The features of the historical development of Azerbaijan, its geographical position, and the ethnic composition of the population determined the existence of various religions here. In some periods, idolatry, fire worship, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and a number of other beliefs were able to spread to varying degrees in the country, the mutual influence of which determined the peculiarity of the religious atmosphere in the republic.
Idolatry as a set of beliefs associated with polytheism arose on the basis of primitive religions. Pagan views of the inhabitants of Azerbaijan have their roots in very ancient times, including, along with worship to various gods, diverse folk beliefs – animism, fetishism, totemism, shamanism, etc.
Philological and ethnographic research makes it possible to create a picture of idolatry in the country. Archaeological excavations made it possible to discover large stone idols with ancient history in Khynysly, Daghkolans and Chiragli, in Ismayillah – anthropomorphic figures, and in Mingachevir – clay statues. In the dastans of the epic “Dede Gorgud” one can find examples of worship of various gods.
The rituals associated with idolatry did not differ much from each other; They were mutually complemented, jointly participating in the formation of the system of spiritual values of the population. On the territory of ancient Azerbaijan, the worship of the souls of dead ancestors, rocks and trees, as well as various natural phenomena and celestial bodies was strongly developed. Strabo informs about the deification of the Caucasian Albanians by the sun, moon and sky. People worshiped an oak, known as Tanra Khan, sacrificing horses to him. Moses Kalankatuysky reports on the calls of Albanian kings to end idolatry, to destroy wooden idols and to spread the Christianity.
Like many peoples of the East, among the ancient Azerbaijanis there were widespread beliefs that the universe consists of four basic elements – earth, air, water and fire.
Fire worship originated on the basis of such beliefs. Most of the population of Azerbaijan worshiped fire, worshiping it. Ancient people believed that fire destroys dirt and meanness, bears people purity. Rituals and ceremonies related to fire and surviving to the present day with the Novruz holiday, testify to the strong traditions of fire worship in Azerbaijan.
Temples of fire worshipers are called ateshgah. On the territory of Azerbaijan, they were located in the religious center of Atropatena – Gazak (Shiz), as well as Baku, Shemakha, Salyanakh and Lankaran. Ateshgah in the village of Surakhani was built in the 18th century with the aim of servicing the fire worshipers who came from India.
Несмотря на то, что в Кавказской Албании огнепоклонство подвергалось преследованиям со стороны христианства, его, тем не менее, полностью искоренить не удалось. С приходом в Азербайджан ислама огнепоклонство постепенно утратило свое значение и кануло в лету.
Although Zoroastrianism has its origin in fire worship, it has taken shape as an independent religion. M. Boyce notes that Zoroastrianism is the oldest religion of revelation. Ghats, included in the Holy Book of this religion Zend-Avesta, were sent down from heaven to the religious teacher and prophet Zoroaster (6th century BC). Some sources state that Zoroaster’s father was from Azerbaijan.
According to the provisions of Zoroastrianism, in the world there are two principles – Good and Evil, always fighting each other. Light, Goodness and Justice embody Armuzd (Ahura-Mazda), and Darkness, Evil and Oppression is Ahriman (Anhra Manu). In this battle, in the long run, will win Good, and active followers of Armuzd will find happiness in the next world. Representations of happiness in another world, as well as sin and good deeds, show that Zoroastrianism is a mature religion. Zoroaster urged people to be more fair and clean, to fight against all sorts of uncleanliness.
In Zoroastrian views, fire was an important place, and therefore the followers of this religion are often represented as fire worshipers. Due to the fact that they considered the bodies of the dead people to be unclean, the latter were not buried, but left in specially prepared places in the mountains to be eaten by animals. Only after that the gnawed bones were collected and betrayed to the ground.
Since the III century BC, Zoroastrian views have acquired a dogmatic character. On Zoroastrian territory, Zoroastrianism began to spread (down to Derbent) in connection with the military and political successes of the Sasanids. With the aim of propagating a new religion, the Zoroastrians of Iran migrated to these lands.
