Spark of Sufism in the Azerbaijani Muslim culture

By | Rachel Brooks 

January 26, 2021 

Above image credit: “Tomb of Yahya Bakuvi in the Sirvansahar Palace grounds” by shankar s. is licensed under CC BY 2.0. Yahya Bakuvi was an Azerbaijani philosopher who engaged in Sufism. 

In January, Republic Underground dove into the origins of religion in the nation, with a roundtable event that brought together representatives of the three major religions of Azerbaijan. These are, as families, Muslims, Christians, and Jews, in that order. Azerbaijan also has diverse sects of each of its major religions. For example, in the group of Christians there are Orthodox, Catholics, Baptists and more. In the group of Jews, there are traditional groups that are similar in religious affiliation but have a varied international background. 

However, the majority of Azerbaijan is Muslim. Muslims in Azerbaijan are typically Shia, a sectarian move that came with the reign of Shah Ismayil which was established in the Safavid period. There is still a large population of Sunni Muslims in Azerbaijan as well. The split is an estimated  60 percent Shia and 40 percent Sunni.  

The primary differences between Shia and Sunni are, according to Republic Underground’s Roundtable guest, a belief of the divine obligations of the Twelve Imams who followed the Prophet Muhammad. Shia believe that the Twelve Imams were divinely appointed by the Muslim deity Allah to succeed the prophet. Sunni, while holding great respect for the Twelve Imams, believe that imams and khalifas are appointed by Muslims, and are not part of a divine selection process. 

Politics of Safavidism, developing the unique Muslim culture of Azerbaijan 

The distinctions between the development of Shi’ism in Azerbaijan and Sunnism in the Ottoman Turkic center were largely politically driven. Citing the scholar Yusuf Kucukdag of Selcuk University, Shah Ismail’s Shi’ism movement was opposed and pressed out of Turkey by the Ottomans. Shah Ismail established the Safavid Sect State in Azerbaijan. At that time, Tabriz, Iran was the center of this religious order. Relying on Turkic followers, Ismail made efforts to extend  his order to include the Muslims of Anatolia. Missionaries of the Safavid Islam were travelling from village to village in an effort to rally converts to Safavid Shiism. 


The spread of Safavidism was politically blocked by Ottomans with politically motivated conflicts, and economic sanctions. The politics of this day therefore drove Safavidism’s missionary campaigns into Azerbaijan and Iran and kept it localized there. In Azerbaijan, traditionally, Shiism and Sunnism have developed side-by-side in a mostly tolerant manner. 

Bridging the divides in Islam 

Politicization of Islam’s development has often led to sectarian disputes, and isolation of certain communities. Yet, the ties of Sufism are a strong bridge between the majorly Turkic and partially Persian influence of Azerbaijan. Azerbaijani Islam, some may argue, was chiseled and chipped into the shape of a multicultural vessel because of its connections to Sufism, which predated the influence that spurred  

Into the mystic 

Dr. Nesrin Aleskerova stated in a peer-reviewed journal presented to Baku University that local context was a special characteristic of Islam. 

“One of the special features of Islam is its ability to adapt to local conditions. In different historical-cultural regions, Islam acquired particular characteristics that distinguished one regional form of its being from another. The blending of normative Islam with the local spiritual substrate of different cultures led to the development of the regional forms of its being which relied on general Islamic principles,” wrote Aleskerova. 

Forced to adapt to the local environment because of the complex politics of the Safavids and the Ottomans, spiritualism blossomed in a unique way in Azerbaijan. From this, the conversion to Shiism took stronger roots, converting Azerbaijan into a predominantly Shiite nation. Yet, Shiism was not absent from Azerbaijani history before this politically inspired movement, and neither did it exclude the Sunni faith community.  This could be attributed to the culture of Azerbaijani people and their shared brotherhood in Turkic ethnic roots. Yet, it can also be attributed in part to the ecstatic acceptance of  mysticism, which grew up right along with varying factors of faith in the Muslim Azerbaijan. 

Medieval mysticism and its relationship to Shiite brotherhoods

Medieval mysticism appeared to develop at the feet of the Shiites who were present in Azerbaijan for the centuries of the Safavid era that preceded Shah Ismayil. They had an elevated plain of influence over Azerbaijani Islam, steering the direction of the Sufism of the region, also known as at-Tasawwuf in the original dialect. at-Tasawwuf has also been described as “the inward dimension of Islam.” Sufism is called this because it is the spiritualzation, and grand philosophic devotion of Islam. The practice of Sufism calls the Muslim to move inward to search for God, and to shun materialism. 

The Islamic mysticism in Azerbaijan developed directly from the era of the Safaviyya brotherhood in Azerbaijan. In the classical period, Sufism developed in the general region of Shirvan, citing Aleskerova’s research. 

