Vol. 1, No. 13 (August 1, 2008)

Salafi Muslims in Azerbaijan: How much of a threat?

Anar Valiyev
Research Fellow
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy
The number of self-described Salafi Muslims, Sunnis who aspire to life according to the “forefathers of Islam,” grew rapidly in Azerbaijan during the 1990s, especially in the northern portions of the country bordering Dagestan and Chechnya and in Baku, where there may be as many as 15,000 of them. [1] And their rise prompted some in the media to speculate on their possible links to Al-Qaeda or other Jihadist groups. [2] But so far, Azerbaijani government agencies have failed to develop a common approach to this often very diverse group of people. 
Some Azerbaijani government agencies have seen them as a threat to the delicate political and religious balance in the country, pointing to events in October 2007 when some Salafis were allegedly involved in actions against the government. [3] But other segments of the government, including the State Committee for Work with Religious Organizations, do not believe that the Salafis at least as a group constitute a serious danger.  Hidayat Orujev, the head of the committee, has said that Wahhabi cells in the country are few in number and small in size and that most of them have no interest in violence. [4] 
According to the most observers, the Salafi community in Azerbaijan is divided into two groups, the vast majority who are not radical at all, and the Khawarij – Arabic for “the expelled” – who set themselves against the leaders of this community and are willing to consider violent action.  The non-radical majority participates in Salafi-led mosques and limits its activities to preaching, study and discussions.  The Khawarij minority, however, includes at least some who believe that it is permissible to rebel against the existing government and who regard all Muslims who do not share their views as infidel (International Crisis Group 2008). [5] 
Nonetheless, Salafism does have the potential to pose several challenges to Azerbaijan.  First, its spread among ethnic minorities has the potential to promote centrifugal forces that could undermine the national unity of the country.  Second, its appearance in some places could deepen other splits.  And third, the willingness of some of them to engage in violent action could under certain conditions make them a force to be reckoned with in any political struggle. 
In order to assess these risks, it is necessary to recall several aspects of the history of Islam in Azerbaijan.  Because of a series of persecutions and revivals, Muslims in Azerbaijan learned to bridge the sectarian divide between Sunnis and Shiites by developing certain unwritten rules of behavior that allowed them to coexist for centuries.  Because of that unusual situation, Azerbaijanis have never been surprised to see Sunnis visit Shiite shrines or see Shiites worship in Sunni mosques.  But the rise of the Salafis threatens to break this delicate balance both because of their opposition to many traditional practices such as shrines and to the official Islamic establishment.  
In contrast to the situation elsewhere, the Azerbaijani tradition of tolerance and cooperation may be having a greater impact on Salafi Islam than Salafism is having on Azerbaijani Muslims.  Salafis in Azerbaijan are in fact adapting to local traditions.  Community leaders are pushing for an apolitical line, even to the point of expelling radicals who call for the use of violence.  Gammat Suleymanov, imam of Abu Bakr mosque and a leader of Salafi community, has played a critical role in this regard, doing everything he can to keep Salafis away from politics and violence and thus to burnish their image among Azerbaijanis. [6] 
Indeed, there are even ways in which the Salafis of Azerbaijan are promoting the moderate tradition of faith there.  Allegedly, their community has played a key role in stopping the shahsey-vahsey ceremony in which men flagellated themselves in honor of early imams, an archaic practice that re-gained widespread popularity in Azerbaijan in the 1990s.  The Salafis not only objected to it but insisted that those who wanted to honor the imams should give blood instead, something that has dramatically increased donorship. 
Unfortunately, this reality does not yet inform how many Azerbaijanis view the Salafis, a situation in which negative attitudes about them could by themselves create new problems.  Indeed, it is critical that the Azerbaijani government help the Azerbaijani people overcome this situation and recognize that any social unrest is based not necessarily on religious doctrines like Salafism but also has to do with classical “relative deprivation” caused by rapidly rising economic and political expectations that are not being met by material conditions.  


International Crisis Group (2008). Azerbaijan: Independent Islam and the State, ICG-Europe Report № 191, Brussels, 25 March.  

Ismayilov, Rovshan (2007). “Azerbaijan: Terror Attack Foiled in Baku”, Eurasia Insight, October 29, available at http://www.eurasianet.org/departments/insight/articles/eav102907a.shtml (last accessed July 18, 2008). 


[1] Azeri official lauds shrinking clout of missionaries. Azerbaijan TV station ANS, December 28, 2004. 

[2] Many Azerbaijanis often refer to Salafis in a derogatory way, dismissing them as Wahhabis, sakkallilar (bearded people) or garasakkalilar (black-bearded people). 
[3] In October of 2007, Kamran Asadov, former officer of the Azerbaijan National Army, deserted from his military base taking four automatic rifles, one machine gun, twenty grenades and many rounds of ammunition.  In late October 2007, his group committed an armed assault on a Lukoil gas station and heavily wounded an employee.  According to the Ministry of National Security of Azerbaijan, the group planned to attack the U.S. and British embassies.  In early November, Asadov and all the members of his group were arrested.  Allegedly, Asadov and his followers were members of a “Wahhabi” organization (see Ismayilov 2007).  
[4] Day.az, 27 September 2007, available at http://www.day.az/news/society/93387.html (last accessed July 19, 2008).
[5] In some instances, these Khawarij are called Qutbist – named after Sayid Qutb, the intellectual leader of Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.  
[6] Radical Salafis do not recognize Suleymanov as their leader and some of them consider him a traitor (see International Crisis Group 2008).