At the same time, Zoroastrianism acquired local features in Azerbaijan. The Caucasian Albanians buried together with the deceased objects of jewelry and utensils that they used during their lifetime. There is information that at that time among the Azerbaijanis there was a custom of burial of the bones of the deceased after their “cleaning” in horizontally located large pitchers-graves. There were also traditions of burial of the dead in the earth, faience coffins, underground crypts and special graves.
Between Sasanids and Byzantines fierce struggle was conducted aimed at expanding the sphere of influence in the territory of Azerbaijan, as a result of which Zoroastrianism and Christianity “intensified”. Under these conditions, Islam, which penetrated the country in the middle of the 7th century, was able to spread rapidly, and in a relatively peaceful way.
Since the Middle Ages, Zoroastrianism was no longer able to meet the requirements of the cultural and political life of Azerbaijan, and therefore completely lost its significance.
In Azerbaijan, Judaism is historically represented by Mountain Jews. Moses Kalankatuisky attributes their appearance in the Caucasus to the 1st century BC, but researchers often do not agree on this point.
According to some of them, Mountain Jews, being one of the most ancient Jewish ethnoses, originate from the generation of the sons of Israel, expelled in due time by the Assyrian and Babylonian rulers from Palestine and settled in Media. Their ancestors were the first to profess Judaism and lived outside the borders of Palestine; They were not among the persecutors of Christians, when Christianity, which was rooted in Judaism, began to spread. In Media they mingled with tatami, and by virtue of this they speak the Tat language, one of the dialects of the Persian language, which includes ancient Aramaic and Hebrew words.
From the point of view of other researchers, mountain Jews were resettled to the Eastern Caucasus by the Sasanid ruler Khosrov I Anushirvan (531-579), who built fortresses and cities in the Caucasus, populating them with Persians and Jews evicted from Mesopotamia. The Tatar language spoken by Mountain Jews is the legacy of that period.
In any case, it can be said that Mountain Jews appeared in Azerbaijan 15 centuries ago, which was connected with the Sassanid policy aimed at ensuring the security of their empire. Despite the fact that the “aliens” located in the border areas were in close contact with the local population, they still preserved their religion, customs, traditions, as well as a way of life and thinking.
Christianity appeared on the territory of Azerbaijan through the Caucasian Albania in the first centuries of the new era, even in the period of the apostles of Jesus Christ. After the fall of Jerusalem (the 1970s), the process of resettlement of Jews to the Caucasus is accelerating. Those who came spoke of the miracles that Jesus created; Under the influence of such propaganda the first Christian communities are created. This time of the spread of Christianity in Albania is called the apostolic (Syrophilic) period and is associated with the names of the apostles Bartholomew and Thaddeus.
Elisha, one of the disciples of the apostle Thaddeus, arrived in the province of Aghvan with the blessing of the first patriarch of Jerusalem, James. Propagating the new religion, he built a church in the town of Kish, which was erected before the first Christian church in Armenia. Then Elisha went to Cholu (Derbent), then crossed the Samur River and continued the propaganda of Christianity. In the village of Helmets he was killed by idolaters and thrown into a pit. Later, on the orders of the Albanian king Vachagan III, the remains of Elisha were buried in the village of Hrjug, and a small chapel was built over the grave.
In 313, when the Roman Emperor Constantine lifted the ban on the profession of Christianity, the Albanian king Urnair declared this belief a state religion. Since that time a new period of the spread of Christianity in Azerbaijan, called Grekofil, has begun.
Academician Z. Bunyatov points out that Urnayr, Vache II and Vachagan III fought for the spread of Christianity in the country. In IV-V centuries the clergy and the church hierarchy are formed. At the direction of the Catholicos, the feudal lords allocated special places for churches in their territories. Temples were built in the country, and religious books were translated from Syriac, Aramaic and Greek into Albanian. The lectionary, recorded by the Albanian script and in the Albanian language, discovered in 1996 in Sinai, is considered one of the oldest Christian books for liturgical purposes.
In 451, at the Chalcedonian Cathedral, Albania chooses Monophysitism. In the V-VI centuries, the struggle between monophysites and diofisites intensified on the territory of the country. At the end of the 6th – beginning of the 7th centuries the Albanian church accepts diophysitism.
