Vol. 6, No. 11 (June 01, 2013)

Islam and Azerbaijan’s relationship with the North Caucasus

Sevinj Aliyeva, Dr.
Institute of History
Azerbaijan National Academy of Sciences

Islam plays a key role both in linking Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus together and because their religious experience has been different in setting them apart.  As a result, the relationship has been complicated and at no time more than over the past century and especially the past generation.

In the beginning of the 20th century, Musavat, the Azerbaijani national-democratic party, called for the establishment of a secular nation-state, while Ittihad, the pan-Islamist party, urged the creation of an Islamic state, which would include all the Muslims of the Russian Empire.  Obviously, the program of the former put Azerbaijanis at odds with many in the North Caucasus, while that of the latter reflected some of their underlying commonalities.

This distinction continued during the first years of Soviet power.  Then, the Muslim clergy continued to play a decisive role in the life of the local umma.  Thus, in Adygeya in September 1922, an oblast congress of religious and secular representatives adopted a resolution calling for the restoration of Sharia law.  All civil, family and religious cases were to be handled by a Sharia court.  However, following a decision of the joint session of the Presidium of the Adygey oblast executive committee and the Orgburo of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) on December 1, 1922, the role of Sharia courts there was gradually eliminated.  In 1924, there were 126 mosques in the 45 auls of Adygeya.  Seven of them were built in Soviet times.  However, the representatives of the clergy were deprived of the right to vote and were excluded from assemblies in which they earlier had had an honored place.  Many Adygs protested this change.

The measures of Soviet power regarding the Muslim clergy generated anger among many in the North Caucasus.  The registration of religious groups and the enumeration of parishioners at mosques were entirely foreign to Islam, and the requirement that the mosques take out insurance did not add to the popularity of the Soviet system among the population.  In 1923, there were 120 Muslim groups registered and 120 mosques, and in 1927, there were 124 of each.  Three mosques were closed during that period on the pretext that they did not have any parishioners, because they had been functioning only at the time of Muslim holidays.

Throughout the Soviet period, Islamic values and the dissemination of Islam were banned.  However, Islam continued to be followed and to develop outside of the government system.  The attempts of the Soviet authorities to suppress Muslim traditions and customs did not work; instead, these efforts led to the conservation and functioning in a hidden form.  Only during the years of the Great Fatherland War (1941-1945) were Muslims able to come out into the open and to create the Muslim Spiritual Directorate of the North Caucasus in the Dagestani city of Buinaksk.  In May 1944, representatives of the Muslim clergy and the laity took part in a congress representing Dagestan, Krasnodar and Stavropol.

Only at the end of the 1980s were the traditional forms of religious life reestablished.  In the post-Soviet period, religion began to play an enormous role in the lives of the peoples of Azerbaijan and the North Caucasus.  Islamic values again became one of the factors, which connected the North Caucasus and Azerbaijan.  The Muslim Spiritual Directorates divided and multiplied.  In 1991, the muftiat was reorganized, a council of ulema was again established, and the directorates began to devote their attention to the moral and spiritual education of believers, something they were restricted from doing in Soviet times.  The central authorities in the Russian Federation were concerned by the radical increase in the number of Muslims fearing that after a generation, the number of ethnic Muslims in the country would be between 30 and 40 million.  Under the aegis of the struggle with “radical Islamism,” they carried out a broader struggle against Islam as such. 

At present, in the North Caucasus there are 11 Muslim spiritual directorates, which together form the Coordination Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus.  There were more than 1,700 Muslim organizations in the North Caucasus by 2007, including more than 1,100 in Dagestan alone.  The Muslims of the Caucasus, north and south, are part of various spiritual administrations.  One of them is the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of the Caucasus in Baku, which is headed by the sheikh-ul-Islam, Allahshukur Pashazade and oversees many Muslim parishes in the Muslim republics of the North Caucasus.