Islam’s gradual resurgence in post-Soviet Azerbaijan
After decades of state sanctioned repression by the USSR, Azerbaijanis can once again practise their faith.
Fargana Gasimova’s memories of Islam during the Soviet period are of a faith that had to be kept hidden.
Her grandparents would pray and fast in secret, careful to disguise any hint of their religion from the prying surveillance apparatus of the Soviet authorities.
“We were not allowed to pray or wear the hijab (headscarf) in Azerbaijan during the USSR,” she tells Al Jazeera, using the acronym for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, or the Soviet Union.
“Only Atheism was propagated throughout the Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan,” she adds.
Though its roots in the country date back to the seventh century, the practice of Islam during Soviet rule was suppressed and heavily regulated.
We were not allowed to pray or wear the hijab (headscarf) in Azerbaijan during the USSR...
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of Azerbaijan as an independent republic, those restrictions have been largely relaxed, and the practice of Islam has resurfaced in day-to-day life.
“After independence in 1991, we got many opportunities (to practise religion), and we gained our religious freedom, ” Gasimova says.
“I can easily wear hijab on our TV channels and in the concert halls.”
Gasimova is a Mugham singer, a form of Azerbaijani folk music, and the daughter of Alim Gasimov, widely regarded as one of the country’s greatest artists in the field.
She began practising her faith aged 20 and four years later began covering her hair with a headscarf.
“I don’t face any prohibitions in my country,” she says.
Islam has played a big role in defining Azerbaijani culture and, nominally at least, between 93 and 99 percent of its population is Muslim, the majority of whom are Shia and a minority Sunni.
The country, which lies at the western foot of the Caspian Sea, briefly enjoyed independence from Russia in 1918, establishing a secular republic that ensured the free exercise of religion.
The fledgeling country’s constitution gave citizens “full civil and political rights, regardless of ethnic origin, religion, class, profession, or sex.”
However, the Red Army invaded in 1920, absorbing the country into the Soviet Union for the next seven decades.
Azerbaijani Muslims, like other Soviet citizens who were Muslims, Jews or Christians, faced heavy restrictions on their religious practice.
“People were not allowed to get a religious education,” says Haji Salman Musayev, Deputy chairman of the Caucasus Muslim Office (CMO).
“There were only two madrasas (Islamic religious schools) in the entire USSR area, both of which were located in Uzbekistan.”
Musayev complains his years at the Mir Arab madrasa, in the Uzbek city of Bukhara, were marred by intense state control over what was taught.
Those restrictions were part of a broader package of measures aimed at stifling religious practice in the country.
While the Soviet hold on religious practice lasted decades, it was not enough to completely negate the role of religion in Azerbaijani life.
“We could hardly send one or two people for the Hajj pilgrimage…now we can send as many as we want,” said Musayev.
Under Soviet rule, there were only 18 mosques actively in use in the country, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union, that number has grown to 2,000.
After independence in 1991, the government enshrined freedom of religion in the country’s constitution and embarked on a programme to refurbish and restore hundreds of mosques.
“After the collapse of the USSR, some people felt an emptiness, which they sought to fill with religion,” said Marmara University’s Professor Aqil Shirinov, explaining the uptick in religious practice after Azerbaijan regained its independence.
However, the trend was far from universal.
“The boom in religiosity scared some people,” he said, citing fears among some Azerbaijanis that increased practise of faith could result in shifting cultural ideas of what was acceptable and not.
“Some families are afraid that their children can get involved in radical groups…sometimes families don’t even allow their children to pray.
“These people consider themselves as Muslims, but in practice, they do not pray.”
Religious observance in Azerbaijan remains low relative to other majority-Muslim countries decades after the Soviets left.
According to research by the Caucasus Barometer, only 20 percent of Azerbaijanis take part in religious rituals regularly, and less than 40 percent of the country limits practice to religious holidays.
Fargana Gasimova, however, is unbothered by the religiosity of others or lack thereof, so long as she is free to practise what she considers are the essentials of her faith.
A well-known personality in Azerbaijan, Gasimova says she is proud to serve as an ambassador for her faith and as a role model for her younger compatriots.
“Some people have tried to ruin the name of Islam and give Islam a bad image by associating it with terrorism,” she says.
“When people see me performing at concerts abroad, I can feel that their opinions change.
“They even approach me with their kids and say: ‘we brought our children here to show them art, to show what real Islam is.'”