Editorial | Republic Underground
January 17, 2021
On January 14, Republic Underground interviewed three religious leaders for the different religious sects of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan is the only fully secular Islamic majority country. The majority population of Azerbaijan is composed of Shia Muslims, with the majority of ethnic Azerbaijani’s having a primarily Turkic ethnic background. There are also ethnic minorities who practice Islam.
Then, there is a demographic of Christians. The Christian heritage of Azerbaijan is influenced by the presence of the historical Albanian Christian heritage of the region. Many of the historic Christian churches of Shusha and Ganja are Albanian in heritage, although their heritage was lost in translation during the Soviet era.
Ethnic and religious Mountain Jews and Jewish people of Azerbaijan composed this third demographic. They live in the Red Village, the only completely Jewish community outside of Israel, as well as Baku.
The event opened with Irina Tsukerman’s moderation comments. She invited each speaker to give an introduction to their work and their communities.
The first speaker was Agil Shirinov, who is a professor of Islamic and Medieval theology for Azerbaijan. He represents the Muslim demographic of Azerbaijan. He is the director of the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology.
Shirinov is a Muslim himself, but the Azerbaijan Institute of Theology does not work exclusively with any of the groups listed. Rather, the institute studies all of the religious heritage of Azerbaijan.
The second speaker was Archbishop Elnur Afandiyev, who is a priest of the Russian church and is a representative of the diocese Russian Orthodox Church of Azerbaijan. Afandiyev stated that the Orthodox Church in Azerbaijan constitutes the second-largest religious demographic in Azerbaijan, with approximately 200,000 professing Christians in the country.
The third speaker was Rabbi Zami Isanyev, the Chairman of the Georgian Jews of Azerbaijan, he is also the director of the Baku Jewish school. The Jews represent the third-largest religious demographic of Azerbaijan. Rabbi Isanyev, who is himself a Mountain Jew, works with the Azerbaijani Jews as well as the American Jews of Azerbaijan. Rabbi Isanyev works with the various age demographic communities, old and young people alike.
Rabbi Isanyev likewise stated that there are three major Jewish communities within Azerbaijan. Mountain Jews, who are the largest community, Ashkenazi Jews, who are the second-largest, and lastly, the smallest community of the three are the Georgian Jews, who have lived within Azerbaijan for roughly 100 years, and are quite active in the society. Isanyev stated that Mountain Jews and Georgian Jews are quite similar in their traditions.
For the first segment of the event, Tsukerman directed the conversation to the history of all religious communities in Azerbaijan. She requested each community-leader give a background of who the religious sects were and how they came to be part of Azerbaijan historically. The purpose was to look at each community in-depth and give a context to the rich cultural past of Azerbaijan.
First, Tsukerman asked Shirinov to give context and background on how Azerbaijan became a predominately Muslim country.
Shirinov stated that Azerbaijan became a Muslim country primarily in the 7th Century during the Caliphate of Omar. By the 8th Century, the vast majority of Azerbaijani people were Muslims. At this period, a large population of Azerbaijani was Sunni and after that Shafi’i Islam became more popular. There were also Shia at that time. Under the Shah Ismayil, who established the Safavid Empire, the vast majority of Azerbaijani converted to Shia Islam. Approximately 60-65 percent of Azerbaijan people are Shia and around 40 percent are Sunni-Shafi.
The major difference between Shia and Sunni beliefs is that Shia believes that it is an obligation for Muslims to follow the 12 Imams as part of their religion, whereas Sunni do not believe this is an obligation.
Tsukerman noted that the Christian Albanian heritage is vaguely understood in the western world, as the majority of the western world associates Albania with the nation in the Balkans, and not the ancient Albanians. Afandiyev then gave a context for who the Caucasian Albanians were and how their Christian heritage developed in the region. Afandiyev states that the Christian heritage of modern Azerbaijan stretches back 2,000 years, identifying with the name of one of Christ’s 12 Apostles, St. Bartholomew. Bartholomew’s place of martyrdom has been preserved to this day, and sacred sites are visited annually.
From the end of the 7th Century until the present time, Afandiyev stated that Islam was the state religion of Azerbaijan. Before that, from the 4th to 7th Centuries, the country was primarily Christian. In the earlier period, the Udis people were representatives of the Albanian heritage of the region, being a major Albanian tribe. He stated that the influences of Christians and other non-Muslim religions have always been foreign to Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani Christian community is today composed of Orthodox as well as varying sects of Christians such as Protestants and Adventists. For the lesser religious minorities, Afandiyev stated that Azerbaijan has a small community of Bahai faith.
Afandiyev stated that the Caucasian Albanian influence stretches back to the 1st century when Albanians built the churches in Azerbaijan. In the villages of the early Albanian influence, the Udis were a major ethnic influence over the Albanian Christian church. The Albanian church had a difficult history, and in the 19th century, the Albanian church was mostly Armenized by the Armenian church. The Udis did not wish to belong to the Armenian church and moved to central Azerbaijan.
Afandiyev stated that there was a complicated relationship between the different churches, with 1,500 years difference between the Orthodox and the Armenian church. The churches of Armenians and Albanians were separate religious communities, with slightly different religious traditions.
Rabbi Isanyev stated that the Jews have had an influence on Azerbaijan for many generations. He stated that there were many smaller sects of Jews historically, such as Kurdish Jews. The largest community, Mountain Jews, emigrated from Persia and possibly Byzantine, according to a popular theory. Another popular theory was that the Mountain Jews immigrated from Babylon. When Jews interacted with the natives of the region, the locals converted to Judaism, and so the Jews laid down roots in the region.