.C. Tourists from all over the world come to enjoy its most attractive destinations that include lots of forests, vineyards, lakes, rivers, and mountains.
Saadet Sarayi: The Palace of Happiness or Saadet Sarayi is a historic building constructed between years 1911 and 1912 A.D. It was the residence of Azerbaijani Oil Baron of Jewish origin, Murtuza Mukhtarov, for his wife Liza-Khanum Tuganova. The designer was the Polish architect Jozef Plosko. After the Bolshevik Revolution, the building was given to the Club of Liberated Turkic Women, after which it functioned as a museum before it was finally turned to a Palace of Marriage Registrations.
Sirvansahlar Sarayi: The Palace of Shirvanshahs or Şirvanşahlar Sarayı, is the main remaining remnants of the Shirvanshahs era. Located in the city center, the complex contains the main building of the palace, Divanhane, the burial-vaults, the shah›s mosque with a minaret, Seyid Yahya Bakuvi›s mausoleum, a water reservoir, and the remnants of a bath house.
Haci Qayib Hamami: It is one of the main ancient hamams and tourist destinations in Baku. Its history goes back to the 15th century. It lies in Ichari shahr or the old city of Baku. It has three sections; the camekan (dressing room), hararet (stream room), and the sogukluk (antechamber). A fountain is in the middle of the main room which contains warm water in one of its parts and cold water in the other.
History of Islam
After the decease of the Prophet of Islam, Mohammad (Peace be upon him and his Household), the Islamic conquests added a new name to the list of Islamic states – Azerbaijan. That territory was the field of bloody battles between the Russians and the Byzantine Empire, both seeking to seize it. Thus Azerbaijan came to be under the sovereignty of this empire at times and that realm at others. These wars lasted for a long time until the sun of Islam shined on that region.
When Islam entered the land of Azerbaijan in 639 A.D. (18 A. H.), war flared between both armies: the Army of Islam and the Army of Azerbaijan which was no soon defeated. Shortly after the war was over, chaos was replaced with security and stability granted by Islam. This peaceful atmosphere was one of the reasons that helped new Muslims turn to learning the teachings of their new religion.
When Azerbaijan became a part of the Great Islamic State, a number of Arab preachers were sent to that area to teach people the provisions of their religion and help them evade the impact of polytheism and perversity as the Azerbaijani people used to believe in two religions before Islam: Zoroastrianism and Christianity. It is clear that eliminating the influence of these two doctrines was not easy; thus the heads of Islamic states found that it is appropriate that some Arab Muslim families move to Azerbaijan to coexist with the new converts. This step helped the Azerbaijani people live the Islamic doctrine practically with the emigrant Muslims. This policy in fact had a positive impact on consolidating Islam in the hearts of the people of Azerbaijan.
Historic sources mention that the arrival of Islam was represented in dispatching campaigns to it. When Muslims opened Persia, they also opened Azerbaijan, and that was in the first century after Hijra. The first campaign was headed by Utba Bin Farqad. Muslims concluded a peace treaty with the marzban (military governor). Then Hudhaifa bin Yaman reached the area during the Ardabil campaign.
Things ended up with the people of Azerbaijan embracing Islam, and thus the eventual spread of Islam embarked especially after Ashaath brought Muslims to settle in Ardabil; thus tribes from Egypt and Damascus moved to that area, and the tribe of Banu Rowaz – a well-known Arab tribe – settled there, what turned Ardabil into an Islamic center, and Islam defeated Zoroastrianism in no more than 10 years.
Under the Umayyads, the number of emigrants to the region increased, and Armenia was added under the rule of Hisham bin Abdulmalak when Jarah bin Abdullah headed an army to invade Khazar to the north of Azerbaijan. In the onset of the second Hijri century, Islam ruled, and Islamic cities flourished such as Warthan and Birzend. Moreover, the Arabic Language prevailed as the Arab emigrants supported it greatly. Due to these reasons, Islam spread in Azerbaijan more than in any of the neighboring countries.
Under the Abbasid Caliphate, the Islamic Dawa flourished even more. Yazeed bin Aseed Salmi was the ruler over the northern border area, and he took Azerbaijan as the base to extend Islam further to the north. Several uprisings took place in the area under the Abbasid Caliphate the most prominent of which was the Kharjain Movement which was extinguished by Mutassembillah in 223 A.H./ 838 A.D. As such, Azerbaijan continued to play the role of the base to spread Islam in the region. Besides, the spread of Islam in the region helped in boosting the economic, social, and cultural ties among the Azeri people. During the weak rule of the Abbasids, Shiite princes governed the area of Azerbaijan; however, Shiism did not spread widely before the Safavids reign.
