Lala Aliyeva

Over the past ten years, hundreds of new mosques were built; former places of worship were restored; dozens of religious organizations were registered; new religious schools (madrasas) opened; and many young Azerbaijanis are attending Muslim religious universities in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Pakistan.


Rena Shalbuzova, 26, began to do namaz due to the fear of death and fear of doomsday and the hell after the death. “I came to Islam because of the fear of Judgment Day. For me, Islam is a way of life,” she says.

As Shalbuzova, who got her education in China, gets more involved in Islam, her life less resembles that of most people. She has changed how she dresses, deleted all her male friends from Facebook, and is surrounded only by those who are already devoted to Islam. She is talking about it with enthusiasm and it feels the fear of the Doomsday in her words.

 “When the Sun rises from the West, this will be the first sign of the end of the Doomsday. People will start to pray, but Allah will not accept people prayers yet,” she says.

The policy of the Soviet Union did not allow spreading religious views, and its propaganda encouraged atheism. While Azerbaijan had the Islam religion, there was little or no opportunity to share it with people. But Islam took its place after Azerbaijan gained independence in 1992. Even so, many people were not thinking much about religion because of the Nagorno Karabakh problem.

Arif Yunus, Azerbaijani conflictologist and an expert in Islam (currently under arrest and charged with treason), said that people must fill their emptiness with some belief.

Today the situation in Azerbaijan is quite different. In the beginning of the democratic movement in Azerbaijan (1988-1991), the clergy started to struggle for national independence. However, over the last 10 years, Islamic ideology has become more pronounced.

Although Azerbaijan developed into an independent country influenced by Turkish ideology, many other countries such as Iran and the Arab Gulf States have had the opportunity to extend their ideology and spread their influence.  As a result of increasing social-economic problems, Islam’s impact has spread all over the country, often in its more radical forms. Anar Valiyev, an expert in public policy of post-Soviet republics in his article “Islam in a Post-Soviet Republic”, describes three main directions of these radical religious groups in Azerbaijan.

“ --The first and strongest "export base" is Iran. Through its affiliated organizations such as Hizballah, the Imam Khomeini Fund, and others, Iran could spread its influence over large parts of Azerbaijan's territory. 

--The second, and less influential, group are Turkish non-traditional religious organizations, such as the Nurchular or Fattulachilar. 

--Last, but not least, are the Wahhabi or Salafi movements. The adherents of the Salafi Islamists in Azerbaijan are growing faster than any other stream of Islam.”

Many Azeris often refer to Salafi Islamists in a derogatory manner and dismiss them as "Wahhabis," sakkalilar (bearded people), or garasakkalilar (black-bearded people). Despite this campaign, the number and influence of Salafi Islamists in Azerbaijan is steadily growing. Salafi ideas are becoming increasingly popular among the younger generation. In Baku alone, which is the ultra-secular capital of Azerbaijan, the number of Salafi Islamists has reportedly reached 15,000, according to Azeri Official Lauds Shrinking Clout of Missionaries. Azerbaijan TV station ANS, December 28, 2004. 

The first Salafi missionaries arrived in Azerbaijan from the Northern Caucasus in the mid-1990s. The majority of them came from Chechnya and Dagestan, where the Salafi Islamists had some influence primarily due to the Russian-Chechen wars. 

 “I made contact with the Salafits and nobody influenced me,” said Ilkin Alisoy, 26. “I chose this way by myself.  I preferred Salafism because it looked more truthful and right. I was reading different books named “Monotheism” (belief in the existence of one God)and everything regarding Islam except the Koran.  I thought those other books were enough for me.

“Salafism attracts young people because there is dynamism to it, for example the way it follows the wars in the world. Jihad sounds exciting to boys who are 15-16 years old.”

For two years he was devoted to Salafism, but he gradually changed his views and became an atheist.

Approximately 99.2 percent of the population of Azerbaijan is Muslim according to a 2009 Pew Research Center report. However, people perceive the religion in different ways. In the period just after the Soviet collapse, İslam did not attract many people’s attention.  Arif Yunus in his book”Islamiс Factor in Azerbaijan”, says that 17% of the whole population in Azerbaijan consider themselves as purely muslims, who comply with the necessary rites.  The idea of the union of all Turkish-speaking peoples was more of a focus for young people, who tried to apply it in Azerbaijan.

But Islam became a priority for national minorities who were influenced by Iran to the south and Dagestan to the north.

History shows that Azerbaijan has always been subjected to splits into two groups. Arif Yunus cited the examples of government and opposition; north and south; Sunni (15 percent, influenced by Dagestan) and Shia (85 percent, influenced by Iran.

The new Islamic stream called Salafi came from Dagestan and quickly spread in Azerbaijan, especially among the youth. The main idea of this movement is “Pure Islam”. “If Salafism spreads at the same speed as now, it will be the strongest movement in the country, and could cause a revolution,” says Farid Mamedov, 25, a student in Baku.

He started to read religious books when he was 6. He went to namaz himself and from time to time he was deeply involved in religion. During his university years a acquainted him with salafits and took him to their mosque.

“I did my prayers and listened to their prayers, but I noticed that the preacher’s words did not match,” Mamedov said.  “For example, when he said that the beard must be no longer than 4 fingers, I looked around and discovered that many of the others had more than 4 fingers. Next week the preacher came without any beard and gave some excuses for it that led to my doubts. That is why I decided to investigate Islam by myself.”

Mamedov suggests Islam must be taught in the secular schools. But the expert Arif Yunus said it would be difficult to find such objective teaching specialists in Azerbaijan. “There is no guarantee that such ‘specialists’ would not agitate students,” Yunus said.

  Psychologist Azad Isazade explains the great following the Salafi movement has among youth.

“Dreams about (living a) Western life were destroyed,” Isazade said. “A generation with atheistic views was replaced by a younger one. The new preachers had studied in Syria and Afghanistan in the mid-90s, returned to Azerbaijan, and began to spread their views.

“Young people have great dreams about perfect governments. When their expectations are destroyed they start to see social problems, try to find an alternative, inner ideology.”