Roundtable Recap: History of Muslims, Christians & Jews in Azerbaijan

By | Rachel Brooks

January 20, 2021 _

 Image credit: “Church of Kish- one of the oldest in the Caucasians” by shankar s. is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Azerbaijan is a nation of multiculturalism and many religions. It is a common misconception that Azerbaijan is exclusively a Muslim country. While it is true that the majority of Azerbaijanis are Shia Muslims, there is a large population of Christians and Jews that inhabit the nation. 

Over the past week, Republic Underground hosted a Roundtable, presented by media vice president Irina Tsukerman, with leaders from all three of the majority faiths of Azerbaijan. Each representative of his religion gave a brief historical background into how the faith developed in Azerbaijan, and what this development means for the nation moving forward. 

The first guest that spoke was the representative of Azerbaijan’s Muslim community. Agil Shirinov is the director of the Azerbaijani Institute of Theology and an expert in Medieval theology. He is personally a Muslim, but the organization works with all religions. 

The next guest was Elnur Afandiyev, who is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, and a representative of the Baku diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church. Afandiyev stated that Orthodox Christians compose a community of roughly 200,000 people, the second largest religious demographic in Azerbaijan. 

The third guest was Rabbi Zamir Isayev, who is the Chairman of the Georgian Jewish Community of Azerbaijan and is the director of the Baku Jewish school. A Mountain Jew, he represented the whole of Azerbaijan Jews. 

He likewise works with the American Jewish Organization of Azerbaijan. Isayev stated that there are three demographic Jewish communities in Azerbaijan. They are Mountain, Azerbaijani, and Georgian Jews. Jews compose the third-largest religious demographic of Azerbaijan. He stated that, while being the smallest of the three major religious demographics of Azerbaijan, Jews are active in the social community. Isayev stated that there is no major traditional difference between Azerbaijan’s separate religious demographics. 

The event looked at the historical context of the formulation of each of these religious communities. The first to present historic comments on the religious context of Azerbaijan was Shirinov. He discussed the communities and roots of Azerbaijan’s formation as a Muslim country. 

Muslim origins of Azerbaijan 

Shirinov stated that “the vast majority” of Azerbaijan is Muslim. This formation took place around the 7th Century, during the political control of the Caliphate of Umar. The process of Muslim formulation of Azerbaijan took two centuries. In the 8th century, the majority of Azerbaijani Muslims were Sunni and Shafi Muslims, with a small population of Shia. When Shah Ismayil became the Shah, the school of Shia thought gained more influence. 

Note on Shah Ismayil 

Shah Ismayil was the founder of the Safavid empire. The Safavid empire ensured an Azerbaijani control over northwestern Iran from that time, as Ismayil set up his kingdom in Tabriz. The Shia influence over Iran and Azerbaijan comes from the Safavid era. 

Azerbaijan, according to Shirinov, does not have official statics, but at least 60-65 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims are Shia, and the remaining 30-35 percent of Azerbaijani Muslims are Sunni. Hanafism and Shafism exist within the Sunni demographic of Muslims. Shirinov stated there are a few other demographics, such as Salafi Muslims from Saudi Arabia, but that these have a much smaller presence than the other groups. 

Shirinov stated that of the majority of Shia Muslims that make up the approximately 60-65 percent Shia population, the Shia are Twelve Shias. They are called this because the Twelve Shias believe in the Twelve Imams. The Shia and Sunni are two separate demographics that split from Islam following the death of the Prophet. Sunni believe that the Prophet’s successors are Abu Bakr and Omar, Shias believe the successor should be Ali. 

Shirinov stated that, despite the theological discrepancies between Shias and Sunnis, there have not been historical cases of violence or discrimination between Shia and Sunnis within Azerbaijan. He stated that Shia and Sunnis intermarry and exchange cordial relations in Azerbaijan. Shirinov stated that these placid relations between the two sects are different from other Muslim countries where the two demographics are at harsh odds. He stated that, within the same mosque, Azerbaijani Sunni and Shia will pray together, even with joined Friday prayers between the two sects. He stated that even from week to week Shia and Sunni will take turns leading the salah of the Friday prayer ceremony. 

Shirinov stated that, between the representatives of other religions, the collective Muslim demographics and the other religions have a similarly cordial relationship. He stated that this relationship is historically cordial and that Azerbaijan has been a haven of Jewish communities from antiquity. The Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan have even developed their own dialect, called Juhuri, which has “the accent of Persian,” stated Shirinov. He then asked Rabbi Isanyev what his opinions were of his assessment. Isanyev stated that Juhuri is a mixture of Hebrew and Persian. 

Learn more about the Juhuri dialect at Endangered Language Alliance. 

Note on Juhuri: Endangered Language Alliance refers to this dialect as a Southwest Iranian (Tatic) language unique to Caucasian Jews, particularly those of Azerbaijan and Russia. Juhuri is also known as “Judeo-Tat.” 

Shirinov then stated that the relationship between Azerbaijani Muslims and Azerbaijani Christians has likewise always been a good one. He stated that the oldest Christian community in Azerbaijan is the Udis sect. 

Hanafi, Shafi, and Twelve Shia 

At this stage, the moderator, Tsukerman, asked Shirinov to explain the difference between the Hanafi and Shafi schools of Sunni Islam. 