The residence of the Albanian Catholicos was initially located in the city of Choga, and in 552 it was moved to Barda. After the Islamic conquests, especially after the fall of the Albanian kingdom, the role of Christianity weakened. In churches, prayed in Armenian, and Albanian was ousted.
In the 8th-9th centuries, with the formation of independent states on the territory of Azerbaijan, the Albanian church regained the status of an autocephalous (independent) church. In the 10th-11th centuries, Eastern Christianity was able to maintain its influence in the region to a certain extent, which lasted until the 18th century. In 1836, the tsarist government, at the request of the Synod, liquidated the Albanian church, and all its property was transferred to Echmiadzin.
In the 80-90s of the 20th century, the Albanian Church was reborn once again. In 2003, the Albanian-Udi Christian community passes state registration; This important event occurred after the restoration of the Kishskaya church in Sheki. At present, the restoration of the church in the village of Nidzh of the Gabala region continues.
In Azerbaijan, Christianity is represented by Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant movements, as well as various sectarian groups. In addition, 5 Armenian-Gregorian churches passed state registration.
Orthodoxy began to penetrate into Azerbaijan from the beginning of the XIX century – as part of the “resettlement policy” that was conducted in the region by tsarist Russia. In Baku, the first Orthodox church began its activity in 1815. To avoid the severe consequences of the split that began in the Russian Orthodox Church, the expulsion of Christian sectarians to the Caucasus begins.
In 1834, the first Russian settlers laid the village of Alty-Agach in Azerbaijan in Shemakha Uyezd, and in 1838 – the village of Vel in Lankaran. In 1842 they founded the village of Borisov-Russian, and in 1844 – the village of Slavyanka (Elizavetpol province). In 1868 there were 21 sectarian settlements in the territory of the Baku province, in which 13 thousand people lived.
In Baku, the first Roman Catholic parish was created by the Russian army in the 50s of the XIX century in connection with the reference of military Catholics to the Caucasus. The arrival of Tetri-Skarodaki (Georgia) was subordinate to the Roman Catholic military parish.
In 1882 the Baku parish gained its independence. In 1895 a church was built in honor of the Immaculate Conception of St. Mary, and in 1903 a church of the Holy Cross was erected at the Baku Cemetery. In 1909-1912 a new church of St. Mary’s Immaculate Conception was built (in the Gothic style), considered one of the most beautiful monuments of architecture in Baku; In the Soviet period it was destroyed.
In 1999, the Roman Catholic community was rebuilt in Baku, and in 2001 she established her prayer house. Currently, a land plot has been allocated for the construction of the Roman Catholic Church.
From 22 to 23 May 2002, the late head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope John Paul II, was on an official visit to Baku.
Representatives of the Evangelical Lutheran Church appeared in Baku in the second half of the XIX century – simultaneously with German industrialists involved in the exploitation of oil fields.
At the beginning of 1819, 209 German families lived in Azerbaijan. In Baku the Evangelical-Lutheran community was formed in 1870. In 1899, its members built in the city their own temple – the Kirkh (the current Chamber and Organ Music Hall). In Elenendorf (present Hanlar), the church was built even earlier.
In 1937, clergymen of the Lutheran church, along with representatives of other religious communities, were exiled or shot. In 1994, the Lutheran community again began its activities in Baku.
Islam, which arose at the beginning of the 7th century on the Arabian Peninsula, soon spread to most of the world. Islamization of Azerbaijan dates from the early Islamic conquests, which began with the 18th AH (639). Marzban of Azerbaijan Isfandiyar ibn Farrukhzad was defeated by the Arabs that year and concluded a peace treaty. Captures Ardebil, Tabriz, Nakhchivan, Beylagan, Barda, Shirvan, Mugan and Arran; Arabs along the Caspian coast reach Derbent. Fortifications of the city fascinate them, and they call it “Bab el-Abwab”.
According to the historian Balazuri, already during the reign of Caliph Ali ibn Abu-Talib (656-661), the majority of the population of Azerbaijan accepted Islam. In the north, this process was somewhat delayed.
In the conquered territories, the Arabs imposed taxes on local residents, concluded peace treaties, continued their campaigns, and then returned back. With the refusal of the population to pay taxes, invasions began.