National families were prominent in the rule of Azerbaijan on the onset of the Fifth Century A.H. Then the Seljuk Empire ruled, and their emigration increased to that area. In 531 A.H. – 1136 A.D, Azerbaijan was transferred to the procession of Atabek Shams ad-Din Eldegiz. Then it was conquered by Jalauddin Khawarezm Shah in 1225 A.D., before it was ruled by the Mongol in 654 A.H. – 1256 A.D. and became part of their empire. Later, it became one of the main strongholds of the Safavids in 907 A.H. – 1502 A.H. Afterwards, it was nominally ruled by the Ottomans.
The Russian Rule
By the end of the 18th Century A.D., Czarist Russia spread its sovereignty over the Caucasian territories and started seizing the countries in the region one by one. In 1326 A.H. – 1908 A.D., the troops of Czarist Russia entered Azerbaijan following an agreement with Britain.
Under the Soviet rule over Azerbaijan, Muslims eventually were faced by constraints on their religion. Many Russians immigrated to Azerbaijan until their number mounted to 10% of the population. The number of mosques decreased from 2000 to only 16. The number of Islamic schools decreased likewise; they were even absolutely banished.
However, the Azeri people did not spare any effort to confront courageously and strongly this oppressive policy. Some 54 Muslim revolutions took place in the first few years of the socialist occupation of Azerbaijan in 1920 A.D.
The socialists launched a severe attack on mosques where Muslims go to perform their prayers and to discuss their religious affairs.
The socialist state fought religions in general and Islam in particular, as one of the pillars of its regime and constitution is the freedom of religion; however, no one is allowed to call for any religion. Pursuant to this clause, they arrested, killed, and displaced clerks and confiscated their money and put their books on fire. The Soviet Union intelligence spied on the many reverent clerks who received their religious education in Iraq and Iran in 1937 A.D., arrested them and deported them to Siberia. Thus only a few of these clerks remained in the country. They resorted to cautious prudence to spare their lives and to spread Islam secretively and discreetly. They used to choose a hidden place away from the eyes and ears of the statesmen. Religious books were really rare what led pupils to fully copy their school books.
On the wake of the independence of Azerbaijan in 1991, Muslim callers flooded from all over the Islamic world, especially from Turkey and Iran what increased the religious enlightenment among the Azeri people and promoted the awareness of the population of their Muslim identity.
History of Shiism in Azerbaijan
It is believed that the history of Shiism in Azerbaijan goes back to the days of Imam Ali (Peace be upon him); however, that was on a narrow scope. What is known through the tongues and the popular memory without being based on historic resources is that Shiism spread after the migration of the two daughters of Imam Mussa bin Jaafar al-Kazem (Peace be upon him) to the city of Baku with an escort from the followers of the Prophet (Peace be upon him and his Household). However, what is sure for certain is that the roots of Shiism became deep-rooted in Azerbaijan after the establishment of the Safavid State under the leadership of Shah Ismael Safavid (892A.H. – 930 A.H.; 1478 A.D. – 1524 A.D.) who declared Shiism as the sect of the state. Hereof, scholars started promoting the sect of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them) in the major cities of Azerbaijan, and preachers started calling for the sect of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them) on platforms. The Azeri people could guard their wilaya to Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them) despite the Russian prosecution.
Husseini Slogans …. A Pioneer Role:
Husseini slogans played a major role in guarding Islam and Shiism in Azerbaijan because after losing their religious scholars, the believers had no other way to deliver Islam to the new generation except through holding lamentation sessions in Ashura – the anniversary of martyrdom of Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him). So in the time when no religious session could be held, Ashura sessions were the means to convey religious information – even if simple information. The ancestors report that when they wanted to hold a Husseini council, they used to send spies outside the village to observe the coming and leaving people. It is worth mentioning that some areas did not keep any sign or piece of news about their religion. Thus the sect of their residents could not be identified except through the question of whether their ancestors used it hold Husseini sessions or not, because the very name of the sect “Shiite” or “Sunnite” was forgotten.
