Vol. 4, No. 7 (April 01, 2011)

Baku Muslim leader’s influence extends far beyond Azerbaijan

Paul Goble
Publications Advisor
Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy

Allahshukur Pashazade, the sheikh ul-Islam and head of the Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus, exerts an influence far beyond the borders of Azerbaijan.  Some of that reflects the leadership he inherited from Soviet times of the Shia communities across the former Soviet space.  Some of it is the product of the role he continues to play in the guidance of many Muslim communities in the North Caucasus.  And some of that is the result of the respect he enjoys among religious leaders of all faiths in the post-Soviet states, the political leadership of Azerbaijan, and the special relationship he has with Shia leaders in Iran and Iraq.  For all these reasons, Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade plays an important role in the foreign policy activities of Azerbaijan.

In the years since the USSR disintegrated, most but not all faiths have sought to bring their administrative responsibilities in line with the newly established international borders.  Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church is an obvious and well-known exception as he has insisted on maintaining spiritual oversight of Russian Orthodox Churches loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate in the post-Soviet countries.  But Baku’s sheikh ul-Islam is another, although his role is far less well-known.

Until 1991, the sheikh was explicitly in charge of all the Shia Muslim communities of the USSR and through his deputy all the Sunni parishes in Azerbaijan as well.  Since that time, he has retained much of the former role—although it is not unchallenged as some Sunni leaders in the Russian Federation such as Ravil Gainutdin of the Union of Muftis of Russia has claimed supervision of the Shia there—and given the problems of the North Caucasus, the Baku sheikh has played a significant role in Dagestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus as well.

While Kirill earlier this month limited the role of the Orthodox bishop of Baku to Azerbaijan alone—that cleric had supervised Orthodox parishes in Dagestan as well—Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade has regularly exerted himself in the selection of individual leaders and in making other kinds of decisions among the often-deeply split Muslim spiritual directorates (MSDs) and even individual parishes across the North Caucasus.  Earlier this month, for example, he took part in various ceremonies and meetings in Kabardino-Balkaria, Karachayevo-Cherkessia, and North Ossetia-Alania. [1] 

The sheikh’s unusual role appears to reflect the willingness of Kirill and other Russian religious and political leaders to accept Pashazade as a partner in their efforts to regulate Russian religious life, a willingness that is the product of the sheikh’s more than 30 years in office, thus making him a known commodity to many of the others who share his roots in the Soviet past and explaining why the other Russian religious leaders of the CIS have been more than prepared to accept him in leadership roles in inter-religious bodies of the Commonwealth of Independent States.

As important as these ties are, it is entirely possible that the sheikh’s Shia links with Iran, something that make him an important channel with the religious-political leadership of that country, are even more significant or will become so.  Because he is a Shia and because there are so many Azerbaijani Shia in Iran—probably three times as many as all citizens of the Republic of Azerbaijan put together—the sheikh can speak with the leaders in Tehran and Qum in ways few other non-Iranians can.

Much of his activities in these areas normally attract little attention.  Indeed, the sheikh usually attracts media interest only under two conditions: when he makes a statement about politics and religion in Azerbaijan or more often abroad or when he meets with religious leaders elsewhere and discusses bilateral or multi-lateral relations, such as his possible meeting with Armenian Catholicos Garegin II later this year. [2]

Sheikh Allahshukur Pashazade is thus an important foreign policy actor for Azerbaijan, one whose statements and travels call for the most thoughtful scrutiny.


[1] See (http://news.day.az/politics/258251.html).

[2] See (http://news.day.az/politics/258125.html).