The Islamic conquests in many places were carried out peacefully, and in some – by force of arms. In the occupied territories, pagans were asked to convert to Islam. Those who went for it paid zakat and got the right to participate in the fighting in the ranks of Muslims. Those who took part in hostilities relied on a share of military trophies.
Jews and Christians who did not accept Islam paid tribute (jizyu) and thereby received the patronage of Muslims. Idolaters who refused to accept Islam, or Jews and Christians who did not want to pay tribute, were forced to fight Muslims.
Only Muslims lived at the border points – ribats. To strengthen these “points” in them the faithful arrived from different regions of the caliphate. The local population, who did not accept Islam, moved to more remote places, called “the rebbe.”
In the peace treaties concluded at that time by such Arab generals as Khuseifa ibn al-Yaman, Utba ibn Farhad, Walid ibn Uqba, Salman ibn ar-Rabiah al-Bahili, Bukair Ibn Abdullah, Surak ibn Amir and Maslam, the inviolability of the life, property and religion of the population was indicated as the basic condition.
It is rather difficult to express an opinion on the specific forms of Islamization in Azerbaijan, since this issue is still unexplored. In any case, let us single out some stages of this complex process.
The first stage – the period of Islamic conquests – continues from the middle of the VII to the beginning of the VIII century. It ends with the fall in the year 705 of the Albanian state and the loss of the Albanian Church’s independence (autocephalous). As Academician Z. Bunyatov pointed out, at the end of this stage Islam becomes the dominant religion in Azerbaijan, which first of all was accepted by people of the upper class in order to protect their privileges. A new religion is spreading among merchants and artisans, as the Arabs provided benefits to these categories of the population. At this stage, mosques were not built: they turned ancient temples and became unnecessary as a result of Islamization of the church. In addition, the advantages of the tribal consciousness before the religious were preserved.
The second stage covers the period from the beginning of the 8th century and until the arrival of the Buids in West Iran and Iraq. Independent states of Shirvanshahs Mazyadidov and Sajids are being created on the territory of Azerbaijan. Idolatry and Zoroastrianism lose their significance, Judaism continues to exist, and the Albanian church regains its independence. However, due to the fact that its influence is weakening, religious ceremonies are held in Armenian, and the followers of the church are armenianized. At this stage, the comprehension of belonging to Islam is strengthened, but the consciousness connected with ethnic roots is not lost completely, which can be traced in the Shoubit movement, which began in the initial period of the Abbasid rule. The movement of Babek (816-838 gg.) – a vivid example of this. At the border points, ideas about Islam are expanding. In extreme areas, extreme Shi’ism is activated.
The third stage covers the period of Buid’s rule (935-1055). In Azerbaijan, moderate Shiism, “reaching” to Derbent, begins to spread. Sunnism of the Hanafi type and Shiizm of the Imamite are becoming the leading religious currents; Sufism also has many followers. One of the beautiful monuments of this time is the hanega on the Pirsaat River in Shirvan.
The fourth stage is associated with the Seljukid period (mid-XI-mid-XIII centuries). In the region, Sunnism is intensifying, and the positions of Shi’ism are weakening. The leading role is played by the followers of the Shafi’i school; Sufi tariqats are widely spread. Azerbaijani atabaks and Shirvanshahs are able to protect Islam from Christian pressure.
The fifth period covers the period of the Mongol conquests (the first half of the 13th – the second half of the 15th centuries). At this time, Sufism is widely spread, and Hurufism is also increasing. The founder of the latter was Fezlullah Naimi (died 1394). Abulgasan Aliyul-ala and the poet Nasimi (died 1417) became famous as the most influential representatives of Khurufism. During this period, the second Sheikh of the Sufi tariqa Halvit Seid Yahya Shirvani Bakuvi Halvati (died 1464) was famous. One of the brothers of the ruler Akgoyunlu Uzun Hasan was a follower of Sheikh Halvit Deda Omar Rovshani (died 1487). Ibragim ibn Muhammad Gulshani (died 1534) in the second half of the 15th century laid the foundation of the Gulshani sect as one of the Halvit branches. Then many Sufi tariqas, including Naqshbandiya, penetrated into Azerbaijan, and from there to the North Caucasus.