Among the main shrines of the Prophet’s Household (Peace be upon them) which played an important role in spreading the intellect of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them) is the Shrine of Ibrahim, the son of Imam Baqer (Peace be upon him) which is near the city of Kirov. It is considered one of the main centers to which masses gather in Ashura. The shrine was reconstructed in the 9th Century A. H., and it is considered the first cell for the establishment of Husseiniyehs in this Islamic region. There is also the Shrine of the sisters of Imam Reza (Peace be upon him) in Nardaran. There is also a shrine in the city of Balaken which is said to be the burial place of Prophet Gorgeous (PBUH)
Azerbaijan is one of the most ancient Shia centers in the world as most of its people are Shia who follow the twelve Imams. In fact, Shia are the overwhelming majority in this country mounting to 85% of the population.
The Shia in this country have high morals, and their religious status is good especially in villages and away from the main cities. Following independence, people started practicing their religious activities via performing their rituals freely and in the best way ever. The mosques of the capital Baku reverberate the phrase Hayya alaa khaeril amal/ Hasten towards best activity, and Qoranic verses and Prophetic traditions replaced socialist slogans even in socialist centers.
The Muslims of Azerbaijan could in two decades shake the dust of the socialist era that lasted for 70 years. In fact, the religious administration in the country is seeking in the meantime to boost religious awareness among the overwhelming Muslim majority and to keep close ties with the Islamic world as the people there are now witnessing the signs of an Islamic awakening. Mosques were built on a broad scope until more than 1500 mosques were constructed after the number was less than the number of the fingers of one hand all over the socialist era. Moreover, the number of Quran memorization offices grew, and several religious schools were launched to qualify Azeri students and teach them the Arabic Language so as to send them to follow their higher education in major Islamic universities.
Perhaps the most prominent aspect of Azerbaijan’s interest in Islam is the decision taken by President Haidar Aliav to join Azerbaijan in the Organization of Islamic Conference. It was a sound decision that leads to boosting the ties between Azerbaijan and its Islamic environment. The president’s decision to commence a branch for the World Islamic University in the capital Baku was likewise right.
The people of this country also mark all the occasions with wide performances of the rituals especially the days of Ashura. Signs of sorrow and grief prevail all around the country. Lamentation sessions are held on a wide scope in mosques and Husseiniyehs. They are remarkably held in houses also and in most regions.
As Shia are present in most regions in the country, they have many centers and religious Hawzas especially in Baku and Jalilabad. Besides, Shiism is mostly the official sectarian aspect of state universities.
Shortly after independence, several Shia Islamists established political parties, the most important of which is the Islamic Party which was founded in 1991. This party was not allowed to stay for long as it was subject to troubles in 1995 after the issuance of a law that bans parties with Islamic references. The head of the party was arrested, and in 2002 the party was absolutely dissolved. However, the party is still unofficially active; still, the ban extremely weakened it. As a result of this restraint on the political activities of Shia Muslims, Shia turned their efforts to the civil society and founded several active non-governmental organizations.
The Republic of Azerbaijan must live according to the teachings of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them):
In this perspective, Grand Ayatollah Lutullah Safi Kulbaikani spoke while receiving a number of teachers and learned men in the city of Ganja in the Republic of Azerbaijan.
His Eminence lauded the wide spread of Islam in this time in the Islamic republics – the former Soviet Union republics – what shows Muslims’ insistence to restore their Islamic identity. His Eminence also asserted the need to adhere to the wilaya of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them) saying: “You have to revive the peoples of this republics through the teachings of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them) to secure the spread of true Islam”. His Eminence further tackled what the enemies of Islam are perpetrating in their war against Islam, adding that the Wahhabis and the Jews are seeking to change the Shiite identity of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
Bibi–Heybat Mosque: It is one of the main historical mosques in Baku. It was built in the 13th century. Today, it is a spiritual center for Shia and Sunni Muslims in Baku and Azerbaijan.
Shirvanshah Mosque: Shirvanshah Palace is the grandest landmark left by Shirvan Shah dynasty in Azerbaijan and one of the most famous mosques in Azerbaijan. It includes the palace, the burial-vaults, the shah›s mosque with a minaret, and other rooms. The image of the mosque is printed on the local currency of Azerbaijan. The building is believed to be a memorial complex built around the sacred place of worship (pir) and tomb of one of the Sufi saint. It is known that wells inside the grounds of the «palace» were considered to have healing qualities until recent times, as was the hill where the palace was built. Described by UNESCO as «one of the pearls of Azerbaijan›s architecture», it was inscribed under the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2000.
