Vol. 3, No. 9 (May 01, 2010)

Religious pluralism among Muslims in Azerbaijan

Dobroslawa Wiktor-Mach
Jagiellonian University
Cracow, Poland

Many writers now talk about “the globalization of pluralism,” but most of the time they are talking about political diversity than religious (Berger 2006).  One reason for that is that religious pluralism poses special challenges not only for the state and society, but also for particular religions and believers.  Many of them are now struggling in various countries to come to terms with other kinds of pluralism, an especially difficult challenge given that religious communities are especially sensitive to both in-group and out-group distinctions, such as proper versus improper, saved versus unsaved, and the like (Davidson and Pyle 1998).

Religious pluralism also presents challenges to outside observers, who—tending to make simple generalizations about religions—often lack the expertise of internal divisions within other faiths.  That is far from a purely theoretical problem, because affiliation with a particular group within a faith can have a significant impact on social and political choices.  Until the end of the Soviet Union, contacts between Muslim groups in the USSR and their co-religionists abroad were limited.  But one aspect of Soviet-era Islam continues to inform those contacts.  That is the distinction between official and unofficial Islam, between the government-recognized mullahs and muftis based in mosques and other religious practices based at so called pirs (Muslim shrines).

Since 1991, this division has been projected onto the Muslim community of the post-Soviet states, with many viewing successors to the former as “traditional” and the continuers of the latter as “fundamentalist.”  In Chechnya, for example, this division is between the Sufis and the Wahhabis, with the former viewed as liberal and peaceful and the latter as backward and radical.  But this imagery is just as inadequate now as it was in Soviet times and should be viewed as an ideological tool for exercising control (Wiktor-Mach 2009). 

In some places, there are far more than just two trends.  Azerbaijan is one of them.  That country is home to many different Islamic groups, the most influential being Salafis, as well as Turkish and Iranian interpretations of Islam.  This diversity offers people in Azerbaijan many choices and allows one to speak of religious pluralism within Islam there, even though the state has opted for a greater extent of regulation of religious activities on its territory.

One aspect of this pluralism of possibilities in Azerbaijan is that many believers in that country begin their religious search with an assertion of importance of choice rather than end it as is often the case elsewhere, thus opening the way for religious inclusiveness rather than exclusivity.  Such an inclusivist strategy both reflects and requires a certain amount of interaction among people from different groups, and in Azerbaijan, some Muslim groups allow for Sunni and Shia to pray and meet together, something that is unheard of elsewhere.

Such inclusivist strategies typically assume one of two forms: either an approach based on the conviction that all religions are in some way acceptable even if Islam is the best or one that assumes that all major world religions lead to God.  The latter perspective helps promote inter-religious dialogue.  While most Azerbaijanis fall into the first and a few into the second, some of the Salafis in that country have adopted an exclusivist model, one that rejects all other Islamic trends and non-orthodox practice.  In their view, only the kind of Islam they practice is true and acceptable.  Some Shia have the same view: In Nardaran, one of the bastion of Shiism in Azerbaijan, children learn verses that curse the Caliph Umar, known in Shia tradition as an unjust usurper, and are routinely told that Sunnis are to be avoided because they honor Umar—“a very bad man who urged people to marry their brothers or sisters” (Rohozinski 2005).

Azerbaijan is a religiously plural society, but that is a process not an endpoint.  There is a real struggle going on, and only the future will tell whether that society will adopt the inclusivist model currently predominant or the exclusivist one that is found at the margins of society there. 


Berger, Peter L. (2006) “Religion in a Globalizing World”, Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 4 December, available at http://pewresearch.org/pubs/404/religion-in-a-globalizing-world (accessed 20 April 2010). 

Davidson, James D. and Ralph E. Pyle (1998) “Conflict”, in Swatos, William H. and Peter Kivisto, eds. Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, AltaMira Press. 

Rohozinski, Jerzy (2005) Swieci, biczownicy i czerwoni chanowie.  Przemiany religijnosci w radzieckim i poradzieckim Azerbejdzanie [Saints, Whippers and Red Khans.  Transformations of religiosity in Soviet and post-Soviet Azerbaijan], Wroclaw: Fundacji na Rzecz Nauki Polskiej. 

Wiktor-Mach, Dobroslawa (2009) “Competing Islamic Tradition in the Caucasus”, Caucasian Review of International Affairs, Vol. 3, No. 1, available at http://cria-online.org/Journal/6/Done_Competing_Islamic_Traditions.pdf (accessed 21 April 2010).