Vol. 4, No. 5 (March 01, 2011)

Baku’s administration of Muslims of the Caucasus: A bridge between the secular state and Muslims abroad

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

As Azerbaijan has expanded its diplomatic role in the Muslim world as part of President Ilham Aliyev’s balanced foreign policy, Allahshukur Pashazade, the longtime head of the Baku-based Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus, has come to play an ever larger role in that policy, not only defending Azerbaijan’s tradition of inter-religious tolerance and boosting its status as a center of the Islamic world but extending Azerbaijan’s influence among the countries of the Commonwealth of Independent States and in the Muslim world more generally.

A major reason behind the sheikh ul-Islam’s growing role is the unusual nature of the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus, but an even larger one is Pashazade’s own personality and the confidence President Aliyev has placed in him as an increasingly important bridge between the secular state and its own Muslims at home and between Baku and Muslims abroad.

The Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus has a unique but very complicated history.  Formed in 1943 as the Muslim Spiritual Administration of the Trans-Caucasus, it was unusual from the beginning.  Its head, the sheikh-ul-Islam, has always been a Shia Muslim, and its deputy, a Sunni Muslim.  In Soviet times, the sheikh-ul-Islam, had administrative responsibility for all the Shia living in the USSR, while his deputy had oversight for the Sunni Muslims of the trans-Caucasus republics.

With the end of the Soviet Union, the body changed its name to the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus, and its responsibilities changed as well.  On the one hand, it has overseen the dramatic growth in the number of Muslim communities in Azerbaijan and elsewhere in the region, a growth that reflected both the desires of people there and the efforts of Muslims in other countries, including both Turkey and Iran.  But on the other, in the absence of a Shia leadership elsewhere in the post-Soviet states, the head of the Baku-based institution exercised spiritual leadership, if not always administrative control, over the smaller number of Shia communities beyond the borders of Azerbaijan.  (That may be beginning to change: Last month, Ravil Gainutdin, the head of the Union of Muftis of Russia, declared that he is the leader of the Shia as well as the Sunni parishes in the Russian Federation.)

But perhaps more than most institutions, the Administration of the Muslims of the Caucasus is in many respects the projection of the personality of its leader, and for 30 years, that leader has been Haji Allahshukur Gummet ogly Pashazade.  An ethnic Talysh who was born in 1949 near the city of Lankaran in the south of Azerbaijan, Pashazade was trained within the Soviet Union at the Mira Arab madrassah in Bukhara and the Tashkent Islamic Institute.  In 1975, he became secretary and deputy chairman of the Administration while serving as akhund of the Tezepir Mosque in Baku.

In 1980, he was elected head of the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the Trans-Caucasus, a position he has now held for more than three decades, longer than any of his predecessors and a tenure that by itself has earned him deference from other Muslims.  As religious conditions in the USSR eased in the 1980s, Pashazade became more active in international Muslim organizations including the World Islamic Congress.

A year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he was chosen as president of the Supreme Religious council of the Caucasus Peoples by the religious leaders of Azerbaijan, Georgia, Dagestan, Kabardino-Balkaria, Ingushetia, Chechnya, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and Adygeya, a remarkable bridging of political boundaries and one that prefigured his later selection as co-chairman and then chairman of the Inter-Religious Council of the Commonwealth of Independent States. 
Over the last five years, Pashazade has been ever more active not only hosting international religious conferences in Baku but also in meeting with the leaders of Muslim states who have visited Baku, including the president of Iran, and travelling throughout the Islamic world.  He has been increasingly active in speaking out on behalf of the Muslims of Azerbaijan as well.  In the last few weeks alone, for example, the sheikh-ul-Islam has denounced attempts to “blacken” the reputation of the religious situation in his country [1] and called on religious leaders throughout the world to pay more attention to the Khojaly genocide. [2] 

As the Muslim world becomes more active, Pashazade is set to play an even more active role not only in reaching out to leaders of that world on behalf of Azerbaijan but also in explaining that world to Azerbaijanis and those interested in that country.


[1] See http://www.interfax-religion.ru/islam/?act=news&div=39619 (accessed 25 February 2011).

[2] See http://news.day.az/society/254700.html (accessed 25 February 2011).