The sixth period is associated with the reign of the Safavids (1501-1786) and from the 16th century – the Ottoman Turks (1281-1924). The Safavids propagated Shiism and, in honor of the 12 Imams, wore a turban with 12 red stripes. Therefore they were called “gizilbashami”. The Ottomans, who won the battle of Chaldiran Safavid, spread Sunnism of the Hanafi type in Azerbaijan.
The period after Azerbaijan’s annexation to the Russian Empire can also be viewed as a new stage of Islamization of the country. Its most characteristic feature is connected with the policy of the government, which sought to win over the Muslim clergy and, in order to subordinate them to itself, to create in the Islamic religion a structure similar to the church in Christianity. In a letter from the Russian Tsar to the Senate on November 29, 1832, it was suggested that a provision on the Religious Affairs Department of the Muslims of Transcaucasia be prepared, but none of the documents submitted was approved.
In 1849, on behalf of the governor of the Caucasus, Prince Vorontsov, an employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, N. Khanykov, drafted a “Regulations on the Organization of the Mohammedan Clergy.” Although it was generally approved, the Crimean War delayed its implementation.
In 1864, to continue this work, a new commission was created, which included representatives of local Shiites and Sunnis. The instructions formulated regulated the duties, rights and privileges of the Muslim clergy, and its relationship with secular authorities.
If before 1867 only the sheikh-ul-Islam and mufti received salary from the government, then from that year other high-ranking Muslim clerics began to receive salaries from the authorities.
“The Statute of the Shiite and Sunni Mohammedan Spiritual Administration of Transcaucasia” was approved by the Russian Tsar on April 5, 1872, on the recommendation of the State Council.
When forming the structure of the Office, the principle of organization of the Russian Orthodox Church was taken as a basis. In the South Caucasus, two Muslim administrative bodies were created: the Sunni spiritual directorate (muftiath) was led by the mufti, and the Shi’a by the sheikhulislam.
Each of these institutions, located in Tbilisi, consisted of a chairman, three board members, a secretary with two assistants, an interpreter, a clerk and an archivist. In the subordination of both structures in the Tbilisi, Irevan, Elizavetpol (Ganja) and Baku provinces there was one Majlis (assembly). In the Sunni administration, there were 16 gazi (judges), and in Shiite – 20. These entities were under the control of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and were directly responsible to the governor. The clergy of the provincial level obeyed the local authorities of provinces and counties.
Before the formation of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic (1918-1920), the religious affairs of the Muslims of the South Caucasus were regulated by the two departments.
On December 11, 1918, Sheikh-ul-Islam Muhammad Pishnamazadeh resigns. The order of the Minister for Social Welfare and Religion, Musa Rafibekov, is appointed to this post by Ahund Al-Alizadeh. In this period, the tendencies towards the rationalization and modernization of Islam are intensifying.
After the establishment of Soviet power in Azerbaijan, the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Sheikh-ul-Islam establishment are dissolved (May 15, 1920), Muslim religious figures are persecuted, and most mosques are closed.
In 1943, in order to take advantage of the possibilities of religion in the fight against Nazi Germany, it was considered expedient to create a religious structure for the Muslims of Transcaucasia.
On May 25-28, 1944, the first congress of the Muslims of Transcaucasia is held in Baku, the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Transcaucasia is being established with the center in the capital of Azerbaijan. Akhund Agha Alizade is elected Sheikh-ul-Islam; He is the first elected sheikh-ul-Islam in the history of the Office (before him all the sheikh-ul-Islam were appointed by the state).
In addition, since 1944 in the South Caucasus, dualism has been eliminated in religious organizations. The Spiritual Administration of the Muslims of Transcaucasia becomes a single center and is ruled by the Sheikh-ul-Islam; The mufti is considered the first deputy chairman of the Office and solves the religious problems of Sunni Muslims.
At present, this structure has passed state registration, acts as the Muslims of the Caucasus Department and is considered the historical center of other religious communities of the Islamic trend.