May Books 17) Islam in Azerbaijan

17) Islam in Azerbaijan, by Arif Yunusov

This may seem a somewhat obscure subject, but the author gave me a copy of this book when we met at a conference in July 2005 so I have finally got around to reading it.

Azerbaijan may be the only country in the world named after a religion; apparently it comes from an ancient form, “Atropatena”, which originally means “the land of fire-worshippers”, in reference to the large proportion of the population who followed the teachings of a local chap, the prophet Zoroaster. The Persians, under various dynasties, sustained his beliefs in the region for centuries, while to the north dissident Christians hung out and set up their own Monophysite church. All this was swept away by the armies of a new prophet from Arabia in the mid-7th century AD, though the old beliefs took centuries to die out. (The mysterious Khazars make an appearance here too.)

For the next thousand years, the story is one of variable relations between state and clergy, with occasional movements towards repression or radicalism respectively. The Russian conquest in 1801-1806 brought a new element into play: for the first time, Muslims in Azerbaijan were ruled by Christian overlords, just at the moment when 19th-century nationalism began to make Pan-Islamism and Pan-Turkism conceivable alternatives to rule from Moscow.

But when the Russian Empire did fall, the short-lived democratic Azerbaijan republic (established between 1918 and 1920) was brought down by an interesting coalition of the Red Army and local Islamists suspicious of the independent republic’s secularist pretensions. Lenin was determined to crush the Orthodox church but was apparently much more relaxed about Islam. Things deteriorated (as they did everywhere in the Soviet Union) later in the 1920s, and the cycle of greater or lesser state repression, combined with state co-option of the religious bureaucracy, resumed.

There was a revival of popular interest in Islam under perestroika in the 1980s, which also of course came immediately after the Iranian revolution of 1979 (three quarters of Azeris live in Iran rather than in the ex-Soviet republic). Nationalists in Baku, especially at the time of the war with Armenia, were depicted in Yerevan and Moscow as Islamic extremists, but in fact religion had little to do with the conflict, or with the succession of chaotic changes of government in Baku culminating in the ascent to power of Heydar Aliev and later his son Ilham, the current president. (Iran’s only formal intervention was a disastrous peace initiative in the middle of the war.)

Since then, the Azeri government has obsessively kept tabs on the official Islamic religious bureaucracy (to the extent of creating a competitor organisation to keep the older structure on its toes) and has consequently taken its eye off the ball of less formally organised groups. A few of these are indeed very sinister – the bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 appear to have been coordinated through a cell in Baku. Mostly, however, the authorities are reaping the consequences of the notorious corruption of the state-supported clerical structures, and are intervening to suppress popular religious figures and movements because they are not sufficiently under control, rather than because of any sinister political agenda they may or may not have.

Anyway, an interesting book, which could perhaps have benefited from the attention of an Anglophone proof-reader – published in English, but by a German organisation, and in places it shows.

One thought on “May Books 17) Islam in Azerbaijan

  1. Don’t forget:

    Solsbury Hill, Peter Gabriel


    Thunderchild, Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (sung by Chris Thompson)

Comments are closed.