“The most well-known representatives of Islamic mysticism of the classical period in Shirvan were Ali ibn Muhammad ibn Abd-Allah Baquwi (died in 1050-1051) and al-Husain al-Gada’iri (died in 1071). These well-known sheikhs were distant relatives and came from the famous Derbent Shi‘ite family of al-Gada’iri, al-Husain al-Gada’iri, who was well known in Azerbaijan as Pir Husain Shirva-ni, the founder of the Sufi Hanaka on the Pirsagat River in Shirvan, 127 km from Baku. Pir Husain Shirvani promulgated the ideas of Abu Sayyid ibn Abi’l-Hair al-Mayhani (died in 1049), who was the founder of the Horasan school of Sufism. Pir Husain Shirvani continued the family of the famous Derbent Shi‘ite theologians of al-Gada’iri in Shirvan,” wrote Aleskerova.

It could be said, then, that the unique development of Safavid-era Shiism drove its trajectory from the preexisting, more free-flowing thought of Azerbaijani Islam and the Sufism that came from the place of this rich culture. Sufism had already had an influence on the Shiism of the region, even before it became the predominate influence over Azerbaiajni Islam. 

Aleskerova described the development of “intellectual-mystical-gnosticism” as having begun in the 11th century, and continuing into the present.  Here Aleskerova traces profound pre-Shah Ismayil’s political reign influence of mysticism to one Shiite mystic, Ibrahim Zahid Gilani. Gilani would have been born in 1218 and died in 1300. Gilani associated his mysticism as directly descending from the seventh of the Twelve Imams. 

The latter was a key link in the chain of spiritual succession (silsila) of the greatest mystic school of Suhrawardiyya and related his genealogy to the seventh Shi‘ite imam, Musa ibn Jafar al-Qasim (died in prison in Baghdad in 799). He was also the founder of the Suhrawardiyya brotherhood’s offspring, Sahidiyya-yi Abhariba,” wrote Aleskerova. 

“Qarim-ad-Din Muhammad Halwati, or Ahi Muhammad ibn Nuru al-Halwati, became the pupil (murid) and legal successor (caliph) of Ibrahim Zahid Gilani. And he in turn taught his nephew, Abu-Abd-Allah’s Siraj-ad-Din Gilani al-Halwati (Pir Umar-i Halwati) (the second half of the 14th century), the actual founder of the Halwatiyya brotherhood, the name of which comes from the Arab word “halwa”—seclusion (Sufi halwa—a way of retiring or withdrawing from secular life for mystic communion with God),” the scholar continues, explaining the succession of spiritual leadership in the Shiite form of Sufi mysticism. 

The schools of Tabriz and Khorasan, a Bastami mystic influence in Azerbaijan 

Mohammad Taheri-Khosroshahi, a Ph.D. student at Tabriz University at the time of his whitepaper’s publication, described a pre-Medieval affiliation between the mystics of Tabriz and those of Khorasan. He described how the first Sufis of Tabriz, who lived from the 3rd to 5th centuries, focused primarily on the schools called the East of Sufism, and were not familiar with the West of Sufism, or the schools of Baghdad. From Taheri-Khosroshahi’s article’s abstract, we see Jovinani as the first official figure of Sufism in Azerbaijan. He is described in this article as “one of Bayazid’s disciples” referring to Bayazid Bastami, the Persian Sufi, known as “the King of the Gnostics.” Bastami was known for the philosophy of “dying in mystical union with Allah.” The disciple Jovinani, according to this whitepaper’s account, returned from Bastam to Tabriz after the earthquake of 244 AD. 

This highlights a strong Persian influence over the Islam of Azerbaijan even as long ago as the 3rd century. Sufism had roots that were older than the widespread conversion of Shia, and this may have influenced the conversion to Shia. The school of mystic thought in Azerbaijan was old enough for a much freer-thinking, freer moving diversity of Muslim belief. The change of philosophy to a belief in the divine appointment of spiritual leaders was no great leap for Azerbaijan. 

Taheri-Khosroshahi’s description highlights a bond between the two mystical schools of Tabriz and Khorsan, a love that was later reflected in the collection of sacred text. 

The two narrations of the Hajviri in Kashf al-Mahjub are another reason for this claim. The sheikhs of Azerbaijan not only in the first centuries but during the development and expansion of Sufism of Tabriz (6th to 8th centuries), yet, have been interested in Khorasan. The mystical works in the Tabriz valuable collection of manuscripts namely “Safineye Tabriz” (ship of Tabriz) is evidence to this claim. The attention of Sufis of Azerbaijan to sheikhs of Khorasan could be regarded as a sign of mystical love of mysticism school of Tabriz and its intellectual features,” wrote Taheri-Khosroshahi in his article’s abstract.  

“In this article, providing the evidence from the Sufi prime literature on the relationship between the sheikhs of Azerbaijan and Khorasan, we are endeavoring to clarify the point that mysticism school of Tabriz, besides having unique features of mysticism of Azerbaijan, throughout the history of Sufism, has been connected to the mystical sources of Khorasan and has been watered,” the author added.