Mohammad Mosque: This mosque, also known as Siniggala, for the name of its historical minaret, Siniggala (“damaged tower”), was built in 1087. The tower of the minaret is colossal and huge, and it is the first building in Azerbaijan which is linked to Islam and which dates this architectural prototype.
Taza Pir Mosque: It is one of the historical mosques. Its construction was started in 1905 by architect Zivar bey Ahmadbeyov and was completed in 1914. Only 3 years after opening, the mosque was closed in connection with the October Revolution in 1917. Under the socialist rule, the mosque was profaned as it functioned as a cinema and even as a barn. Since 1943, it was inaugurated as a public mosque again.
The Turkish Mosque – the Mosque of the Martyrs: Mosque of the Martyrs, also popularly known as the Turkish Mosque, is located on a highland in Baku. The mosque was built to honor the Turkish martyrs following the Ottoman architecture. The mosque currently is used as an official residence of religious attaché of the Turkish embassy. The mosque has been under construction since 2009.
Islamic Education in Azerbaijan
Religious education is still an argumentative issue, and consequently, it is not limited only to governmental institutions but also to social institutions and media outlets. Among the most important debates is: What would be the curriculum, and what is the recommended consequent impact?
As such, should religious education be stipulated by the state, there are several results which may be achieved, the most prominent of which are:
-Through religious education, the Azerbaijani youth may be saved from being the prey of Christian missionaries.
-Religious education plays an important role in consolidating the national ideology.
-Religious education provides the true religious knowledge what helps the young generation avoid resorting to unconfined and unknown sides to achieve such knowledge.
It is noteworthy that such demands are rightful especially that they do not contradict with the constitution even though the system of the state is secular. These are the concerns of Muslims on the level of religious education.
It is also worth mentioning that following the accord which was concluded between the Azeri Education Ministry, Baku State University, and the Turkish Religious attaché in 1992, the Faculty of Theology was established from where specialists in religious studies graduate. A religious school was also turned into a university – the Islamic University in Baku. It is managed by the Muslims of Caucasus.
The issue of Hijab in Azerbaijan
The policy of fighting religion spread in the Islamic World and Azerbaijan during World War II and more precisely when the Treaty of Gulistan and Treaty of Turkmenchay were concluded by the Socialist Party. Such policies were manifested in procedures such as banning Islamic veil notably after secular anti-religious parties started partaking in the government in Azerbaijan in recent years.
Such policies also included demolishing mosques, banning Azan (call for prayers), banning the candidacy of clerks in elections among other oppressive and tyrannical moves.
In 2007, the Azerbaijani government issued a law in which it banned Islamic hijab in schools. The move was met by vehement objections in the parliament and in the street. Popular rallies denounced the decision which eventually was not implemented.
Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them) Committee: It is one of the important institutions which is active in this field since the Republic of Azerbaijan gained independence from the Soviet Union. The scope of its Islamic activity widened on various levels, and the committee then established Fatima Zahraa (Peace be upon her) School and Imam Hussein (Peace be upon him) School from which tens of students graduated so far. Some of the alumni were sent to Hawzas in Syria to achieve higher education. Several callers for Islam graduated from these Hawzas and they are qualified to spread the intellect of Ahlulbeit in Azerbaijan. The committee also takes care of orphans and poor families who are paid for by charitable believers in Kuwait. Monthly aids are sent to these families, and their needs are looked after.
The committee also established a Media Office that offers translation, publication, and distribution services over the various regions in Azerbaijan to spread the intellect of Ahlulbeit (Peace be upon them). The committee further purchased booklets on prayers and distributed them. Now it needs to print booklets about the Imams (Peace be upon them) in the Azeri language.
State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations in Azerbaijan: It is equivalent to a ministry of religious attaché. It is one of the most important institutions that address religious affairs and spread tolerance in the country.
One of the Shiite gathering places in Baku is Haji Javad Mosque. A school is attached to this mosque which is run by Birlik Organization. It also issues a weekly paper.
Religious Center for Transcaucasia in Baku: It is the official body responsible for the affairs of Muslims in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Dagestan.
Public Body for Azeri Religious Scholars.
Fatwa Office for Caucasian Muslims.
Naqaa Akhlaq Society: This society works in the field of defending religious rights, and it issues Salam Newspaper.