Religion in Azerbaijan
Zoroaster / Zarathustra speaksThe prophet Zoroaster (Zarathustra), who was born in the seventh century B.C. in what is now south Azerbaijan, established a Zoroastrianism,  a religion focused on the cosmic struggle between a supreme god and an evil spirit. The doctrines preached by Zoroaster are preserved in his metrical Gathas (psalms), which form part of the sacred scripture known as the Avesta. It became the state religion of Persia and spread into central Asia.

Christianity arrived early to the area, with the mission of St. Eliseus reaching Caucasian Albania in the 1st century AD.  By the 3rd century the Apostolic Autocephalous church was fully established and religious and cultural live was thriving. North of Araz river (Caucasian Albania or Aluania), Christianity became the main religion and gained state recognition in the 5th century after St. Grigor the Illuminator converted and baptized its king, Urnayr.

Azerbaijan - Baku: Russian Orthodox Church of Archangel Michael - iconostasis - Pskov style - photo by Miguel TorresBut the cultural and religious influence of Europe had its days counted, as Islam arrived in Azerbaijan with Arab invaders in the seventh century A.D., gradually supplanting Christianity in north Azerbaijan, and Zoroastrianism in the south, as well as causing the extinction of Azeri pagan cults.

In the seventh and eighth centuries, many Zoroastrians fled Muslim persecution and moved to India, where they became known as Parsis. Until Soviet Bolsheviks ended the practice, Zoroastrian pilgrims from India and Iran traveled to Azerbaijan to worship at sacred sites, including the Surakhany Temple on the Apsheron Peninsula near Baku.

Azerbaijan - Baku: Ajdar Bey Mosque - 'Goy' Blue Mosque - S. Vurgun street -  photo by M.TorresIn the sixteenth century, the first shah of the Safavid Dynasty, Ismail I (r. 1486-1524), established Shia Islam as the state religion, although large numbers of Azeris remained followers of the other branch of Islam, Sunni. The Safavid court was subject to both Turkic (Sunni) and Iranian (Shia) influences, however, which reinforced the dual nature of Azeri religion and culture in that period. As elsewhere in the Muslim world, the two branches of Islam came into conflict in Azerbaijan. Enforcement of Shia Islam as the state religion brought contention between the Safavid rulers of Azerbaijan and the ruling Sunnis of the neighboring Ottoman Empire.

blood to remember the martyrdom of iman Hussein / Husayn in the battle of Kerbala - Shia islam - Shahsey-Vahsey festivities in AzerbaijanIn the nineteenth century, under Russian protection, many Christians settled in Azerbaijan. These were not only Orthodox Russians, but also Armenians fleeing the Ottoman empire, and even Protestants like the Molokans. Many Sunni Muslims emigrated from Russian-controlled Azerbaijan because of Russia's series of wars with their coreligionists in the Ottoman Empire. Thus, by the late nineteenth century, the Shia population was in the majority in Russian Azerbaijan. Antagonism between the Sunnis and the Shia diminished in the late nineteenth century as Azeri nationalism began to emphasize a common Turkic heritage and opposition to Iranian religious influences. At present, about three-quarters of Azeri Muslims are, at least nominally, Shia of the Jafarite rite (the main Shia branch). In the 1989 census 87 percent of the population declared to be Muslim - with the exit of many Russians and all Armenians this percentage is now above 90%. Data is not available on the number of Sunnis.

The interior of the Gilah synagogue - Krasnaya Sloboda - Azerbaijan (photo: Michael Hefetz / Center for Jewish Art)Azerbaijan's next largest official religion is Christianity, represented mainly by Russian Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic groups. The Jewish community counts about 16.000 souls. Some rural Azeri retain pre-Islamic shamanist or animist beliefs, such as the sanctity of certain sites and the veneration of certain trees and rocks.

Before Soviet power was established, about 2,000 mosques were active in Azerbaijan. Most mosques were closed in the 1930s, then some were allowed to reopen during World War II. In the 1980s, however, only two large and five smaller mosques held services in Baku, and only eleven others were operating in the rest of the country. Supplementing the officially sanctioned mosques were thousands of private houses of prayer and many secret Islamic sects. Beginning in the late Gorbachev period, and especially after independence, the number of mosques rose dramatically. Many were built with the support of other Islamic countries, such as Iran, Oman, and Saudi Arabia, which also contributed Qurans and religious instructors to the new Muslim states. A Muslim seminary has also been established since 1991. As in the other former Soviet Muslim republics, religious observances in Azerbaijan do not follow all the traditional precepts of Islam. For example, drinking wine is normal practice, and women are not veiled or segregated.

Iraq - Najaf / An Najaf (An Najaf province): Iman Ali ibn Abi Talib bears the green standard of Islam  - founder of the Shia sect, cousin of Mohammed (photographer: Alejandro Slobodianik)During World War II, Soviet authorities established the Muslim Spiritual Board of Transcaucasia in Baku as the governing body of Islam in the Caucasus, in effect reviving the nineteenthcentury tsarist Muslim Ecclesiastical Board. During the tenures of Leonid I. Brezhnev and Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Moscow encouraged Muslim religious leaders in Azerbaijan to visit and host foreign Muslim leaders, with the goal of advertising the freedom of religion and superior living conditions reportedly enjoyed by Muslims under Soviet communism.

Azerbaijan - Baku: Martyrs mosque - interior - men praying - photo by Miguel TorresIn the early 1980s, Allashukur Humatogly Pashazade was appointed sheikh ul-Islam, head of the Muslim board. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Muslim board became known as the Supreme Religious Council of the Caucasus Peoples. In late 1993, the sheikh blessed Heydar Aliyev at his swearing-in ceremony as president of Azerbaijan.

Article 18 of the Azeri constitution, mandating no state religion, allows for all faiths to practice their religion freely. Following independence there has been both a Muslim revival and a rise in nationalism.

(souce: Library of Congress)
see also: Places of worship, Islam, history, culture, Zoroastrianism, Jews, holidays, summary, images

A to Z of Azerbaijan / A dan Z ye Azerbaycan