Shirinov described the difference between Sunni and Shia. He stated that the two groups share the same faith, which is a monotheistic religion, believing in one deity, Allah, and likewise believing in the prophecy of Islam. He stated that both Sunni and Shia have a commonly held belief of the Afterlife. He stated that the major difference between the two is their “governorship.” The question centers on “who is the successor of the Prophet Mohammad?” Twelve Shia, he stated, believe that Allah ordered the Twelve Imams to be the successors of the Prophet. They are not prophets, but they are “heirs of the prophet.” He stated that Sunni, however, does not believe that, but rather that the Muslim community itself chose the heirs of the prophet. They do not believe that Allah ordered the Twelve Imams to be the successors of the Prophet, but rather that Muslims appoint their caliphs. He stated that, even though the Sunni community does not believe in the divine appointment of the Twelve Imams, they do respect them. The key difference is that Sunni does not believe that following the Twelve Imams is a religious obligation for Muslims. 

For the sake of clarification, Shirinov also noted that there are sects of Muslims, in places such as Pakistan, who believe in seven imams rather than the Twelve Imams. 

Among Sunnis, Shirinov stated that Hanafi and Shafi are separate schools of Islam. He stated that these schools teach different methods of fasting and prayer. Mainly, he said, Shafi Sunni pray in the same fashion as Sunnis, but with a few different details. Hanafis belong to Abu Hanifa, who was a scholar. Those who follow Hanfia’s teachings are Hanafis. 

History of Christianity in Azerbaijan 

At that time, the moderator turned the mic over to Elnur Afandiyev. Afandiyev stated that the history of Christianity in the region that is now Azerbaijan dates back 2,000 years, and is therefore as old as Christianity itself. Azerbaijani Christians trace their faith directly back to one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ, St. Bartholomew. The place of Bartholomew’s martyrdom has been preserved by the parent organization of Azerbaijani Christians, with ceremonies held at the place of Bartholomew’s martyrdom. 

Afandiyev stated that religious clashes have always “been foreign to Azerbaijan.” While Azerbaijan’s state religion is Islam from the 7th century to the present, from the 4th to 7th Century, the religion of Azerbaijan was Christianity. He stated that this long-ago religious community was under the umbrella of the Udis, who were an ancient culture of Caucasian Albanians. 

He stated that Christians of Azerbaijan are composed of separate sects of Christianity, including Orthodox, Catholics, Protestants, and Baptists. 

At this stage, the moderator returned to the topic of the ancient Christian Albanians. Tsukerman noted that, while she has visited the churches built by the long-ago Caucasian Albanians, she and the outside world do not fully understand the culture of who the Caucasian Albanian people were. 

She then cited the claims of Armenia, which as a state that they are the oldest and first adopted state of Christianity, though this is a disputed fact among the Christian community worldwide. Some of the manuscripts, stated Tsukerman, hailing back to this long-ago time, are still under Armenian control, feeding the continued argument over those religious disputes. The Albanian churches are, however, located in Azerbaijani territory. 

Caucasian Albanian territory was a Christian state, with one of its historical churches located near the city of Sheki. It is called the Church of Kish. In some of the historic documents, the church near Sheki is known as “the Mother of the Caucasian Church” according to Afandiyev. He stated that the church was erected in the First Century CE.

In the Catholic record, the First Century CE is known as  Anno Domini meaning “in the year of our Lord” and begins its count from the first one hundred years after the birth of Jesus Christ. The Church of Kish, named for the village of Kish near Sheki, would predate the Armenian Christian statehood citation by at least two centuries, as Armenia is believed to have become a Christian state in the 300s CE, tracing its foundation as a Christian culture back to St. Gregory the Illuminator. 

Afandiyev stated that the Albanian Church had a difficult historical development, and in the 19th Century, the Albanian church was mostly Armenized. The Udis did not, however, wish to belong to the Armenian church, and moved to the center of Azerbaijan. The Albanian Church differed from the other churches of Christian Orthodoxy in that it did not have priests. He stated that sometimes the Udi Christian community would call on priests from other sects of Christianity to help them become Christians and to baptize them, citing the lack of priests in their sect of the religion. 

The moderator then asked if Udi Christians had slightly different Orthodox traditions, as opposed to Catholicism, and if the difference from Udis had a religious schism where they parted from Armenians. Afandiyev stated that both Udis and Armenians had originally belonged to the Eastern Orthodox church, and share some of the same holy books and traditions, but had parted ways because of complicated relationships among the church leadership. For that reason, Afandiyev stated that the religious communities of Udis and the Armenian church are completely distinct religious communities. 

History of Jewish Communities in Azerbaijan 

At this time, Tsukerman turned the floor over to Rabbi Isayev. Isayev stated that, without respect among the varying cultures of Azerbaijan, it would have been impossible to coexist in the region. He stated that it was important to understand this before understanding the development of the Jewish Community in the region. Jews had lived in Azerbaijan, represented by various subgroups, for centuries. Isayev stated that, at one time, an even greater variety of Jewish influenced sects and Jewish communities had roots in the region. 

The commonly accepted theory, Isayev stated, was that Jews had migrated from various sectors of Persia and Byzantine, and settled in the mountain region of Azerbaijan.